Pooku Moosa Marakkar

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And his involvement in Travancore affairs - Marthanda Varma’s reign

This is yet another interesting medieval trader who made his name and lost it after a lifetime of high-risk balancing acts between the various players at the trade scenes of Travancore during the 18th century. His rise to fame was meteoric, from a simple trader to providing military support to Marthanda Varma with his pathemari boat fleet, going on to become Marthanda Varma’s confidante, and eventually ending up as the Travancore sarvadi karyakkar in negotiations with the Dutch. His fortunes rose and ebbed like tides, till it was cruelly ended when he lost his patron. Let’s see what we can dig up about this bloke, from the deep cellars of history.

First let us revisit the era. As I wrote earlier in the Abhiramai tale, the days of the last part of the 17th century and the early parts of the 18th were beset by all kinds of feuds related to succession, Venad – Madurai rivalry, temple related demands, settlement of dues, embezzlement and so on. For a period, the famous Umayamma Rani brought order to the region, but with her passing in the early part of the 18th century, the problems from the past began to reassert themselves and the feudal barons of Travancore started to get belligerent. Marthanada Varma as it turned out, her heir proved to be efficient, ruthless and was able to tighten the reins of the Trippappur swaroopam at Trivuvitamkode (Trivandrum).

We also see from the Travancore manuals that Varma even while serving as a deputy to his uncle had a number of issues with the barons (pillamar) on varying occasions resulting in his being on the run and even sleeping on tree tops. Quoting Nagam Aiyya - Even as First Prince and Elaya Rajah of tender years, he set himself to put down with a strong hand the lawlessness of these disloyal chiefs. In consequence, he had earned their undying hatred and his life was more than once attempted. He sought the aid of the English and the Dutch and would have completely quelled the rebels but for the timidity and weakness of his uncle the King who compelled him to desist. He had fled from place to place and on several occasions slept on the tops of trees in far off jungles. It was on one of these occasions that MV apparently sought refuge in the house of a well-known trader Pokku Moosa, at Poovar in the precincts of Desinganadu (Quilon). Now who is this Pokku Moosa?

Pooku Moosa, Poku Mussa, Pockoe Moessa, Pokker Moosa, Pachu Musathu (Kochu Moosa, Kochu Moosad is sometimes confused with him, see note) they were all names given to him by the various people who recorded transactions with him, and what we do know for sure about his early days was that he was a well to do trader living in the locale of Poovar near the southern border of today’s Trivandrum near Vizhinjam, a place which was originally called Pokkumoosapuram, after him. The family lived in a large mansion named the Kallaraickal Tharavad.

Poovar incidentally is located in Neyyatinkara, is placed south of Kovalam and north of the old Dutch holdings at Coalachel and Tengapatanam. However he may have lived in the Quilon or Kayamkulam areas as well for extended periods, for he is sometimes termed as a Desinganad trader. Legend has it that he hailed from the Marakkar families settled at Calicut. From there he moved to Kayamkulam, but after antagonizing the ruler there, fled to Poovar where he married the daughter of a rich trader of the Kallaraickal Tharavad, then settled down and built up a solid business distributing sugar, spices and tobacco. Some historians are of the opinion that Moosa supplied goods to the palace and that was how he entered into a long-term association with the royals.

As the legends state, once when Marthanda Varma was hounded by the Ettuvettil Pillamar, he sought refuge at the Kallaraikkal Tharavad. He did not forget the help and so after he vanquished his enemies, the grateful king bestowed the family with many gifts and honors. Some also mention that the locale got its name Poovar when Marthanda Varma observing the nice spring scenery of the river full of fallen flowers called it a poo-aar, a conjunction of the Malayalam words for "flower" and "river".

As matters progressed, MV got the better of the recalcitrant rebels.  After Rama Varma died, MV took over as king. He set up a new system of administration and bypassed the old feudal system consisting of the madampies and the pillas. MV reorganized his military to include Maravars, Pathans and Channars and created a network of spies all around the country to report on the pillas. In one swoop they are rounded up during the arattu procession of 1736 by MV and MV going against all tradition that a Nair noble is never held accountable for such matters, tries and hangs them all, over 42 pillas and madampies (Some of them actually fled to neighboring domains), after which their families are sold to fisher folk and the others excommunicated. Golleness the Dutch commander also records these actions stating emphatically that MV did all this with English support, who in turn had provided arms and ammunition and other kinds of indirect support. MV having got rid of his nemeses, now laid eyes on the neighboring kingdoms and principalities between Venad and Cochin. As time would tell, he captured each of them in the wars that followed. The architect for executing his strategies and providing the leadership through these wars was his confidante and friend, the crafty Dalawa – or chief minister Ramayyan.

