Most of us have heard and read about the famous Kunhali Marakkar and his exploits, but one question remains, where did they come from? There have been many questions about their real origins, were they Moplahs of Arab extract from Pantalayani Kollam (South of Calicut); were they of Sri Lankan origin, were they Tamil Marakkars or were they from Tulunad? The research was quite interesting and the result obtained cannot be termed fully conclusive but was quite revealing. For those here, and only interested in Kunjali’s story, this does not cover the life and times of any of the famous Kunhali’s but hovers only around theories of their possible origin.
The Name & title
Let us first look at the name Marakkar. Note that this is different from Marakkayar though we will observe the connections after a while (Marikkar & Maricar are other spellings used in history books). According to many other historians, Moppila or Moplah is Maha Pillai (great son) and Marakkar means (Marakkalam is a wooden boat) ‘boatmen’. Thurston in his Tribes of S India, states the following - The word Marakkar is usually derived from the Arabic ‘Markab’, a boat. The story goes that, when the first immigrants of this class (they were apparently driven from their own country by persecutions) landed on the Indian shores, they were naturally asked who they were, and where they came from. In answer they pointed to their boats, and pronounced the word Markab, and they became in consequence Marakkars, or the people of Markab.
Was it also a titular name for seaborne traders? KVK Iyer clarifies in his history of Kerala that Marakkar was a prized title given by the Zamorin of Calicut. Derived from Marakka Rayar it signifies the captain of a ship Rayar (Captain) of Marakkalam (ship). According to him Kunjali after the destruction of Ponnani by Almeida approached the Zamorin and asked to fight the Portuguese. Impressed by his courage he was given this title by the Zamorin. It appears that the people who carried the title used a special silk turban on their heads. Don Lach & Ed Levy quoting Laval in the book ‘Asia in the making of Europe’ states that Marakkar means ‘viceroy’.
NM Nampoothiri quoting the Granthavaris of Calicut - Zamorin confirms the honorific title - In 1687 the Kuliyoti Kottakal Marakkayar was given the title Marakkayar. Another man, Kunnikkalathor was given the title Kunnali Marakkayar in the same year.
P Kunhabdulla in an article opines that the Marakkars came from Arabia in the 7th Century. This poses a question, where on the Malabar coastline did they settle down? Assuming for a moment that they came around the 11-13th century, the trade links with the Arab lands was in the Cranganore region, with Muziris (A tantalizing question – could all this connect up to Vavar Swami?). However another scenario is more probable. If one were to study the history of Quilon, it will be evident that the trade between Arabia and wealthy Quilon was controlled by the Chinese with their vessels. But by the turn of the 12th century we read that the Chinese were forced out and the Moplahs take their place. This is possibly where the Marakkars first settled, thence moving to Cranganore & Cochin. Here they would have settled to provide the trade support to the new entrants of the Portuguese. A group of them had migrated to Tuticorn earlier and settled down to conduct trade with Ceylon, Java & Malay. They also controlled the lucrative pearl fishery subjugating the Paravas for that purpose. Finally they took the reins of the horse trade with Arabia, supplying the horses to the Muslim rulers in the Tamil Nadu & Vijaynagar.
When the Portuguese encroached on their supplier base in Malacca in 1524 or so, the fighting between these two communities started in right earnest. The Marakkars of Cochin had to leave their base in Cochin and move to Ponnani & Kottakkal, with the support of the Calicut Zamorin. According to Logan in Malabar Manual, the Marakkars moved to Thikkodi following Henry Menzez’s destruction of the Moorish colony in Cochin and then to Kottakal where they became prominent. They then became the admirals of the Zamorin, leading the wars against the Franks, but by the turn of the 17th century had been subdued by the determined Portuguese with their bigger & better armed ships. Mayimama Marakkar was once an ambassador of the Zamorin.
Logan feels they were originally from P Kollam. Krishna Iyer states that they originated from Ponnani and spread to Tanur, Agalapula etc. Pyrard Laval and DeCouto state that Kunhali was from Pantalayalni Kollam, moving to Tikkodi later in 1525.
