Chowakaran Musa and the Mapla Por of Bombay

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Musa Mapla, the EIC and his Bombay residence

Many decades ago, when I was working in Bombay and a bachelor, I would walk aimlessly through the Colaba, Ballard estate and Flora fountain areas often, stopping finally to munch a good meal at the Fort Ananda Bhavan. In many of the road corners you could spot youngsters from Malabar desirous of going to the Gulf, doing part time work by selling smuggled goods on the sly. Well before all that, they sold coconuts or mats i.e. nariayal walas and chatai (grass mat or pullu paya) walas of Malabar, but in my time those professions were not popular and the malayali street hawker sold Casio calculators, perfumes, cigarettes and small electronics like radios cassette players on these streets.

Little did I know that many centuries before them, Moplah’s had their own area, their chawl and shops in the fort area and that a Musa of Tellicherry owned large pieces of property, in fact he even owned the oldest building of Fort Bombay, i.e. between the 17th and 19th centuries. Those researching North Malabar trade and the early British would know this Musa character quite well. But for those who do not, I will provide a brief overview. I will also go on to answer the question about his holdings in Bombay, a subject which I had briefly addressed in a previous article, but at that time did not possess details thereof. Present facades of banks and office buildings of Gunbow st hide some very interesting history of this character from Malabar who inhabited the Bohra Bazar area, an area that was well known in the 17th and 19th centuries as ‘Mapla Pol’, an enclosed dwelling or chawl where Malabar Mapla’s lived and traded in Bombay. Let’s now go to the intersection of what is known as Gunbow Street and Bohra Bazar Street. Gunbow incidentally has nothing to do with guns, it apparently signified the street where Ganba, a carpenter resided and it is also said that in his times, there was a well there, which people would folk to draw water from.

Let’s step back in time, when the British in Surat decided to populate Bombay, after it was awarded to the EIC in 1661 as Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza and as part of her dowry Charles received the ports of Tangier and Seven Islands of Bombay. Gerald Aungier, the British factor in Surat was entrusted with the responsibility of establishing the British presence in Bombay and he proclaimed that it will be ‘the city which by God's assistance is intended to be built’. Arriving Bombay in 1670, he set about cleaning the corrupt set up and rebuilding it step by step, a job which proved to be very difficult indeed as he had to go back to Surat often to continue wars with Chatrapati Shivaji and the Moghuls.

One of President Aungier's large-minded proposals for improving Bombay was to build a customs house which later became the Fair Common House, wherein he housed the Chambers for the Courts of Justice, warehouses and prisons. In this building, as originally designed by him, justice was dispensed until the year 1720. One side of that building was a jail and the concept then was that the convict had to worry about his upkeep if he got jailed. So the Bohra bazar facing rooms were the jails and inmates were allowed to beg from passersby (Rama Kamat himself died in those jails) through the bars. Then in 1720 the court was moved to Rama Kamat’s buildings nearby and the old building became a property of Shivaji Dharamset. In 1748 it was sold to Mohammed Safi, who then sold it to Musa’s uncle (one record mentions that just the Mapla’s home was purchased by Musa’s ancestor, as early as 1675). It is said that of the eight largest landowners in the Fort, six were Indians and one was Musa Mapla.

This building was later known by the name Mapla Por.  Mapla Por was ‘the gated enclosure of the Mapla’s, or half- Arab Musalmans of the Malabar Coast, stands about 300 yards north of the north-west corner of the modern Elphinstone Circle, on the west side of Borah Bazar Street, immediately beyond its meeting with Gunbow Lane’. It had by the middle of the 18th century morphed into a typical pol, or Gujarati-style group of buildings round a courtyard, with one defensive external gate which could be shut against their traditional enemies. The Shravak temple and the old well were round the corner and the Mapla chawl or pol housed a number of Malabari shops. Its story and links with Musa kaka or the Keyi of Telicherry is interesting to say the least.

