Sacred Kerala (A Spiritual Pilgrimage)

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Item Code: IDC251
Author: Dominique Sila Khan
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9780143104155
Pages: 233
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 7.8” X 5.0”
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‘The prime minister to the Cochin maharaja had built his residence in the centre of square so that would be a shrine at each of its corners. Thus would the royal power assume protection of the four great religions that were represented in Kerala’?

Kerala touted by the tourism industry as God’s own country, is indeed a corner of India where religions life’s is intense vibrant and varied. Kerala’s history is replete with examples of rulers patronizing different religious communities. And in spite of insidious efforts by some to erect sectarian boundaries, Malayalis have stubbornly held on to many of their old traditions of shared spaces. Devotees of different communities continue to take part in each other’s festival-on the first day of the annual Chandanakudam festival for instance devotees of all faiths gather at a Catholic church proceed to a Bhagavati temple and finally congregate at a mosque where the festivities officially begin and there are numerous occasions and sacred spaces where Hindus, Muslims, Christians and even a handful of Jews meeting.

Embarking on a kind a personal and intellectual pilgrimage to discover sacred Kerala, Dominique-Sila Khan encounters on her way an array of picturesque characters and many a fascinating shrine. These encounters often challenge our usual assumptions about what it is to be Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Jew. The author’s general mood alternated between gravity and humour, her descriptive style often making space for colourful anecdotes that allow the reader to go beyond the sights, sounds and tastes of Kerala and experience the spiritual consciousness of a land.


I remember with nostalgia the days of my first trip to Tami Nadu and Kerala. I had been living in Rajasthan for five years and had wrongly surmised that south India would not be very different form the north. It all came as a surprise: the dark-brown smiling faces the spotless white mundus the men wore, the golden bordered saris the smell of jasmine the myriad oil lamps in temples churches and Muslim shrines or dargahs the strange melody of Dravidian languages………

When in Chenni, I visited the huge Kapaleshwarar temple and had admired the colorful statue of Lord Murugan or Subrahmaniam a local form of the god Kartikkeya seated on his peacock and holding a spear the vel in his right hand. The St Thomas Church was not very far form the temple and heading towards it I would see the graceless showy neo-Gothic structure built at the end of the nineteenth century. I suddenly felt disappointed. I had been told that the area, known as Mylapore meant the city of peacock and that that in local legends both Murugan and the apostle were connected with the national bird of India. I would have preferred to admire, if not a medieval clean carefully whitewashed. But as soon as I crossed the threshold I forget my disappointment. For a few minutes.

I remained motionless in front of the chancel, uncle to take my eyes off the statue that stood under the stained glass window representing Doubting Thomas. The sculpture in itself was not remarkable. It was a usual representation of the Christ on the cross. But the pedestal surprise and delighted me: It was a big lotus made of stone with a peacock on either side. After a while I tool a few steps forward and looked around. My eyes fell on another unexpected object. It was the traditional south Indian oil lamp mounted on its tall stand but instead of being topped by a peacock (as in the Mylapore temple) it displayed a cross. Later while visiting Muslim shrines. I was to admire another version of the ubiquitous Dravidian lamp topped by the crescent moon and star.

I was hardly out of the church and lost in my thoughts when I caught sight of an inscription on the wall of an adjacent building: Guru Yesu Illam. This was the first time I had seen Jesus being referred to as guru and I was a little taken aback. But I should not have been for the word ‘guru’ does not have any sectarian connotation. In Indian tradition it simply means a teacher and who could deny that Christ was teacher. For the Tamil Christians, it seems, Jesus was in no way a foreign God. In St Thomas’s cathedral I had seen my fist Christ standing on a lotus. Near Thanjavur I met him in another form: sitting cross-legged not on a lotus but in the lotus posture the traditional padmasana.

I remembered having read about the strong similarities between the figures of Murugan and St Thomas. The symbols for both were the spear and the peacock; both: were connected with a particular area of modern Chennai, the old city of Mylapore. It seems that the apostle was regarded as one of Murugan’s new incarnations. I could not help asking myself was this really tomb of St Thomas? When some Portuguese navigators arrived here in 1517, they found a domed structure which they took to be a church. It was decorated with carved peacock. A Christian symbol of resurrection the bird often appears o the lintel of old churches in Kerala and is sometimes associated with the Cross. Strangely enough the caretaker of the monument regarded as the apostle’s tomb, was a follower of Islam. Earlier still in 1293 when Marco Polo visited what he considered the place of St Tomas’s martyrdom, he found it functioned more as a Muslim dargahs than as a church with its grave and its sacred footprint typical of the pir or Muslim saint cult.

In Kerala I was later to see a modern statue of St Thomas in the recently built pontifical shrine of Mar Thoma at Azhicode, Kodungallur. The church has been erected close to the spot where the apostle is believed to have landed in as 52. During the British period the city- once an important harbour before it was replaced by Cochin-was known as Cranganore. A holy relic, a bone from the right arm St Thomas donated by the Pope had been brought here from Italy by Cardinal Tisserand in 1953. Interestingly the shrine is referred to as Mar Thoma Sannidhi. In a small Capella protected by a glass panel and called ‘Mar Thoma mandapam’ the apostle stands on a lotus, holding a spear in his right hand. Two tiny metal elephants stand on either side of a cross that adorns the top of a holy monstrance in the front part of the mandapam. Every year, during the novena organized for the annual feast which falls on 21 December, various relics including those of St Thomas, together with parts of the apostle’s lance are placed in the repository for public veneration.

