Kerala Tourism’s Muziris Heritage Project has digitised over one lakh rare documents related to Kerala Muslims; the archive offers insights into their theological, cultural, and everyday lives

The Muslims of Kerala, known as ‘Mappila,’ have cultivated a unique identity while seamlessly blending into the mainstream society. Their substantial contributions span across diverse creative fields, which have long been a focus of academic study. Today, these contributions have garnered increased attention, emerging as a popular topic among scholars. The Muziris Heritage Project (MHP), Kerala Tourism’s project for preserving India’s ancient trade port, has digitized over one lakh documents related to the history of Islam in Kerala, illuminating the incredible historical and cultural life of Kerala Muslims, not only in theological aspect but also in everyday lives and experiences of the community.

The Cheraman Perumal Islamic Heritage Museum’s digital archives offer a treasure trove of over one lakh documents, visuals, songs, and audio recordings that illuminate the history, religious knowledge, literature, customs, arts, and cuisine of Kerala’s Muslims. This vast repository is housed at the Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungallur, India’s first mosque. Written in Arabic, Arabi-Malayalam, Persian, and Malayalam, the documents primarily address the history of Kerala Muslims, maritime trade, literature, music, religious knowledge, Sufi traditions, medical practices, technologies, the Malabar rebellion, and migration. Most of the audio recordings are of Mappila songs. The collection also includes rare photographs of early Gulf migrants.

A first-of-its-kind collection in Kerala

Journals in Arabic and Arabi-Malayalam, published from Malappuram to Muslim art forms and medicinal practices are part of the museum collection. Duffmuttu is a group performance popular among the Muslims of Malabar, often staged as a social event during festivals and nuptial ceremonies. In this captivating display, the artistes beat on a shallow round percussion instrument called the Duff. The leader of the group sings the lead, while the others form a chorus and move in circles. The songs performed are often tributes to martyrs, heroes, and saints. ‘Duffmuttu,’ in its original form performed by artistes led by Ustad Koya Kappad, is one of the highlights of the art collection. This art form is believed to have been practised by the people in Madina even before the time of Prophet Mohammed. It was introduced to Kerala through the Lakshadweep islands.

Journals in Arabic and Arabi-Malayalam, published from Malappuram, to Muslim art forms and medicinal practices are part of the museum collection. Photo: Screen grab from the digital archive

“In recent years, the sources for writing the history of southern India have evolved. Trade documents and the lives of the trading community are now being prioritised over colonial and monarchical sources. Additionally, the documents and life histories of ordinary people have begun to be recognised as valuable historical sources. An example of this shift is the inclusion of non-European measuring, weighing, and computing techniques in historical narratives. This represents a move from a land-based approach to history towards one that highlights ideas circulated through Indian Ocean maritime life,” observes M H Ilias, Professor and Director at the School of Gandhian Thought & Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam.

Arabian medicinal practices have a history that predates the era of Prophet Mohammad. This genre of medical writing was intended as an alternative to the exclusively Greek and Turkish-based medical systems and serves as the foundation for Islamic medicinal practices. The digital archive has documented various genres of Muslim medicinal practices that were in use in Kerala, regardless of religion. “Medicinal prescriptions in lyrical form were a common practice then. We have collected such scripts, which are a combination of Unani, Ayurveda, and the Hijama system,” adds Dr. Ilias. A notable section of the digital archive is the collection of fatwas (religious decrees). These include discussions among religious leaders and intellectuals about the approach towards music, games, and the position of Qibla. These discussions delve into whether these activities are Islamic or contrary to Islamic principles.

Al-Bushra Arabic Journal. Photo: Screen grab of the digital archive

This vast collection, which is considered the first of its kind in Kerala, includes about 85,000 documents, over 1,000 visuals, around 300 pictures, and more than 100 audio recordings. The majority of the documents in this collection were digitized from materials discovered in mosques and private collections across Kerala. Books preserved by families for generations, songs and stories passed down through oral tradition, and documents from mosque and madrasa libraries were all gathered through extensive research over a long period. Official records stored in the homes of authorities during the British period have also been retrieved.

Preserved in e-book formats

Under the supervision of an academic team consisting of M.H. Ilias, P.A. Mohammed Saeed, Ashraf Kadakkal, C. Adarsh, S. Jasimuddin, V. Vimal Kumar, and T.P. Shabna, the construction of this digital collection, which serves as a foundational resource for the study of Kerala Muslim history, was completed over a span of approximately five years. The digitisation and audio-video recording of these documents were made possible with the assistance of Mappila historian A.T. Yusufali and the cooperation of C-DIT, the state’s digital imaging institution.

Significant contributions to this collection came from the private collections of individuals and several mosques. The collection of visuals related to the cultural and religious life of the Kerala Muslim community was carried out under the supervision of the same academic team. Over four years, visuals depicting Muslim life from Kasaragod to Alappuzha were documented, including art forms, customs, life-cycle events, various types of clothing, traditions, festivals, and foods. Mosques built in different districts at different times were photographed as representations of Islamic architecture. These visuals were edited into short videos for display in the Islamic Heritage Museum and for use as academic references.

Islamic medicinal practices. Photo: Screen grab from the digital archive

Similarly, various types of Mappila songs from different periods were recorded by having people sing them, and some were copied from private collections. Calls to prayer, prayers, and various sounds related to Muslim life and beliefs were recorded from approximately 45 mosques. Thus, this project has amassed a combined cultural heritage of written documents, visuals, and audio recordings.

By preserving and showcasing the rich Islamic heritage of Kerala, the project aims to provide scholars, historians, and the general public with unparalleled access to this cultural legacy, underscoring the region’s historical significance and the enduring contributions of the Muslim community. This project was initiated in 2013 with the aim of collecting documents related to Kerala’s history, culture, and heritage and making them accessible for academic research and studies conducted by students and universities. Currently, these documents are preserved in e-book format.

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