Ketchchimalai: The ancient mosque rising above the ocean | Sunday Observer

Ketchchimalai: The ancient mosque rising above the ocean

To thousands of Muslims in the island the word Ketchchimalai is spoken with pious veneration. History shows, the early Muslim traders of Arab origin had landed on the shores of Beruwela. During that era the island was referred to as Serendib, and was a popular trading hub, the Maritime Provinces being the venues for vibrant trade. The ancient mosque on the hill of Ketchchimalai has stood for almost 800 years, rising majestically in the backdrop of the ocean.

We drove to Beruwela, and passing the main town made our way down Maradana (a zone with a similar name exists in Colombo 10). The white façade of the elevated mosque was visible from a distance.

The waves bounced on the shore with consistent rhythm. Making our way along the winding road, starting from ground level we reached the mosque. The building, though not very large, has a captivating aura. A man in his early sixties clad in shirt and white sarong came out to greet us. Hidayathulla Haji is one of the three custodians of this mosque, together with his two cousins- Nafeel and Hafeefdeen. The trio are the eighth generation of custodians from the lineage of Abdul Cader Yoosuf, one of the early caretakers.

After exchanging greetings Hidayathulla explains, “During the 12th century this part of Beruwela had attracted Muslim traders. One of the early pioneers was Sheik Sulthanul Awliya Ashraff Waliullah from Yemen, who landed here with a few princes.

He was received with hospitality by the ruling king. Today, some people mistakenly think he built this mosque. That is incorrect. Sheik Ashraff Waliullah, after engaging in business for some years, died and was buried on this hill. At that time this land had lots of trees. In that era, due to this hill being on a high vantage point it was referred to as “Utchchamalai” in Tamil, which translates to “high hill”. With time it became “Ketchchimalai”. One day, the chief priest of the Maradana Jumma Mosque had climbed this rock and was viewing the ocean.

While climbing the hill, his foot had been pierced by a sharp thorn, causing him much pain and he is said to have rested under a tree. Shortly, thereafter, he had fallen asleep, and during this time, encountered a vision where the old Sheik Awliya Waliullah (who was buried on this hill) had impressed upon him to build a mosque on Ketchchimalai”.

It was this encounter which inspired the building of a small mosque, which was expanded over the years. At this stage Nafeel joins the conversation “The mosque was built to cater to the Muslim traders living in Beruwela.

Some decades later the British Governor at that time Sir Arthur Gordon had been travelling to Galle on horseback. It was common those days to see many Englishmen riding their horses. Sir Gordon’s horse had suddenly got disturbed and began to gallop.

Some say, the Governor fell off the horse, while some opine he managed to safely dismount, but the frenzied horse raced towards the Ketchchimalai hill. Upon reaching the vicinity of the mosque the horse seemed to have calmed down and stood still. The bewildered Sir Gordon and his guards came to the mosque. This incident had deeply impacted the British Governor and he helped to enhance the mosque and used to visit it whenever he passed by Beruwela. He officially handed over this crown land to the mosque. Abdul Cader Yoosuf, our ancestor was the caretaker at this time. This incident enriched the fame of the mosque”.

Hafeefdeen invited us to walk inside, and washing our feet at the marble pool near the main door, we entered the mosque. The roof is decorated in white and yellow squares, and the floor adorned red carpets. A very old chandelier dominates the main hall.

The tomb of the late Sheik from Yemen - Sulthanul Awliya Waliullah rests in a room with stained glass windows . The walls of the room are covered in ornate green and white square tiles. Hidayathulla took us to a room where two antique book cupboards hold copies of the Holy Quran, some as old as 500 years. There is a separate prayer room for ladies, he said. We walked outside, to the side balcony from which elevation the view of the sea is amazing, and the boats in the Beruwela Fishing Harbour were visible in the distance.

Nafeel explains, “Every year in February we have a grand religious festival, the Buhari Majlis feast. The dates vary each year as we follow the lunar calendar. During this time we are very busy as we have almost 20,000 visitors from all over the country and friends from Asian countries.

The Buhari Majlis event gathers our entire community”. According to the local devotees this mosque was built 700 years ago. It can accommodate three hundred people at prayer time, and has withstood many vicissitudes and victories. A few men were praying inside, their sonorous voices audible amidst the blowing wind. As we prepare to leave the three old custodians clasp my hand simultaneously in a kind grip of brotherhood. The cousins Hidayathulla, Nafeel and Hafeefdeen, have faithfully guarded the Ketchchimalai mosque for almost forty years and their enthusiasm has not diminished. This ancient edifice attracts visitors of all religions.