Archive for the ‘Kerala’ Category

Oldest fort in Kerala?

Before the Cheras established themselves as a major force in Kerala, it was ruled by the Ay dynasty sometime between 7th to 11th century AD with Vizhinjam as the capital.The Ay dynasty ruled the land between Nagercoil and Thiruvalla. In A History of South India, Nilakanta Sastry writes that the Ay kingdom lay around the Podiya hill, the southernmost section of the Western Ghats. He also writes that the Greek geographer Ptolemy wrote about one ‘Aioi’ was ruling the country at that time which included Cape Comorin and Mount Bettigo.

Last year there was news that a 9th century Vishnu temple was being rebuilt due to the initiative of the local people. This temple is unique since it is one of those which have a circular sanctum santorum. Much before this, when the kings of the Ay dynasty shifted their capital to Vizhinjam, they built a fort which is now considered to be the oldest fort in Kerala dating to the eighth or ninth century.

A preliminary investigation by the team has revealed the fort might have originally been 800 sq. m in area. The fort’s wall can be found on the northern and western (seaside) parts and has been constructed using large boulders set in mud mortar. The wide base of the wall tapers on its way up. According to Dr. Ajit, one important clue in dating the fort is that the walls have no battlements or `loop holes’ (holes to place cannons in). This is typical of early forts, he says.

The team was also able to trace literary and epigraphical references – of 9 AD to 12 AD vintage – to a fort and port at Vizhinjam. Sangam literature such as `Pandikkovai’, `Iraiyanar Ahapporul Urai’, `Kalingattup-parani’, of Jayamkondar, and `Vikrama-solan-ula’ are said to have numerous references to the existence of a fort, port and a mansion at Vizhinjam.

Moreover, the Srivaramangalam copper plate s of Pandyan King Nedum Chadayan ( 8 AD) have clear reference to Vizhinjam and its fort. “Here, the fort is described as surrounded by waters of three seas, protected by a wide moat, high walls which the sun’s rays do not touch and so on. Leaving aside the hyperbole typical of such inscriptions, the ground evidence at Vizhinjam that we got fits this description of the old fort. In fact the port at Vizhinjam has been mentioned in the work `The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’, a work of the first century AD. Here Vizhinjam has been called as Balita,” said Dr. Ajit. [Ninth century fort discovered at Vizhinjam]



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The Thaikkal-Kadakkarappally Boat, Kerala

Last year we had some posts about an ancient boat discovered in in Kadakkarappally, Kerala. This boat was considered to be somewhere between 600 to a 1000 years old and the 72 foot boat, according to initial reports was built using anjili, a wood found in Kerala. The boat according to report was built by foreign seafarers

According to a new research paper we have more details on this boat, which was apparently used to transport people or commodities between coastal ports and interior backwaters. Traditionally boats built in Kerala never used iron and it was assumed that such practice started with the arrival of Europeans in Kerala, starting with Vasco da Gama in 1498.

This boat which has been dated between 13 and 15th centuries, provides proof that shipmakers in Kerala were using iron fastners before the arrival of Europeans. The authors suggest that since Kerala was a main port in the Indian Ocean trade network, it is possible that local shipmakers would have encountered ships using iron fastners and got “inspired”.

What about the theory that it was built by foreigners?

The Thaikkal-Kadakkarappally boat, therefore, has features in common with several different traditions of boatbuilding. The form of the boat appears to mirror one strand of Chinese boatbuilding and the lashed lugs are a feature commonly found in South-East Asian shipbuilding. The use of lap joints between adjacent planks is typically Indian while nails clenched over a rove are normally only identified with north European building traditions. The boat itself, however, was clearly built locally. All three species of wood identified in the remains are indigenous to Kerala. Anjily, in particular, is used for almost all of the plank-built craft in Kerala today as it is strong, resilient, fairly cheap and widely available. It is possible that the boat was constructed by foreign shipbuilders settled in Kerala, but there is no reason to conclude that the Thaikkal-Kadakkarappally boat is not an Indian vessel, built in India by Indian shipbuilders.[The Thaikkal-Kadakkarappally Boat]

It was expected that the climate of Kerala would not allow for the preservation of of archaeological material, especially in waterlogged areas. But this boat somehow survived.

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Terracota idols in Kerala

Now a days you see only dieties made of stone or marble in temples; very rarely you see ones made of terracota. But during Harappa times, objects made of terracota were common. There was an economic class distinction also there. Stone, metal and ivory were materials of the rich, while terracota was used by the poor.

