A different image

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

Small-scale fishing is the main economic activity on the coast. Each morning Muslim fishermen visit the local teashop run by their Hindu neighbour, to chat and exchange stories after a hard night's work. -

Small-scale fishing is the main economic activity on the coast. Each morning Muslim fishermen visit the local teashop run by their Hindu neighbour, to chat and exchange stories after a hard night's work. -

In Kerala, with its time-tested traditions of religious harmony and peaceful co-existence, Islam is not seen as the `difficult one'; it is just another belief system.

KERALA'S Department of Tourism has coined a slogan: "God's own country". This emblem embraces not only the beauty of Kerala's abundant natural endowment, but its rich and varied cultural and religious traditions. Harmony between seemingly divergent religious groups appears to be the norm in `God's own country'. Conflicts between different villages, communities and religions are not common, even though tensions do rise from time to time. However, most of these conflicts are based on resource allocation and land distribution, as the recent Adivasi protests on the issue of land reveal. Very few serious conflicts occur owing to religious differences.

A characteristic of modern-day Kerala is the seeming cultural paradox of change and stability, which has resulted in a high degree of communal harmony. And, ironically, this is the world's first State to elect democratically a Communist government (in 1957). The secular communists never dared to intrude upon religious space; indeed, they added to the harmony by ensuring a high literacy rate. Land reform, modern health services, and secular education are part of the ongoing legacy of Kerala's tryst with communism.

Islam, one of the religious traditions prevalent in modern Kerala, is currently in the midst of a worldwide `public relations' crisis. Many people, especially in the self-proclaimed developed nations, view Islam as the source of radical and often violent fundamentalism, terrorism, intolerance and anti-modernism. This view is backed by a near-constant media blitz, citing fresh instances of so-called Islamic stubbornness and intractability. The West has been effectively vilifying Islam for several decades. It is now firmly associated in the minds of most non-Muslim people with intractability and cultural fanaticism. The 21st century of the Christian calendar seems to be increasingly aligned attitudinally with the days of the European Crusaders of about a millennium ago. The so-called `clash of civilisations' is supposedly manifesting itself in full strength in many parts of the globe.

In Kerala, things are quite different. There are few signs of this "cultural chasm" that is so apparent in other regions and countries. Hindus, Muslims and Christians appear to live in harmony with each other as communities. Not only is there very little inter-religious rivalry, the different communities even share for their respective religious festivals paraphernalia such as decorated umbrellas, musicians and even elephants. The local Hindu temple priest would suspend his prayer sessions to allow the muezzin at the mosque to be heard, before resuming his amplified chants. All this is accomplished without word or gesture. It is simple common sense here. Why fight if you can cooperate?

In Kerala, Islam is not the `enemy', it is not even the `difficult one'; it is just another belief system, a different faith, and nothing special. Hindu, Muslim and Christian children and young people easily make friends with each other. They attend school together, play games with each other, and later do business together. Intermarriage is not unknown. Each morning, Muslim fishermen visit the local teashop run by their Hindu neighbour, to chat and exchange stories after a hard night's work. Christian fishermen are not excluded.

Mosques rise majestically amid lush coconut palms, often perched atop red-and-pink cliffs overlooking the blue waters of the Arabian Sea; facing Mecca. Some mosques are pure white, while others with their pastel shades of pink and blue, contrast with the more traditional Islamic green. All have a mystique, surrounded by lush tropical beauty, unimagined even in the great deserts of Prophet Muhammad's Arabia.

Historically, Islam has flourished in Kerala for a long time. The first mosque that was built outside Arabia, a mere 50 years after the Prophet's death, was in Ponnani, in Mallapuram district. Judaism and Christianity also made an early debut in Kerala. The Jews arrived as traders at the Roman port in what is now Kodungalloor (formerly Cranganore), where a cohort or two of Roman legions were stationed to regulate the export of spices, and other goods that were popular in Rome. It is widely believed that St. Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ, arrived in Kodungalloor in 52 A.D. to convert Jews. The first church was constructed in about 60 A.D. Thus in the tropical south, monotheistic occidental religions met with their oriental polytheistic counterparts through trade, not conquest. Unlike in northern India and other places, slaughter, coercion, and forced conversions were not the order of the day in ancient Kerala.

The Mughals came and went in the north, without influencing greatly Kerala's tradition of religious tolerance. The European influx, including the British sojourn, also washed over this hot, humid coast without leaving too many traces. Interestingly, violent elements entered with the arrival of the Portuguese explorers around 1498 when the pious Catholics encountered hordes of Christians who had never heard of the Pope in Rome. The tussle to convert began, and today's substantial Roman Catholic population is the result. The Roman Catholics also live in relative harmony with the followers of the older Syrian and orthodox Churches.

In Kerala, Hinduism has been transformed by, and has transformed, older animistic religions that were common in ancient forest-dwelling communities. Hinduism in Kerala has a long history. The Sree Janardhana Swamy temple, just inland from the sacred beach of Papanasam in Varkala near the capital Thiruvananthapuram, was first constructed some 2,000 years ago and has had many additions since, including a major reconstruction by a King of Travancore. In the temple grounds, an old banyan tree contains within its trunk images of ancient animistic snake deities. Buddhism and Jainism were, for a long period of time, the major religions in the south. Around 700 A.D., Adisankara, a Namboodiri, as the Vedic Brahmins of Kerala are called, changed all that and Hinduism reinstated itself over much of the subcontinent.

