One day in the year 1405, a small boy spent a humid afternoon looking out into iridescent expanse of the Arabian Sea from the doorway of a thatched hut situated beside the mouth of the Periyar River. A stiff breeze blew in from the sea cooling the sweat on his body. And then, without warning, a massive shadow appeared on the horizon.

A song was written later, and ever since, its words float past as legend, even today, adrift on the humid currents of air along the coast and in memories that live in the narrow ancient streets of Mattancherry – “As the shadow rises, a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before…, an illusion in the fauna of mirrors.”

It was a couple of weeks after Zheng He’s fleet had berthed at Kochi, that the little boy named Chinchu befriended a mender of sails on board an enormous junk. His name was Ah Ai, habituate of the opium dens along the Shanghai waterfront and who over many voyages to Mattancherry and Kozhikode, possessed a rudimentary proficiency in the vernacular languages of the people along this coast. It was perhaps the opium procured in Shanghai that sustained Ah Ai through the arduous voyage across two seas, and now, inspired the tale that Chinchu heard.

Ah Ai, his eyes like marbles in deep sunken sockets set in protruding cheek bones, seemed to stare through the chimeras that danced in the late afternoon light over the bay. A noisy fly buzzed about their heads, the tide was rising and a raucous crew drew their boat alongside the quay.

He spoke very slowly, with pauses between words.

“When you look in the mirror, are you sure that it’s you looking back at yourself boy? Or is it something else, something more sinister?” he asked.

Chinchu swallowed and gawked unabashedly, tugging at the folds of his loin cloth.
“Our reflections are not reflections at all you see? They are another species from the netherworld, whose purpose lies in pretending to be our reflections.” Ah Ai continued.
“From Patalam?” Chinchu asked.

“I know nothing about Patalam*. All that I know is that these phantoms that we see in mirrors only mimic us in order to learn our ways and eventually, when they have learnt enough, emerge through the mirrors that serve as windows into their worlds and take our places. The world of mirrors bears no similarity to ours at all. Of course, since these evil beings were pretending to be our reflections, once they emerged, neither we, nor they would continue to have reflections.”

With mounting dread Chinchu remembered that he had stared at his reflection in a polished metal mirror a couple of days ago, searching for the first signs of facial hair. He gently touched a cheek, conscious of the Chinaman’s piercing gaze.

Attempting to divert his thoughts from the looming dread, he asked in a whisper “Do these creatures eat us?”
“They take your soul, every bone, your flesh, your thoughts, memory.” Ah Ai replied, his voice like sandpaper now.
He lit a long stemmed pipe with a ball of opium wedged in its tiny bowl. He sucked long and hard and after holding the smoke in his lungs for a while, let out tiny serpent like wisps through his nose.
Ah Ai continued “When their learning is complete, these creatures emerge by the thousands and launch a full scale attack on humanity, devouring their human counterparts.”

“Is a lot blood shed? Does it pain when they eat you?” Chinchu asked.
“I have lived through one such attack, a long, long time ago when I was about your age, and yes, it was bloody, very bloody.”

Ah Ai drew on his pipe and exhaled, “It was during the time of the great emperor Huang Di that the demons were last thwarted and I was there. The emperor defeated them with alchemy. These demons were led by a great tiger assuming the form of one of the emperor’s pet tigers. The alchemists cast a spell imprisoning the demon in tiger form for ten thousand years. Fish exist in the mirror world as well, appearing to us as a flash of light that is sometimes seen in the periphery of one’s vision as we turn towards or away from a mirror. These fish serve as gatekeepers to our world. The day we stop seeing them will be the day that the fauna of mirrors will gain access to our world and once again all of mankind will be in danger.”

The muezzins in Mattancherry and on Vypin Island began to sound the call to Salat al-‘asr, the late afternoon prayer. Chinchu realized that he had to return home. A metal mirror awaited his compelling curiosity.

He bid farewell to the sail maker, promising to return the next day. As he turned towards the dirt path that led to the beach, Ah Ai said “The emperor warned that the prison he had made for the creatures would not hold forever and they would return one day to try to take our world for themselves once again. Think about it boy.”

*In Hindu mythology Patala denotes the subterranean realms of the universe – which are located under the earth, the netherworld.

In the year 1405, a small boy spent a humid afternoon looking out into iridescent expanse of the Arabian Sea from the doorway of a thatched hut situated beside the mouth of the Periyar River. A stiff breeze blew in from the sea cooling the sweat on his body, and then without warning, a massive shadow appeared on the horizon, terrifying the little fellow, who ran indoors calling out to his mother.

A writer has chronicled this event – “As the shadow rises, it breaks into a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. With relentless determination, the cloud draws ever closer, and in its fiery embrace an enormous city appears. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before… stretched across miles of the Indian Ocean in terrifying majesty is the armada of Zheng He, admiral of the imperial Ming navy.”

