By Anisha Sheth / The News Minute

The claim of Hindutva groups that Shaivite worship was carried out at the site of an 800-year-old mosque near Mangaluru, has sparked fears of unrest in the communally sensitive coastal Karnataka region. Even as the matter is in court, scholars who spoke to TNM say that questions of history cannot be answered by astrological ‘tests’ and that the mosque’s architecture is not only Dravidian in its aesthetics, but is also part of coastal Karnataka’s syncretic fabric.

On Wednesday, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal carried out a ‘tambula prashne’ ritual which involves an astrologer using betel leaves to ‘answer’ a question. The so-called question was about whether or not there was a Hindu temple at the site of the Assayed Abdullahi Madani mosque in Malali,Thenka Ulipady village, around 23 km from Mangaluru. The astrologer from Kerala who carried out the ritual, Gopalakrishna Panicker, claimed that he found traces of Shaiva worship. The ritual was conducted about a kilometre away from the mosque, at the Ramanjaneya Bhajana Mandira.

On the day of the ritual, there was heavy police presence around the mosque, and prohibitory orders were imposed. While one could easily drive up to the Bhajana Mandira, the road beyond that, which led to the mosque, was barricaded by police personnel. Although they allowed this reporter to see the mosque, there was no permission to talk to anybody. Members of the mosque committee too firmly declined to answer any questions. Police were also present at the entry of another road from a different direction which led to Malali.

Sharan Pumpwell, divisional convenor of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, told TNM that the matter came to their notice when a portion of the mosque was demolished on April 20. He claimed that the demolition revealed carvings that looked like they were “Hindu”. “On April 21, we wrote to the DC asking for work to be stopped. The next day we went to court,” Pumpwell said. “The (mosque) building has been as it was for many years. It just wasn’t visible (from outside) before,” says Mohammed Maamu, president of the mosque. “Our ancestors told us that the mosque is 800 years old. Besides that we have records that the land belongs to the Wakf Board.”

A member of the mosque committee, who requested anonymity, said that 40 years ago the mosque committee had built a larger space around the old mosque which is small, so that more people could pray. However, since the roof developed a leak, they decided to tear down that structure and build a two-storey building. “The plan was to build around the old mosque. We want to preserve it for our children. The wood work is done by hand, it is not machine-made,” the committee member said, adding that renovation work was stopped on April 21, after the Mangalore Tahsildar paid them a visit. “We stopped work on that day itself. The court order came on April 23.” he said.

A look at the pictures of the mosque shows a small building with a carved wooden facade, wooden pillars, wood carvings and a sloping tiled roof. Indeed, at first glance, several old temples, mosques and Jain basadis in the region look similar. One of the most striking buildings is the Zeenath Baksh Juma Masjid in Bunder, Mangalore. It has beautifully carved wooden pillars, platforms, and ceiling.

The Hazrat Sayyed Baba Fakruddin Juma Masjid in Polali, a few kilometres away from Malali, too has wood interiors. However, when this reporter visited the mosque on Wednesday, members of the jamaat who turned up one after another, were extremely distrustful of an outsider, despite explaining several times that I was visiting to learn about the mosque’s history and architecture. Even though they were eventually convinced that I was a journalist, they insisted that I leave. The general refrain was: “The time is not right. Please come back another time and we will talk to you.”

Ornate ceiling of a mosque

Ornate ceiling of Assayed Abdullahi Madani mosque in Malali

Muslim, Hindu, both or neither?

So how do we look at the events of the last few days?

Academics and experts on the region’s history were critical of the use of the ‘tambula prashne’, saying that it was unscientific and was aimed at making political gains. They drew attention to the caste-based nature of labour, the syncretic nature of the region, and the creation of a mixed culture when different communities co-exist.

Purushottama Bilimale, a former JNU professor who has also researched coastal Karnataka’s history, points out that older architecture is a product of a region’s climate and resources. In this case, it would be wood and bamboo because they were easily available, and a sloping tiled roof which would allow water to run off during the heavy monsoon rains.

A scholar from Dakshina Kannada district who has researched the region’s history agreed to speak for this story but declined to be named for fear of threats. He said that the designs found in the mosque are common in the region because of the caste-based nature of labour.