We can also see that among the merchants who provided him support and finances through these years was our protagonist, Poku Moosa. Moosa had a very good relationship with MV and even received tax-free land gifts from the crown (e.g. at Paikulam pakuthi – Vilavamkodu). It appears that the rebuilding or renovation of the Kallaraikkal mansion was also done with the king’s support.

When the kulachal battle took place in 1741 (see my article on Lannoy) the VOC were besieged at their mud fort and were desperately waiting for reinforcements and food. Again, we see the hand of Poku Moosa, and we are given to understand that it was the blockade of the area by Moosa’s Pathemaris which ensured that no supplies reached them, resulting in the Dutch surrender to MV.

MV then annexed Kayamkulam which had been supporting the VOC all along. A treaty known as the Treaty of Mannar (1742) had been signed, under which Kayamkulam became a tributary state of Travancore. MV’s taking of Kayamkulam also resulted in great benefits for Moosa as MV gifted the market and its control to Moosa.

Moosa was soon to figure in the many discussions, negotiations and contracts between the VOC and Travancore. He came to the fore in Feb 1942, just after the VOC wanted to conclude a peace deal with MV. Protracted discussions covering reparations and release of prisoners, rebuilding of the forts at Colachel and Thengapatanam, monopoly in trade and sole control of all Christians in Travancore reached nowhere. When MV suggested that either the Cochin king or the English factory mediate, the VOC refused stating that the former was too old and weak while the latter were their biggest competitors. As they argued endlessly, the crafty Dutch attacked and took Attingal, now demanding huge reparations from MV in return for a peace treaty. It was under these circumstances that we see Moosa in Feb 1942 representing the king MV for negotiations, while the Dutch were represented by Ezekiel Rahabi.

A little introduction on Rahabi would provide some context. Rahabi II (1694–1771), was a merchant and community leader from Cochin. In 1726, after the death of his father who migrated from Syria, Rahabi II was appointed by the Dutch East India Company as "chief merchant and agent," and invested with a monopoly of the trade in pepper and other commodities in Malabar. He rose to a position of remarkable influence and prestige; for almost 50 years he was connected with all the company's major financial transactions in Malabar, and undertook for the VOC diplomatic assignments to the king of Travancore (1734–42), to the Zamorin of Calicut (1751), and to other native rulers. He was, in addition to Issac Surgun of Calicut, one of the two prominent Jewish traders of that era. As a person born and brought up in Cochin, Rahabi surely understood and spoke Tamil and Malayalam dialects, so he had no difficulty dealing with emissaries like Moosa.

Negotiations with VOC were tough and Moosa stood his ground. He went on to accuse the Dutch as interlopers, and made it amply clear that they were nothing more than traders and furthermore, had no right to interfere in any Kerala politics. Rahabi was quite upset with all this and returned empty handed to the VOC, complaining that Moosa was firmly behind the brutal and arrogant proposals of MV.

On the warfield, the VOC did not fare well, MV captured Nedumangad, and the Dutch fled to Quilon (Desinganad). The king of Purakkad also went against the Dutch and the Desinganad king escaped to Tiruvalla in Tekkumkur. Led by Duijvenschot, the MV army comprising many Kunji kudis were victorious, Kayamkulam was devastated and the Dutch soldiers defending Desinganad were close to revolt, not being provided food or having been paid. The reinforcements requested from Batavia never arrived. But MV did not succeed in capturing Quilon and after taking advice from the British and seeing that his general Duijvenschot was sick, being short of funds himself, eventually withdrew. In fact, it was a time when we even observe that he raided the temple vaults to mint kaliyan panam for these encounters. A peace deal was finally concluded at Manaddi and the Quilon king had to pay large reparations to MV. In 1743, a formal peace agreement was signed between the VOC and Travancore. If you ask a question why the VOC supported Quilon in all this, the answer is that it was only to keep Quilon as a physical buffer between them and the marauding forces of MV.