Zheng He’s armada had arrived for the first time on the coast of Kerala. Zheng He, eunuch, Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral of his Ming emperor’s fleet, commanded numerous expeditionary voyages to Asia and East Africa from 1405 to 1433, almost a century before Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and Vasco da Gama’s in India. Going by ancient diagrams of the dimensions of the ships in the Ming fleet, all the ships of Columbus and da Gama together would have been comfortably stored on a single deck of a treasure ship in the fleet. The largest ships in the fleet — called “baoshan,” or “treasure ships”, bore nine masts on their decks, rigged with square sails that could be adjusted in series to maximize efficiency in different wind conditions.

Zheng’s armada consisted of 317 ships armed with dozens of small cannons and bore a contingent of about 28,000 men, accompanied by hundreds of smaller ships filled with water and provisions, besides silks and brocades as gifts, accommodating more than 500 passengers, many in luxurious staterooms with balconies and enormous cargo holds carrying 2500 tons. Admiral Zheng led seven expeditions to Kozhikode between 1405 and 1433 and is believed to have passed away in there in 1433.

The Chinese fishing nets, situated at the mouth of the river, at Fort Kochi, a short distance away from Xandari Harbour, the wok, commonly used in kitchens across Kerala and the design of roofs in traditional Kerala architecture are a legacy of these expeditions that the admiral Zheng undertook. Most often, the structure of a Chinese net will consist of cantilevered arms extending to about 10 m in length with a net expectantly suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at one end of the cantilever. The rig is counter balanced so that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the water. A net is usually operated by a team of up to six fishermen. Whilst nets of a similar design are to be found throughout China and Indochina, in India, they are today found throughout the backwaters around the ancient maritime ports of Kochi and Kollam in Kerala.

The backwaters of Kuttanad are for most part of the year serene and every so often a gentle breeze will sooth the weary traveller’s brow as the tide softly laps a boat’s hull. The monsoon is a season for revival as the rivers and streams are replenished and the landscape is one gigantic green patchwork quilt resplendent with luminous silver tracery. In August, when the dark mottled grey canopy overhead begins to lighten, placid waterways transform into frenzied arenas, staging the famous snake boat races of Kerala.

Legend has it that over four hundred years ago, Devanarayana, a ruler of Chembakacherry in Kuttanad, was defeated in battle by a rival’s swifter boats. He decided to take recourse to ancient texts for guidance on how to build swifter craft and avenge his defeat. Devanarayana ordered his boat builders to design boats in accordance with specifications stated the Sthapathya Veda, an ancient treatise on boat building.

Snake boats, even today, are built of wood procured from the ‘Anjili’ tree (Artocarpus Hirsutus), a tropical evergreen species, and their dimensions usually vary from 100 to 138 feet in length. A boat’s hull is assembled from planks measuring precisely 83 feet in length and six inches in width. To reduce drag and optimize speed, the boat’s surfaces are coated with a mixture of fish oil, the ash of coconut shells, and eggs. With a tapering stern and a bow that resembles a snake’s raised hood, these boats assume their name in the vernacular ‘Chundan Vallam’ (snake boat) and are fascinating examples of indigenous boat architecture in Kerala.

The grace and speed of these boats as they slice through the waters propelled by sinew, song and rhythm, is an enthralling spectacle for most travellers that watch these races at close quarters. Participation in these races, held annually, and victories are a matter of great collective joy and pride among people in the Kuttanad area. Usually a boat is the property of a village and maintained by its carpenters. Often they are objects of veneration as well. Only men folk are allowed to touch the boat and in respect they are expected to be barefooted when they approach the boat or touch it.

Starting a race, snake boats, at times embellished with engraved graphic motifs, are manned by a team of oarsmen led by a village leader positioned at the highest point on the prow. Three principal paddlers control the direction of the boat with a 12-foot-long (3.7 m) main rudder-oar (Adanayampu). Sitting two to a row along the length of the boat, 64 oarsmen and on occasion 128 paddlers, row in unison to the rousing rhythms of a ‘boat song’(Vanchipattu) sung by 25 singers seated in a row at the middle of the boat, between the paddlers, near the boat’s stern. Each team sings its own distinctive song. Nearer to its prow, eight cantors stand on a slightly raised platform leading the boat’s song, representing ‘Ashtadikpalakas’ (Divine Guardians of Eight Directions).
Quite possibly the largest team sport in the world, the ‘Chundan Vallamkali’ or snake boat races are of two types. One, competitive like the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and the other, a social ritual, like the Aranmula Boat Race. While the competitive races are a blend of fun, merriment and passionate competition, the latter is suffused with elaborate rituals, devotion and prayer.

Do look up this year’s schedule for snake boat races, they are undoubtedly one of Kerala’s singular attractions at this time of the year. The Nehru Trophy Boat Race is conducted on the Punnamda Lake, near Alappuzha, on the 11th August this year. A veritable sea of humanity will throng the Punnamada lakefront with an estimated 200,000 people expected to attend. Book a cruise now on board a Xandari Riverscapes luxury houseboat and we will ensure that our guests enjoy exclusive vantage points and views of a memorable spectacle.

