A boundary etched in water

Is the Hindu-Muslim divide an unbridgeable faultline? Or is it a mere scratch in the sand that can be easily erased? Those who believe in the ‘faultline’ will have many examples of temple-breaking and forced conversion to cite that would support their argument.

But, more than a few examples exist that seem to indicate that one could very believe the ‘scratch in the sand’ argument . . . if one wishes to unite rather than divide.

Contrary to popular opinion, Islam did not come to India by the sword. It lapped up on its shores like a gentle wave. Arab traders who came to the Malabar and Konkan coasts even in pre-Islamic times continued to do so after the Arab peninsula had become Muslim. They were the first Muslims to visit India. Historians agree that this is likely to have happened in or around 625-630 AD, in Prophet Mohammad’s lifetime itself. In fact the first mosque in India, the Cheraman Juma Masjid (in Kodungalloor, Kerala) is said to have been built in 629 AD. Legend has it that the ruler, Cheraman Perumal, the then-reigning ruler of Kodungalloor converted to Islam and made the pilgrimage to Mecca and died in Oman on his way back. His companions then made the journey back and were accorded permission to build the mosque.

Cheraman Perumal Masjid in Kodungallur is the oldest mosque in the Indian Subcontinent built in 629 AD

Islam was accepted by many locals, who came to be known as Mappilas, sometimes called Moplahs. The Mappila Ramayana, which was authored centuries ago is an interesting version of the epic. This Ramayana has Surpanakha referring to the Shariat and having a friend called Fatima. In addition, Ravan is called Sultan. It is performed by story-tellers, all usually Muslim and has a comic undertone.

In Kozhikode (Calicut) also in Kerala, the Kunjali Marraicars were a Muslim community who constituted the backbone of the local raja’s naval force. The raja, known as the Samuthiri (later anglicized to Zamorin) initially welcomed the Portuguese under Vasco-da-Gama, but realizing quickly that their intentions were less-than-honourable acted swiftly against them, even imprisoning Vasco-da-Gama for a while. The Kunjalis were critical in these battles as much of it was fought on the sea. Later in a startling turnaround which is characteristic of much of India’s early skirmishes with European powers, the Samuthiri turned against the Kunjalis.

How the Kunjalis came to be Muslim is an interesting tale in itself. Even before the advent of the Portuguese, the Samuthiri had felt the need for a navy for his battles against the other rajas on the Kerala coast. But, caste injunctions prevented caste Hindus from stepping into the sea and so, a way out had to be found. Fishermen in the Samuthiri’s realm were therefore encouraged to bring up one son as a Muslim and they were pressed into service in the Muslim-run navy, under the command of Arabs.

In northern India, the Mewat region spread across Haryana, UP and Rajasthan is home to Muslims from the Meo community. A community on the cusp of Hinduism and Islam, the Meos follow a number of distinctly Hindu-sounding practices. Among others, they are particular about not marrying within their gotra. Also, Hindu genealogists maintain Meo genealogy. Often, they think nothing of taking on a Hindu name. Ram Singh and Fateh Singh are typical Meo names, sometimes with the appellation ‘Khan’. They have their own version of the Mahabharatha, which portrays them as descendants of Arjuna. It is believed among them that they converted to Islam under the influence of a Sufi saint.

The Managaniars of Rajasthan, a community of musicians from Rajasthan in India are another Indian community who have adopted an interesting mix of Hindu and Muslim practices. Though nominally Muslim, their weddings involve the usage of a coconut, conducting an aarti and pujas to idols. Historically connected to Rajput jajmans, the Manganiyars are an important part of Rajput rituals both in times of happiness and sadness and their presence is regarded as auspicious. The Manganiyars are also known for their rendition of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in a semi-classical style that is popular in many parts of Rajasthan.

Not too many outside Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are aware of the story of Bibi Nancharamma, the Muslim wife of Lord Venkateswara of Tirupati whose idol is also enshrined in the temple premises. Legend has it that she was a devotee of the lord who pleased the lord with her devotion and was thus rewarded.

A similar story is associated with the Ayyappa temple in Kerala. Ayyappa supposedly had a Muslim friend by the name Vavar, whose shrine is visited by pilgrims before the ascent to Sabarimalai.

Vavar Swamy mosque


Perhaps, the most popular manifestation of a Hindu-Muslim composite culture is what is popularly termed as the ‘Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb’ in the area that is today known as Uttar Pradesh. While it is difficult to define in exact terms what this means, on the ground, it entails an acceptance of Hindu-Muslim differences, but not allowing these differences to become an unbridgeable gap. It involves participation in each other’s festivals wholeheartedly, a certain ease with each other’s ways of life and so on. More than anything else, it manifests in the art and culture of the area. Prime examples of this would be Nazeer Akbarabadi’s verses on Holi and Diwali, Ustad Bismillah Khan’s position of importance in the Kashi Vishwanath temple and many other such examples of inter-faith linkage that have managed to survive inspite of relentless communalization.


While the existence of religious differences is undeniable, the onus is on people to choose how they wish to view these differences. In times like these, an expansive view that chooses to focus on the many instances of togetherness might perhaps be a good idea. .


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Karthik Venkatesh Written by:

A few words about myself. I am originally from Bangalore, but circumstances took me to Punjab where I lived and worked for more than a decade. This resulted in a keen interest in things Punjabi – history, literature, culture and politics. I have written on aspects of Punjabi history and translated Punjabi poetry. I'm now back in Bangalore and work as an editor with a publishing firm.

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