History of Kunjali Marakkar – the Lion of Indian Seas

Kunjali Marakkar (alternatively spelled Kunhali Marakkar) was the title inherited by the Admiral of the fleet of the Samoothiri / Zamorin, the king of Kozhikode / Calicut, in present-day Kerala, India. There were four Kunjali Marakkars whose war tactics defended against the Portuguese invasion from 1520 to 1600. The Kunjali Marakkars are credited with organizing the first naval defense of the Indian coast.

The sword used by the last Kunjali Marakkar at the mosque at Kottakkal, Vatakara

The title of Marakkar was given by the Zamorin. It may have been derived from the Malayalam language word marakkalam meaning ‘boat,’ and kar, a termination, showing possession.

According to popular belief, the Kunjali Marakkars came from Arabia. But they shifted their trade base to Kochi and then migrated to Ponnani in the Zamorin’s dominion when the Portuguese fleets came to Kingdom of Cochin. They offered their men, ships and wealth against the Portuguese to the Zamorin of Calicut. The king took them into his service and eventually they became the Admirals of his fleet. Another version suggests that they were merchants from Cairo, Egypt who settled in Kozhikode and joined the Zamorin’s navy

Zamorins – the rulers of Kozhikode (1124 A.D – 1806 A.D) was one of the most talked-about, powerful, wealthy and strong kingdoms in India. This was possible through the cordial trade relation the Arab, Chinese and Roman traders had with the people of Malabar for centuries. Though Zamorins followed Hinduism, they were tolerant of other religious ideas and business relations.

The advent of the Portuguese to Malabar

This scenario changed with the arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1497. Both Zamorin and Gama rubbed each other in the wrong way and a friendly trade talk did not happen. Though Gama returned to Lisbon, he came back to Kozhikode again in 1503 with a strong intention to spread Christianity and monopolize spice trade. Steadily, the Portuguese began to dictate terms of trade to evict Arab traders from the Malabar. They had the audacity to mandate that any ship carrying profitable goods even if it is of Indian origin, had to have a pass from the Portuguese, else they were confiscated. Now, this was naturally not acceptable to the Zamorins.

Moreover, to take over the trade rights belonging to the local Muslim community and to destabilize the Zamorin, the Portuguese befriended Cochin Raja to be their trade partner. This led to a war between the Zamorins of Kozhikode and the Kochi Raja. Thus, for the first time, the region witnessed rivalries, betrayal, violence and bloodshed.

Ancestral home of Kunjali Marakkar at Iringal, Kottakkal, near Calicut, now preserved as a Museum

Appointing Kunjali Marakkar – Beginning of Kunjali Marakkar history

In this battle, Ismail Marakkar – a rich Muslim marine merchant who was based in Kochi, secretly helped the Zamorin by offering his men and few ships. But they were all destroyed by the Portuguese. Marakkar family then left for Ponnani in the Zamorin’s dominion. From 1507 to 1524, the Portuguese attacked Ponnani and destroyed the ships and forces of Zamorin. These continuous attacks by the Portuguese were affecting the sea trade and the income of the kingdom. The traders here moved further north, probably in Kottakkal. Few of these sea traders approached the Zamorin with their own plan to retaliate. Zamorin picked Kutti Ahmed Ali as the naval admiral of his fleet and gave him the title of ‘Kunjali Marakkar‘ and entrusted to protect the sea.

Though there is no clear picture of the Marakkar genealogy as per Kunjali Marakkar history, I believe in the version that suggests they were merchants from Egypt who settled down in Kochi for trade and later moved to Kozhikode. Kunjali Marakkar I (1520 – 1531), Kunjali Marakkar II (1531 – 1571), Kunjali Marakkar III (1571 – 1595) and Kunjali Marakkar IV (1595 – 1600) had fought eighty years of relentless war against the Portuguese. They had no warships, cannons and technology to match the Portuguese; instead had brilliant war strategies, qualities to lead the pack and excelled at guerrilla warfare at sea.

As years passed by, the warfare continued. One after another each Marakkar did their duties with utmost zest and devotion.  But not all rulers were the same, some made thoughtless decisions. One of the historical blunders was a peace treaty the Zamorin signed with the Portuguese in 1528 that allowed them to build a fort at Ponnani, which was a strategic position. This was the first instance when the relation between the Zamorin and the Muslim seamen turned sour. This was a major turn in Kunjali Marakkar history.

