Swami Vivekananda on the Ahistoricity of Hinduism

Once Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847–1902) told Swami Vivekananda, that Christianity is the only universal religion. Swamiji considered this and responded that Vedanta and Vedanta alone can become the universal religion of man. He made the case with few arguments. One of them was as follows.

Most religions in the world in the world are tied to a founder. The theories and teaching revolve around the founder’s life. The fabric of these religions revolve around the historicity of the founder’s life. Challenge this historicity and the whole edifice crumbles. Remember the ruckus caused by Da Vinci Code which challenged the established narrative about Yeshua. Ever heard of the Gnostic Gospels?

What about Hinduism then? Swamiji says (Lectures from Colombo to Almora)

There is no man or woman who can claim to have created the Vedas. They are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages discovered them; and now and then the names of these sages are mentioned — just their names; we do not even know who or what they were. In many cases we do not know who their fathers were, and almost in every case we do not know when and where they were born. But what cared they, these sages, for their names? They were the preachers of principles, and they themselves, so far as they went, tried to become illustrations of the principles they preached.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

A religion based on the ahistoricity of it’s founders, but having every lasting (sanatana) principles has an advantage.

Therefore if any one or more of these persons in India’s religious history, any one or more of these Incarnations, and any one or more of our prophets proved not to have been historical, it does not injure our religion at all; even then it remains firm as ever, because it is based upon principles, and not upon persons.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

Then what about the faith in various gods that we have? Swamiji again uses the concept of Ishta and explains

Yet as I have said, our religion has ample scope for the authority and influence of persons. There is that most wonderful theory of Ishta which gives you the fullest and the freest choice possible among these great religious personalities. You may take up any one of the prophets or teachers as your guide and the object of your special adoration; you are even allowed to think that he whom you have chosen is the greatest of the prophets, greatest of all the Avatâras; there is no harm in that, but you must keep to a firm background of eternally true principles. The strange fact here is that the power of our Incarnations has been holding good with us only so far as they are illustrations of the principles in the Vedas.

Lectures from Colombo to Almora

This is a unique feature of Hinduism and in general about Indian historiography. While comparing Indian and Western history, we find that the lack of personal details. For example, we have a good idea about Plato’s lineage, how he got his name and who his siblings were while we have scarce information on where Aryabhata was born, who his parents were or who his teachers were. The Indian attitude always has been to preserve the principles as that guides us along the path. In that sense, it does not matter who said it or when they said it. If the principle is important, it will survive and will be passed down generations.

The stories in हितोपदेश (Hitopadesha – good advice), the पंचतन्त्र (Panchatantra – five principles) or the philosophical observations made in poetic form in the सुभाषित (subhashitas – “well said” ideas) – are abstracted observations with pseudonymous characters, that were likely to have been inspired from real events. The names or the specifics in the stories are far less relevant than the lessons themselves.

The Aryabhata Number System

Photo by Alex Chambers on Unsplash

In Computer Science, there are computations using binary or hexadecimal system, but for most people, the common system is the decimal system. Indian mathematicians did not restrict themselves to one system for computation. During the time of Aryabhatta, there were at least three methods of writing numbers. The most popular way of writing was using the Samskritam number system. Mathematicians like Varahamihira and Bhaskaracharya used a different system called the bhooth sankhya. Aryabhatta, though, invented his own system which was a new contribution.

In the Aryabhatta number system, the Samskritam letters from क to म carry values from 1 to 25. Letters from य to ह carry values 30, 40, 50… 80. Whenever an इ-kaara is used, the value is multiplied by 100. When an उ-kaara is used, the multiplier is 10,000, ऋ-kaara multiplies it by 1,000,000. To illustrate with example

  • च = 6
  • चि = 600
  • चु = 60,000
  • च्र = 6,000,000
  • कुचि = कु + चि = 10,000 + 600 = 10, 600

Reference: Aryabhateeya by Aryabhata (by Prof K S Sukla & Prof. K V Sarma. Commentary by Dr. N. Gopalakrishnan), Published by Indian Institute of Scientific Heritage, Thiruvananthapuram

