The Arakkal Swaroopam

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 Its Checkered History

In the medieval history of Malabar, there existed but one Muslim kingdom, and that was known as the house of the Arakkals. Legends about the way it came into its being can be read in the Keralolpathi, the Aithihyamala, various travel diaries, as well as the ledgers of the Dutch VOC and the British EIC. They do hold a reader’s attention, and fleeting reports of the power and wealth it possessed at some stages in the past still pop up now and then, in the news media. Let’s take a look are some highlights and the family’s interaction with the many global players who swooped into Malabar to enrich themselves on its spice produce.


Hoary legends and myths connect its beginnings to a Hindu lady from a noble family marrying a Moplah (or an Arabian Moor) lad. Versions of the tale vary, the oft narrated one being that of a Hindu lady of high caste getting caught in a current while bathing in a river, when a Jonakan lad (named Mayen) passing by, rescues her and lends her his dhoti to cover her modesty, thereby resulting in the lady losing caste. The lady eventually marries the Moplah savior and is renamed Fathima. The rich matrilineal family (most allude the family to be the Kolathiris, Kolathunad’s regional rulers) she came from, condones the situation, as it was not her fault and provide her land and subsistence to continue with her life. The resulting Muslim progeny follow the matrilineal customs and certain Hindu traditions, and thus came about the Arakkal Swaroopam. Testament to their cross-religious existence is the permanently lit (Bhadra deepam) silver oil lamp in the family and a made-up bed, waiting for the arrival of the departed Perumal, and a few more customs as will be seen, later on.

Another version alludes to a Kolathiri minister Aryankulangara Nayar converting to become Muhammed Ali in the 11th century. The version tells us that Muhammad Ali married the outcasted Kolathiri girl to create the Arakkal (a corruption of Aryankulangara) Swaroopam, with limited Swaroopam rights (landed but powerless). Arakkal others say, was purportedly arai-kal or 1/8th of the Kolathiri possessions, which she inherited. As a matrilineal family, the bibi or the matriarch held rights overall properties while the Azhi or Ali Raja, her husband, held the title. Some say that the Kolathiri Raja handed over the Azhi or rights over the sea and the Laccadive islands to the Beebi’s family thus creating the title Azhi Raja which over time morphed to the Adi Raja or the Ali Raja. The royal title passed to the senior-most member of the family and while the male king would be called Ali Raja or Adi Raja (‘lord of the sea’), the senior matriarch would be titled the Arakkal Beevi.

There is also a myth of the beebi being the sister (named Sree Devi) of the Cheraman Perumal who went to Mecca. She had established the Arasankulangara Kovilakom at Dharmadom (Dharmapatanam). After receiving a message from her brother from Mecca, sent through a group deputed from Arabia to spread Islam in Malabar, she converts to Islam, together with her son Mahabali and marries a man named Hussayin Bin Ahmed ibn Malikkil Madammiya, the person who brought her the letter from the Perumal. It is further stated that her son Mahabali, who converted, was the first Arakkal Adi Raja Sultan Ali. Cordial relations continued between the Kolathiri and the Arrakal swaroopams, and each are represented on important occasions, at the other. For example, when a dignitary in Arakkal dies, the burial shroud is gifted by the Koathiri and when the Kolathiri dignitary dies, the sandalwood for cremation is provided by Arakkal. There is also a legend that the finance and military (ceremonially demonstrated by the Adi Raja standing with a drawn sword on a treasure chest) for any Kolathiri conquest was extended by the Arakkals, so also the elephants required for functions and wars. In those days there used to be a saying that Arakkal was half Chirakkal, symbolizing prestige and status.

The myth narrated by Kottarthil Shankunni separates the Arakkal- Kolathiri outcasted matrimony and the Aryankulangara matrimony into Arakkal, by 8 centuries. He places the first incident of the girl getting caught in the river in the 7th century, after which the Arakkal house is established. Later the Muhammad Ali i.e., the converted Aryankulnagara Nayar marries a girl from this well-established Arakkal family in the 15-16th century.

There are even more myths, such as the one involving Malik Dinar, who had been deputed to spread Islam in Malabar, from Mecca, his association with one Arakkal Parambu Mahin (the Vannan or Mannan Appu who became Mahin) and the war at Dharmadom, where they defeated the Chirakkal Raja, after which Mahin married the Chirakkal Thamburati. They then moved to Cannanore to establish the House of Arakkal, the Arakkal Kettu – or the Arakkal Palace.