Crude clay figurines of godesses, some of which were early forms of Durga, were worshipped by the lower class before they were included in the orthodox pantheon. Usuallu most of the terracota objects did not even have any religious significance. There were figurines of mother and child and many figures of man and woman and divine heads. Such figurines are dated from the Mauryan time to the Gupta period, but there has been evidence of modeling in later Buddhist sites in Bihar[13].

Though most of these terracota objects were found in North India, now we have some evidence of such idols being used in Kerala.

Several pieces of terracotta idols, believed to be dating back to the 15th century, have been dug up from the premises of a temple at Kadambattukonam near here. The broken pieces of idols and figurines have been referred to the Archaeological Department, whose experts said they appear to be at least five centuries old.

The figures, some of them so vivid with sharp facial features, were chanced upon the other day when the ground around the temple was being dug up using an excavator for building compound wall around the shrine. On sighting a couple of broken pieces, the local people went ahead with the job, delicately thinking that what was coming out could be remnants of a long buried temple.

According to Director of Archaeology Department, V. Manmadhan Nair, the practice of offering terracotta idols to temples was prevalent during the 15th and 16th centuries in parts of Kerala. Based on that, it could be assumed that these pieces could date back to the 15th century. Similar idols were unearthed in the past from Kodungallur in Thrissur district, known in the annals of history as Muziris centuries back.

“One difficulty in assessing the exact date of these objects is that the carbon-dating method for terracotta is not available in the country now. We are still looking for ways on assessing the date,” Nair said. The finds would be brought to the archaeology museum here, he added.[Terracotta idols found from temple site]

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Recently, The President of India, Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam visited the Cheraman Juma Musjid in Kodungallur (ancient Muziris) in Kerala. This mosque, believed to have been built by Malik bin Dinar in 629 AD, is considered to be the oldest mosque in India. If this date is accurate, then this mosque was established much before the time of Adi Shankara (if we go by the dates ascribed by the Sringeri Peetam) and around the same time Huen Tsang was in India. This mosque has quite a history

As the tradition goes, a Chera king, Cheramanperumal of Kodungallure, left for Makkah, embraced Islam, and accepted the name Thajudeen. He married the sister of then King of Jeddah. On his return trip, accompanied by many Islamic religious leaders, led by Malik-ibn-Dinar (RA), he fell sick and passed away. But he had given introductory letters for the team to proceed to ‘Musiris’ (Kodungallur, the Chera capital. The visitors came to Musiris and handed over the latter to the reigning king, who treated the guests with all respect and extended facilities to establish their faith in the land. The king also organised help for the artisans to build the first Mosque at Kodungallur, by converting Arathali temple into a Juma-Masjid. It was build in 629 A.C., and the area around it had been ear-marked for the team’s settlement.[Cheraman Juma Masjid A Secular Heritage]

This story seems to be a myth propagated in the book Keralolpathi (The origin of Kerala) and repeated many times over. None of the reputed history books[1] mention this story, even the ones by eminent historians[3]. According to Sreedhara Menon[9]

The Cheraman legend is not corroborated by any contemporary record or evidence. None of the early or medieval travelers who visited Kerala has referred to it in their records. Thus Sulaiman, Al Biruni, Benjamin of Tuleda, Al Kazwini, Marco Polo, Friar Odoric, Friar Jordanus, Ibn Babuta, Abdur Razzak, Nicolo-Conti – none of these travelers speaks of the story of the Cheraman’s alleged conversion to Islam.

A mention of the Cheraman Perumal legend appeared in the 16th century book Tuhafat-ul Mujahidin by Shaik Zainuddin, but he too did not believe in its historical authenticity. But later cut and paste historians seem to have forgot to add his disclaimer.

Sreedhara Menon also authoritatively states that Kerala never had a king called Cheraman Perumal and quotes Dr. Herman Gundert, the German who composed the first Malayalam-English dictionary and the grandfather of Herman Hesse for this. But there seems to have been a Cheraman Perumal, whose history is overlaid by legend. According to Saiva tradition, he had an association with a Sundaramurti, the last of the three hymnists of Devaram. This Cheraman Perumal vanished in 825 A.D, about 200 years after Muhammed thus confirming that all that Mecca trip was a fanciful legend.[10]


[1] Picture of the old mosque and the renovated one
[2] India Archaeology Messages 2112, 2123

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For Malayalis Kunhali Marakkar was the brave commander of the Zamorin’s Navy, who fought against the Portuguese. The story is that the Muslim Marakkar dynasty fought against the Europeans for almost hundred years. But now there is new research suggesting that a) Marikkars were not of Arab descent, but instead were of Tamil origin b) he could be a myth

According to Dr. Ochanthuruth, “the traditional view of Kunhalis as patriots supporting feudal lords like the Zamorin needs to be corrected.

