A little known port in Kerala where Arun Bhatia finds many of India’s beginnings

Former President Dr. Abdul Kalam paid a visit to a little port that the British called Cranganore, and Kodungallur got tagged on the Kerala map. But it has a history that goes way back — long before even Vasco da Gama’s arrival. In 52 AD it is said that the Apostle Thomas landed here, when he arrived in India to spread Christianity soon after the death of Christ.

I have come by a rickety government bus from Kochi (35 km) and as soon as I disembark, I see a large statue of Doubting Thomas that depicts the moment when he acknowledged the rising of Christ. From then on, he was no longer Doubting Thomas. From the statue, I walk around and find that Kodungallur is almost an island attached to the mainland, with the Arabian Sea to its west. To the north and south, there are the mouths of the rivers Chetval and Azhikode, and to the east are the charming backwaters. It is strange that Kodungallur is not on any tourist map, given that it boasts of India's oldest mosque (which Kalam visited) and also boasts an ancient church. Both the buildings look like Hindu temples and both are, alas, in near ruins. Even the Portuguese fort, known as Kothapuram, is fragmented, just a bunch of jutting rocks. The town is the dilapidated remains of a once-glorious port.

How to name it

Emperor Asoka (3BC) has edicts here that mention the local dynasty, the Cheras, from whom Kerala got its name. The port was, in fact, the Chera empire capital. The first century Roman traveller Pliny has talked of how the port was a huge urban complex with trade links to the great empires of the era — Abbasid Baghdad, Byzantine Constantinople, the Holy Roman Empire, Moorish Cordova, Tang China, Cambodia and Sumatra.

It is Kodungallur now, but was the ancient city of Vanji. The Greeks called it Muziris. Sage Valmiki's Ramayana refers to this place as Murachi. Tamil poets of the Sangam period (the first five centuries of Christian era) talk of Muchiris, where “beautiful ships… bringing gold come, splashing white foam in the waters of the Periyar… and return laden with pepper”. After Apostle Thomas, the Jews came in 69 AD after the fall of Jerusalem. The first Muslims reached India by sea and landed here, and the missionary Malik-ibn-Dinar introduced Islam to Kerala. The Cheran capital fell in 1012 after a sustained attack over three decades by the great Chola emperor Raja Raja.

Religious harmony

I find that almost all the sights require a lot of imagination because they have crumbled with time, conquests, neglect or all three. For instance, the palace of Cheraman Perumal, legendary Kerala king who converted to Islam, is just a few broken columns on open ground. The Cheraman Juma Masjid, 2 km north of Kodungallur on National Highway 17, is a 7th century mosque and India’s first. It looks like a Kerala Hindu temple, with outer walls that rise from a tiered base. Only its wooden interiors are intact. A large Kerala oil lamp stands at the centre, and Muslims, Christians and Hindus all carry oil to light it during major family events.

On the highway heavy with traffic, I walk less than a kilometre south of the mosque to find the Shiva temple at Thiruvanchikulam, with its majestic gateway, carvings of elephants, deities, gods and goddesses and a majestic Nandi bull.

I had heard a lot about the Kali temple in the middle of town. A typical Kerala temple, it has an awe-inspiring idol of Kali as Kurumba Bhagwati, six feet high and made from a single trunk of a jackfruit tree. With gold ornaments, a Kathakali-like crown, mask, eight arms bearing weapons and icons, Kali sits with a crimson cloth around her waist. The aspect is of Kali when she had killed the demon Daruka. There is a secret chamber here, with an underground passage. Apparently, a curious carpenter once peeped inside and became blind. Since then, no one dares enter it.

Near a lamp mounted on a kurma or Vishnu’s tortoise avatar is a scale used by devotees to weigh themselves against bananas, which are later auctioned as a gift to the temple kitty. A toddler cries nearby, as her hair is shorn off in ritual by the temple barber. With a sigh, I bid goodbye to an unknown port that brims with history.