Sitting on a carpet in the top floor of the Valiya Juma Masjid at Ponnani and looking at the red roofs and white walls of nearby buildings, as well as the small domes of the mosque that are a different shade of green than the coconut trees that embrace the area, one is taken back to the era when the town was known as the “Mecca of Malabar.”
Five centuries ago, teenagers and young adults converged from different parts of South India and Sri Lanka to learn about Islamic theology from Sheikh Zainuddin Makhdoom.
History lives in this small town of about one lakh inhabitants. At one time, an important port where the Marakkars fought off Portuguese attacks, there is now an air of tranquillity in Ponnani. The Portuguese and Arabs are long gone, but the cultural and religious contribution of the latter is clearly visible in the town. Tackling the May heat and humidity, this writer walked on a small road by the backwaters and to the entrance of the Juma Masjid. Unsure of the rules of entry into the grand structure, which combines Kerala and Islamic architectural elements, a few local worshippers noticed the hesitation from a stranger to enter and made it perfectly clear that men of all faiths were welcome to look inside this 16th century mosque.
With warm smiles, those inside voluntarily explained legends and stories behind the construction of the mosque. An oft-repeated story was that all the timber used for this architectural marvel came from one tree!
Intersection of history, geography and culture
History and heritage are everywhere at Ponnani. One simply cannot help but notice its fading old tharavads. The town has been left out of the mass tourism boom that Kerala has witnessed over the last few decades, which is probably a blessing in disguise. There is a school of thought that the authorities must leave some of the treasures of the state alone so that genuine travellers with a sense of wonder can ‘explore’ them.
Walking past mangroves that protect the town from the vagaries of nature, one enters the golden sandy beach, complete with a lighthouse that is a reminder of another era. Well beyond what the eye can see is the Gulf of Aden and southern Yemen, from where Arabic culture, cuisine and Islam came to these very shores. Think of all those delicious variants of pathiri; plain, baked, fried or stuffed, and enjoyed with curries that were enriched by the spices of Kerala! There is little doubt that goods, people and ideas moved freely between Kerala and the Arab world long before the advent of European colonialism, the modern nation-state, passports and national borders.
Locals are happy enough to stay by the main entrance of the beach, leaving the stretch closer to the estuary of the Bharatapuzha empty. The narrow and green strip of land between the beach and the estuary is one of the quietest and most scenic spots in the Malabar region. It seems to be of interest only for the odd fisherman, writer, poet and artist.
One can see the broad, rich and free flowing Bharatapuzha enter the Arabian Sea. It’s a spot for quiet reflection. From here goods from places such as Egypt and the Levant made their way through the heart of Kerala and across the Palakkad Gap into Tamil Nadu. Many Indian products were loaded on to boats for the return journey.
This great river, which is also called the Nila, gave life to the Palakkad district turning it into the grain basket of Kerala. Many celebrated works of Malayalam literature have come from its banks.
Accompanying the crimson southern Malabar sunset is the sound of Maghrib prayers from Ponnani’s mosques and the sounds of temple bells from historic Hindu temples such as the Thrikkavu Bhagavathy kshetram.
Ponnani is just one of many gems that stretch all the way to Kerala’s border with Karnataka. The Malabar region, which was at one time the most prone to foreign influence, is thankfully off the radar of the commercial tourism and resort industry. Places like Ponnani could be at the forefront of sustainable eco and heritage tourism that helps preserve both its stunning nature and historical buildings, while involving members of the local community who have chosen to not pursue a livelihood elsewhere. Meanwhile, genuine travellers have access to a place that is rich in culture and history and surrounded by beautiful and relatively-unspoiled nature.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, primarily based in Mumbai)