The OTT release of the film ‘Malik’ has ignited a polemic discussion on political correctness in Kerala. It all originated from the close resemblance of its main milieu, the pink Ramadapalli (Ramada Mosque), to Beemapally (Beema Mosque) situated on the shores of the Arabian Sea, around 8 km away from the Secretariat here. Interestingly, Beemapally, one of the major pilgrim centres in South India, has a more fascinating story as it was built by a self-taught Hindu architect, Govindan Gopalakrishnan, who has 110 more mosques to his credit.
Gopalakrishnan’s tryst with mosques and minarets is six decades old. It started when he assisted his father K Govindan, a contractor while constructing a mosque at Palayam junction, which was supervised by TP Kuttiamu, Kerala’s first chief engineer. It was designed by the then chief architect JC Alexander, inspired by the Safdarjung Mosque in Delhi. The junction, barely one kilometre from his residence in Thiruvananthapuram, is symbolic of the state’s communal harmony as a temple and a church are situated next to the mosque.
“When the mosque committee decided to rebuild the mosque at Palayam, my father got the tender as he quoted the lowest amount. However, we had to spend money from our own pockets as the contractor did not get an advance amount. In those days, a mason would get just Rs 4 as his daily wage," said 85-year-old Gopalakrishnan, while recalling the days which shaped his career.
“I was once constructing a house for PP Chummar, an official at the AG’s office in 1962, and was paid a sum of Rs 5,000 for my work. My father, who was worried about money to construct the mosque, asked me to join him after he saw the cheque. But I was in no mood to oblige him as it was not fair. We had an altercation on the same. Then my mother Kamalakshy intervened and told me to request Chummar for financial assistance. Chummar was delighted to support us. Thus, the Palayam mosque construction by Hindu architects, funded by a Christian, started. The design of the mosque with a dome and minarets was a novel idea in the region. It was inaugurated in 1967 by the then Indian President Zakir Hussain," said Gopalakrishnan.
In the same year, Gopalakrishnan received another major project. The Beemapally mosque committee approached him for the reconstruction of the Beemapally Dargah Shareef. Beemapally houses the tomb of Syedunnisa Beema Beevi, a woman believed to have divine powers and her son Syedu Shuhada Maheen Abubacker.
“I was just 31. I completed the drawing in one week. The first one was rejected by the Imam. However, I took help from one Raheem, who was working with PWD. Then they were happy with the design and I got the contract. M Muhammad Ismail, a politician and social worker from Tamil Nadu, popularly known as ‘Quaid-e-Millat’ laid the foundation stone. I learned the basics of Indo-Saracenic architecture from Percy Brown’s Indian Architecture (Islamic Period). The area of the Dargha Shereef and the Juma Masjid combined was more than 20,000 square feet and the budget was higher. A chunk of the money for the construction came from a donation pot in the mosque. It took a 17 long years to complete the work. I devoted my youth to that project,” he said.
Another major mosque that he reconstructed was Ninar mosque or Vavaru Palli at Erumely, named after the Muslim companion of Ayyappa, presiding deity at Sabarimala temple. It is a tradition for Ayyappa’s devotees to pay obeisance at the mosque, before heading to the temple, 40 km away. There is a roofed verandah for the pilgrims, majorly Hindus, to circle the mosque without disturbing the Namaz.
From Thiruvananthapuram to Malappuram district and from Kanyakumari to Dindigul in Tamil Nadu, Gopalakrishnan has designed 111 mosques, four churches and a temple.
His wish to construct a church was granted when he was asked to design the St George Orthodox Church at Chandanapally in Pathanamthitta district. Later he designed three more churches. The only temple to his credit is the chariot-shaped Alumkandam Bhadrakali temple near his house.
His tryst with architecture began quite early as a school-going child, copying the blueprints of buildings left behind by his father on tracing paper. “On the weekends, I used to visit my father’s work sites to see how those lines appeared in real. I learned the basics of building drawing from L A Saldanha, an Anglo-Indian draftsman who used to work with my father," he said.
Gopalakrishnan is married to Jaya, a Christian, and the couple has three sons. In 2002, he started ‘Manava Maithri,’ a social organisation to promote tolerance and fraternal relationships among various communities.
Currently, he has completed the first part of his book ‘Njan Kanda Quran’ (The Quran In My View), based on his understanding of the Quran over the years.
“When I completed a building for Ansari Charitable Trust in Thrissur, they gifted me the holy Quran. It had an English translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali and it really helped me to understand the text. Hence I could translate some of the verses into Malayalam. When I suggested that some of the Arabic verses in front of mosques should be written in Malayalam too, a few opposed it. My idea was that more people should know about the beautiful teachings. Later, the same people, after understanding my intentions, came to praise me for my endeavour. My attempt is to reduce the gap among communities as conflicts over religion are unwanted," he said.