Kerala provides opportunities to evolve theoretical models for study of Indian culture in a much broader sense. Apart from the diversity of natural phenomenon, the state is an amalgam of different ethnic and religious communities. Each of these diverse groups has evolved a distinct yet harmonious expression of their community through the spaces they inhabit. Every built space is the result of thought, planning and dedication. It is in the design of the sacred spaces that one finds the sublime expression of scale and form.
Arab traders brought Islam to Kodungallur on the Malabar coast in the seventh century and by the 12th century there were 10 major Muslim settlements centered around main mosques in the state. Cheraman Juma Mosque in Methala, Kodungallur, commissioned by Arab trader Malik Ibn Deenar in 629 AD, is the oldest mosque in India. Eventually, each region in Kerala had its own mosque.
The mosques built between 629 AD to 1500 AD, (Thottungal Masjid -Ponnani, Theruvath Masjid-Palakkad, PonnaniValiya Palli- Mallapuram and Blangad Masjid- Chavakkad) do not have any of the prevalent features commonly seen of the Arabic or Indo-Islamic style. The exterior form and structure blended with the built landscape as an expression of the region’s vernacular style.
The essential design components of a mosque are the Minaret, Dome (Qubba), prayer hall, Mihrab (a recessed niche in the western wall), Mimbar (raised Pulpit) and an ablution tank. The medieval mosques in Kerala do not have the minaret and the dome. Moreover Cheraman Juma Mosque faces the east instead of the west. A bronze lamp is kept lit inside and people of all faiths offer oil for the lamp.
The original building of the mosque consists of a small centrally-placed prayer hall with an antechamber in front and a verandah all around. It also had an entrance porch which was later removed to build a larger prayer hall. A small Maqbara is placed at the end of the southern verandah. The upper floor was used by students when Dars (religious school) was also conducted on the premises. The main features such as the semi circular Mihrab and an elaborate wooden Mimbar is still well preserved. The outer masonry walls are plastered without any ornamentation. The original structure revealed no clue of the function it held within. Being the first mosque in the region, the builders used the vernacular organisation of spaces for reference.
An interesting well-conserved mosque is the Mishkal Mosque in Kuttichara, Kozhikode, commissioned by a wealthy trader Nakhuda Mishkal in the 14th century. This is an elaborate mosque with all the design features seen at the Cheraman Juma Mosque in Kodungallur. It is a simple, four-storeyed rectilinear structure built on a high stone plinth.
An ablution tank and wrap around verandahs that open into the large pillared prayer hall is surmounted by a timber roof structure. The arched openings around the verandah is the only feature that differentiates the exterior of the mosque from a regular koothambalam. As seen in all the mosques of this time period, cupola domes and minarets are absent. Adherence to local material and craftsmanship dictate all design concerns. While the cool interiors are plain, the Mimbar is elegantly carved.
The Mishkal Mosque is an integral part of the Mappila settlement that surrounds it. Its residential typology, derived from traditional Naalukettu house type (courtyard house), makes organic development of a joint family possible.
Speciality of Kuttichara
Thus the Kuttichara area is an interesting case study of how differences can coexist in an harmonious relationship. Several such medieval mosques dot the length of the state. The architecture of the region had nuanced changes to accommodate this diversity of thought and belief systems.
Shifts in the economic and social structure have conspired to change the very fabric of our built landscape. A new religious typology seems to have evolved. Arabic influences and features such as domes, minarets and elaborate forms with flat roofs are seen in all the mosques today. Verandahs, porticos and antechambers with sloping roofs have completely disappeared. Our unique heritage of harmonious sacred architecture needs to be conserved as a testimonial to future generations. The medieval mosques in Kerala give us an insight into spatial interpretations of faith and the relevance of homogeneity. Homogeneity in the visual and aesthetic language is what gives the state it's identity and a sense of place.
(The author is an architect and academic)