I presume it is in order to introduce this gentleman to you all, needless to mention that he was a favorite of the EIC traders of Tellicherry (barring Murdoch Brown, whom Musa took to court for fraud and won!). An incredibly clever and opportune trader, he owned vast properties in Malabar, Travancore and many other locations. His descendants owned properties even in faraway Mecca.  Mussa owned a fleet of cargo ships and transacted much trade with the Laccadives, Maldives, Bengal, Surat, Bombay and hobnobbed with the Pazhassi Raja, the Arakkal Beevi, the Malabar Rajas and the Mysore rulers. It would be good to get a general idea of his life and times. Sadly a good book has yet to be written about this character and the three books in print (Ummerkutty, Kurup+Ismail and C Vasudevan) are skimpy and leave much to be desired.

Perhaps the Borah Bazar - Gunbow corner to the left 
By 1694 the British EIC had established an important trading post or factory, at Tellicherry towards the north of Malabar and with it they cemented important commercial alliances with Moplah merchants, while at the same time obtaining political guarantees from the local rulers like the Kolathiri Raja. Some like the Musa Kakas cooperated with the EIC while some like the Arakkal family did not. Musa was initially the main procurement agent for pepper and later for timber, he was also their banker at times.

The entry of the Keyi maplas into the trading scene starts with Aluppi from a place called Chowa in Chirakkal. Aluppi moved to Tellichery with his nephews Bappan and Moosa (Musa). After acquiring some land from the Kottayam Raja (then the lord), he became an influential trader and shipper of goods to Mecca and other locations.  He was perhaps the person behind the original lease of the oldest buildings in Bombay later known as the Mapla Por. His nephew Musa later entered the game with the initial monetary support of the Travancore Raja. Bappan too had relations with the EEIC according to Buchnan. Aluppi’s arrival was met with skepticism by the caste koyas and he even had to construct a mosque for his family as the others would neither let them into their mosques nor did they allow inter-marriages, at first.

Chowakaran Musa or as his formal name states - Mapla Chowakaran Keloph Karakuti Kaka, was Aluppi’s nephew and he was instrumental in forming a firm relation with the EEIC. So good was it that the factory superintendent ordered the Nileswaram raja “to protect the belongings and the commodities of Moosa, who is a protégée of the Company”. The Zamorin’s Minister Shamnath Patter, once ruefully informed the English Resident at Kozhikode that Musa had threatened to bring an English army if Pattar ventured to interfere in Moosa’s timber trade (note that the Pattar was the trusted agent of the British in Calicut after the initial fall of the Zamorins and the times of the Ravi varma’s)

When the Mysore sultans raided Malabar, Musa and other merchants sought British protection in Tellicherry while the Arakkal family sided with the Sultans, even cementing the tie later by offering a daughter to Tipu in marriage. In fact Tipu threatened Musa and the others through the Arakkal Biwi with dire consequences if they did not move to their side and interestingly Musa was steadfast in his refusal. They stayed put until the end of the second Anglo Mysore wars and the annexation of Malabar by the British in 1790-92. Musa was rewarded amply and provided contracts to supply the Company with pepper. He was over time considered to be the one who ‘has manifested a steady attachment to the British interests on the coast on the most trying occasions (When Sardar Khan besieged Tellicherry during the second Anglo-Mysore war) he had supported our course by his fortune and credit and when the siege was raised accompanied our army through enemy territory to the southward of Tellicherry and by his credit and influence procured the necessary supplies of money and provisions. Without his assistance at that critical time our army would not have moved’. In other words, he was considered a collaborator par excellence and is stated to have loaned as much as 20 lakhs of Sicca Rupees to the EEIC during the Mysore wars!

As time went and the British took over, by he was found to be in control of some of the Arakkal Beevi’s properties and also took care of some of her debts during her decline. According to Gough, the Ali Rajas became so indebted to the Chovvakkaran Keyis that in 1784-94 they mortgaged the coir of the four southern Laccadives to the Keyis. Later, four islands of Laccadives seized from Tipu were leased to Musa by EIC’s Munro.  The Kadathanad, Coorg and Chirakkal rajas also testify to paying off or staving off their debts by borrowing from Musa.

So powerful was he that he even took on the rich trader Murdoch Brown to court on the strength of testimony from a fellow Englishman James Rivet, and winning the case.

