Understanding our roots
நமது வேர்களை தெரிந்து கொள்வோம் – டாக்டர் ராஜா முஹம்மது
HISTORY BUFFDr. J. Raja Mohamed has made his career showcasing Tamil Nadu’s rich heritage for the public.— Photo: B. Velankanni Raj
HISTORY BUFFDr. J. Raja Mohamed has made his career showcasingTamil Nadu’s rich heritage for the public.— Photo: B. Velankanni Raj
Former curator of Pudukottai Government Museum Dr. J. Raja Mohamedcomments on how we allow our awareness of our past to shape our present
“If we want communal harmony, we must have a proper history to be taught to the people, and the younger generation in particular,” says J. Raja Mohamed.
Having spent over three decades in Tamil Nadu State Department of Museums - first as the Curator of the Pudukottai Government Museum from 1968 to 2003 and retiring as Assistant Director of Museums, Chennai in 2004 - Dr. Mohamed is amply qualified to comment on how we allow our awareness of our past to shape our present.
In a way, Dr. Raja Mohamed’s home in Pudukottai’s Jeeva Nagar neighbourhood is like a museum too, a repository of books from all over the world and his own writings (he is the author of around 10 books in Tamil and English on local history and has published over 100 research papers in art, architecture and history).
Like any good historian, all his statements are backed up with meticulous research. “Many facts in history have been distorted over the years, and we do not know at which stage it was done. Similarly, so many things have not been brought to light,” says Dr. Mohamed, who has specialised in the history of Pudukottai and has also written a seminal reference work on the maritime history of Tamil Muslims (see related story on Page 2 ).
So how did this zoology graduate get so interested in history?
Born in 1946 in Udayarpalayam (in present-day Ariyalur district) to a middle class family trading in animal hides, the young Raja Mohamed was entering high school when his father suffered a heavy financial loss.
“Paying the Rs. 3 fees for school was a huge problem, and most of my siblings had to stop studying due to this,” he recalls today.
“But I was determined to continue my studies, and so I started working in my free time at bakeries, cool drinks shops and factories, to meet my expenses. Saving those three rupees was very tough because a day’s work would only pay one or two annas (16 annas made a rupee),” he says.
After 2 years of hardship, he was one of 6 students from the Composite District of Tiruchi who won a government scholarship of Rs. 12 which took care of his fees from 9th Standard till the end of school.
He stood first in his B.Sc Zoology course, which made it easier for him to apply for Government service. “I decided to work in the Pudukottai Museum because Zoology graduates didn’t really have a choice in those days,” says Dr. Mohamed. “But I got attracted to history only after I entered the museum.” As proof of that new passion, he went on to earn post-graduate degrees in History, Archaeology, Anthropology, and for good measure, a degree in Law besides a certification in Museum Studies. For his doctoral thesis, Dr. Mohamed researched the maritime history of the Muslims of the Coromandel Coast.
Contradictory interpretation of history has remained a concern for Dr. Mohamed.
“When we read Indian history, the biggest accusation made by big and small scholars alike is that Muslim rulers destroyed temples. Some people may simply be repeating what someone else has said. Nobody has gone into researching the merit of these statements for themselves,” says Dr. Mohamed.
With a grant from the Nehru Trust for Indian Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum (NTICVA), London in 1994-95, Dr. Mohamed set out to research Islamic buildings in Tamil Nadu.
The result of his work was published by the Department of Museums in 2004 as Islamic Architecture in Tamil Nadu , a book that contains photographs and descriptions of buildings throughout the State, some of which date back to the 8th Century.
The research showed him many new truths, he says. “As inscriptions on the sites prove, each and everyminbar (pulpit) of the old mosques that we find in the seashore areas to this day was made for mosques. Temples were never demolished or converted into mosques,” says Dr. Mohamed.
The main point, he says, is that around a thousand years ago, “The sthapathi or mason who was building the temple, was also the person to build the mosque. So when he built the mosques, he used Dravidian architecture, but avoided portraiture of figures and icons as per the tenets of Islam. Many structures look like temples, but they are mosques. And they have inscriptions from the 9th Century and 10th Century that state that they were endowed by Hindu rulers. These facts have got obscured over the years.”
Dr. Mohamed’s research also concludes that the earliest mosque in the State was built in Tiruchi.
“It is a small structure built during the Pallava era and is shaped like a temple mandapam, but with an Arabic inscription of old character, of 8th Century. We discovered that it was built in AD 734,” says Dr. Mohamed of the mosque that may be found in the city’s modern-day Fort Station area.
He also deciphered 200 temple inscriptions, and helped to unearth the ancient villages of Ollaiyur (now in Thirumayam district) and Senikulamanickapuram, which has now become a part of Pudukottai.
Some of his ongoing projects include a book on the ancient history of Pudukottai (till 6th Century) for the Central Institute of Classical Tamil. During the fieldwork for this book, he found a rock painting at Kudmiyanmalai, which takes the history of Pudukottai to 2000 BC.
A book on the village deities and folk arts of Pudukottai is also nearing completion. “People have been willing to accept new ideas in religion and live in peace, even though this has not been made obvious in our printed historical records,” says Dr. Mohamed, who received the State award for communal harmony in 2012.
A father of two sons and a daughter, Dr. Mohamed credits his wife Abida Begum for her unstinting support that helped him to spend time “at home and in the forest”, for his research. Not having his parents around to see him achieve his career milestones is a recurring regret.
“But my early struggles taught me to trust hard work, and not luck. I loved my job, and I still love it even though I retired long ago,” he smiles.
I got attracted to history only after I entered the museum
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Artticle in The Hindu 30-11-2015
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