How a Kerala cemetery became the final resting place for victims of deadly diseases

Travelling about three kilometers through the breezy South Beach Road in Kozhikode, to reach the point where the Kallai river opens into the Arabian Sea, it’s hard to miss the vast expanse of land on the left side of the road, while approaching the estuary. Hundreds of neat rows of tombstones cover the 13-acre area. For over a century, this cemetery has been the final resting grounds for the Muslim community, unidentified remains and those whose lives have been taken by outbreaks, epidemics and the coronavirus pandemic.

Ever since Kerala began reporting deaths due to the coronavirus, the cemetery, known as ‘Kannamparambu’ in Kozhikode district, has gained new recognition. Of the eleven people who have died due to COVID-19 in the state so far, four of them — natives of various districts in northern Kerala — have been laid to rest here, including a four-month-old baby girl.


Two month old Malappuram native baby's funeral

As more and more COVID-19 deaths were recorded across India, fear and misunderstanding has only grown. In multiple states, there have been reports of bodies being denied dignity in death and families harassed for attempting to conduct proper funeral rites for their loved ones. But this cemetery, and the people overseeing it, have always been willing to give victims of disease a respectable adieu.

It’s an openness that Kannamparambu Khabarstan — as the cemetery is called by those in the region — prides itself on, having never turned its back on victims of deadly diseases. The cemetery is now under the ownership of the Kozhikode Corporation, and its day-to-day activities are overseen by the Kannamparambu Palli Paripalana committee.


55-year-old COVID-19 victim buried in Kannamparambu

In 2018, when the Nipah virus took hold of the village of Perambra in Kozhikode district, the family of one of the deceased patients, Moosa, wanted the mortal remains to be buried as per the religious rites and not to be cremated. His burial in Kannamparambu cemetery had made headlines. This was the first time a Nipah victim’s body had been buried, and new protocol had to be created to ensure a safe burial.

But the cemetery’s association with deadly disease spans much further into history, so much as that the formation of Kannamparambu Khabarstan is inextricably tied to it as well.

A history of epidemics and outbreaks

Dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, Kozhikode district has had to grapple with a history of disease that has claimed scores of lives. According to some reports, over 10,000 deaths in the district were recorded from both smallpox and cholera.

The cholera outbreak shook the Kozhikode district around the 1850s and was one of the sole reasons for the cemetery’s creation, according to members of the committee of the Kannamparambu Juma Masjid adjoining the cemetery, which overlooks the functioning of the Khabarstan.

“It was back in the British period, around 1858, that cholera first affected Kozhikode district. People started to die in the hundreds. While the casualities were observed to be less in people of other religious communities, it was found very severe among the Muslim community. This made British government officials seek out a reason for it,” says MC Sakir Hussain, general secretary of the Kannamparambu Palli Paripalana committee.

A task force under the leadership of then Malabar Magistrate W Robinson was formed to determine the problem.

“The committee found that people in the Muslim community lived in thickly-populated areas. They also found that the cemeteries where cholera victims were buried were also amidst populated regions. This observation pushed officials to find land outside the city limits so that it can be turned into a Muslim cemetery and the other small cemeteries within the city could be closed down,” Sakir Hussain explains, adding that the history of the cemetery has been passed through generations orally.

Ultimately, the land now known as Kannamparambu, located a few kilometers away from Kozhikode city, was identified.

By the time Kannamparambu was formed, cholera had started to loosen its grip and recede from the region. Other small cemeteries remained in existence, but in the years to come, Kannamparambu Khabarstan notably accepted the bodies of those who could not be identified or remained unclaimed by families.

It took several years and another cholera outbreak in 1890 for the other cemeteries associated with mosques to finally shut down.

“After hundreds died again in the second wave of cholera, the need for a public cemetery was raised once more. But again, it took many years for everyone to finally agree that a common cemetery was necessary due to the recurrence of the disease. Finally, in 1901, the other small cemeteries associated with mosques in Kozhikode city and surroundings were shut and people started using Kannamparambu Khabarstan as a common cemetery,” he says.

Another reason for the formation of a common cemetery for the Muslim community was the bout of small pox that hit the district, Kerala writer TB Seluraj, who authored a book on local history of Kozhikode, told TNM.

Seluraj added, “As people who had smallpox used to be ousted from homes during those times, many bodies were left on the streets and they were unidentifiable. This is also why the need for a common cemetery came up.”

Etched in Kozhikode’s history

Kannamparambu has become an important place, not only for the Muslim community, but for many who live in Kozhikode. Many famous Kerala personalities have been laid to rest there as well, such as Kozhikode Abdul Kader, singer of the popular Malayalam song “Engane Nee Marakkum Kuyile” from the 1954 film Neelakuyil.

Sharing his memories on Kannamparambu Khabarstan, notable Kerala writer MN Karassery says, “What I vividly remember about Kannamparambu is the tomb of Mohammed Abdur Rahiman, an Indian freedom fighter and a politician who has headed the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee. He passed away in 1945 and was laid to rest in Kannamparambu.”

MN Karassery noted that over a lakh people are said to have attended his funeral. “This is something everyone remembers about Kannamparambu. I have seen his khabar (tomb) there. It is the first thing which comes to my mind when someone mentions about Kannamparambu.”