The lotus and the elephants the spear and the peacock were thus as much a part of Christian traditions as they were of Hindu traditions and it struck me with renewed force that ideas about Christianity being a foreign imported religion were unfair.

In Chenni I had visited the two sacred mounts connected with the saint’s life and martyrdom. Nine kilometers from Mylapore, St Thomas Mount stands at a height of about martyrdom of the saint. Apart from the famous bleeding cross, the life size statues representing the Stations of the Cross captured my imagination. just below the pedestal where one can see St Thomas touching Christ’s wounds are two stone peacock sitting on a rock. After having lingered near the statues, I entered without much enthusiasm the church dedicated to Our Lady of Expectation built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. A board affixed on one of the walls read: It was on this sacred sport that Thomas the Apostle was pierced with lance and Killed. That made me wonder: if it was the instrument of his martyrdom why us the saint often represented as in Kodungallur holding the spear in his hand? How could a weapon that turned against him have become his own? The same question as, we will see later can be asked for some other Christian saints of Kerala. St Sebastian and St George arrows and snakes respectively, had been directed against them before they become symbols of their divine powers.

Of course the old stone cross even if it was not really built by saint as tradition has it was interesting, but I was not convinced about its power to bleed on certain occasions. During the short time I spent inside the church I saw many people touching it. While I was wondering what miracles they expected from it or from the Senhora da Expectacao, I saw a bearded man clad in a saffron mundu and a black kurta wearing a mala, his forhead smeared with vermilion. He had been standing silently at some distance near the inscription. Even as I realized what religion he belonged to he briskly approached the choir raised his right hand and touched the cross. It was December, of course and he was an ‘Ayyappa’, a Hindu devotee of the Malayali god Ayyappa. He had stopped by on his way to the shrine of Sabarimala the sacred peak where Hindus worship Ayyappa, the Dravidian god of the mountain.

The next surprise was waiting for me a few years later at Mahabalipuram the ancient Pallava port located about fifty-five kilometers from Chennai. It was in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots that followed. There I met a man named Allah Baksh, a magician by caste belonging to the community referred to in north India as Madari. However, I was less impressed by his tricks than I was by what he told me about himself. That was the real magic, it was January and Ali, as he preferred to call himself had just returned from the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. On my way I had already met many Hindu pilgrims wearing a black, dark blue or saffron mundu, as the one I had followed exactly so he told me the same itinerary and the same rituals dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva and even Christian shrines before reaching Sabarimala. There on the top hill he had first bowed to the shrine of Vavar Swami, the Muslim friends of Ayyappa, and then climbed te eighteen steps that led to the temple where the gold statue of the god was enshrined. He offered me the Prasad he had got back from the shrine. Without the least hesitation I put it in my month. It tasted sweet but the sweetness had not much to do with sugar content. It took me stone time to realize why I found it so inviting and so pleasant. Then the reality dawned on me: the taste of peace and communal harmony, which I had nearly forgotten after the bitterness of the events of the past two months, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the series of communal clashes that led to terrible bloodshed in many parts of India. Indeed the Sabarimala Prasad tasted very sweet.

I kept meeting Ali every year and each time he told me about his pilgrimage with the same enthusiasm. But in January 2002 he had come back a different man. Some of his dreams were shattered. Kerala advertised as God’s own country and famous for its communal harmony had started to change. In 2002 Marad, a fishing village near Calicut (now Kozhikode), was the scene of communal clashes. The atmosphere would never be the same.

I was fascinated by these contradictions and curious to know more. That is why I had to return many times to Tamil Nadu and Kerala and learn both Tamil and Malayalam. After having researched and written on Hindu-Muslim interactions in north India for many years, I decided to do the same in Kerala. I read about secular Kerala and also about the communal clashes and the gradual erosion of secularism. What was the reason of these changes? Was communal harmony still a reality? I expected to find at least partial answers to my questions. I also hoped there were still a few places where Hindus, Muslims and Christians could meet. Eventually, what I found met more than my expectations. And instead of writing another scholarly book, I felt like sharing my experiences with as many people as possible.

So what the reader will find in the followings pages is not a learned treatise but simply the story of my personal pilgrimage to sacred Kerala.


Nothing but the writer’s conviction can give strength to nay writing. Sometimes conviction derives from a particular socio-political background. Religious ideologies may also lead to unshakeable convictions. At times intense personal experiences too make the writer committed to some strong ideals.

But can love be committed as a conviction? Dominique-Sila Khan’s book Sacred Kerala is a thumping answer in the affirmative. While traveling through multifarious religious traditions their shared living spaces the author asserts that unconditional love and affection springing forth to every soul is her only concern.