In between all this we come across another mention of Pooku Moosa as a power broker, for in 1747, we see the Ali Raja of Arakkal – Cannanore is requesting that Poku Moosa pays off some arrears of his to the English amounting to Rs 15,000/-. It does make it clear that these traders were well connected.

Three years later they were at war again and Qulion and Kayamkulam which were defeated with Lannoy in charge, were fully under MV’s rule. Draconian measures were enacted and the common man had to cough up huge taxes for the upkeep of the MV forces and the continuing war. All lands upto the borders of Cochin were now in the hands of Travancore’s MV by the close of 1750 and MV forced an assurance from the Dutch VOC that they will stay away from any politics between Travancore & Cochin. As reparation, all the jewels in the treasuries of Desinganadu and Thekkumkur were transferred to Travancore. Nevertheless, skirmishes and wars continued with the old regimes not accepting defeat and the treasuries of MV emptied rapidly. He even tried to force the Zamorin to pay up Rs 50,000/- and submit to MV’s suzerainty, but was soundly rebuffed.

During this period, we note that Moosa continued diversifying his trade activities and was involved in supplying various types of cloth to the Dutch 1752 through Tengapatanam, but he did not turn out to be reliable in the minds of the Dutch.

MV clung on and continued his fight to reclaim all territories. Seizing the opportunity, the Zamorin started an invasion of Cochin, from the North. It was during this skirmish in 1754 that the Travancore mud wall or the Nedumkotta modifications and repair were commenced between Vaikom and the Western Ghats, cutting off a rebelling Vadakkumkur from his Northern allies and to stave off the Zamorin’s armies marching South. Soon came a period where MV had to protect not only the Northern flanks bordering Cochin, but also the southern fronts when the troops of Nawab Muhamamd Ali attacked. With Lannoy victorious in fending away the Nawab’s troops, MV pushed towards Cochin.

At this juncture, Ramayyan Dalawa, MV’s right hand, passed away, leaving behind a distraught MV. But the march to Cochin continued and MV can be seen discussing a treaty with Cochin to stop the Zamorin on his tracks. The crafty Zamorin tied up with the feuding Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur princes and brought an end to the MV-Cochin alliance.

By this time, i.e. 1756 we notice that Pooku Moosa has become the chief or Sarvadi Karayakkar of MV, and the Travancore regime, desperate for money to hold on to territories captured and to fight off rebellions, took tough measures in exacting money from the common man. Pokko Moosa was responsible for the Torakkar or tax collectors who did this job. In fact, he was now at the Travanocre court, beside MV and manipulated things in such a way that MV was not influenced by the Dutch with bribes or gifts. He refused to accept gifts sent to the king on the pretext that gifts should be given to all 24 karayakkar of Travancore, not just the king, as was the prevailing norm.

Back in cochin new intrigues were in play. While the Zamorin tried to pull the Dutch to his side in a joint attack on Travancore, MV deputed Pokku Moosa to discuss a joint operation of Travancore, Cochin and the Dutch against the Zamorin. At the same time, the envoys of MV and the Zamorin met at Trichur to divide off the Cochin territory and get rid of the Dutch. Phew! imagine how it would have been. The Dutch, wisely stayed out of all this, refusing to take sides. However, the Zamorin did succeed in signing a peace treaty with the Dutch, in 1758.

An overview of the MV years shows that he adopted a technique of converting merchants of the interior to state officials as we saw in the case of Poku Moosa. This was as you can observe quite different from Calicut where it had always been a concept of free trade, until of course Haider and in reality Tipu came by and destroyed it all. MV adopted various methods to subjugate private merchants to toe the line, and the most common one was to ‘set Nairs on their houses’ meaning intimidation and disfigurement.

1758 was an eventful year, both the reigning Zamorin and Marthanda Varma passed away and a new king came to power in Travancore, the Dharma Raja (Rama Varma). It can be assumed that Pokku Moosa remained as a senior Karyakkar during the initial years and we see him associated with the story of a young Keshava Das.