Sanskrit Notes: Order of Words

Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr)

One of the interesting features of Sanskrit is that, in a sentence, the order of the words don’t matter. You can switch them around and the meaning remains the same.
Take for example a sentence like, Rama is going to the forest. You can’t say, “Rama going forest.” You need the “is” and “to the” to make sense of the sentence. The “is going” indicates that it is one person who is doing the action. Now, “to the forest” indicates that the forest is the object of the action.
In simple Sanskrit, you would write it like this
रामः वानमं गाच्छति
It reads, “Ramah vanam gachati”,  When you say “Ramah”, it indicates one Rama. A forest is “vana”, but in the sentence, we wrote it as “vanam”. That indicates, it is the object of Rama’s destination. The “ti” at the end of “gacchati” indicates that it is one Rama who is going (not two)”. If there were many Ramas, it would have become “gacchanti”. Thus the “is going” and “to the” are built into the words themselves.
This makes it interesting. Now you can write

  • गाच्छति रामः वानमं
  • गाच्छति वानमं रामः
  • वानमं गाच्छति रामः

All these sentences mean the same even though the order of words are switched around. Since each word has the part which maintains its relationship to the verb, the order does not matter. Due to this, in poetry, you can switch words around to fit the meter. In Hindu tradition, almost everything is written in poetry form and this made it easier for an oral society to remember anything forever.
Here is a complicated sentence
भारत ! यदा यदा धर्मस्य ग्लानिः अधर्मस्य अब्युधानं च भवति तदा अहम् आत्मानं सृजामि
Take those words and resequence them and apply the sandhi rules, and you get the following verse from chapter 4 of Gita

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

Here is an exercise. Try the “Rama is going to the forest” in your mother tongue and see how it behaves. Does it work the same in Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages? In Malayalam, it behaves exactly the same as in Sanskrit. In Hindi, it does not.

  • Based on the lectures of Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation
  • Gitapravesha by Samskrita Bharati

Lessons from Panchatantra – Artha

The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.
The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.

In the first book of Panchatantra, the merchant Vardhamana sets off from the city of Mahilaropya and has to abandon his bull, Sañjīvaka in the forest. This triggers a set of events involving a lion, Pingalaka, and two jackals, Karataka and Damanaka. Vardhamana considered various career paths and settled on inter-regional trade. In Panchatantra, Vardhamana is a role model, a man who had achieved great wealth due to his karma. A dharmic trader has to offer charity, donations, and construction of religious and civic amenities.
Besides becoming rich, a dharmic person has to generate additional wealth as well.

What has not been obtained should be obtained. What has been obtained, should be kept secure. What is kept secure, should be augmented and expended on the deserving. Even wealth that is protected according to the practices of the world can be suddenly lost due to various calamities. If wealth cannot be used when the occasion for it arises, then it is just as good as not having earned it. Therefore, protection, increase and use of the earned wealth should be done (Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1])