The ‘Perumal’ had not slept well, the opium that he had been administered for abscessed teeth kept him in a somnambulant state, persistently and frequently interrupted by hallucinations. The capital of his kingdom, Kodungallur, contained a port at the mouth of the River Changala, Azhikode, that many narratives relate, was preeminent in trade with west Asia and Europe. Archaeological excavations in the area have revealed artefacts from the Rome, other records and ruins reveal that early Jewish migrants lived here, as did a community of Arabs.

The hallucinations persisted through the night – a bedraggled man trudging over a landscape in which sand dunes turned silver beneath a silver full moon and stretched into the horizon with his followers straggling along behind him. The Perumal saw battles, where men were hacked to death, heard the pathetic screams of horses as they were cut down, the wails of the wounded and dying men. And then the full moon rose above a mount in a desert, the bedraggled seer was addressing a congregation. They had all apparently endured much, there were cripples, the destitute, clutching at hope. And as the seer spoke of the future, of a vision that he had held for long, that the meek would someday inherit the earth, the pagan audience demanded that he perform a miracle. And then there was a hush, as the seer gestured at the luminous moon splitting it, fragments floating away into the night sky as a cool breeze blew in from the north.

The Perumal awoke early, with the last part of the dream still vividly etched in his memory, and he was perplexed. A man yelled incoherently somewhere in the distance. Was this dream a predictor of impending doom? He wondered.

The seasonal wind and tide had blown in from the northwest from time immemorial, bearing in its wake, itinerant merchants, horse traders, adventurers and soldiers of fortune. And these voyagers stayed in Kodungallur until the wind that had brought them here turned the tide to return them home.

It was late afternoon that day when a messenger brought a petition from an Arab whose dhow had berthed in Azhikode that morning, seeking an audience with the Perumal. Early next morning the Arab was granted an audience, his name was Malik Deenar.

He had arrived on board a boat carrying cargo to ports along the western coast and pilgrims to Adam’s Peak on the island named Serendip. Malik Deenar explained that he was on the pilgrimage on the instructions of his teacher, a revolutionary, who was currently engaged in the propagation of his faith amidst fierce opposition from the tribal chieftains and priests that ruled the numerous principalities on the Arabian Peninsula. He spoke of battles, of victories and defeats. With fervour and expression of wonder, Deenar described a sermon where he had been present beside his master. Several members of the congregation had demanded a miracle. And it was then that they were presented with an event so spectacular that it could only be divine. The prophet had, with his hands stretched out in its direction, split the full moon in two.

The Perumal immediately remembered his dream from the night before. Surely, this was divinely ordained, he thought. Eagerly, he narrated his dream and in turn wanted to know more about his prophet’s philosophy.

They spent the next few days, closeted in the Perumal’s inner chambers and Malik Deenar narrated stories from the prophet’s life, explained the crux of his teaching. And as the Perumal listened, he found a growing affinity with the tenets of a nascent faith. As the days passed, a voice within insisted on visiting this prophet. Discussions on philosophies that they had both studied went on late into the night. One night the Perumal requested Malik Deenar to take him on board on his return to Arabia. The dhow had been replenished by now for its onward journey to Serendip.

While Malik Deenar was on his pilgrimage, the Perumal devoted his attentions to setting the affairs of his kingdom. He wrote orders dividing territory among his chieftains and his decision to leave for Mecca was kept a secret until much after his departure.

The Perumal is believed to have reached Mecca, met the prophet, converted to Islam, assuming the name Tajuddin. After spending many years with the prophet, it is believed that he decided to return home with Malik Deenar who sought to propagate Islam among the resident Arabs in Kerala. On the voyage home the Perumal is believed to have fallen ill, died, and is said to be buried in Dhufar, a town beside the Red Sea in current day Oman.

Before his death, the Perumal wrote instructions to his chieftains to ensure that a welcome be accorded to Malik Deenar and assistance granted. The rulers and people of Kodungallur welcomed the party when they presented the Perumal’s messages. They were given a plot of land to build the oldest mosque in India, named in honour of its benefactor –Cheraman Jumma Masjid, established in 629 AD and Malik Deenar became its first Qazi.

The mosque was for most part designed in Kerala’s traditional Hindu architectural style and has been renovated several times subsequently, with the first being in the 11th century CE. However, the inner sanctum has been preserved. Brass oil lamps light the interior of the mosque. A pulpit fashioned from rosewood covered with the intricate carving and a block of white marble in the mosque is believed to have been brought from Makkah. Visitors will also find an old ceremonial pond beside the mosque in addition two ancient tombs that are believed to belong to Malik Deenar’s son and daughter –in law.

The mosque’s prime attraction however is an ancient oil lamp that many believe has been burning continuously ever since the mosque’s inception, for more than a thousand years. Visitors of all faiths to the mosque add oil to this lamp. Today, the mosque also houses a museum for those interested in learning more about its history. Interestingly, many non-Muslims conduct their children’s initiation ceremonies to the world of letters here.

The legend of Cheraman Perumal is a fascinating, yet unrecorded, a tale that best exemplifies Kerala’s syncretic religious history.

Kodungallur is 29 kilometres (18 mi) northwest of Kochi and 38 kilometres (24 mi) southwest of Thrissur, via National Highway 66. An hour’s drive from Xandari Harbour at Mattancherry.