Pius provides a detailed account and three theories. One was the increase in prominence of the Casados or Portuguese married to Indians and the support for private trade conducted by them around 1515. Then it occurred that Albuquerque died and the passes/permits or ‘cartazas’ for trade stopped being given to the Muslim traders. The marakkars, especially Kunhali who had started a joint trade with Gov Diogos Lopes suddenly found that Lopez simply appropriated his own laden vessel and goods bound for the Red sea ports. It was this act in 1522 that turned Kunhali against the Portuguese. By 1524, Kunjali, Mohammad Ali and Ahmed Ali, all Marakkars moved to Ponnani. Pate Marakkar, Kunjali’s cousin was another Marakkar who went against the Portuguese. This action is a long way from the days of 1513 when Dom Manuel bestowed special privileges for Cherina & Mamale Marakkar. The second reason was the take over of Malacca trade by the Casados. The third reason was a drop in customs duties for Casados in the Cohin port that enabled the Kings family to broker deals between Casados and non Muslim traders.
Some prominent Marakkars & their trade
The Marakkars were the leading business group of the region when the Portuguese arrived in Kerala. They had settled at Cochin and were believed to be the descendants of the Arabs who migrated to Kerala. If they were Arabs, are they Yemeni Hadhramites or Egyptians? Mecca – By Francis Peters (P173) & Logan (P308) mention a wealthy Egyptian trader named Khoja Mehmed Marakkar, who was ill treated by Vincent Sodre at Cannanore, thus signifying a possible but lone Egyptian connection (I understood that Sreedhara Menon also makes such a Cairo connection but I could not find it). As we saw they were driven out of Cochin by the heavy handed actions of the Portuguese.
The Marakkars of Cochin as we saw earlier, had ships & factories in the Cochin & Coromandel area according to Portuguese sources as early as 1504 and supplied the Portuguese with spices from Malaysia (Malacca) before the Portuguese themselves established themselves in Malacca (KS Mathew). They also had a monopoly over the Maldives trade.The interaction between the Ceylon, Ramanad and Kayalpatanam Marakkars is often quoted by historians and writers of the times such as Sheikh Zainuddin and Barbosa. It does appear that they also conducted commodities trade, especially rice. Ismail marakkar for example handled rice trade in Calicut, and there were the famous Pachachi marakkar, Pattu (Pate) marakkar etc. Varthema mentions Mamale Marakkar of Cannanore, the richest merchant of Malabar. In later days, i.e. Tipu’s times, the Dewan of Travancore was supported at sea by Pokku Moosa Marakkar.
Pate Marakar of Cochin approached Zamorin after they are troubled at Cochin and received no support from the local Cochin king (Starthern). Until then Mamale marakar (Lord of Maladives) was the one fighting the Portuguese, he was killed by Sodre in 1525.
KS Mathew an Indo Portugues specialist identified Mamale Marakkar in Cochin during the 1504 period. Between him and Genieve Bouchon, they list the following Marakkars of Cochin in the 16th century. Cheria naina, Naina (note here that the Naina marakkars were later prominent in Burma & Malacca), Mitos, Chilary (Cheria ali), Mohammed, Mamali, Pate, Icimale & Belina. Sheikh Zainuddin mentions the four admirals or Kunji Ali, Ali Ibrahim, Kutti Ibrahim and Mohammed Ali Marakkars. Mathew also confirms that these Marakkar’s of Cochin had their own factories in the Coromandel Coast and traded with the Portuguese until 1511 when the latter conquered Malacca. Zainuddin confirms that these Marakkars had sailed often to Kayal but that they also fought with the Portuguese when attacked. The King of Kayalpatanam, a Marakkayar who was a subject of the queen of Quilon had his Kayal kingdom with many other Malabar settlers. These people according to JBP More eventually became the Marakayars (note now the change of spelling) of Tamil Nadu. Pius Malekandathil states that it was the Marakkar traders, especially Mitos Marakkar who were the chief suppliers of Cinnamon to the Portuguese in Cochin. One interesting fact also comes up that the boat of Cherianaina or Mamaly Marakkar was attacked by Cabral at the behest of the Zamorin (Sanjay Subramaniam Pg 180) due to a complaint that his war elephants were on board that ship.