This is illustrated using the example of collyrium (anjanam or kohl) and an ant hill. When you have a dabba of collyrium, a small quantity is used daily.  Soon, the dabba becomes empty. Contrast that with the ant hill. Every day, the ant contributes a little, but over time, it becomes – well, an ant hill. The niti shastra, advocates saving money and building capital. At the same time, it advocates against hoarding because all it takes is a natural calamity to destroy it.
Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1] by Ashay Naik quotes
upārjitānām arthānāṃ tyāga eva hi rakṣaṇaṃ|
taḍāgodarasaṃsthānāṃ parīvāha ivāṃbhasāma||
[3.1] In order to protect the wealth that has been gained, one must let go of it like the outflow of water that is stagnant in a tank. Hoarded money is comparable to stagnant water – it becomes the harbinger of dregs and diseases. Like water, money should be constantly in circulation.
arthair arthā nibadhyante gajair iva mahāgajāḥ|
na hi anarthavatā śakyaṃ vāṇijyaṃ kartuṃ īhayā||
[3.2] Wealth attaches itself to wealth just as giant elephants to each other. Without outlay of capital, it is not feasible to practice commerce assiduously. Use money to make money. Wealth attracts wealth as – we have a nice ancient metaphor here – elephants attach to other elephants.
Panchatantra adds two more aspects of money management to the existing thought. Till those times, it was considered that one should acquire and protect wealth. But Panchatantra argues that one should consider the application and augmentation of wealth as well. Vanijya, cannot happen without capital investment.
In socialist India, before the economy was opened up in the early 90s, being wealthy had a bad connotation. Popular culture showcased the wealthy as people surrounded by henchmen and molls, roaring with laughter without any purpose who took special fascination to poor blind mothers. In Kerala, we took it one step further. These villains built their houses next to a pool housing hungry crocodiles, into which the hero would be dunked.
Gaining wealth is not bad. As per our tradition, it is part of one of the four purusharthas, along with dharma, kama, and moksha. The testimony to that is the graph below

The global contribution to world's GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison's estimates.[65] Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
The global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

The graph shows the global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
Once the enlightened Europeans took over, it was a disaster. This disaster was prolonged in 1947 by a family, who had no grounding in dharma. Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra to educate the foolish sons of a king. If only the fools, who crashed the country into a ditch had read any of this.

Prof. Irfan Habib’s “Secularism”

Njannenna Bharatheeyan by K K Muhammed
Njannenna Bharatheeyan by K K Muhammed

Few decades back, at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Prof. Irfan Habib  summoned his former student and now faculty member K K Muhammed to his office.  Muhammed had discovered Ibādat Khāna in Fatepur Sikri. Built by Akbar in 1575 CE, the  Ibādat Khāna was the place where various religious scholars held discussions. A major discovery, this was reported in various newspapers, something which Prof. Habib was not too happy about. The conversation went as follows:
Irfan Habib: “This is not Ibādat Khāna”
Muhammed: “No? This is not Ibādat Khāna?”
IH: “What you gave in Times of India is not Ibādat Khāna”
M: “How can you say that? Are you an archaeologist?”
IH: “I may not be as good an archaeologist like you”
M: “Sorry, you are not an archaeologist.” Irfan Habib was speechless.
Habib pushed a paper to Muhammed and said, “write what you discovered is not Ibādat Khāna”. Muhammed refused and walked away.
After working both at AMU and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in various designations, K K Muhammed has now written an autobiography in Malayalam titled, ഞാനെന്ന ഭാരതീയൻ (Me, the Indian), which has details of his encounters with Prof. Habib and his cabal. As part of his education,  Mr. Muhammed learned how a historian becomes secular.
When Muhammed reached AMU as a student, he was initially excited to have someone as famous as Prof. Habib as his teacher. Muhammed recollects, “As a teacher, he did not make any impact on me.” His other classmates too had similar opinion. This news reached Habib’s ears. Muhammed ran for the Student’s Union as a Congressman. This too did not go well with the Marxists and they decided to contain him. This would cause various encounters between the Irfan Habib group and Muhammed and they are detailed in the first few chapters of the book.
Due to some Machiavellian maneuvers by the Marxists, Muhammed did not get admission as a researcher and hence opted for archaeology.  After completing his post-graduate diploma in Archaeology, he returned to AMU. He thanks Habib for blocking his path, because it led him to archaeology where he made a name for himself by discovering not just the  Ibādat Khāna, but also a Christian Church, Akbar had built for the missionaries.
The Marxist attack came in multiple ways. First, they tried to prove that the discovery was not Muhammed’s. That failed. The second attack claimed that if Muhammed had discovered this, then it could not be the Ibādat Khāna. Soon after that Habib became the Head of the Department and that’s when the direct confrontation mentioned earlier happened.
Muhammed was a Communist sympathizer, but what he encountered in the campus was a new form of it. The petty version. Muhammed writes that he could never get along with Irfan Habib.
Habib group could cause career damage. They controlled the purse strings: they could decide who got scholarships or who would be admitted as researchers.  If you were not part of his group, you were branded communal. Independent thinking was anathema. But if you joined his group, you became secular.
How a communalist turns
How a communalist turns “secular”