Kunjali-IV gained popularity not only among his people but he assisted other enemies of the Portuguese like the Rani of Ullal and Sulthan of Bijapur. In 1598, the Portuguese convinced the Zamorin that Marakkar IV intended to take over his Kingdom to create a Muslim empire. In an act of betrayal, the Zamorin joined hands with the Portuguese who brutally killed him.

The bravery of Kunjali Marakkar is one that the Mappila community of North Malabar cherishes fondly till date, as the power of Zamorin was always connected with the sea power of the Kunjalis. With the death of Kunjali Marakkar IV in 1600, the political and economic power structure of the kingdom of Zamorin dwindled too. The kingdom of Kozhikode was exposed to colonialism. Though the Portuguese succeeded in completely impeding trade with the Arabs, the Dutch entered the trading scene by 1653 and dominated Kochi, Kannur and Kozhikode. Slowly, the commercial hub shifted to Kochi.

Inscriptions on the Kunjali Marakkar Memorial at Kottakkal, Vatakara

Hero worship of the Marakkars

For the Portuguese, Vasco da Gama is definitely a hero. While we should not judge the events of the 15th century with the morals we consider right in the 21st century, what we should proactively do is celebrate our national heroes in a bigger way. Probably the two Malayalam movies that are slated to release in 2020 is a move in this direction.

There is a temple dedicated to “Kunjali Maraikkayar” at Madhavan Kurichi village in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu. Known as perumal temple, it is situated near to Manapad which was a Portugeuse stronghold in the 16th century. Villagers worship Maraikkayar as a deity and observe annual festivals. Stories of Maraikkayar are part of their Villu Paatu songs.[13]
Cochin University of Science and Technology in Cochin, Kerala, India, started a Marine Engineering department named after Kunjali II as Kunjali Marakkar School of Marine Engineering in 2003.
The Indian Navy shore-based naval air training centre at Colaba, Mumbai is named Naval Maritime Academy INS Kunjali II in honour of the second Marakkar.

The Kunjali Marakkar Memorial erected by the Indian navy at Kottakkal, Vatakara

The Indian Department of Post issued a Rupee 3 colour stamp commemorating the maritime heritage of Kunjali Marakkar on 17 December 2000 on the 400th anniversary of the end of the Marakkars. The stamp design shows the war-paroe, a small craft used by the Kunjalis, which, manned by just 30–40 men each, could be rowed through lagoons and narrow waters. Several of these crafts were deployed at strategic points and they would emerge from small creeks and inconspicuous estuaries, attack the Portuguese ships at will, inflict heavy damage and casualties by setting fire to their sails and get back into the safety of shallow waters. In these guerilla raids, the Marakkars had shown remarkable prowess.
At Iringal, a village about 35 km north of Kozhikode, a small museum has been built in a hut that used to belong to the Marakkar family, with collection of ancient swords, cannonballs and knives. This is maintained by the State Archeology Dept
The Kunjali Marakkar Centre for West Asian Studies at Calicut University is named in honour of Kunjali Marakkar.

March 16, 1600 was a tragic moment in the history of Kerala as the day marked the surrender of Muhammed Marakar, the Kunjali Marakkar IV, who was later sent to the gallows in Goa by the Portuguese for waging continuous naval warfare against them from 1595. It also marked the end of hundred years of relentless naval resistance put up by four generations of Kunjali Marakkars, the hereditary naval chieftains of the Zamorins of Calicut, against the attempted domination by the Portuguese.

The famed naval exploits of Marakkars against the Portuguese has had lasting political, social and cultural consequences in the region in the centuries to come. Mohammed Marakkar had inherited the legacy of anti-colonial fight from his grand uncle and Pattu Marakkar, the third veteran fighter against European expansion in Asia.

The Marakkars belonged to a seafaring community of Arab lineage whose ancestors had migrated to the Coromandel coast and later moved to Kochi. They shifted to Ponnani and offered their services to the Zamorin after the Portuguese established themselves in Kochi in the 16th century.