A small incident involving Moosa and the future Dewan of Travancore, the famous Keshava Das needs to be retold, for completeness. Keshava Das, born to a poor couple (father an astrologer and mother a maid at the palace) moved to Poovar at the age of 12 ( i.e. around 1757) to apprentice under Poku Musa (others mention him as an apprentice of Kochu Musa, Poku Moosa’s co-brother, but it is unlikely that Kochu Musa had access to the king like his brother), who was of course at his peak, as chief Karyakkar for MV. As a tally clerk, he did well and a chance encounter with the king was to change the course of his life. During Moosa’s visit to the palace, he took along the young clerk. The meeting went through the night and the boy fell asleep at the king’s door. The king saw the boy first thing in the morning and considering it a bad omen, had him locked up. It was only after Moosa explained that the boy was his guest that Keshavadas was released and later appointed as a palace assistant. He steadily rose in esteem, being a reliable and sharp lad and got promoted as a Rayasom in Dharmaraja’s court. Before long he rose to the high office of Sarvadhi kariakar. In 1789 he became the popular Dewan of Travancore. Moosa’s support in his younger years proved to be the reason for Das’s success, as you can see.

Poku Moosa continued to be a wealthy financier and trader in Poovar and we see that he advanced money for various causes, but was also a strict moneylender. It appears he even loaned money towards the ship fare of some Catholic priests traveling abroad and the Kalloppara Church nearly faced bankruptcy when it defaulted on repayment to Moosa.

He however did not fare well in the eyes of the Dharmaraja or his administrators and we can see from Commander De Jung’s note that Moosa was arrested and trampled to death under the king's orders, by an elephant in 1758, for financial dishonesty. Perhaps he was avaricious as time went by and paid for his sins, perhaps it was something else, maybe his detractors at work. So that was it, once his patron sponsor was gone, he was also quickly done away with. The old Kallaraikkal Tharavad slowly disintegrated.

New traders like the Konkanis of Cochin and timber lords like Mathu Tharakan took up where he left, until of course the British became the masters of all land. Nevertheless, the 17th -18th centuries was a time when the medieval trader was facing tough times, not only the vagaries of weather, supply and demand, but also the tough political situation and difficult masters. The seesawing fortunes saw many of them fade away and following the arrival of the Mysore sultans they were no longer the power brokers of the past.

Kulashekara Perumals of Travancore – Mark D’Lannaoy
India and the Indian Ocean World – Ashin Das Gupta
Coastal polity and 2nd paper winds of change - Pius Malekandathil
House of memories – Sharat Sundar Rajeev – Hindu, July 3, 2015

About Kochu/Kunju Moosa - Kunju Musa Pulavar, who belonged to the Kallarakkal family of Kerala was the son-in-law of the great merchant Syed Mohamed Marakkayar of Poovar, wrote many poetical works in Tamil, Arab-Tamil and Arab-Malayalam. War Ballads (Padaippor Kappiyangal), Salka Padaiappor and Saidattu Padaippor were his masterpieces. He was the first Muslim poet who introduced war ballads in Islamic Tamil literature and also the first to project women in heroic roles. He had 14 other works to his credit. (Source - Identity crisis and the response of the Muslims, Muslims of Kanyakumari District through the ages - Mustafa Kamal, M A, PhD thesis)

I have a feeling that Kunju Moosa was Pooku Moosa’s co-brother and lived at the Tengapatanam branch of the Kallarakkal family. It also implies that Pooku Moosa’s father in law was perhaps Syed Mohamed Marakkayar.


  1. Manu S

    Exceptional work. Please consolidate all these valuable informations into a book so that everyone could be benefitted by it

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Manu,
    I will do it one of these days!

  1. drsabu

    Regarding the killing of Pokku Moosa in 1758,I would like to bring to your attention what C. V Raman Pillai has to says about Marakkar in his "historical novel" -Ramaraja Bahadur (1918–1919)
    C.V describes the hectic war preparations in Trivandrum against the onslaught by Tipu in 1789 and the help rendered by Pokku Moosa in Travancore's war efforts:

    "The forces to accompany the Diwan from among the cavalry, artillery and the foot soldiers had already been selected and they had set up camp outside his quarters.The materials for the use of this force had already been collected and loaded onto the pathemaris of Pokku Moosa Marakkar , anchored at Valiathura , to be off loaded at Kodungallur . Pokku Moosa Marakkar and other men of the noble houses had arrived to wish the Diwan a prosperous and victorious journey and were staying overnight in the buildings nearby. "

    Raman Pillai, C.V. Rama Raja Bahadur. Translated by Prema Jayakumar, Sahitya Akademi,New Delhi,2003,p. 229