For this Muhammed cites the example of Prof. Ramachandra Gaur, with whom he worked. An enemy of Habib, Prof. Gaur was branded an RSS man. Once he became the Head of the Department, he changed his allegiance. Gaur also advised Muhammed that it was better to switch to Habib’s group for career advancement. Once Prof. Gaur joined the Habib group, he was considered “secular”. Muhammed says, he refused to follow Gaur’s example.
Another encounter he mentions, occurred in front of an interview panel consisting of among others, the Vice Chancellor and Habib. During the interview, the Vice Chancellor said he could not consider anyone for AMU, who did not respect Prof.Habib. Muhammed replied that respect has to be earned not demanded. He mentioned how a person who got less marks than him was admitted as a researcher. Another case was when someone with less marks and no Post-Graduate diploma was given the post of Asst. Archaeologist instead of him. Muhammed also had evidence against a false accusation that Irfan Habib had made. While Muhammed said all of this, Irfan Habib sat with his eyes down. Muhammed, writes, “His behavior towards me changed, but I was sure he would stab me at the first opportunity”
Muhammed writes that Prof. Habib preferred people who flattered him like Makkan Lal.  Prof. Habib tried to get Prof. Makkan Lal as the deputy director instead of Muhammed. When this was challenged by Muhammed in court, Makkan Lal became an ally of Irfan Habib. Muhammed writes, “Unholy alliances are short lived”. By the time of the World Archaeology Congress in Delhi, the Habib group and Makkan Lal group were openly fighting and in the  Babri Masjid dispute, Irfan Habib and Makkan Lal were on the opposite sides.
Muhammed was finally selected as the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist at the Archaeological Survey of India. According to Muhammed, Prof. Habib. met the Director General of ASI and asked him to reject Muhammed. The DG replied that it was a UPC selection and he did not have the power to reject it. Then Prof. Habib had one final request. Don’t post him in Agra. (What if he discovers something else). Muhammed was posted to Madras Circle. But he would visit AMU for lectures and then efforts were made to block them. The only place where they were successful in blocking him was at JNU (no big surprise there), but everywhere else Muhammed was able to speak freely.
In the foreward of the book, Prof M G S Narayanan, too writes about Prof. Habib. According to Prof. MGS, Prof. Habib  has poisoned, not just history, but culture and social life by his narrow groupism, nepotism and treachery. At the same time, he writes that Prof. Habib is a hard working person, but crafty. His group would threaten, cheat and would be part of various intrigues. Anyone who criticized this group would be branded a Hindutvavaadi and communalist. At the same time, Prof. MGS says, Prof. Habib is not an Muslim Fundamentalist. He is not sure, even if he is a believer. Prof. MGS attributes this group for making Babri Masjid a national issue.
According to Muhammed, it was during the Babri Masjid time that his mask of secularism came off. As the head of a government body (ICHR), he should not have taken sides in the dispute. People saw this as an effort to to increase his influence by taking sides with the Muslim side in the dispute. The one historian who had to courage to say that the head of ICHR should not take sides in the dispute was Prof. M G S Narayanan. Prof. MGS initially had a great opinion of Prof. Irfan Habib. He even disagreed with Muhammed on his opinion of Prof. Habib, Once Prof. MGS worked with Prof. Habib in ICHR, he realized that truth of Muhammed’s statements. Not being able to work with Irfan Habib, he left ICHR. Very soon Prof. MGS was branded with the Hindutva label.
These are just few select incidents from the first few chapters of the book. It is these petty people who get to define Indian history on  if a Ram temple existed or if Saraswati flowed in India or in Afghanistan (see The Lost River). This is the price for continuing the British practice for having an “official” history. We have become bystanders while our history has been hijacked by Marxists  like Prof. Irfan Habib.

