Marakkar/Maricar/Marikkar (Tamil: Marrakayar)(Sinhalese: Marakkala), is a South Asian Muslim community found in parts of Indian states of Tamil Nadu (the Palk Strait & Coromandel Coast), Kerala and in Sri Lanka. The Marakkars speak Tamil in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka and Malayalam in Kerala. The community claim ancestry from marriages between early Arab Muslim traders of the high seas and indigenous Mukkuvar coastal women in Sri Lanka.
The Islamized Arabs who arrived on the Coromandel coast brought Islamic values and customs with them and intermarried with the indigenous women who followed the local Hindu customs. Naturally, their children will have imbibed both the Islamic and the local values and transmitted both to their descendants. From the outset, the Arabs must, in all probability, have asserted the centrality of the Islamic values in their relationship with the local women, at the same time making the necessary adjustments to local customs. This is the pattern that appears to have survived to this day.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Most Marakkayars, are in some way or other, connected to foreign trade through which they became more advanced economically and socially than the other Muslim groups in the locality and even many Hindu sub-castes.
The Marakkars were a known to be a powerful maritime spice trading community in the medieval South Asia. They traded in and with locations such as Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia in East Asia and South Asia, Maldives and Sri Lanka. The Marakayar's have dominated the educational and economic landscape in Tamil Nadu since the 17th century.
There are two main hypothesis regarding the etymology of the term 'Marrakayar', and its various forms.
The first being from the term 'Marakalarayar' which may mean those who controlled or owned boats. In Tamil, 'marakalam' signifies 'wooden boat' and 'rayar' means 'king' that it is the association of these two words that gives Marakkayar.
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)
The second theory was derived from the arrival of Yemeni Arab royals (some of the first immigrants of this class) seeking refuge from persecutions who came by boats called 'markabs' in Arabic, and settled on the east coast. Their arrival in 'markabs', led to them being called Marakkayar by the local people, which literally means 'boat people'.
According to tradition, the Kunjali Marakkars were maritime merchants of Arab descent who supported the trade in the Indian ocean who settled in the coastal regions of Kayalpattinam, Kilakarai, Thoothukudi, Nagore and Karaikal. But they shifted their trade to Kochi and then migrated to Ponnani in the Zamorin's dominion when the Portuguese fleets came to Kingdom of CochinWith the emergence of the Portuguese in India, some Marakkars were forced to take up arms and enlist themselves in service of the Hindu king (the zamorin) of Calicut. The Marakkar naval chiefs of the Calicut were known as Kunjali Marakkars. The seamen were famous for their naval guerrilla warfare and hand-to-hand fighting on board. The Marakkar vessels -- small, lightly armed and highly mobile -- were a major threat to the Portuguese shipping all along the Indian west coast.
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. Malabari Marakkars are credited with organizing the first naval defence of the Indian coast.
The Arabic language brought by the early merchants is no longer spoken, though many Arabic words and phrases are still commonly used. Until the recent past, the Tamil Muslim minority employed Arwi as their native language, though this is also extinct as a spoken language. They today use Tamil as their primary language with influence from Arabic. Many Arabic and Arabized words exist in the form of Tamil spoken by Marakkars. Among many examples, greetings and blessings are exchanged in Arabic instead of Tamil, such as Assalamu Alaikum instead of Sandhiyum Samadanamum, Jazakallah instead of Nandri and Pinjhan/Finjan for Bowl/Cup.There are also words which are unique to Marakkars and a few other Tamil Muslim communities such as Laatha for elder-sister, Kaka for elder-brother, Umma for mother and Vappa for father. There are also words derived from Sinhala such as Mattapa for terrace. There are also words from Purananuru era such as Aanam for Kulambu and Puliaanam for rasam or soup.
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. Rowthers conducted inland trade.
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 sect 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.
The Rowther, Marakkayar, Lebbai and Kayalar are the four Muslim communities in Tamil Nadu. Rowthers follow the Hanafi madhab while Kayalar, Lebbai 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. Rowthers predominate in the ASEAN.
In Kerala Marakkar also known as Marikkars are mostly concentrated in and around Malabar. They were traditionally boatmen.
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.
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.
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.