It will be seen that Musa was very cosmopolitan in thought, constructing a unique Malabar style copper domed Odathil mosque and adopting matrilineal family rules all the way. BS Ward mentions as follows - Moosa the Tellicherry Merchant who is, perhaps the most wealthy trader under the Government has made several applications to me for a Garden at Tellicherry called the Company's Garden, measuring above three acres as per accompanying plan. He wants it for the purpose of building a Mosque and Tomb upon it. He would either pay a sum of money for it or a high quit Rent. As this man had on many occasions stood forward in support of the public cause, and uniformly behaved himself to the approbation of the Company's Official Servants, although such conduct may be said to have proceeded from a consideration of his own interest, I submit it to your Board's notice that the garden which has been waste for the last three years, may be given up to him on any condition you may please to prescribe.

Another related aspect is how the old and infirm Musa came under fire from Wellesley who was chasing the Pazhassi Raja during 1804-05. He recorded that Musa had been found supplying rice and gun powder to the rebels. Thomas Baber had reported to the principal collector Thomas Warden that Moosa and Mucky, the Company contractors, had been involved in these illegal transactions. Baber wanted him to be transported and Wellesley wanted them tried for treason and hanged, but how Musa managed to extricate himself from the circumstances, is a story to be told another day!

Baber testified in 1806 that ‘Chowakkara Kunhy Packey, the heir of old Moosa, a man well known on the western coast, had twelve ships; that is, Moosa himself had 12. He continues - These are reduced, I think, to seven. I can mention their names and burthen and the largest of them go up to Mocha, Judda, and other places in the Red Sea; also to Muscat, Bushire, and Bussora, in the Persian Gulf; Porabunder, Cambay, Cutch, Sind, and a long way up the Indus’! He also mentions that Musa had a monopoly on timber supply to Bombay in 1806 - That the Honourable Company had occasion for teak trees for the purpose of building ships, and therefore the government had resolved to grant a monopoly to one Chowakkara Moosa, in order that it might be furnished with the trees it wanted at a low price. He also mentioned that Musa participated in slave trading – e.g. Baber in his report to the Chief Secretary to the government informed that five slaves were landed from a ship, owned by Chowakkara Cunhy Packy, which arrived from Mocha. He also explained during his testimony to the EIC board, the methods of Marumakkatayam practiced by the Bebee and the Musa families.

When Ward came by to do his surveys, he was requested by Musa for a Pallak (Palanquin) as "infirm, and owing to Indian deference, he considered himself as restricted from using a conveyance." For this reason it was requested that he should be "presented . . . with a palankeen at the Company's expense and it was granted. After Musa died in 1806/07, his family disintegrated and their powers waned and the family split into many branches, mainly the families of Keloth, Valiyapura, Puthiyapura and Orkatteri.

Let’s now get back to the Mapla Por owned by Musa, the Bombay gazetteer of 1894 mentions the following details - This old building or enclosure is generally known as Mapla Por the gated enclosure of the Maplas that is of the half- Arab Musalmans of the Malabar Coast, who, till well into the present century, held the bulk of the coasting or country trade of Bombay. The name of the present owner is Mapla Chaukaran Keloph Karakuti Kaka whose agent is a Parsi, Mr. Dinsha Sorabji. Mr. Dinsha states that in 1794 Musa of Tellicherry, an ancestor of the present owner, purchased the property from one Muhammad Safi. In many records Musa is termed as the great (rich landowner) mapla and a land tenure report shows that he was being taxed for 5,725 square yards of property.

Until then the building was known as the Safi building and later as the Mapla Pol, where a lot of Malabar Mapla’s lived in a chawl like set up. The writer mentions that it was never intended to be a private dwelling but became one somehow. Musa came and went, but he was represented in Bombay by another mapla named Mammy. It had been a barracks once, then it was called Kota (as it was within the fort) and was later termed Mapla Pol or Mapla por.

As the story goes, the great fire of February 1803 destroyed the Bazar front or prison portion of the building, the whole of which, since the transfer of the Court House to Bazar Gate Street in 1720, had been used as a warehouse by the Keyi Musa. The after-part of this house, Jonathan Duncan wrote, which has been purchased by Musa of Tellicherry, still remained standing. It was filled with rice, sugar, and other articles, and during the forenoon of the 19th February 1803 very much threatened destruction to the surrounding buildings, especially as the compound was filled with two to three hundred planks. As the Purvoe that appeared on the part of Mammy (Musa's agent) had no means of removing the planks, all who would be at the trouble of carrying them were allowed to take them away. When the greater part of this combustible had been cleared, Mammy the aforesaid agent, who had hitherto appeared to be equally without the means or will to effect anything on his part, pretended that he had got people to remove the remaining deals. This proving not to be the case, as ascertained by Captain Brookes on the spot, the yard was soon cleared of the planks. The remaining danger of the fire was overcome by the exertions of the navy, in the Admiral's presence.