The Dhow to Khor Fakkan

By <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Xavier_Romero-Frias" title="User:Xavier Romero-Frias">Xavier Romero-Frias</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9567898
A deep-sea dhow (from Wikipedia By Xavier Romero-FriasOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1957, the first democratically elected Communist government took office in Kerala. By 1960, the people of Kerala were willing to do anything, including  voyages across the open ocean in dhows to get away from the state and find employment. A recent Malayalam movie, Pathemari (Dhow), is the story of one such man, Narayanan, who takes such a voyage from Kerala to Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates. Unlike the African slave trade, these men willingly took a journey to an unknown land to become indentured servants. The movie is a realistic portrayal of the life of the early Gulf Malayalis and one of the best performances by Mammootty (who is also a board member of the Communist party-run Kairali TV)
Pathemari - Movie poster (via Wikipedia)
Pathemari – Movie poster (via Wikipedia)

Spices were transported from the East, both by camel caravans and dhows crossing the ocean. The dhows would take the goods to Basra, Jiddah, Muscat or Aqaba and from there camel caravans took them to Alexandria and Levant. These traders did not movie goods just to the West, they went as far as China and Indonesia. In the movie, a young Narayanan boards a dhow owned by a person called ‘Launch Velayudhan’, (based on a real-life person, who died few years back) who is in the business of transporting goods to the Middle East, as well as people who want to escape poverty.
The dhows reached their destination due to the clockwork predictability of the monsoon. From May to August, the summer monsoons blows out from the southwest and fades away by September. From November to March, the winter monsoons blew from the northeast bringing traders and religious fanatics to India. This switch of direction across a large body of water is unique.

But the Arab, Persian, and Indian dhows* could well manage this, with their huge lateen rigs lying as close as 55 to 60 degrees in the direction of the soft northeast headwind—sailing right into it, in other words.† This is almost as good as a modern yacht and a considerable technical achievement. The importance of it was that India’s southwestern Malabar coast could be reached from southern Arabia by sailing a straight-line course, even if it did involve the discomfort of what seamen call “sailing to weather.”
Despite the occasional ferocity of the southwest wind, the discovery of the monsoonal system, which so easily favored trip planning, nevertheless liberated navigators from sailing too often against the elements.1 So the Indian Ocean did not—at least to the same degree as other large bodies of water—have to wait until the age of steam to unite it. [Monsoon]

This, in fact, helped develop the trading hubs of the old world.

The Prime Minister and Cheraman Perumal

The Prime Minister of India tweets

Wish he had read the following before tweeting

  1. The myth of Cheraman Perumal’s conversion
  2. Unraveling the Cheraman Perumal Myth
  3. The Perumal and the Pickle
  4. A tale of two conversions
  5. Cheraman Perumal and the myths

Neuroplasticity of Vedic Pandits

Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)
Panjal athirathram by Asokan. R Raman (flickr)

It is not easy to be a Vedic Pandit.

Professional Vedic Pandits undergo rigorous training in exact pronunciation and invariant content of these oral texts for 7 or more years, with 8–10 h of daily practice (totaling ~10,080 h over the course of the initial training), starting in their childhood, and mastering multiple 40,000 to 100,000 word oral texts (compared to ~ 38,000 in the book of Genesis). The training methods strongly emphasize traditional face- to-face oral learning, and the Yajurveda recitation practice includes right hand and arm gestures to mark prosodic elements.

There are special exercises to ensure that the Vedas are chanted without mistakes. Now a new study shows that such intensive study changes the brain both in the white matter and gray matter. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in the following changes

We found massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increases in Pandit brains in language, memory and visual systems, including i) bilateral lateral temporal cortices and ii) the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, regions associated with long and short-term memory. Differences in hippocampal morphometry matched those previously documented for expert spatial navigators and individuals with good verbal working memory. The findings provide unique insight into the brain organization implementing formalized oral knowledge systems.