Whatever be the reality concerning its origin, the ‘House of Arakkal’ rose to prominence in the medieval years, functioning as the admirals and ship runners for the Kolathunad Rajas, as the managers of the Cannanore markets, and as the administrators of the Laccadive and Maldives islands. Later on, with changing politics, they parted ways with the Kolathiri Raja, siding with the Mysore rulers, and established their relations with the Dutch VOC and the British EIC, details of which, we will get into.

Connections to Mammali Marakkar

Studies on the Mammali Marakkar (Regent of the Seas) popularized in the Portuguese annals reveal that this Marakkar held sway over the region as well as the trade with the Portuguese, so also the administrative control over the Laccadive and Maldives until the 16th century. From 1545 it can be seen that the name or title Mammalli Marakkar is no longer mentioned, while the Ali or Adi Raja takes over as the one in charge of the Islands outlying the Malabar coast. Based on the conjecture that Tome Pires confused the name Arakkal with Marakkar, Mammali Marakkar may always have been Mammali (Mohammed Ali) Arakkal, thus connecting up the history of the Arakkal Sawroopam to the twin legends from the 7th and 16th centuries.

Rivalry with Kolathiri – Portuguese period

Sometime in the 16th century, the relations between the Arakkal Swaroopam and the Kolathiri turned to rivalry and frequent conflicts could be observed ever since. The split started with the death of Balia Hassan who had been spearheading the 1520’s protests and naval retaliation against the Portuguese after the Portuguese implemented a shipping blockade to gain a spice monopoly (Arakkal frequently teaming up with the Kutti Ali – Kunhali working for the Zamorins). At this point, Vasco Da Gama who was on his deathbed at Cochin appears to have convinced the Kolathiri (based on the premise that the Moplahs were soon going to take over control of his lands) to hand an important Moplah chief - purportedly Balia Hasan (Mamale’s nephew), or his relative (Zainuddin Makhdoom states – Abu Bakkar Ali and Kunhi Soopy were killed by the Portuguese in 1545 – Abu Bakker was Ali Raja’s uncle and Kunhi Soopy his father)  or even the Ali Raja himself to the Portuguese, who was then jailed for many months and later executed publicly in a horrible fashion. The Kolathiri lost face when the Portuguese took local law and order into their hands and the Moplahs losing faith in the ruler, consequently looking up to the Arakkal family for further support. This is considered to be the origin of the rivalry between the Kolathunad rulers and the house of Arakkal.

Anyway, sometime between the 16th and 17th centuries, the Laccadive islands are ceded to the Arakkal Ali Raja, by the Kolathiri Raja as Jagir for a peshkush of 18,000 Panams, while we also note that the Arakkal family moved from Dharmadom, to Cannanore. Most reports mention that the Arakkals ruled over the outlying islands since then, with a firm hand and the Arakkal representatives who were sent as island Amins and administrators, were greedy and casteist, resulting in numerous conflicts and quarrels in the islands, details which we covered in earlier studies.

The Portuguese period evidenced several conflicts between the Ali Raja and the franks, but by the 17th century, Cannanore was peaceful and the Kolathiri, the Portuguese and the Muslims settled down to conduct normal trade. Though the Arakkals had separated from the Kolathiris, they lacked nominal power and authority in Kolathunad, but holding a Swaroopam title. They could bring in 20,000 men to a battle and possessed the Laccadives, the port and markets of Cannanore, control over an area upto 10 miles south of Cannnaore , and some villages such as Kanathur and Kannothanchala. Ali Raja’s name was so well known among the Portuguese and other Europeans that they named the 9-degree channel separating Minicoy from the Laccadive Islands as "Mammali’s Channel” after acknowledging the Arakkal family’s connection with the Maldives and the Laccadives.

The Dutch and the British

Royal Emblem
After the Dutch took over the Portuguese fort in 1663, the quarrel between the Arakkal Ali Raja (they called him Adersia) and the Dutch started over Opium trade when they took over the opium rights of the Kolathiri. Even though a treaty was eventually established in 1664, frequent hostilities were seen and we witness a case of some 200 Dutchmen being massacred by the Ali Raja in a battle.

The British inserted themselves into the rivalry between the Ali Raja and the Kolathiri when open conflict started between these two in 1718-1721, by which time, the Ali Raja had become quite powerful.  The English supported the Kolathiri while the Dutch supplied arms and ammunition to the Arakkals. Eventually, Robert Adams mediated and in the resulting agreement, the Arakkal Ali Raja agreed to pay war indemnity to the Kolathiri, while retaining Cannanore. Conflict continued and the Kolathiri broke away from the British and with the support of the Cochin Raja, allied with the Dutch in 1730 on condition that the Dutch get rid of the Ali Raja and his people, in return for the Dutch to raze down the fort at Cannanore and cede them the island of Dharmadom. The alarmed British countered with a huge monetary offer, which the Ali Raja accepted and thus the Dutch were eased out.