After the 1803 fire, the Bohora Bazar front was repaired and until 1868 the enclosure continued full of warehouses and dwellings and the Musa’s dwelling was situated in the north-west of the square facing south. The building as again affected in the 1868 fire. The record mentions – On 23rd February 1868, a fire broke out in a dwelling in the ground floor of the buildings to the west of the main central block. From the ground floor the fire spread to the upper floor and from that passed to the main central block. Two of the godowns in the central block were filled with boxes of brandy, which, taking fire, with loud explosions spread the conflagration so rapidly as to endanger the whole neighborhood. Besides the two central ranges the west half of the south or Gunbow lane front, the whole western row of houses, and the Mapla's residence in the north-west corner were destroyed. The aggregate loss was estimated at several lakhs of rupees. After that event there is no mention of Musa in Bombay records. I presume his children or nephews did not venture northwards to Bombay.

We can see numerous mentions of the ships of Chovvakkaran Keyi of Tellicherry, which were sailing to Arabia, London, Paris, Amsterdam, and the larger Indian ports in the mid-eighteenth century: the Keyis retained some 12 sailing ships as late as 1837. Records of piracy against some of them present interesting reading. It is also important to note from a paper (Gough) that the family received the Parsee title Keyi as a dignity from authorities in Bombay in 1808.

Finally I must mention about the Saudi Rubiyat controversy, something brought about between the two prominent families of Keyi and Arakkal due to the matrilineal inheritance rules adopted by them. According to the history of the treasure, Mayan Kutty a member of the Keyi family purchased land in the holy land of Mecca, and built a resting place known as 'Keyi Rubath' for Haj pilgrims entirely at its own expense. The rest place was demolished by the Saudi authorities as a part of modernization programs and a compensation was retained with the Saudi treasury. The question now is who the heirs of Mayan Kutty Keyi are, and the Keyi’s have not been able to stake their claim properly as yet.  The arakkal family also laid claim to the fortune arguing that Mayankutty Keyi, subsequent to his marriage with the then Arakkal Beevi, had accepted the title 'Ilaya' and hence the Arakkal’s too were the legal heirs. Well, the story has not been laid to rest and I don’t know any more details.

Finally an unanswered question which was asked of me, still remains – Did Musa own property in Malabar hill? I do not know, though I find it unlikely due the lack of such references in the old material I perused, which at the same time mention Musa and the Mapla Por of South Bombay. Perhaps he did, and it would not be surprising.

Perhaps it was this presence of Mapla’s and Malabaris in the Ballard estate and fort area which made a number of youngsters make a beeline to those environs before their departure to more lucrative jobs in the gulf. I am sure they did not know of Chowakaran Musa then, nor do the people who land up in Mumbai these days know about him. It is also sad that people like Balasaheb Thakre had no idea about the involvement of people like Musa in the emergence of Bombay as a major trading city and port!

After the fires and the demise of Musa, we do not come across the presence of any Keyis in Bombay. The Mapla Por passed hands and today we see the Bazar post office and other buildings occupying the historic locale!

Bombay Gazetteer - 1894
Bombay in the making, being mainly a history of the origin and growth of judicial institutions in the Western Presidency, 1661-1726 - Malabari, Phirozshah Behramji M
The Rise of Bombay: A Retrospect SM Edwardes
Keyis of Malabar – KKN Kurup and Prof E Ismail
Kinship and Marriage in Southwest India – Kathleen Gough
Matrilineal Practices along the Coasts of Malabar- Aleena Sebastian
Merchants and Colonialism: The Case of Chovvakkaran Moosa and the English East India Company - M.P.Mujeebu Rehiman
From Kolattunad to Chirakkal: British Merchant Capital and the Hinterland of Tellicherry, 1694-1766 - Bonaventure Swai
East India Company and Moplah Merchants of Tellicherry: 1694-1800 - Bonaventure Swai
Shells from the sands of Bombay – DE Wacha
The Keyi Mappila Muslim Merchants of Tellicherry and the Making of Coastal Cosmopolitanism on the Malabar Coast – Santosh Abraham
Musa’s name has been massacred in the annals of history. He is variously named as Chukara, Chokra, Chouacara, Chocara, Choacara Chogara, Chowkara, Chowkaran, Moosa, Mousa, Mussa, Musa and so on…
The unearthing of the connection between Mapla Por and Musa took a good amount of research work and may not be found in current history texts and papers. I would appreciate it if a link back to this article is made, should somebody choose to refer to the Mapla por.


