The sanctuary of supplication | Daily News
Ketchimalai Mosque:

The sanctuary of supplication

Today Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr after a month of fasting. To thousands of Muslims in Sri Lanka the word ‘Ketchimalai’ is spoken with pious veneration. History shows the early Muslim traders of Arab origin had landed on the shores of Beruwela. Gradually these traders engaged in business and assimilated into the local community, living in peace. During that ancient 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 Ketchimalai has stood for almost 800 years, rising majestically in the backdrop of the ocean. It is a cultural icon of Beruwela.

We drove to Beruwela from Colombo. We passed the main town and made our way towards the area of Maradana (a zone with a similar name exists in Colombo 10). The white façade of the elevated mosque was visible from a distance, accentuated by the sunlight. The waves bounced on the shore with consistent rhythm. An aura of serenity engulfed this ancient mosque. Making our way along the winding road, starting from ground level we reached the mosque. The building though not very large, displayed a captivating charm resonating with centuries of Islamic history. Prayer (Salah) is one of the five pillars of Islam. The others are Shahada (profession of faith), Zakat (almsgiving), Sawm (fasting) and Hajj (pilgrimage).

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, working alongside his two cousins - Nafeel and Hafeefdeen. The trio proudly represents the eighth generation of custodians from the lineage of Abdul Cader Yoosuf, one of the early caretakers of this sacred sanctuary.

After exchanging cordial greetings Hidayathulla asked us to sit down and explained, “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 .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 the fact that the hill was on a high vantage point it was referred to as “Utchchamalai”, which in Tamil, which translates to “high hill”. With time, somehow it became “Ketchimalai”. 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, he had encountered a vision where the old Sheik Awliya Waliullah (who was buried on this hill) had gently impressed upon him to build a mosque on Ketchimalai”.

It was this encounter which inspired the building of a small mosque, which was gradually expanded over the years. At this stage, Nafeel joined 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 agitated horse raced towards the Ketchimalai 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 whenever he passed by Beruwela. It is believed that he officially handed over this crown land to the mosque. Abdul Cader Yoosuf, our ancestor was the caretaker at this time. This incident regarding the British Governor enriched the fame of this mosque.”

Hafeefdeen invited us to walk inside. We washed our feet at the marble pool near the main door and entered the mosque. This is where people engage in Salah (prayers) - the obligatory prayer recited five times a day. Purification of the heart is said to be the ultimate purpose of Salah. In Islam there are pre- conditions that need to be present for a dua to be accepted. They are sincerity, patience, purity, good intentions, an attentive heart, sustenance and non-interference. The five prayer times are Fajr (observed at dawn), Zuhr (at noon), Asr (late afternoon), Maghrib (at dusk) and Isha (after sunset).

The roof was decorated in white and yellow squares, and the floor adorned with red carpets. A very old chandelier silently dominated 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 Quran, some as old as 500 years. These have been preserved carefully. There is a separate prayer room for ladies. We walked outside, to the side balcony from which elevation the view of the sea is amazing. We observed the boats from the Beruwela Fishing Harbour visible in the distance.

Nafeel further added, “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.”

The local devotees say this mosque was built 700 years ago. It can accommodate 300 people at prayer time, and has withstood the many vicissitudes and victories of life. A few men were praying inside, their sonorous voices audible amidst the blowing wind. As we prepare to leave, the three custodians clasped my hands in a sincere grip of brotherhood. The cousins Hidayathulla, Nafeel and Hafeefdeen, have faithfully guarded the Ketchimalai mosque for almost 40 years and their enthusiasm has not diminished. This ancient edifice attracts visitors of all religions.

Prophet Muhammad is believed to have said, “Dua is the very essence of worship.” It is a prayer of sincere supplication. During this month of Ramadan it would be prudent for all Sri Lankans to embrace our multi-religious cultural diversity. Our diversity is our national strength. We need each other to overcome this present Covid pandemic. May we all aspire to live together in our beautiful motherland, as we have done for centuries.