There are few other interesting points from the paper

  1. The Pandits were highly competent in Sanskrit. They memorized large volumes of Sanskrit text and understood its complex morphology. They were multi-lingual as well. That was a contributing factor for the increased gray matter density.
  2. Another reason was the way of learning, using gestures and articulation. The result of using hand and arm movement could be seen in the brain. Indian classical  music students too use that extensively, especially hand movements.

Sharon Begley has written about the effect mindfulness has on the brain. The brain has the ability to grow new neurons and rewire itself. Now for those who wonder if learning a “dead” or communal language like Sanskrit is worth it, read the paper.

  1. Hartzell, J.F., et al., Brains of verbal memory specialists show anatomical differences in language, memory and visual systems, NeuroImage (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.027


How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)
As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.
For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited
The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11
When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)
This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.
PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

Unraveling the Cheraman Perumal Myth

(All photographs by author)

This is the board outside the Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid near present day Kodungallur, Kerala which proclaims that the mosque was established when Prophet Muhammad was alive. It also means that this particular mosque was established before the first mosques in Iraq (639 CE),  Syria (715 CE),  Egypt (642 CE), and Tunisia (670 CE) thus making it oldest mosque after the first mosques in Saudi Arabia and China. The interesting question is why would a mosque be established so far away from the deserts where Islam was spreading? Who was behind it and more importantly, is the mosque as old as it claims?
There is a popular story behind this mosque which is well known in Kerala even today. Once a king — a Cheraman Perumal — was walking on the balcony of his palace when he spotted the moon splitting into two and joining back again. Bewildered, he consulted a few astrologers, who confirmed that such an event had indeed occurred and was not a mystical experience. Few months later, he got a few Arab visitors on their way to Ceylon and  from them, the king learned that Prophet Muhammad was behind this miracle and he was the founder of a new religion. The king did something drastic. He abdicated the throne, divvied up the kingdom and set sail to Mecca to meet this man. He met the Prophet and converted to Islam and lived in Arabia for a while. Then to spread the religion in his homeland, the converted Perumal returned to Kerala, but he died somewhere along the way.
Later, few of his followers reach Cranganore and it is they who set up the first mosques, including the one at Kodungallur. According to the legend, Saraf Ibn Malik, Malik Ibn Dinar, Malik Ibn Habib, Ibn Malik and their wives and friends were responsible for establishing the first mosques at Kodungallur, Kollam (in North, not Quilon), Maravi (Matayi), Fakanur, Manjarur (Mangalore), Kanjirakuttu (Kasergode), Jarfattan (Karippat), Dahfattan (Dharmatam), Fandarina (Pantalayani Kollam) and Caliyath (Chaliyam near Beypore)
A photo of the old mosque. Taken inside the museum

There is one thing to be noted about Cheraman Perumal. That was not the name of a particular king, but a title. Cheraman was the name of the dynasty of Chera rulers and Perumal meant, ‘the great one’. According to Keralolpathi (Origins of Kerala), written in the 17th or 18th century, following various conflicts in the 9th century, the representatives of 64 settlements in Kerala brought the Perumals from outside Kerala and each one was to rule for 12 years. There have been exceptions, though and once such exception would play an important role in this story.
First, is this story really true?
This story is found in a Muslim account recorded by Sheikh Zeinuddin as well as in the Brahminical narrative, Keralolpathi. The story has been retold countless times by the Portuguese, Dutch; the court chronicles of Calicut and Cochin begin with this narrative. There is epigraphic evidence as well: a Chola inscription mentions that the Cheras took to the sea after they were attacked which historians interpret to mean the Cherman Perumal voyage. There is evidence even from Arabia about the tomb of a king from Malabar who converted to Islam. Thus there seems to be sufficient evidence to suggest that a king from Malabar converted to Islam. That brings us to the second question: When?
This fascinating tale of a Kerala king meeting the Prophet was first recorded in 1510 CE by the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa.  Barbosa, who would later become Ferdinand Magellan’s brother-in-law and would join him on his trip around the world, reached Kerala in 1500 with his uncle and stayed there for five decades.  Quite conversant in the local language and based on his familiarity with the traditions and customs, he wrote the story of this Cheraman Perumal based on what he had heard.
His version goes as follows: Around 600 years before Barbosa’s time, there was a mighty lord named Chirimay Perumal, whose capital was a popular port for pepper trade. The Moors who came for trade had numerous discussions with the king and they converted him to Islam. He went to Mecca in their company and died either there or on the way back; the Malabar people never saw their king again. Barbosa also wrote that the single kingdom which Cheraman Perumal ruled was partitioned into three — Cannanore, Calicut and Quilon — with Calicut having the right of coinage. But pay attention to one little detail: Barbosa mentions that this incident happened 600 years back and not 875 years.
A model of the old mosque

