The name Kunjali Marakkar has always fascinated history enthusiasts and academicians. Now, movie lovers too are busy reading up about Marakkar who is touted as one of the greatest naval warriors of Kerala. The buzz created by the much awaited Mohanlal starrer Marakkar: Arabikadlinte Simham, that is expected to create a stir in the box office has played a pivotal role in creating curiosity about this historical figure.
However, not many know that ‘Marakkar’ was a prominent family name. Four members of the Marakkar family had served as naval officers in the grand naval fleet of the Zamorin.
Even though there aren’t any valid historical records about the origin of the Kunajali Marakkars, the most popular legend is that they were maritime traders based in erstwhile Cochin province. As per the legends, the Marakkars moved to Kozhikode when the Portuguese landed in Kochi and began close relationships with the ruler of Cochin. The Marakkars made Ponnani their new base. Meanwhile, the Zamorin who realized the incredible skill of the Marakkars in waging naval battles, made the most prominent Marakkar the head of his navy.
Kunjali I’s battle tactics was to launch swift, unexpected attacks and disappear from the scene. As soon as they spot a Portuguese ship, the naval warriors led by Kunjali would approach the vessel in small boats and throw flames into the ships. By the time, the Portuguese realize that they have been attacked, Kunjali and his men would escape. Kunjali I gained popularity for unleashing countless ‘hit and run’ against the Portuguese fleets.
Kunjali I is known by the names Muhammad Kunjali Marakkar and Kutty Muhammad Kunjali Marakkar. It is assumed that Kunjali I had fought in the Zamorin’s navy between 1524 – 1539.
The Zamorin faced difficulties in maritime trading with the Sultan of Egypt due to interferences from the Portuguese. The traders in Kerala had used the sea routes to export spices and other exotic items from the provinces to Egypt. However, the naval fleet of the Portuguese began gaining control over these routes, upsetting the Zamorin’s trading interests. That is how the Zamorin and the Egyptian Sultan decided to join forces to defeat the Portuguese. The Sultan sent a few ships to help Zamorin’s navy.
Meanwhile, the Portuguese captain Lawrence de Almada, who anticipated the grave damage that the joint forces of the Zamorin and the Sultan could inflict on his fleet, joined hands with the rulers of Gujarat to block food supplies for the Zamorin’s forces. This made the Sultan’s forces to withdraw. However, Kunjali I and his warriors valiantly fought the powerful Portuguese. Even though Kunjali and his men could register some initial wins, the Portuguese had outnumbered them. In the end, Kunjali I had to concede defeat. In 1539, Kunjali I was killed in an unexpected attack by Portuguese general Miguel Pereira at Vithula in Sri Lanka.
The Portuguese had built a huge fortress, in Chaliyam, posing a challenge to the Zamorin. Chaliyam was then under the rule of the Vettathu king. The Portuguese had built the fort here and posted a battalion of soldiers in order to openly threaten the Zamorin’s rule. This strategic positioning gave the foreigners an upper hand over the Zamorin’s navy. The Chaliyam fort was called the ‘gun that was pointed at the Zamorin’s throat’. After the death of Kunjali I, the young Kunjali II took over the navy. He was supported by other great warriors like Kutti Ahammad Marakkar, Ali Ibrahim Marakkar, Pappachi Marakkar and Hassan Marakkar. Kunjali II was powerful than his predecessor and possessed incredible battle skills. Kunjali II and his men destroyed more than fifty Portuguese ships within a year.
The Zamorin’s aim was to turn the Portuguese away from the Indian Ocean. For that, he even sought the help of Turkey. Even though the Turkish fleets have reached the ports of Gujarat to help the Zamorin, they withdrew swiftly. This was a big blow to the Zamorin’s image. Moreover, constant battles had dented the coffers too. In 1540, the Zamorin had no other way but enter into a compromise with the Europeans. With this, the Zamorin lost the trade monopoly in Kozhikode forever.
