Dr.Nanditha Krishna

Kilakarai (“the shore down under”) is a remote and lazy little town in Ramanathapuram district, not far from the district headquarters of the same name. It was once a flourishing sea port and a gateway to South India for Arab traders in search of the famed pearls of Madurai and corals of the Gulf Mannar. They traded with Sri Lanka, dealing in pearls, gems and conches. Even today, the descendants of the Yemeni traders live in Ramanathapuram district and Sri Lanka, and do business between India and the island.

Kilakarai is surrounded by small islands or theevu – Appa theevu, Nallathanni theevu, Shuli theevu, Upputhanni theevu, Thalari theevu, Musal theevu, and of course, the famous Kachcha theevu – and lovely little bays that could be a swimmer’s paradise. It was visited by the Arab traveller Ibn Batuta in 1368-69 CE who called it “Lebbat Pattan” (“town of Muslims”: Labbai means Tamil Muslim and pattan is a corruption of patnam or pattinam meaning town.) He noted that “it is the place where most Arab settlers live” and he was surprised to see them living “as in Arab land”.


It was by chance that I remembered Kilakarai.I was on my way to Rameshwaram when I remembered my father telling me, aeons ago, about Tamil Arabs and a mosque which looked like a temple at Kilakarai. Tamil Arabs and a mosque- temple? I had to see this.

I reached Kilakarai on a hot sunny afternoon. Everyone knew the Palaiya Jumma Masjid or pallivaasal (mosque), so it was not difficult to find. There were lots of Tamil Muslims, who form nearly 80% of the local population, around: men wearing white veshtis, shirts and black topis and women in saris, with a white cloth thrown over their head. They were the Muslims of my youth, before the ugly black burkha made its appearance. A warm Abdul Khader Bhai, the caretaker, was very welcoming and a font of information. The Muslims of Kilakarai look like Tamils and speak Tamil, so communication was no problem.

The Old Jumma Masjid (also called Meen Kada Palli) was constructed by Yemeni merchants and traders of the pre-Islamic period who had settled in the kingdom of the Pandyas of Madurai. The story goes that Badhan ibn Sasan, Persian Governor of Yemen during the reign of Khoshrau II, was ordered by his ruler to send men to Madina in 625 CE to bring the future Prophet Mohammed
to Khosrau II. Badhan sent two men for this task who demanded that Mohammed should come with them. Muhammad refused, and prophesied that Khoshrau II had been overthrown and murdered by his son Kavadh II. The two men returned to Badhan with this information. When it proved to be true, Badhan converted to Islam and sent a message to Muhammad, informing him of his conversion, after which Mohammad allowed Badhan to continue ruling over Yemen. The two men, and Persians and Arabs living in Yemen and outside Yemen were ordered by Badhan to convert to Islam, which they did in 628. This included the Arab traders from Yemen who had settled in Kilakarai.

There were two foreigners with me and their first reaction on seeing the mosque was
an Oh! No! Not another Qutb Minar, where a temple was defaced and converted into a mosque. On closer view, we realized that the carvings were integral to the mosque, and there begins the story.

Chola mosques resemble Chola temples – a small chamber replaces the garba griha, with a pillared mandapa and beautifully carved pillars in front. Only images of gods, people and animals are missing, for these are taboo in Islam. The Kilakarai mosque has all these features, although, as a woman, I was not permitted to enter. I stood on my toes and peeped from outside, while my driver walked in and gave me a running commentary about what he could see. In the 11th century, the mosque was rebuilt, and again in the 17th century by a workforce and materials provided by the erstwhile ruler of Ramnad and some by the Kilakarai merchants. However, the mosque still looks like a stone temple both outside and inside, without images carved on the pillars or walls. The lone carving on the wall, like all mosques, identifies the direction of prayer, which is the only indication that it is a mosque.

This exquisite pallivasal resembles a Dravida-style temple. The beams are beautifully carved, while a bend in the wall indicates
the direction of prayer. This beautiful building is one of the best examples of Islamic Dravidian architecture of ancient India. 

Which is the oldest mosque in India? The Palaiya Jumma Masjid beats the Cheraman Jumma Masjid in Kodungallur, Thrissur district, Kerala, by one year.
It was built in 628 CE, while the Kodungallur mosque was built in 629 CE by Malik lbn Dinar. Bazan Ibn Sasan, Tamim Ibn Zayd al Ansari, Ibn Batuta, Nagoor Abdul Kadir, Eravadi Ibrahim Sahib, the Sultan of Ottoman, Murad and other famous Islamic scholars have recorded their visits to the Kilakarai mosque. It is also the fourth oldest mosque in the world.

Vallal Seethakathi is buried at Kilakarai, in a modern colonial monument. He encouraged Umaru Pulavar, a Tamil Muslim, to write the Seerapuranam,
a history of Nabi (Prophet) Mohammed, in 5,027 poems in three kaandams (parts). Beside the mosque is the dargah of Sadakatullah Appa, a Muslim trader-benefactor.

I listened to a group of Muslims from Kerala singing bhajans of sorts about Sadakatullah. I asked Abdul Khader Bhai whether it was a Shia mosque and he quickly corrected to tell me that it was Sunni.

With the growth of Madras and Tuticorin harbours and the cultured pearl industry, this little port ceased to be and returned to its
pre-Arab slumber. The cultured pearl industry choked the once robust pearl trade or muthu salabam. The conch and coral industries declined too, as environmental concerns and excessive coral withdrawals restricted this activity. With the advent of surface transport, Kilakarai ceased to be a harbour and port.


               Beam of the Jumma Masjid                                                                       Carved entrance doorway


                          Jumma pallivasal  


                        Palaiya Jumma Masjid                                                                                    Kilakarai 

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