The next version of this story was written eight decades later by Sheikh Zeinuddin, a Malayali Muslim with Arab ancestry. In his account, a set of Arab Muslims reached Cranganore on their way to Adam’s foot in Ceylon (See: How did Adam reach Sri Lanka). The king invited them to his palace and in what must be one of the easiest conversion attempts in the world, converted after listening to their conversation. He divided the kingdom and secretly went to Arabia with the pilgrims which agrees with what  Barbosa wrote. Zeinuddin  also mentioned  that this king was ruler of the land from Kasargod to Kanya Kumari and gives an important detail regarding the date. According to him, this incident did not happen during the lifetime of the prophet, but two centuries later.
In 1610 CE, another version of this story came out from another Portuguese writer named Joas de Barros. Barros was an administrator in the House of India and Mina in Lisbon and was responsible for dispatching various fleets to India and his work was completed by Diogo de Coutos. According to his account, Cherman Peruman was a great king and his kingdom was frequented by many Moors for commerce. According to Barros, these Moors were religious fanatics and converted the king to Mohammedanism. He moved to Calicut and the Moors there made him believe that he had to go to Mecca to save his soul, which he promptly did after diving up his kingdom. This was the time when the Portuguese  had to resort to sea voyages to avoid Muslim controlled land route and were in competition with the Muslim traders to gain favours with the kings of Kerala for trade rights. Some of that antagonism is visible in the language.
Coutos then adds a twist to the tale which makes this very interesting. According to him, the Perumal was close to the St. Thomas Christians based in Kodungallur and would not do anything without consulting them. Coutos drops a bombshell by adding that he was converted to their holy faith, implying that the Perumal was converted to Christianity and not Islam. Coutos also mentions that the Perumal died in the house of Apostle St. Thomas in Mylapore and thus disagreeing with the Mecca trip.
Thus within a century, you see the story being retold to based on the convenience of the Portuguese who were doing excellent trade in Malabar. But there is one data point that stands out in the narrative of Barros. He writes that the king, Sarama Perumal  reigned 612 years before “we” landed in India. It is not clear if that refers to the period when Barros’ ships landed in Malabar or if it refers to Vasco da Gama’s first voyage of 1498. Even if you take 1498 CE, the king would have reigned in 886 CE which is two centuries after the date mentioned on the board at the Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid. This also agrees with what historian A Sreedhara Menon mentioned in his Survey of Kerala History
This is how the mosque looks now