However, the accord signed between the Zamorin and the Portuguese was short lived. The Zamorin was disgruntled when the Portuguese intervened in the war between the rulers of Cochin and Vadakkumkoor. The king of Vadakkumkoor, who was Zamorin’s close friend and ally, was killed in the war. Zamorin attacked Cochin province to avenge the death of his ally. However, there he had to face the wrath of the Portuguese who had taken sides with Cochin. The foreigners used their mighty fire power to blow up Panthalayani Kollam near Koyilandi.
The incident at Panthalayani had caused great embarrassment for the Zamorin. However, he took revenge by destroying the Chaliyam fort. The warrior who led the attack was Kunjali III. Like his predecessors, he too had relied on the guerrilla warfare where his forces didn’t directly fight the Portuguese. Kunjali III was also known by the names Pada Marakkar, Pattu Marakkar and Pathu Marakkar.
The Zamorin had found allies in Bijapur Sultan and the Nizam of Ahamad Nagar to face the Portuguese army. It was Kunjali III who took the initiative for this. The allies decided to attack the Portuguese forts at Goa, Chawl and Chaliyam at the same time. In 1571, the soldiers of the Zamorin and the army battalion led by Kunjali III besieged and destroyed the Chaliyam fort. The fort was razed to the ground with no stone remaining. The area where the fort had stood was gifted to the Parappanad king as a token of gratitude for his help in the war.
Zamorin had honoured Kunjali III with all the adornments of a Nair army general. The destruction of the Chaliyam fort rendered a blow to the Portuguese power in Kerala. After much persuasion, they got the permission from the Zamorin to build another fort in Ponnani. By building a fort, the cunning foreigners’ aim was to create misunderstanding between the Zamorin and Kunjali. Soon, things happened as they had wished.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to appease Kunjali, the Zamorin allowed him to build a fort at Kottakkal near Vadakara. Kunjali III built a huge fortress near the Iringal rock and developed the Puthipatanam town around it.
The mega fort at Kottakkal was an amazing contribution by Kunjali III who was a great visionary. Kunjali IV took over as the army general after the death of Kunjali III. He too was keen to strengthen the Kottakkal fort. He had been anticipating a clash with the Portuguese at any time. Meanwhile, the Portuguese kept trying to create rift between the Zamorin and Kunjali. Zamorin didn’t quite like it when Kunjali Marakkar called himself the lord of the seas.
Meanwhile, a rumour spread that Kunjali had cut the tail of an elephant that was owned by Zamorin. Besides, it was also alleged that Kunjali had behaved disrespectfully to a prominent Nair aide who had gone to ask about it. However, the Zamorin didn’t realise that the Portuguese were behind all these false stories. Soon, Zamorin declared Kunjali IV as his sworn enemy. In 1598, he attacked Kunjali’s fort with the help of Portuguese. However, their army had faced defeat at the hands of the mighty Kunjali Marakkar and his men.
It is an historical irony that the Zamorin who had groomed the great warriors of the Kunjali Marakkar clan to fight the Portuguese had to seek help from the foreigners to annihilate the Marakkars. Even though many had advised the Zamorin against this, he was too enraged to pay heed.
In 1600, the Zamorin had attacked the Kottakkal fort again. This time, he had the help of the powerful Portuguese navy. The Zamorin’s forces were on the verge of victory when he announced that he was willing to pardon Kunjali and his men. Believing this, Kunjali Marakkar surrendered before the Zamorin. However, the Zamorin didn’t keep his word and handed Kunjali over to the Portuguese. The Europeans took Kunjali to Goa where they beheaded the great warrior. Kunjali’s head was preserved in a brine solution and then brough to Kannur to exhibit it publicly. That was the tragic end of Kunjali IV, a brave warrior. The clan of the Kunajali Marakkar is still hailed for the great patriotism that they had displayed by valiantly fighting the foreigners and laying their lives for their motherland.
Will Priyadarshan and Mohanlal's Marakkar too end in the same way? Let's just wait for the movie to hit the screens on Dec 2.