Though the Marakkars had been the trusted naval chieftains of the Zamorins and had helped mount the first naval defense of the coast, the permission accorded by the Zamorin to the Portuguese to construct a fortress at Ponnani, considered a very strategic location, left Kunjali Marakkar offended and sowed the seeds of a rift that led to their shift to Kottakkal near Vadakara in the northern portion of Zamorin’s territory.

By then, repeated successes against the Portuguese had made Marakkar a powerful force to contend with in the west coast. Also, he made efforts to promote an alliance by reaching out to the Sultan of Bijapur, Queen of Ullal and rulers of Colombo and Egypt to fight the Portuguese, though it did not succeed due to lack of proper strategy.

All this unnerved the Zamorin leading to mistrust between the two as the ruler thought that his naval chief would pose a threat to his authority. Adding to it, Kunjali Marakkar assumed the title `Lord of the Sea’, and further deepened the Zamorin’s fear that Marakkar would carve out an independent province in the northern boundary of his kingdom. A popular legend about the breakup involved the story of the vassal cutting off the tail of the royal elephant, but it is only a legend and the real reasons for the rift were borne more out of the medieval character of feudalism.

Looking to capitalize on the rift between their arch enemy, Marakkar and Zamorin, the Portuguese viceroy sent Francisco Rodrigues, a missionary, to the court of Zamorin and his advice also led to inflammation of the rift between them. Soon the Zamorin and the Portuguese entered into a treaty to capture Marakkar and liquidate his power. The Portuguese attacked the fortifications of Marakkar at Kottakkal and in the first encounter the combined forces were defeated by Marakkar. However, the combined forces of Portuguese captain André Furtado de Mendonça and Zamorin mounted a major naval assault against Marakkar in 1599 with all the might they could amass.

With the supplies to the fort being cut off by the Portuguese, the inhabitants were short of food and facing starvation. Left with no choice, Marakkar took the stand that he would surrender his sword only to his overlord, the Zamorin. Finally on March 16, Marakkar surrendered before the Zamorin but the latter could not keep his word of an honourable surrender and Furtardo and his army captured him. He was taken to Goa along with 40 other prisoners and imprisoned and later in violation of the terms of surrender was hanged and his corpse cut into pieces. It is believed that his head was severed and salted and sent to Cannanore by the Portuguese to threaten local chieftains.

On the military front, Marakkars didn’t have warships and armaments to match the Portuguese but they developed ingenious war strategies and used highly mobile small vessels (war paros) for guerrilla warfare at sea against the armed and fortified trade of the Portuguese. The Marakkars were the best admirals of the 16th century in the whole world. Their hit-and-run tactics are part of naval warfare lore and were later used even by the Indian Navy. Their use of small vessels, deploying of small flotillas and light posts are examples of their genius.

More importantly on the social and cultural front, I would say that if Kunjali Marakkar and Zamorin had not fought for 100 years for the freedom of the Arabian Sea, our language and culture could not have developed the way it has.

For instance, in Goa, the xenophobic Portuguese had banned Konkani and had decreed that speaking and writing in that language will be met with severe punishment. That is why Konkani language has to be written in Devanagiri.

Father of Malayalam language Thunchath Ezhuthachan from Tirur was able to write his Ramayana and develop Malayalam script also due to the continuous martyrdom of the Muslim naval soldiers in the Arabian Sea. Also there is a belief among Arab scholars that Albuquerque, the Portuguese viceroy in India, had a plan to destroy Kaaba, the holy place of Muslims, and destroy Mohammedanism on account of religious hatred. The continuous naval resistance by the Marakkars in the Malabar coast could have come in the way of those plans.

While the Zamorins did not have a constant stand on foreign policy and often reconciled with the Portuguese, the Marakkars for over a century maintained their resolute stand against them, viewing them as imperialists and political agents. In that sense, Marakkar had a streak of nascent nationalism in him as freedom in the seas was closely connected to their trade and lives. Whereas, the rulers of Kochi cooperated with the Portuguese and it became a Portuguese colony.

The lives and times of Marakkars had also seen Muslims and Nairs fighting jointly to capture the Chaliyam fort of the Portuguese after Sheikh Zainuddin Makhdoom II called for jihad against the Portuguese. After 420 years of Marakkar’s martyrdom we have to think of a suitable memorial for these veterans of naval encounters and harbingers of freedom of Arabian Sea.

(The writer is a noted historian and scholar and former vice chancellor of Calicut University KKN Kurup)

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