In 1723, the Dutch chaplain Canter Visscher wrote about this story, with another twist. He agrees that Cheraman Perumal was a great king who distributed his kingdom and undertook a voyage. The journey was, “either to the Ganges in fulfillment of a vow or as the Moors say to visit Mahomet in Arabia for the purpose of embracing his religion” implying that there were multiple theories existing at that time. The Cheraman Perumal story continued in the accounts of Dutch Commander Van Adriaan Moens (1781 CE), Francis Buchanan (1801 CE), Keralolpathi (17th or 18th century) and Granthavari (19th century).
Though there are minor variations and the influence of local politics, the Portuguese and Muslim accounts agree on one thing: a king from Kerala set off to Mecca, but this Cheraman Perumal did not travel in the time period mentioned in the board outside the mosque. But, this should be a relatively simple problem to solve. If this incident did happen, then all you need is  figure out who was the last Cheraman Perumal and that is where temple inscriptions are helpful.
There is a inscription of Vikrama Chola dating to 1122 CE which mentions that while the Pandyas took to the Ghats, the Cheras took to the sea. There are other statements in that inscription which have been proven historically and hence there is some truth to the Cheras taking to the sea as well. Historians read this to mean that the last Chera Perumal, who was Rama Kulasekhara, left by sea.  There is a record from another temple which mentions that a garland was offered to the deity for the benefit of Cheramar Rama which meant that the Rama Kulasekhara lived till 1122 CE.
This points to a date much later than the ones mentioned by the Portuguese and Muslim sources. There is more evidence on this front. According to the tradition the Perumal who reached Arabia sent some messengers to preach Islam in Kerala who established ten mosques, of which one is at Matayi. According to an inscription found at that mosque, it was built in 1124 CE, two years after the disappearance of Cheraman Rama Kulasekhara. Since we know the name of the king, it is easy to find references to other kings who were contemporaries and that can help solve the mystery. Two kings mentioned in connection with the last Perumal are  Udaya Varman of Koluttunad and Kavivamsha of the Tulu kingdom. Based on a inscription, Udaya Varman has been dated to the early 12th century and the Alupa King Kavivamsha ruled in the first half of the 12th century.
This complicates the narrative. From the story taking place in the 8th century, we have moved to the 12th century. Now comes another story which throws a spanner into the works. It turns out that this story was known in Arabia as well.  In 1882, William Logan recorded an incident where 15 years back a man came from Arabia soliciting funds for the repair of a mosque and tomb. This tomb, located in Zapahar in the Arabian coast had an inscription which said that it belonged to Abdul Rahman Saimiri, a king of Malabar. The inscription mentions that this man reached in year 212 of the Hijera. The name in the tomb looks like it was a Samuthiri, but there is no such record of a Zamorin traveling abroad and getting converted.
There is one thing though: this was an important event in Kerala’s history with the disintegration of central rule and the formation of many small kingdoms. But was the disappearance of the king the reason for this change or was the change that happened tagged to the departure of the king?
Lake behind the mosque

The Cheras were under attack by the Chola and Pandya forces and the king would have been forced to make deals with Jews, Muslim and Christian traders for financial and military assistance displeasing the Nairs and Brahmins. The revenue would have been affected and with an ungovernable kingdom, an easy way out would have  been the abdication of the throne. With the Cholas and Pandyas attacking the north and south, many areas would have become independent of the central power and the partition of the land may have been just a formal recognition of the ground reality. The Perumal’s Mecca voyage was a symbolic tale which captured all of this.
The Brahminical narrative, Keralolpathi, has another reason for this departure. First, the Perumal was upset having reigned for a long period the land which was the gift of Parasurama and wanted to make amends. The Perumals were supposed to rule for 12 years and make way for the next one; this one ruled for 36 years. Second, he had the supreme commander of the armed forces killed on the basis of a woman’s words which he regretted later and so conversion to Islam was probably a way out.
As we go through written records, temple inscriptions and legends, this story gets murky. At this point we have two possible dates for this event: the 9th century and 12th century. It is not a difference of a few decades, but a few centuries. Some people thought he took a trip to the Ganges and another thought he was converted to Christianity and not Islam. There is even a suggestion that it was not a Perumal, but a Zamorin. Sometimes, from these different versions you learn more about the writer and his politics than the truth, like a kind of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle applied to historiography. Even though the mystery is not solved, it seems that a person some repute reached Mecca from Malabar, and it seems clear that the incident did not happen in the period mentioned in the board.
If you are interested in this topic, please read these blog posts as well.

  1. The Perumal and the Pickle
  2. A tale of two conversions
  3. The myth of Cheraman Perumal’s conversion


  1. Perumals of Kerala by Prof. M.G.S.Narayanan
  2. Survey of Kerala History by Prof. A Sreedhara Menon