Project Summary

The self-perceived history of Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish communities on the Malabar Coast became the subject of competing and complementary origin legends that circulated in Malayalam, Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Persian, and European languages. The persistently recurring thematic core in these is the division of a once-unified kingdom called Malabar in Arabic and Hebrew, and Kerala in Malayalam. In all tellings of the legend, a Hindu king called Cēramāṉ Perumāḷ divides the kingdom and allocates territories to specified communities and local rulers, depending on the telling’s community of origin. Cēramāṉ Perumāḷ legends circulated as far as the Mediterranean, converging with European messianic imaginations on the Indian Ocean world. Our project is a first attempt to systematically analyse and historicise patterns of religious demarcation as reflected in the circulation of the origin legends and their respective textual traditions.

The project investigates a sample of seven sources with different tellings of the Cēramāṉ Perumāḷ legend in Arabic, Malayalam, and Hebrew. Four of the seven tellings have been studied separately, two are known to scholars but not studied, and one will be studied for the first time in this project. The approach to the study of these tellings is innovative in historicising the literary and linguistic features of the texts rather than their contents alone, while reading them in conversation with each other. What patterns of inter- and intra-communal relations are underpinned by this intertextual conversation? How do linguistic and literary data account for broader concerns of religious demarcation, be it inclusive or exclusive, cohesive or divisive, within communities and political entities and between them? Addressing these questions has far-reaching implications for our knowledge on so-called ‘religious identities’, challenging the notion of religions as stable entities. Textual traditions such as the one under investigation rather underscore the multiplicity and fluidity in the ways communities perceive themselves and interact.

Map with coloured section denoting the area of study.
Map with coloured section denoting the area of study. Press to open larger version. Base map by Stamen Design, CC BY 3.0