Nevertheless, a threat by Canarese forces brought the Ali Raja and the Kolathiri together, for a short time, but the Canarese attacked in 1732 and overran the entire kingdom as well as the Ali Raja’s domain. Eventually, the Dutch, British, and the Kolathunad Nairs teamed up to evict the Canarese in 1736 (the Canarese attacked again in 1737, but this was quickly settled with British mediation and after a compensation was agreed to, conceding valuable territory). In the meantime, the British cleverly usurped Dharmadom from the Beebi. Hostility with the Canarese continued until 1740 and the Arakkal Beevi for a short time supported the Canarese with soldiers! Later on, the Ali Raja sought support from the French, many intrigues followed and an uneasy situation prevailed with so many parties at play in the region – the Ali Raja, Kolathiri, Canarese, British, Dutch, Mahrattas, French, all parties quarreling, defaulting on agreements and so on, making the area a very undesirable one indeed, where anarchy thrived.

Arrival of Mysore Sultans

The connections between Hyder and the Ali Raja started just after the Ali Raja allied himself with the Zamorin in the fight against Travancore. This did not go quite well and even though an indemnity amount was agreed, the Ali Raja did not get paid and went on the warpath against the Zamorin, causing havoc at Ponnani and Calicut. Hyder by then had taken Bednur and was soon in control over the region up to the Kolathunad border. Seeing an opportunity to get rid of the Kolathiri and become the master of Kolathunad, the Ali Raja openly defied the Kolathiri by hoisting a golden spire over the Arakkal Kettu and allied with Hyder Ali. It is at then that Ali Raja claiming to be the local Islamic leader, impressed Hyder of the possibilities of taking over the entire Malabar area. At this juncture, the Ali Raja had been considered a rallying point for all Moplahs of Malabar.

In the meantime, Hyder exhorted Ali Raja to form a fleet to aid his Malabar conquests, but Ali Raja used the opportunity to sail to Maldives and unseat/blind and imprison the king there. Hyder did not approve of this and replaced Ali Raja’s fleet command with an English admiral named Stannet. We will study all this and Hyder’s navy, in a later article.

When Hyder got the next opportunity and invitation from the Palghat Achan, he found support from the Ali Raja who together with a recalcitrant prince of the Kolathiri family, named Kapu Thamban invited Hyder in 1766 up north, to support them in unseating the Kolathiri. We saw in previous articles how the Ali Raja’s forces teamed up with local Moplahs and Hyder’s army, against the Nair forces of the Zamorin and brought an end to the Zamorin’s rule as well, in 1766. Hyder overran Kolathunad (renamed it Kushanabad) and entrusted its administration to Ali Raja. Arguments with the English continued, and a state of civil war ensued with Nair guerilla attacks, that Ali Raja and his forces could not counter. Eventually, Hyder, disgusted with the affairs, came in and handed overall administration and powers to the Kapu Thamban in 1777, but retaining Ali Raja, as the governor.

With all trade dwindling, the Dutch decided to abandon Cannanore and sold off the St Angelo fort to the Ali Raja. Together with the navy which he had strengthened with Mysore resources, the Ali Raja was even more powerful. From the records, we can also see that he and his successors then refused to pay some of the overdue debts of this acquisition, to the Dutch VOC, which the frustrated Dutch had no choice but to write off.

The British times

Warring continued with the Arakkal house supporting the French at Mahe in their battles against the British. When a British ship ‘Superb’ capsized, the Beebi imprisoned some 100 English sailors, inviting strong British retaliation under the leadership of Brig. Macleod who attacked the Cannanore fort defeated the Beebi’s forces and threatened to deport her unless a ransom of Rs 2 Lakhs was paid. Lots of intrigues can be seen in Macleod’s unilateral actions. He underreported the ransom and partook in even more acts of corruption. A temporary treaty was put into effect with Tipu being granted commercial privileges while the Arakkal Beebi Bulea got back some property. Nevertheless, even though they got back control of Cannanore, the family was in dire straits, ever after.

Out at the Laccadive islands, the islanders revolted against the Beebi and submitted their complaints to Tipu who took over the administration, but gave the Beebi a small Jagir over just the Chalat and Kunnot islands, of Rs 7,380/-. Tipu to ensure the support of Malabar Moplahs also made sure that he did not upset the Arakkals, got his son Abdul Khaliq betrothed to the Beebi’s daughter in 1788 (but the actual marriage never took place!!). So, all the talk about her being Tipu’s relative in various reports is not legally valid.