Marakkars & Marakkayars
JBP More points out to spoken words, marriage customs etc which strongly connect the Marakkayars of Tamil to the Malabar Marakkars. It is also pointed out in his book that Malabar Marakkars had relations with the communities in the Kayalpatanam (Tuticorin) region, a group which conducted trade with Burma, Malacca and Indonesia.
To determine the origins of the Marakkars, JB More used another yardstick, their family system. Both the Tamil Marakkayars and Malabar Marakkars practice marumakkathayam (matrilinear system of inheritance) and settle in the bride’s house. More thus believes that the Tamil Marakkayars came from Malabar.
It was only towards the 17th century that the Tamil Labbais came to the fore, as the boatmen & the fishermen. In another wave of migration, many Muslims left the Tamil country during the late 14th century in Marak Kalams (Wooden Boats) and landed on the coasts of Ceylon. Because they came in Marak Kalams the Sinhala people called them Marakkala Minissu.
Summarizing, the elite Chuliah (Kling to Malays) Muslims constituted the Maraikkayar caste in the early 14th century. This Tamil group were Sunni’s and maintained ships and had strong relations with their Arab brethren as well as the holy cities of Arabia (The Labbias were the lower Sunni strata comprising fishermen, pearl divers etc). The Kayalpatanam Marakkars controlled the Indian Ocean pearl trade. The Labbias and Rowthers conducted inland trade.
However, Arthur Coke Burnell states that the Mopilah and Labbai are of the same descent, it is just that Labbais settled in the Tamil areas. Though they kept apart from each other in South India, elsewhere they had links - Let us look at this Malay name to define such a connection- Sheikh Labbai nainar Marakkar ibnu ahmad labbai. These Labbai Marakkars have been living in places like Malaysia since the 10th century. Did they come from the Labbai Iraqi stock? Or is it a rare case of intermingling?
Susan Bayly states in her book ‘Saints Goddesses and Kings’ (pg80) that Tamil Marakkayars have always looked down upon converted Muslims and had a higher social standing, being directly linked to Arabs. She states the Sunni Shafi Madhab connection to Arabia as proof of their identity. They (marakkars) maintained the sect by intermarriage between the Marakkayars of Malabar & Tamil Nadu strictly. She states that Labbais are Hanafi sect followers are follow rules like marrying father’s sister’s daughter (Murapennu- a popular south Indian ‘kalyana murai’). Nagore, Kayalpattanam, Kilakkarai, Adiramapattanam are the main centers with old mosques and remains of ancient Sahabi saint.
Bayly mentions Patattu marakkayar signifies a title or Pattam having been granted to one of these families. Could that be the Pattu marakkar that we know from Cochin? The Kayal Patanam Quadiri Sufis had connections with the Calicut Sufi families. This sort of confirms the connection between the Calicut, Cochin & Kayal Marakjkayar families and the Arabic links. The Marakkayar port of Porto Novo (Mahmud Bandar) was a popular and busy port in the later years. In Ramnad however, the Marikkars mainly handled trade for the Setupati royal family.
Labbai are one of the four Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu State. The Ravuttan, Marakkayar, and Kayalan form the rest of the Islamic community. Labbais and Ravuttans follow the Hanafi School, a branch of the Sunni sect. Marakkayars & Kayalars belong to the Sunni Shaafi branch of Islam which spread from the coasts of southern Yemen. Kayalar seems to be a subdivision of Marakkayar. Kayalars and Marakkayars are found primarily along the Coramandel coast. Labbais and Ravuthars predominate in the interior, Ravuthars mainly in the south and Labbais mainly in the north of the state
Marakkars of Kotakkal
Let us start with the first major Maraikars of Cochin. They were the two families, namely Cherian Marakkar and Mamally marakkar. Cherian was an agent of Malik Ayaz of Gujarat, whereas Mamally (strangely he is also called Mamally Mappila) excelled in trade based from Cannanore. As the Portuguese tightened trade controls, these Muslim traders moved to take residence near Calicut. Lakshmi Subramaniam opines that this is when (1524) Ahmed Marakkar, Uncle Mohammad and his brother Ibrahim moved up towards Ponnani and Kottakkal. Mohammed Marakkar was accorded the title Kunjali by the ruling Zamorin thus cementing the families relationship with the Zamorins until the reign of the 4th Kunjali by when a wedge was driven into this relationship by spite, jealousy and cleaver manipulation of the Zamorin by the Portuguese. Between 1500 and 1600 the Zamorin’s naval operations were overseen by the Kunjalis.
