Who was Kunjali Marakkar, Lion of the Arabian Sea?

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Kunjali Marakkar

Do you know about Vasco da Gama? The first Portuguese explorer and the first European to reach India by sea. Most of the Indians know about Gama’s spice trade that led to war between brothers, but little did people know about our own hero of the Arabian Sea- Kunjali Marakkar. He is widely credited for organizing the first naval defense of the Indian coast. His valor and bravery have been lost in the pages of history and today only a handful of people recognizes his efforts.

To understand the history of Kunjali Marakkar, it is important to know about the spice trade dispute between the Zamorins and Vasco da Gama.

The Zamorins was the most wealthy and hereditary monarch of the kingdom of Kozhikode in Calicut, southern India. Calicut was the most important trading port of the Arabian sea and the coast of India. Traders from Arab, China, and Rome had a cordial relationship with the Monarch. Though Zamorins followed Hinduism they were very tolerant of other religions as well and prefer a cordial and peaceful environment.

Kunjali Marakkar

Things started to change when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1497. Gama intended to monopolize the spice trade, yet his conversation with the Zamorins didn’t go much well and the two never got on the same note. Though Gama returned back to Lisbon, he once again came to India in 1503. This time his intentions were clear, either by words or force, he will monopolize the spice trade as well as spread Christianity throughout India starting with Kozhikode.

To achieve this, Gama started with restricting the trade with the Arabs by establishing a protocol that any ship carrying goods even if it is of Indian origin, must pass through the Portuguese coast to mandate itself or all the goods will be confiscated. This didn’t go well with the Zamorins. To counter the growing enmity with the Zamorins and to destabilize their monarch, the Portuguese befriended Rama Varma XV, the Rajarshi of Cochin. This led to a war between the Zamorins of Kozhikode and the Kochi Raja and for the first time in the history of the Zamorins, the people witnessed bloodshed and violence.

In this battle, a Muslim marine trader called Ismail Marakkar of Kochi helped the Zamorins by providing his men and battleships. When the Kochi Raja came to know about this, he declared an attack against the Marakkar family, and thus they were forced to shift to Ponnani of Zamorin dominion. But the Portuguese were not so smooth in forgiving them and thus destroyed their ships in Ponnani forcing them to move further to Kottakkal. This destruction affected the sea trade and destabilized the income of the Zamorins.

To retaliate, the Zamorins appointed a Muslim merchant called Kutti Ahmed Ali as the naval admiral of his fleet and gave him the title ‘Kunjali Marakkar’ and so began the heroic journey of the Marakkar’s.

Kunjali Marakkar genealogy:

To understand the genealogy of Kunjali Marakkar, it is important to know that the title belonged to the four generations of the Marakkar family. There were a total of four Kunjali Marakkars whose war tactics helped Zamorins defend against the Portuguese invasion from 1520 to 1600. They were, Kunjali Marakkar I (1520 – 1531), Kunjali Marakkar II (1531 – 1571), Kunjali Marakkar III (1571 – 1595) and Kunjali Marakkar IV (1595 – 1600), who fought eighty years of war against the Portuguese.

For eighty years all the Marakkars fought with devotion and stood beside the Zamorins faithfully. However, the Zamorin rulers changed with time. Kunjali Marakkar IV, the last of the Marakkar family is considered to be the bravest, heroic and greatest corsair of Marakkar history. His popularity rose quickly and he assisted with other enemies of the Portuguese like the Sultha of Bijapur. The Portuguese, however, were now sure that unless and until they execute the Marakkar family, they cannot win the war.

This was the major turning point of Marakkar’s history. If not by force, Portuguese played a dirty trick to pull down the sea merchants. In 1598, they managed to convince the Zamorins that Kunjali Marakkar IV intended to take over the kingdom to establish a Muslim empire. They planted their allies among the Zamorins and sowed the seed of betrayal. The Zamorins in turn joined hands with the Portuguese and revolted against Kunjali Marakkar IV. He was brutally killed in combat.

Kunjali Marakkar

The Kunjali IV had once rescued a Chinese boy and named him Chinali, who had been enslaved on a Portuguese ship. The Kunjali was very fond of him, and he became one of his most feared lieutenants. Along with the Chinali, Kunjali Marakkar’s power grew enormously and they defeated the Portuguese several times. Such was the affection between the two that when Chinali was murdered, Kunjali lost his cool and broke havoc by executing the most exquisite kinds of torture. This was also one of the reason why the legacy of Marakkar ended with Kunjali Marakkar IV as he didn’t had any heir and Chinali was also murdered.    

To honor the heroics of the Kunjali Marakkar, the navy had a Naval Air Station by the name of INS Kunjali, which is now known as INS Shikra. The Marakkar’s legacy can be recounted in several folklores, songs, and poems of Malabar and every house of the place still remembers the bravery of Kunjali Marakkar. 

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