As other religions evolved tolerance, so did the early Muslims. Dr. Babu Paul, an authority on Kerala's religious history, based in Thiruvananthapuram, maintains that the State's churches, mosques, and temples once looked similar. Evidence of this can be seen in the old mosques and churches of Chengannur. Indeed, the Cheraman mosque, near Kodungalloor, resembles a Hindu or Buddhist temple internally, even though the outer facade looks more Islamic. Dr. Babu Paul suggests that the differentiation between the various houses of worship began only with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century.

The images of Islam presented here are on the coast north and south of the Papanasam beach. The main economic activity on the coast is small-scale fishing, mostly using traditional methods, with the odd outboard motor thrown in. Fisher folks are not often materially rich, but they are not mired in poverty either. They lead a traditional life, which sometimes requires heavy physical labour. At the majestic Chilakoor mosque, we met a burly fisherman past 70, who demonstrated his prowess by hauling us off our feet. Nearby, Shah Jehan, an Imam who conveys deep spirituality with his intense eyes and friendly manner, grins at our embarrassment. Photographing the Imam is no problem. All around, friendly villagers greet us. Women do not hide their faces or cover their heads. They too are happy to be photographed. On the beach, fishermen explain their methods, show us their catch and encourage us to help haul their heavy nets. Nowhere is there any sign of resentment or alienation.

As we walk along the coast through villages under palm trees, children race up to us. Then begins the invariable demands for "one pen" (they all want `Western' pens), "one rupee" (to buy sweets), or, "one chocolate". The enquiry turns to: "What is your name?" After struggling with our strange-sounding names, we hear proud replies: Al Saad, Faisal, Nasreen. A while later the names change, and equally proudly too: Joshua, Mary, Thomas. We have drifted into a Christian village, yet there is no outward sign, no barriers, or different style of dress. There are no `hard lines' of division between communities of different religions.

Nearby, at the Durga temple in Kurakkanni, where the children are variously called Vishnu, Rajeshwari or Divya, a festival is in progress. The temple is spruced up, garlanded with flowers, and a Kathakali stage has been erected. There would be music, drama, fireworks and dancing, for three days and nights. The elephants are coming to bless the temple and some local houses. These great and majestic animals are suitably garlanded with flowers and serenaded by musicians, tribal dancers, and costumed attendants. Durga is there, and Hanuman, the monkey god, too. Each house is blessed for the year to drive out the bad experiences and/or spirits. The house-owners pay a fee and ritually feed each elephant that pauses in front of their houses. Relatives gather for the celebration, and food is shared. Only the elephants seem sad. Chained and shackled, they wait restlessly to move on to the next sacred duty.

For many tourists, `God's own country' appears to be some sort of utopia or unaffected paradise, yet this is a simplistic notion. There are many problems, which include: increasing environmental pollution and degradation, high unemployment rates among the youth, burgeoning population, poor income distribution, and increasing political disharmony.

Value systems are changing as modernism takes root, especially in the towns and cities. The debate over globalisation and its potential for social disruption is rigorous. Tourism is bringing with it many negative influences, such as alcohol abuse, increased drug usage, the inevitable scramble for the mighty dollar, and rapid localised price increases. As if to spite these problems, Kerala remains a relatively peaceful place. People enjoy a greater degree of freedom from inter-communal and inter-religious conflicts than those in most other parts of the world. Even in urban areas, conflict between religious groups is rare.

There are many reasons why inter-religious harmony exists in Kerala - and why Islam reveals a different, open and perhaps more gentle face. One is the historical element; the second is that religious conversion in Kerala was initially a response to trade and positive intercultural relations, rather than a result of conquest. The third may well be the place itself, the natural environment, which helps to induce tranquillity and peace.

A long time ago, most of the biogeographical region now known as Kerala was dense rainforest. Some remnants of it remain preserved in the Western Ghats, but in general the coastal regions are almost devoid of their original vegetation, though here and there a lonely rainforest tree still stands tall. For the most part, the vegetation cover appears to be dominated by coconut palms. On closer inspection it becomes obvious that there is more diversity; there are mango trees, custard apple trees, jack fruit trees, bread fruit trees, betel nut palms and papaya trees, to name a few. The people live under their own `forests', with coconut palms arching over the houses and providing relief from the tropical sun, and myriads of flowering bushes gracing the courtyards. This beautiful and essentially utilitarian canopy seems to soften the hardships of everyday life. The trees, flowers and gentle green fields speak of peace and tranquillity.

Kerala is one of the few places in the world where people choose to live under a full canopy of trees. There is a great rhythm in nature's presence, which seems to regulate and coordinate human activity. The frantic rush of modernity is slowed; the need for competition and intolerance diminishes. Even as the glare of the tropical sun is moderated by soft green foliage, so too are the communal frictions. The people, their land, and the plants and animals appear to cooperate. The overall impact is one of gentle beauty, friendly people, and a sense of peace among the people, who have not known war for many generations. There simply is no need for that kind of conflict.

Perhaps Kerala's long-term experiment with inter-religious harmony and tolerance could become a model for international relations. The world seems to be in dire need of ambassadors of peace. Here, as the evening call to prayer floats hauntingly through the fruit forest to herald the end of another day, it is possible to sense just for a moment that at least here, in this small corner, all is well with the world.

Peter Raine is a New Zealander by birth, and was awarded a Ph.D. in intercultural studies from Massey University, New Zealand. He has published several scholarly articles, chapters and, more recently, a book on various aspects of intercultural dialogue. He is a self-employed writer and researcher, and currently resides in India.

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