There is in Kerala a fascinating legend featuring the Hindu sage Vararuchi and a pariah girl who bore him twelve children. The story is rich in metaphor, and to this day there are families along the coast that claim descent from one or another of their fabled offspring. The eldest, for instance, was raised a brahmin, while the youngest, who oddly had no mouth, is venerated as a temple deity. One son was a celebrated master carpenter, folklore connecting him to shrines across Kerala, while another was a madman whose chief delight lay in rolling a boulder uphill, only to watch it tumble down, over and over. Yet another brought to his esteemed Brahmin brother’s feast beef to eat, while one more of Vararuchi’s tribe settled as a trader. And in a tale that weaves together brahmins and Nairs, a deity as well as a dalit, it is this sibling, Uppukoottan, who introduces a final interesting identity. For Uppukoottan, son of Vararuchi, is believed to have been raised a Mappila, adhering not so much to his father’s Hindu traditions as to the word of the Prophet Muhammad.
While to some the presence of a Muslim in a popular Hindu legend might seem outlandish, to Malayalis the story is by no means unusual. After all, across the length and breadth of Kerala, history and legend are united in featuring Muslims (and Christians) prominently in a shared cultural universe. Arabs had mastered the seas even before the Prophet was born, and soon after its dawn, Islam was delivered to Kerala through long-standing channels of commerce. The oldest mosque in the region, for instance, is said to have been established in the lifetime of the Prophet himself, in 629 CE, though archaeologists quibble about the exact age of the structure. By 849 CE, at any rate, Muslim traders were consequential enough to witness a royal grant (made, incidentally, to Christians), their signatures inscribed in archaic Arabic. When Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan diarist, came here in the course of his travels, he saw men from Persia in settlements along the coast, and one of the most beautiful mosques in Calicut, the turquoise blue Mishkal Palli, was founded soon afterwards by a commercially prolific merchant who began his life and career in faraway Yemen.
The influence of the Mappilas, born from the union of Arabs with local women as well as from subsequent conversions, quickly found reflection in Kerala’s already diverse culture. Some of the principal officials of the Zamorin of Calicut were Muslims, and in the great Mamankam festival at Tirunavaya—the most important religious gathering in Kerala till the eighteenth century—Muslims participated in the colourful revelries just as they did in formal royal ceremonies. At Sabarimala, where hundreds of thousands converge to worship the Hindu god Ayyappa, homage is also paid to Vavar, the deity’s Muslim friend whose name sounds (painfully to some) like Babur. The language of the Mappilas, meanwhile, developed into a unique blend of Malayalam sound and Arabic script, influenced over time by Persian as well as by Tamil and Kannada. Their architecture, too, absorbed Kerala’s indigenous style—the oldest mosques feature no domes or minarets, bearing instead the gables and tiled roof that crown temples and even Christian churches from this era. The nerchchas of the Mappila community, celebrating saints and divines, resemble Hindu festivals—the tall brass lamp, the elephants, bright parasols and fireworks, all integral to the temple pooram as much as to these Muslim commemorations. There is even, in fact, a Mappila Ramayana, featuring Ravana as a sultan; Surpanakha’s proposition to Rama in this version seeks sanction from the Sharia.