Sacred Unity— Religious Harmony in Old Kerala Architecture

Keerthana Satheesh


This is an image of a place of worship. Take a guess at what it is— a temple, a church or a mosque.

At first sight, this might look like a temple, however this is in fact, a mosque. This is an image of Mishkal Palli, a mosque in Calicut, Kerala. The Mosque is built entirely in timber with its verandah and towering gable standing in stark contrast to the typical Indo-Islamic style stone architecture with minarets and domes. It almost shocks you at first to learn that this is actually a mosque. Throughout Kerala you will find several such imagery of Churches and Mosques moving away from their European and Indo-Islamic origins and adopting a local and indigenous touch.

On the left is the Tali Shiva Temple and on the right is the Kalloopara Church. If not for the lamp and the cross, both buildings would be almost indistinguishable

The local climate of Kerala with its torrential rains has largely dictated its architectural choices. Rain in Kerala requires a sloping roof. This combined with the concerns of ventilation and abundantly available timber wood gave rise to such an architectural style— making homes, temples, mosques and churches look nearly indistinguishable.

Temple or mosque? It’s actually a house! These are the traditional Nalukettu Houses.

Therefore, as one author puts it, these style choices that seem to stand as a testimony of religious harmony in the state were not built to be “daring or enigmatic”. The choice of such a style was more functional and appropriate. The traditional carpenters of Kerala were experts in woodworking and under Muslim religious heads, these craftsmen constructed the Mosques.

There is however an increasing trend of reconstruction across Kerala that seeks to replace the traditional architecture of the old mosques with a more Indo-Islamic style. Newly constructed mosques also emphasize grandeur. The heritage of these indigenous Mosques are surely facing challenges in present times but perhaps they are a reflection of the demands of a changing population that seeks its representation through more purist forms of architecture with an attempt to “return back to the roots.”

The Cheraman mosque, said to be the oldest mosque in India, claimed to be built in 643 CE. The earlier structure on the left and the Mosque after renovation in 1984 on the right. 

The old Kerala Churches on the other hand, are almost already gone. There is a story that when Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese sailor came to Kerala, he entered a temple thinking it was a church. You might have too. There is enough evidence in history and in writings of various travelers to confirm that indigenous churches in Kerala, before the coming of the Portuguese, looked very much like temples or houses. However today, there is almost a total absence of such indigenous churches. With the coming of the Portuguese, there was an effort to reconstruct these indigenous churches to make it more European in style. It is recorded that churches in pre-Vasco da Gama times were devoid of any imagery and statues inside and that they resemble the “pagodas of the Hindu”, the term ‘pagoda’ being used to describe the traditional multi-tiered, pitched roofs of Kerala’s temples.

“To the viewer, the only difference between a temple and a Christian church (before the Portuguese period) could be only the cross in front. The form, shape and elements of a church were the same as that of a temple. This setup changed only after the arrival of the Portuguese”
—Joseph Nedumkunnam (1968) History of the March. Kerala History Association. (Couldn’t find original doc, cited by S. Edward)

The arrival of Muslims and Christians in Kerala occurred primarily through maritime trade and peaceful interactions, which contrasts with the situation in North India where Islam and Christianity arrived through political conquests. This historical context has been attributed to the religious harmony seen in Kerala. It has allowed for the development of these religions with peaceful coexistence.

Religious harmony is something Kerala boasts of. The harvest festival Onam, is celebrated by all religions without discrimination. Pilgrims who go to the famous Sabarimala temple to visit Lord Ayyappa, also stop by at Vavar Palli, a mosque said to be built in the honour of Ayyappa’s muslim friend Vavarswami. You will not find a home in Kerala that doesn’t put up a Christmas star on 25th December or have Biriyani during Ramadan or burst firecrackers on Vishu. Malayalis just need a reason to celebrate. The old Kerala architecture towers proudly in timber as an example of this harmony. However this peace among different beliefs is nothing to be taken for granted. Kerala has seen communal violence in the past and those memories stand as a reminder of the fragility of this harmony, and the importance of safeguarding it. Peace requires work and is not handed out on a silver platter.


A Prelude to the Study of Indigenous, Pre-European, Church Architecture of Kerala by Sunil Edward.

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