In the light of Kunhali Marikkar’s own actions and Shayk Zaynuddin’s statements, it is clear that they wanted an Islamic Principality in their own Malabar. (Shayk Zaynuddin was an Arab scholar who lived in Ponnani).

“After 1600 when the Kunhalis were almost silenced by the Zamorin through a political operation with the help of the Portuguese, the Muslim religious leaders in Malabar elevated Kunhali Marikkar as a cult figure for having attempted to unite the Muslims belonging to different ethnic groups and established their identity on the basis of an Islamic dream as visualised by Shayk Zaynuddin.

“This is the starting point of Muslim fundamentalism and communalism in South Malabar, later described by Ines and Evans as “fanatic zone,” he says in his paper presented at an international seminar on `The Portuguese and Kunhali Marikkars – myth and reality’.

“My attempt in this paper is to trace the truth about the origins, growth and struggles of the Marikkar family. Most of the Portuguese sources treat the Marikkar as enemies. Shayk Zaynuddin, an Arab scholar of Ponnani, in his Tuhfat-ul Mujahidin, states that the Marikkars had turned against the Portuguese only by 1524.

According to Dr. Ochanthuruth there is a big gap in historiographical literature about Kunhali Marikkar from 16th to the present century. Till the publication of Malabar and the Portuguese in 1929 by Sardar K.M. Panikkar, there was no serious writing on the Kunhali Marikkars except a few ballads.

Dr. Ochanthuruth’s views contradict the opinions of well-known and highly rated historians Sardar K.M. Panikkar, A.V. Krishna Ayyar and O.K. Nambiar.

He also questions claims that Marikkars were Mappila Muslims (Mappilas are children of Arabs married to Malabar women), and contends there is no evidence to support the belief that Marikkars lived in Pantalayani – Kollam, then in Tikkodi and then in Kottakkal, which was their last headquarters.

“Available evidence suggests Marikkars were of Tamil origin and many of them were Parathava converts from Coramandel,” Dr. Ochanthuruth claimed. [Kunhali Marikkars: myth and reality]

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Vishnu temple of Ay Dynasty

A 9th century Vishnu temple, which remained dilapidated for years, is being rebuilt at Perumpazhuthur, near here, thanks to the initiative of the local people.

Authenticated by historians as having been built during the rule of the ”Ay” dynasty in 867 A.D, the temple is one of the rarest of its kind the country with a circular-shaped sanctum santorum.

Though the temple finds mention in the ”Monuments of Kerala”, published by the Archaeological Survey of India, it remained dilapidated with most of its remains buried till the people of Perumpazhuthur organised themselves to reconstruct the edifice and restore its old glory a few months ago.

The book, authored by H Sarkar, mentions only a few circular temples in Kerala, including that at Perumpazhuthur. He also highlighted that circular temples were rare for Dravidian style.

”The Arts and Crafts of Travancore,” authored by Stella Kramrish and pubished by the Department of Culture, carries the photo of the temple in a dilapidated condition and the damaged statue of Vishnu. [Local people rebuild a 9th century Vishnu temple via IndiaArchaeology]

Before the Cheras established themselves as a major force in Kerala, it was ruled by the Ay dynasty sometime between 7th to 11th century AD with Vizhinjam as the capital.The Ay dynasty ruled the land between Nagercoil and Thiruvalla. In A History of South India, Nilakanta Sastry writes that the Ay kingdom lay around the Podiya hill, the southernmost section of the Western Ghats. He also writes that the Greek geographer Ptolemy wrote about one ‘Aioi’ was ruling the country at that time which included Cape Comorin and Mount Bettigo.

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History through coins

There is a coin exhibition going on in Trivandrum, which is like a narration of the whole history of Kerala state.

The coins on show include the silver Purana, issued by the Ay-Chera chieftains between 600 and 200 BC and which is believed to be the oldest coin of southernmost India; the silver Makotai, the earliest known portrait coin of South India, which was issued by the Cheras during the Sangam age; Roman dinarii; the minute Quarter Taras of Vijayanagar, which weigh just 0.06 gm; and the Vellichakram, issued by the Travancore king, Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, in the mid-18th century.

The coins, which were in circulation in Malabar, such as the famed Gold Mohur; the Venetian Ducat; and the coins issued by the East India Company, the French in Mahe, and Hyderali and Tipu, are displayed. There is a collection of the gold coins minted by the Gangas, Hoysalas and Yadavas. [Coining a unique history]

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