Malabar hookahs: Glimpses of a dying art

For centuries, the brass hookahs adorned Arabian royal courts

gallery-image Work of art: Chandrashekaran Mooshari, an artisan who is an expert in crafting Malabar hookahs.
gallery-image Traces of legacy: Hashim K.M., who has been actively engaged in export of Malabar hookahs since 1979, with a picture of his father | Courtesy Arpo

It was everywhere. From the billowing tents beneath swaying palm trees in the Arabian desert, where weary souls sought respite from the sweltering heat, to royal households in the Middle East, this exquisite symbol of indulgence has been a ubiquitous part of regional identity.

The elegant hookah has always been an integral part of Persian, Arabic and Mediterranean cultures. Unknown to many, though, one of the most sought after hookah pots came from across the Arabian Sea from a small village in India’s southwestern coastline. For over three centuries these gleaming brass hookahs have crossed the ocean from Koyilandy in Kerala. Many of them still occupy pride of place in royal collections, carrying markings of the master artisan ‘Moosharis’ who crafted the traditional metal art.

The ‘Malabar’ or ‘Koyilandy’ hookahs still draw admiration but demand has dwindled, and because of high manufacturing cost and lack of support from the government, the ancient craft is inching towards a silent death.

gallery-image MAKING PROCESS - Hardened natural tree sap used to make Malabar hookah
gallery-image A wax slab is stencilled to create the exterior design
gallery-image The stencilled slab is affixed to a wooden frame
gallery-image The wooden frame is removed to obtain the wax mould
gallery-image The wax mould is immersed in loosened clay

Travelling through a maze of rocky dirt lanes, when we finally reached Rajan Kavil’s house, he was hard at work in a shed. Unwrapping the towel around his head, he gazed thoughtfully at the hookah we had brought with us. “Never would I have imagined that I would see this again. It has been 40 years,” said Rajan, caressing the gleaming metal. At the age of 14, when Rajan had started assisting his father in making hookahs, it was a thriving family business. Over the years, with the loss of demand, he gave up the traditional craft, switching to a sales business to sustain a livelihood.

“My children were not interested. The craft ends with me in our family. I used to go with my father to Mahe to make hookahs. In 1972, we used to get Rs150 to Rs200 each for making a 15-inch hookah and up to Rs350 for bigger pieces. Back then it was lucrative as the raw materials were cheap. We used to make more than what an executive would make in those days. And it was exported at way higher rates,” said Rajan, now 65.

Hashim K.M., 74, who has been engaged in the export of Malabar hookahs since 1979, and probably one of the last exporters remaining, fondly remembers the 80s and 90s, when he used to receive regular orders from the Middle East. He goes inside a room and emerges with two finely crafted 22-inch hookahs. “The Arabs do business only with those they know personally. Our Arab clients have stayed here in the past with our family, enjoying homely ‘neyychor’ (ghee rice) and playing football with us. Those were the good times. We used to get orders to send 3 to 4 containers yearly, each with 320 boxes of hookahs. The order would be for as many as 6,000 pieces, of various sizes, worth around Rs40 lakh. Back then, such orders were the norm,” recalled Hashim.

gallery-image Molten brass is made
gallery-image Brass is poured into the clay-and-wax mould
gallery-image The brass part is later seperated from the mould
gallery-image The component is polished
gallery-image Various parts are fitted together and finishing touches given

The good times stay in memory. “I have over 1,000 hookahs, worth around Rs50 lakh, with me here in my store. I am searching for possible buyers to sell them. However, the demand in the Arab market has come down and export itself has become highly expensive. Earlier, we used to get subsidies and incentives for exporting these hand-crafted products, but now all of these have been withdrawn,” he said.

“The Gulf War in the early ‘90s was the first blow,” said 72-year-old artisan Chandrashekaran Mooshari. “After the war, export recovered, and we continued to make the hookahs. Things got worse when Yemen crumbled due to civil war.”

What makes the Koyilandy hookah unique is not just the skill of the artisans, but the use of astonishingly large coconuts shells to act as the water container for the mechanism. “The water in the hookah is poured into the coconut shell placed within the brass exterior. The shells have the capability to absorb minute impurities, thus purifying the water,” said Chandrashekaran.

While most modern hookahs use glass bowls, which are made in Egypt and China, the coconut shells for the Koyilandy hookahs are specially sourced from regions in the Malabar.

Chandrashekaran now makes brass and bronze items for temples.

Around 200 families in Koyilandy were engaged in making hookahs. Now, there are only a handful. Chandrashekaran’s son, Abhilash, is one of them. Abhilash is still excited about his work, and he says that most don’t realise the extent of artistry involved. “The design of the hookah is very intricate. Sometimes, the hookah carries royal floral patterns while some will be custom-made with Arabic designs. We use wax, clay, wood, etc., for making the mould for the brass pieces which makes up the hookah,” says Abhilash.

He adds that the top portion of large coconut shells is cut off to make the container within the hookah. The brass embellishments are moulded around this. Silver is used to provide an additional glow, he says.

According to historian M.R. Raghava Warrier, the Chinese traded most with Kerala’s ports. “The Chinese brought raw materials like copper, lead, silver, and mercury for the Moosharis. Their technique of making bronze was unique. The Arab and the Yemeni traders also used to visit Kerala frequently and used to procure products from here,” said Warrier.

There was a time, he said, when just like Ayurveda medicines and spices from Kerala, Malabar hookahs too were much sought after. “While travelling to Arab countries, I have seen the Koyilandy hookahs carved with the names of Kerala’s artisans in the homes of affluent Arabs.”

Meanwhile, ARPO (Archival and Research Project), an NGO, is taking initiatives to help such dying craft. “We at ARPO learnt the story of the hookah-makers when we were making a documentary. As we progressed, we realised that this craft needs more concrete support than just another documentary. We started helping the last manufacturer we found so that he has an incentive to do more. So far we have helped him to sell about a dozen hookahs. With more awareness about this exquisite craft, we are sure more demand will be generated,” said Sruthin Lal, secretary of ARPO, a not-for-profit organisation.

When business was thriving in Koyilandy many built houses and made a name for their families through the trade of hookahs alone. “I was able to buy land, marry off my two daughters and build homes for them here,” said Hashim, who has three daughters.

As the sun sets slowly into the Arabian Sea, nestled in their cartons the gleaming hookahs of Koyilandy await their fate.