  1. Slogan Murugan

    After reading this post, I went and checked out the place mentioned here. Here are a few pictures:

  1. Maddy

    Hi SM..

    Am so thankful for your comment and the photos in your blog of the present structure at Mapla Por. It is so important and a historic landmark! One of the very first buildings of Bombay, pity so few people know about it! and its history!


  1. Slogan Murugan

    You are welcome and thank you for letting us know that such stories are waiting to be discovered.

  1. jayan

    Wonderful article ,indeed very interesting fo readers like me, having spent more that 28 years in sales , and has been dealing with maplas of Malabar as our distributors, dealer and business partners

    It should be worth while to note the maplas of Malabar especially Calicut ,Kannur and malapuram has got business in their blood, years of experience accumulated through generation by generation , of course made them fully fit for running business ,that too aggressively .

    The sammothiri empire business spanning over countries , from gulf to Europe was spear headed by maplas only

    They were diplomatic as you mentioned made alliance with opponents ,crossing sided when situation warrants, as you mentioned even Musa threated swaminatha pattar!!!

    They are receptive to any ideas and not averse to take risks , ready to put infrastructure and people and see that on stone unturned in getting business

    Their foray into Mumbai worthy while to read

    Kudos to this great community and kudos to you sir

  1. jayan

    No stone unturned, sorry for mistake

  1. नितीन निंबाळकर.

    Very informative article, but the second paragraph reads that Gunbow street was named after "Ganba" who was a carpenter. To my knowledge he was not a carpenter, but an ancestor of legendary Jagannath Shankarshet who belonged to Daivadnya Brahmin community renowned for trading of gold.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Deccan odyssey

    I will check the source of Ganba, the carpenter, dont remember the exact book now, but will check and revert. Looks like the carpenter definition was wrong.

    I checked Samuel T. Sheppard's Bombay place names and it concurs with your comment...

    " The curious name Gunbow is probably a corruption of Ganba, the name of an ancestor of Mr. Jagannath Shankarset. Old records show that Ganbasett or Genba Shet settled in Bombay during the first quarter of the eighteenth century and founded a mercantile business within the Fort walls." (Bombay City Gazetteer, Vol. I, p. 33.)

    Another explanation is that the street is called after a certain Gunbava's well to which, though partly rilled in, offerings of flowers and cocoanuts are still made. According to common belief, Gunbava was an ascetic who had his seat near the well. Bava (father), or Baba among Mahomedans, seems to be an honorific word.

    Sir DE Wacha says - These were the wells known as Ganbava and Ramlal. The former was situated at the eastern end of the street bearing that name
    where the Borah Bazar street crosses it, both in a southerly and northerly
    direction. It was a famous well and the writer had seen with his own eyes
    how in the fifties men, women and children crowded at the well from morn to
    eve. How wrangles used to take place and how, as the summer season advanced,
    they went there as early as 1 o'clock in the raw morning to fill their chatties wits water.

  1. Captain Grim

    Hi Maddy, my name is Vinayak Talwar and I conduct heritage walks for a group called Khaki Tours. We are planning to create a heritage walk in and around Mapla Por and it would be great if we could connect with you to obtain more information regarding the same. Thanks!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Vinayak
    I have provided everything I have on the subject, in this article, in any case, you can contact me at

  1. nadirafromkannur

    Such an interesting read. I am always amazed at the amount of diligencee you have in feretting out these generally unknown stories. Thus blog is indeed a veritable treasure chest for those interested in history.Thank you Maddy

  1. Maddy

    Thanks nadira,
    Glad you enjoyed it!!