The Kunjali IV (Kunhali is more modern. The older historians call him Kuttiali) was executed by the Portuguese in March1600 and with that ended the Malabar Marakkar clan. The study of the collapse of the family also signifies that they were Marakkars for they did not marry from the local Muslim clans, apparently the last Kunjali adopted a Nair girl (this Nair woman relationship, an elephant’s tail hair and a purported castration of a Nair were the main tools the Portuguese used to drive the wedge between the Zamorin and the Kunjali) and got her married to a senior Muslim sea captain.
Back to origins
So the question still remains. If the Marakkar traders originated from Cochin, where did they come from? According to SV Muhammed, in his book ‘Charithrathile Marakkar Sannidhyam’, the Marakkar family (Kunhali) originated from the Konkan and they were rice merchants. According to him Marakkar was the family name and Kunhali was the titular name given by the Zamorin. PPM Koya believed that the family line originated from Tunisia and reached Kerala in the 12th century. Moplahs have been in Kerala since the 9th century according to others, though not the Marakkars (PP Mohammed Koya – history of Calicut Muslims). Mammu master believes that they are ‘margakkar’ or converts. The Margakkar became marakkar over time.
But if the Marakkars are Arab, how are they different from the Moplah of Malabar? The Moplas in general had forefathers from Arabia and mothers of local descent. They comprise both the Sunni and the Shiah groups and include converts. The Arabs are believed to come from many regions notably from the Red Sea coastal areas and the Hadhramaut region of present day Yemen. Many present day Mappilla Muslims are Shafi however it could have been so that they claimed a direct lineage to an Arab trading group without converts. Some scholars opine that the migration to Tuticorin came about only in the 15th or 16th century after Portuguese persecution, though trade documentation indicates that many existed in those ports even earlier. Many of the present-day Tirunelveli Muslims claim to be descended from the Kerala Mappilas and follow Malabari religious teachers and social culture. To summarize, the Marakkars are Moplas, though probably differing in exact origin and sub sect. They were always conductors of trade and migrated also to Tuticorin, Ceylon, Indonesia, Philippines & Mayasia.
Dr Ochanthuruth of Calicut University questions claims that Marikkars were Mappila Muslims, and contends there is no evidence to support the belief that Marikkars lived in Pantalayani - Kollam, then in Tikkodi and then in Kottakkal, which was their last headquarters. “Available evidence suggests Marikkars were of Tamil origin and many of them were Parathava converts from Coramandel,” Dr. Ochanthuruth claimed.
Finally one has to mention the so called matrilineal ‘Kudi maraikkars’ of some South Indian and Ceylon settlements. Here the term maraikkar is for the head of the Muslim populace dealing with fishing. They are covered in detail in the book Crucible of Conflict - Dennis B. McGilvray and these websites. They are also Moplah migrants from Malabar. In addition to Kudi Marakkars, there are plenty of regular Marakkar trading families as well in Ceylon.
Note: It may now be news to some that our beloved ex-president Dr Abdul Kalam is a Marakkar himself.
Muslim Identity, Print Culture, and the Dravidian Factor in Tamil Nadu - J. B. Prashant More
Medieval Seafarers of India - Lakshmi Subramaniam
India & the Indian Ocean world – Ashin Das Gupta
Saints Goddesses and Kings – Susan Bayly
Moors of Sri Lanka
Political Evolution of Muslims in Tamil Nadu and Madras - J. B. Prashant More
Kerala Muslim History – PA Syed Mohammed
Tuhfat Al Mujahideen – Zainuddin Makhdum
Charithrathile Marakkar Sannidhyam – SV Mohammed
Kunjali Marakkar – Kerala Calling Malabar & the Portuguese – KM Panikkar
Castes & tribes of S India – Thurston
Portuguese Cochin & the Maritime trade of India – Pius Malekandathil
The Career and Legend of Vasco Da Gama - Sanjay Subrahmanyam