“Before the rigidity of caste-based occupations began to break down in the post-Independence era, only people of the artisanal castes carried out wood carving, stone work, or were goldsmiths and blacksmiths. When the same group of people do the work, there could be similarities, which may be why the wood carvings in the region are similar,” he said.

However, on the claim of the Hindutva groups that the carving was “Hindu”, Prof Bilimale said that pinpointing whether something is “Hindu” or “Muslim” in terms of architecture and design is tricky.

He said that a gopura, called shikhara in Sanskrit, is a distinctly “Hindu” structure found in temples. “But the elephant stables at Hampi (built around the 15th century) have gumbaz (domes) as well as a gopura, and the Lotus Mahal has arches and domes. There were no domes or arches in India before the Mughal period. But the architecture of the Vijayanagar empire is called ‘Hindu’… When you live together for so long Hindu and Muslim architecture came together to form a new aesthetic. So in the palli  as we call mosques in the region – the wood (carving and pillars) is part of the Dravidian architectural style.”

He said throughout history the religious landscape in any place has changed due to migration, the arrival of more powerful people, and other factors. Dakshina Kannada too has had such a trajectory. The region had a strong presence of Jainism and Buddhism in the past while people such as Shankaracharya permanently altered the religious character of its inhabitants, he said.

Giving an example, he said that in 1983, when he was doing research for his PhD on the migration of Gowdas (Vokkaligas) from Hassan district to Sullia (in Dakshina Kannada), he happened to be curious about why the name Purushottam is far more common in Sullia than anywhere else. That search led him to a Purusha Bhoota Daivasthana in a village called Kandarappady in Sullia.

From the Daivasthana officials he learned that it was built over something else. “They didn’t know what it was, and I asked them if they were willing to let me dig it up and find out. I told them that whatever was found, would be given to a museum. They talked it over and gave me permission provided I made an offering to the deity. I offered Rs 100 to the deity, and so, with the permission of the deity and the villagers, we dug. We found many Jain relics, some Naga idols, and other things that weighed around 20kg. All those relics are in the Department of Kannada at Mangalore University.”

He explained that when the Gowdas migrated to Sullia from Hassan, there were hardly any people living there. The Gowdas had destroyed Jain temples, and set up their own. “From their migration came are-baashe (literally meaning half language), a new language that is a mix of Kannada and Tulu. Are you now going to ask them to go back to Hassan because they destroyed Jain temples?”

Concern among Muslims

Irshad* (name changed), a resident of Malali, flatly declined to comment on the current problem. “The mosque committee will hold a press conference in two days. Until then, I don’t want to comment,” he said.

However, he freely answered questions on social relations in the village provided his name be withheld. “We live together here. When they have any function we go, when we have something, they come, whether it is family events, village events, or a Yakshagana performance,” Irshad says.

He also said that Syed Abdullahi Madani’s dargah which is attached to the mosque is popular and a three-day uroos is held once in three years.

“Everybody comes. There are shops selling toys, juice, etc. It’s like a market. Hindus and Muslims alike light incense sticks if they wish, some people offer harake (promise to offer something if their wish is granted). Many people give donations and we give them receipts. A souharda sammelana (harmony meeting) is also organised during this time and people come and express their views. Even the MLAs and MPs come.”

He said that in the past few days the villagers and the police had been supportive. “Nobody even knew of our village until this happened. Did you know about this village? In all these years there has been no trouble between Hindus and Muslims in our village, or in the whole panchayat, and we want things to stay that way. That is what we teach our children. We will not let anything (untoward) happen here. Nothing (untoward) should happen,” Irshad says.

View of a stair inside Assayed Abdullahi Madani mosque in Malali

Open challenge

The Federation of Indian Rationalists Association in the meanwhile, has issued an open challenge to all people who claim to predict the future or ascertain the past through various forms of astrology. Its president Narendra Nayak has issued a media release, inviting people to determine the contents of six envelopes. He told TNM that he has designed the challenge as a double-blind experiment, in which he does not know which envelope contains what, and that the contents of the envelopes will be revealed during a press conference on June 1, and that the media will be invited to open the envelopes and declare the winner.

“He (Panicker) could have made his predictions based on the pictures, or he could have visited the site. What we are trying to show is that these people are just throwing stones in the dark,” Nayak said.

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