The hour preceding the sunset is a magical and romantic time in the historic Kuttichira area of Kozhikode. Men in white sit by the large 400-year-old pond and discuss global politics, while the yards of the stately and decaying mansions host intense cricket matches between children. While walking these narrow lanes at this golden hour, one simply cannot help the feeling of being in a different era and a different place. The Arabic touch to Kerala-style architecture is reminiscent of lands far away such as Zanzibar. A few kilometres away, skyscrapers are rearing their ugly heads in this historic city, but this little pocket of high Kerala culture holds out against the heavily blowing winds of change.
If walls could talk, what would they tell us in 2022 about what happened in these areas 700 years ago? Would they speak of the Arabs from Yemen who roamed these areas after a day of acquiring spices? Of Chinese traders, whose arrival to Kerala influenced the cuisine and architecture of the state? Maybe they would speak of that January morning in 1510 when the Portuguese attacked the grand Mishkal mosque and aimed to burn it down. They would narrate the story of the Zamorin’s Hindu soldiers rushing to the rescue of this mosque and fighting alongside the Muslims to save this house of worship that is revered by everyone in Kozhikode. The Portuguese are long gone, but this unity shown by the people of Kerala still seems to exist in this historic city.
A cultural melting pot
It’s difficult to not be enamoured by the religious architecture of Kuttichira. The word ‘mosque’ usually conjures up mental images of cupolas and minarets, but the Mishkal mosque, with its wooden pillars, Bhagawati (Pagoda)-style architecture looks closer to Thrissur’s Vadakunnathan Temple or Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth than a mosque in Iran or the Arab world. Built by wealthy Yemeni shipowner and merchant Nakhooda Mishkal in the 14th century, it was the tallest structure in the city for a very long time.
Although it is the most impressive of the mosques in Kuttichira, Mishkal is not the oldest of the area’s mosques. The area’s Juma Masjid is believed to have been built in the 9th century and is another fine piece of Kerala architecture. One cannot help but be in awe of these structures that are grand and at the same time simple. It is absolutely clear that the Arabs who began coming to Kerala even before the advent of Islam, wanted to blend in and enrich the fabric of Kerala society rather than stand out.
The Muchundi mosque, also built in the Kerala style, has inscriptions that describe the cordial relationship that the Zamorin enjoyed with the Muslim community in Kozhikode. It is also where Moyinkutty Vaidiyar wrote his melodic ‘Mappila’ songs that depict the folklore of the Muslims of the Malabar.
Kuttichira has more than just an Arabic touch. A small booklet published by P K M Koya suggests that the area also had some Persian influence. According to Koya, Persian religious scholars and Sufis accompanied Arab traders who visited Kozhikode from the 11th century onwards. Small shrines built by them are hidden in the lanes, overshadowed by the large and stately mansions (tharawads).
The idea of India
In an increasingly polarised country, Kuttichira and Kozhikode at large remain bastions of communal harmony and amity. During a brief visit last week this writer, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, was reluctant to enter the Mishkal mosque so as to not be disrespectful, but the smiling person at the entrance made it clear that this was not an obstacle. This is the real India, a modern republic founded on the idea of freedom of religion and mutual respect.
Locals in Kuttichira can easily tell a visitor (even a Malayalam-speaking one) apart but it’s curiosity and a sense of happiness that one sees when roaming across the lanes. To feel the ambience of the locality, all one has to do is to enjoy some Suleimani tea and spicy puffs in a small eatery as the sound of the evening prayers from a mosque blend in with the twilight.
These historic parts of a historic city have their arms open to genuine travellers, who want to blend in with the locals and be with them, the same way traders from across the Arabian Sea did several centuries ago. This is, indeed, no place for large groups on package tours, who are on selfie runs. However, it is a treasure trove for those who want to see living history and learn more about Kerala’s unique culture.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)