The Moplahs of Malabar
Malabar is also synonymous with spices that had drawn foreign traders to its shores since eons. During its prime, Kozhikode was a prominent harbour, drawing traders from China, West Africa and Arabia. Following Vasco-da-Gama’s visit in 1498, Syrians and Arabs followed in his wake, their trading vessels carrying Malabar products like pepper, coffee, rubber, coconut and coir to all parts of the western world.
Oftentimes though bad weather disrupted their sailings and vessels were laid off for extended periods waiting for favourable winds to enable their return voyage. These long lay-offs triggered a trend: The Arabs began marrying native women — a kind of temporary marriages called Muta (pittance in Arabic) that required paying only a small mehr or bride price. When the weather cleared, they simply annulled the temporary alliance and departed. Naturally, the local brides and their off springs were admitted into Islam. This forms the origin of today’s Moplah community in Malabar, and the rest of Kerala.
Interestingly, the word Moplah is derived from the Tamil/Malayalam word mappila or Mapillai, meaning newlywed groom or son-in-law of the house, a nod toward the sons-in-law of the original native population. Today the term refers to their descendents — the Malayalam-speaking Muslims of Kerala, making up the second largest community at 24.7 per cent of the population.
Another story credits the Chera King Cheraman Perumal, who had embraced Islam, with the spread of Islam here. Following up on his wishes, Arab religious leaders, notably Malik Ibn Dinar, sailed to Malabar and spread Islam among the locals. People from lower Hindu castes also began converting to Islam to gain social ascendancy — and they brought with them their matriarchal system into the unfolding social milieu.
Today, this system lives on among the Moplahs, most prominently in Kozhikode and Malappuiram. The labyrinthine network of back roads and narrow lanes known as Kuttichira in downtown Kozhikode is a typical Moplah locality. The crisscrossing lanes are dotted with century-old ancestral homes called tharavads, not to mention historic mosques in the shade of hundred-year-old trees. Wayside teashops called chayakadas are ubiquitous too. Moplah culture pulsates through this locality — and its inhabitants wear it on their sleeves.
A smug pride in their old culture and traditions is unmistakable. And that culture demands that Moplah women be veiled while outdoors. However, inside the four walls of their homes the old matriarchal system derived from their ancestors rules, granting women higher social status and special powers. While girls live on in their parents’ home even after marriage, the boys either live with their in-laws or visit their spouses, joining their in-laws for supper everyday and staying on for the night. They may contribute financially to the household, but their visiting rights and status remain unchanged nevertheless. Understandably, this system created large families.
‘Kattil Veedu’, a taravad with a lineage that goes back 400 years, holds the record with 100 family members under one roof. The extended family though number 3000 — spread all across the globe. ‘Kattil Veedu’ stands not far from Mishkal Mosque in Kuttichira, close to where a Sufi’s house once stood and referred to by none other than Ibn Batuta, the 14th century Moroccan traveller.
Built by a rich Arab businessman and ship owner Nakhooda Miskal nearly 700 years ago, the five-storied Mishkal Mosque, located in the heart of Kuttichira, is an architectural and historical landmark. With intricate carvings on its numerous wooden doors and ceilings, the shrine is reminiscent of Kerala’s unique temple architecture, especially with the Gopuram-style entrance arches and the conspicuous absence of minarets. Mosques here generally sport a square or rectangular tank similar to temples.
Interestingly, the Kuttichira tank is sacred to both Hindus and Muslims for, according to legend, a rich and influential woman Kuttishira had donated the tank to the Muslim community. Moss covered laterite benches around the tank invite men in the locality who gather here for after-dinner chats. The Malayalam they speak shows Arab influence too, their dialect being a little different from mainstream Malayalam. You might even hear an old ballad, belted out on late moonlit nights. Mappila songs have a unique charm and carry a mix of the ethos and culture of Kerala as well as West Asia, dealing mainly with diverse themes such as religion, satire, love and heroism.
The adjoining Malappuram district is another Moplah stronghold. The famous Moplah Mutiny, symbolising the rebellion of the raging Moplahs against colonial rule that spanned two centuries, originated here. The persecution and tyranny of the British and the valiant revolt by the ethnic population have been immortalised in numerous Moplah ballads.
The Malabar rebellion of 1921, which claimed the lives of 258 Moplahs, is considered no less than a landmark in India’s freedom struggle — a reminder of the valour and patriotic fervour of these valiant community. That valour is exemplified by the important figure of Kunjali Marakkar, a title the Zamorin kings bestowed on him in the early 16th century for the first time. Kunjali Marakkar I was appointed the admiral of the Zamorin’s fleet. But his son and successor, Muhammad Kunjali, is considered the true Kunjali Marakkar.
Muslim influence within the kingdom was at its zenith during the time of this valiant warrior who fought pitched battles with the Portuguese. In 1598, the entire crew of a Portuguese ship met a watery grave at his hands near the offshore Velliamkallu rocks near Payyoli.
Today, the Indian naval ship ‘I N S Kunjali’ honours the bravery and patriotism of this long forgotten admiral of the Zamorins. Outside Kozhikode, on the southern banks of the River Moorad at Kottakal, a small museum housing some of his war relics is another memento.
As elsewhere in Kerala rice and fish form the staple of the Moplah diet. However, there are marked variations in their cooking and carry a strong Arab influence.