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Maraicayar or Maraicar (மரைக்காயர்) refer to a distinctive Tamil and Malayalam-speaking Muslim people of the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala in India and Sri Lanka. The word Maraicayar originates from the combinations of Tamil words, maraikalam(wooden boat)+rayar(king). Moor is According to many other historians, Moppila or Moplah is Maha Pillai (great son) and Marakkar means (Marakkalam is a wooden boat) ‘boatmen’.

KVK Iyer says 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)

Traditionally, the Maraicars engaged in mercantile commerce. They can be found along coastal areas of the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India. Also in Sri Lanka.

The Jainism and Buddhism was under stress by resurgent Hinduism when Islam was introduced to Tamil Nadu and Kerala regions of southern India (650–750 AD). The majority of Jains embraced Islam and they still retain some Jain habits.[9]

Kayalpatnam and Maricar[edit]

Maricar's hail from Kayalpatnam, a seashore town in Southern Tamil Nadu, India which is steeped in history. Arab traders had a flourishing business in South India with the Pandian Kingdom (capital at Madurai), the rulers of Malabar (Kerala) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Kayalpatnam was having near a major international port Kulasekharapatnam with trade relations with the Arabs, Europeans & Chinese. The great international traveler of yore, Marco Polo had visited Kayalpatnam in the Middle Ages and described it as a thriving international port.

With the advent of Islam, these Arab traders introduced the new faith in the region. They married amongst the local population and their descendents are the present day population of Kulasekarapatnam, Kayalpatnam, Kilakarai, Maricarpatnam, Adirampattinam, Tondi, Karaikal etc. along the Tamil Nadu coast; many settlements on the Malabar / Kerala coast and the southern sea coast of Ceylon like Galle, Batticola.

The main item of trade of the Arabs was natural pearls fished in the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Strait separating Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from South India and horses. These pearls were exchanged with horses brought from Arabia.

The period[edit]

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.

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.

Marakkars and Marakkayars[edit]

Dr. J.B.P.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 Labbais 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, Kulasekarapattinam, 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.

Lebbai are one of the four Muslim groups in Tamil Nadu State. The Rowther, Marakkayar, and Kayalar form the rest of the Islamic community. Lebbai and Rowthers follow the Hanafi madhab while Kayalar and Marakkayar belong to the Shafi 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. Lebbai and Rowther predominate in the ASEAN.

Marakkars of Kottakal (Kerala)[edit]

In Kerala Marakkar also known as Marikkars are mostly concentrated in and around Malabar. They were traditionally boatmen.[1]

According to tradition, Marakkars were originally marine merchants of Kochi who left for Ponnani in the Samoothiri Raja's dominion when the Portuguese came to Kochi. They offered their men, ships and wealth in the defence of their motherland to the Samoothiri of Kozhikode-The Raja took them into his service and eventually they became the Admirals of his fleet. They served as the naval chiefs in the Zamorin's army. Kunjali Marakkar, one of the first Keralites to rebel against the British, hailed from the Marikkar community.[2]

Back to origins[edit]

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 and Malaysia.

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.

But a surprising twist comes by way of a paragraph in Pavithran’s book ‘The British commission to India’. He writes in pg 150 - A daring Thiya youth from Badagara embraced Islam. He was named Kunhali. He added Marakkar to his name, Marakkar means converted……..He was related to Madathil Koru Moopan, a trader having ships and the first president of Sreekandeshawara temple of Calicut, consecrated by Sree Narayana Guru. However this specific claim lacks in credence.

So-called matrilineal ‘Kudi maraikkars’ occur in 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 by Dennis B. McGilvray. They are also Moplah migrants from Malabar. In addition to Kudi Marakkars, there are plenty of regular Marakkar trading families as well in Ceylon.

Present circumstances[edit]

Traditionally, Maricars have been known for maritime trade throughout east Asia, but now, owing to better education, many of the community are professionals. The Kilakarai Maricars have played a big role in setting up educational institutes all over Tamil Nadu for the betterment of Tamil Muslims and Muslims in general. A lot of Maricars have connections with the Persian Gulf, Malaysia and Singapore. Some Maricars have moved to the UK, France and the US.

It is a very close-knit community and they marry amongst themselves to maintain the lineage. Traditionally they follow the Shafi school of thought, as most of the Arabs who did trade with these regions followed that madhab.

The Maricars have a distinct Arab-Tamil composite culture and are traditionally very conservative. There was a time when the language had a strong Arabic flavour as most of their vocabulary was derived from pure Arab and classical Tamil.

Some examples of this mix of Arab and Tamil vocabulary are illustrated below:

  • Khair, Allah podhumanavan. ("Whatever! God is sufficient for me!")
  • Inge konjam Raahatha irukkum. ("It will be comfortable here.")
  • Balaah Museebath Subuhu thozhuthal neengidum. ("All misfortune and misery will be removed by the dawn prayer.")

Maraikayar Pattinam is a small place in the Ramanathapuram district. The people living there are called Maraikayars. Even before two generations they were operating Marakalam 'wooden ships' to the entire world, especially to the Persian Gulf, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and some European countries. The current generation has diversified into many areas apart from their seafaring traditions, but there are still some older people in Maraikayar Pattinam who traveled to many countries by the Marakalam.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Kunhali Marikkars: myth and reality". The Hindu. 2005-03-01. Retrieved 2009-10-26. 
  • Kudi Maraikayar of eastern Sri Lanka
  • Muslim Identity, Print Culture, and the Dravidian Factor in Tamil Nadu - Dr.J.B.P.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 - Dr.J.B.P.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

External links[edit]