The Travancore conquest plan was initiated by Tipu afterward and the Beebi secretly supported him (secretly since she could not go against the British after having signed the treaty following the Macleod affair). When she saw the threat of defeat after Tipu’s losses, she signed a formal treaty again with the British and fought halfheartedly against Tipu’s forces at Randathara. When the British, incensed over this treachery arrived with a naval force at Tellicherry, the Beebi with self-interest in mind, unconditionally surrendered in 1791 and agreed to direct all Moplahs, to support the British, instead.

The British continued to hound her incessantly and progressively acquired the Laccadive trade, the lucrative Arabia trade and by the 19th century, she had ceded everything to the EIC who then used legal and bureaucratic arguments to take over whatever was left, from both the Kolathiri’s and the Beebi. The acquisition of the Laccadives by the British, bypassing the Beebi, is a long complex subject riddled with a lot of legalese, so I won’t get into it.

At that period, the Arakkal properties (covering over 8 acres) and possessions were indeed majestic. On a religious side, they did build many mosques and boasted a great collection of religious books and calligraphy. The Beebi had melkoyma or ruling authority over 46 mosques as well, demonstrating the family’s reach. Interestingly, the family as well as the Cannanore Muslims under its leadership, did not partake in the 1921 Moplah revolt at Eranad.

KKN Kurup explains - Joint commissioners testified to the "foreign trade carried on by the Beebi in her seven vessels which navigate and trade principally under her Own flag from Bengal to the gulfs in all the productions of the intermediate countries". Even in 1850's the House had two ships named Hydross and Samadani. But the intermittent wars in the mainland and the mismanagement of the House and finally the English conquest were mainly responsible for its financial collapse.

The properties of the House were generally found under three categories ie.,Arakkal Pandaram, Puthiya Pandikasala and Valiya pandikasala. It is supposed that the Pandaram property is the traditional possession of the Family. Valiya Pandikasala may be a later addition through the profits of trade. Puthiya Pandikasala aiso may be a later development. The huge palace buildings situated on the southern bank opposite the Fort St. Angelo with a picturesque mosque close by have majestic and significant appearances from the fort Maidan. There was a spacious hall called “Mahal" attached to the palace, built under the orders of Tippu, which was demolished only a decade ago. The "Sultan's Canal" about two miles length was constructed by this House when it managed the Kolathiri domains under Hyder Ali. This canal adjoins the Pazhayangadi railway station and has importance as a linking water channel for coastal navigation.

In some British correspondence, the letters start as I, Adiraja, the bebee of Cannanore and in some others as I Bebee Bulea Princess of Cannanore, signifying that Ali Raja was a title and not changed by gender to Adi (Azhi) Rani. In some cases, it was Sultan Adi raja, Amina Beebi or Arakkal. During her dark days, she saw some support from the Chowakaran Moosa, about whom we discussed earlier.

Arakkal house today

Nothing much remains, like those of other medieval feudal lords The majestic Arakkal Kettu is still there, converted into a museum with a 92-year-old matriarch lording over it, as the titular Beevi, these days. Recently when the Saudi government announced compensation over the demolishing of a lodge meant to house pilgrims from Malabar, the Arakkal house laid claims stating they had been related to the builder, the Keyi’s of Tellicherry. But the claim, the last attempt at regaining lost glory, was not allowed and I believe the monies were directed to the waqf board, instead.

Their ascent and descent, games in pitting religions against each other, their timely and untimely alignments with greedy colonialists, and forays at building alliances with stronger and larger global powers demonstrate the standing and status the House of Arakkal once possessed.  Lack of understanding of their enemy, their inability to adapt to the changing world, and most of all, a lack of advanced education, resulted in the family being deprived of much of their ample assets. But I guess that is the way of the world.


The Ali Rajas of Cannanore – KKN Kurup
Kerala under Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan - CK Kareem
Kerala state Gazetteers - Cannanore
Kannurkotta – Balakrishnan
Mappila Kizhala Padanangal – Dr KK Muhammad
Tuhfat al Mujahideen - Zainuddin Makhdoom
Dutch power in Kerala – MO Koshy
Mappila Muslims of Kerala - Roland E Miller
Mappila Muslim Culture, how a Historic Muslim Community in India Has Blended Tradition and modernity - Roland E Miller
Regent of the Sea – Genvieve Bouchon
Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier: The Mappilas of Malabar, 1498-1922- Stephen Dale
Malabar Manual – W Logan




  1. MANU S


  1. Maddy

    Thanks Manu
    Glad you stopped by