When I met Dominique-Sila Khan for the first time in Tirur, Kerala I saw a ruby shine in her body language and in her words as well. She sees Kerala as a sacred space, so sacred that to her the appellation God’s own country seems to capture the very essence of the state. Perhaps it is because of its history, which enabled the land to realize the basic doctrine propounded by religious texts: all are children of God’. Different religious beliefs came to Kerala as a bridegroom steps into the bride’s residence. The new family member was greeted with warmth. Contemporary north India tends to forget this experience. So do most parts of the world. In Dominique’s view, Islam and Christianity are neither alien nor imported faiths. In the newly built Christian shrine called Mar Thoma Sannidhi at Kodungallur, St Thomas stands in the centre of a lotus holding a spear in his hand very much like the south Indian god Murugan.

It is not only Hindus who share a common space with other religions. Muslim too visit Kunan Kurisu (chapel of the Bent Cross). Devotees of all faiths offer snake-shaped amulets and roosters during St George’s festival at Edappally. The nearby St Mary’s Church and the Kavil Bhagavathi temple are actively involved in the Chandankudam festival of Puthur palli. On that day, regardless of their religious affiliations, devotees gather in the courtyard of the Catholic Church. From there a procession goes to the Bhagavathi temple and the nearby mosque. Muslims offer ports filled with sandal and saffron to a Hindu priest who then puts a Tilak on the forehead of his Muslim brothers. The emotional bond existing between different religions traditions is the prompting spirit behind such ritual exchanges.

In the Sabarimala temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Ayyappa, we have a Muslim shrine dedicated Vavar Swami. Even today, it is Vavar’s direct descendant who acts as one of the priest in the place sacred to Hindus. The author describes her visit to the present priest’s Punnaveli house. The straightforward and dignified behaviour of the Vavar Musaliar, as he is called, assured her that the story of the spiritual bond between Ayyappa and Vavar is not a fabricated one. She is convinced of its legitimacy and sacred character.

During the unfortunate communal conflicts at Marad a coastal village near Kozhikode, I had made a pilgrimage to the Sabarimala temple with C. Ashraf a novelist form Ponnani Dominique-Sila Khan has been inspired by this initiative. Her attitude to the religions and spiritual tradition of Kerala is warm and full of reverence even if it is at times, critical.

People from Mujahid and Jamatt-e-Islami organizations of Kerala do not favour shared and rituals which appear to them as shirk (heresy). Similarly some Christian priests are opposed to these customs. Though the book discuses such aspects, Dominique does not attempt to refute or reject their beliefs. She keeps gazing at the ocean of love and sees wave after wave rising and mingling as different rituals and traditions meet. What she sees is the spontaneous ecstasy of ordinary mortals who are incapable of complex intellectual exercises. Ultimately will it be God’s first consideration too?

Dominique-Sila deliberately avoided visiting orthodox places of worship which keep people of other faiths at a distance. Her preference for ‘popular’ is obvious. This attitude revels her faith in one God transcending religions. it a also a book on Kerala’s history and economic and social Malayali dynasties tries to understand the sociocultural life of country, the movement founded by Sri Narayana Guru and Sahodaran Ayyappan and the impact of Mata Amritanandamayi and of the Potta Divine centre on the psyche of the inhabitants of Kerala. She does not despise any of them; she is tolerant to all. At the same time Dominique does not hesitate to express her innocent bit genuine doubts about some of the views held by eminent saints and personalities such as Sri Narayana Guru.

Dominique-Sila Khan is a non-practising East European Jew both in France and settled and settled in India and married to a Rajasthani Sunni Muslim with a Sufi bent of mind. She admits that her first visit to a synagogue happens to be at Cochin (now Kochi). While stepping into the shrine she remembers with moist eyes her lost maternal ancestor, who had fled Spain in the sixteenth century. She wishes she could find his or her traces but finally sees beyond all personal bonds or memories.

Sacred Kerala presents vivid life sketches of different communities of Kerala, such as the formerly ‘untouchable’ Pulayas and Thiyyas the high-status Nayars and Namboodiris, the Jews, Christians, Marranos (Jews concealing their religious identity as Christians), and the Muslim Mappilas. She leaves no area of political or cultural life untouched. This book is Dominique’s hand mirror: it was made she did not buy in any European market it was made at Aranmula or in some other village of Kerala to reflect the true Malayali life.

It is thanks to Shajahan Madampat and to my novel What the Sufi said that I got an opportunity to be acquainted with Dominique-Sila. If one day as suggested in my book my Sufi decides to tell through me a new tale, the of a second Beevi, I shall consider it a privilege to dedicate that story to the author of Sacred Kerala.


Foreword Conviction Of Love By K.P. Ramanunni IX
Acknowledgments XIII
Introduction: In The city of Peacock 1
1The Scent of Pepper 7
Walking Through Mattancherry
2The Sacred Mandalam 25
3The Prince, the Pirate and the priest56
4Arrows and snakes 79
5Brothers and Sisters 100
6The Mother of Five Billion 113
7One God OR No God….154
8Ultimate shared Spaces177
9Next year in Cochin 203
Notes 222
Bibliography 229
Sample Pages

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