The release of Marakkar is around the corner. We thought we’d prep you for the movie with some historical facts about Kunjali Marakkar (the character Mohanlal plays). These facts, I hope, will improve the movie-watching experience and so I’ll leave the “spoilers” out of this list.
Who was Kunjali Marakkar?
“Kunjali Marakkar” was the title given to Samoothiri’s naval admiral. The title was equivalent to that of “Nair”. Hence, the Marakkars had the powers and privileges of any Nair noble in the Samoothiri’s service. All four Kunjali Marakkars – Kutti Ahmed Ali, Kutti Pokker Ali, Pattu Marakkar, and Mohammed Ali – led guerilla wars against the Portuguese and maintained forts in the Samoothiri’s dominion.
History of the Marakkar family
The ancestry of the Marakkars is up for debate. Some claim that they descended from the Arabs. Others point to evidence that they hail from Egypt. It is believed that the family had settled in the Kochi kingdom but aided the Samoothiri secretly in their war against the Portuguese (Kochi was a Portuguese ally). However, the Samoothiri lost the war, and the Marakkars were forced to move to north Kerala.
Since the Portuguese meddling in trade was hurting the merchants badly, they joined hands and approached the Samoothiri to fight the Portuguese. The Samoothiri selected Kutti Ahmed Ali as admiral, bestowed him with the title of “Kunjali Marakkar”, and entrusted the protection of his land borders to him.
The historical setting
The Portuguese had arrived on Kerala’s shores in 1497. Unable to compete with the Arab traders who had been in business with Kozhikode for quite some time, it is believed that the Portuguese resorted to piracy. Tensions peaked when the Portuguese started enforcing the use of ‘Porgutuese passes’ for free travel and trade in the waters of the region. When the Marakkars, whose trade was affected by Portuguese piracy, immigrated to his kingdom, the Samoothiri grabbed the opportunity to bolster his naval forces. The Marakkars employed guerilla tactics to defeat the Portuguese multiple times.
Naval guerilla tactics
Guerilla tactics are most often associated with jungle warfare, so you might be wondering what tactics were actually employed. It is said that the Marakkars used war-paroes, small crafts manned by 30-40 men each. These war-paroes could be rowed through lagoons and narrow waters. They would be stationed at strategic points, from where they would stage ambushes on the Portuguese. The small craft’s ability to navigate through narrow waters made it easy for the guerilla fighters to retreat strategically after an ambush.
Which Kunjali Marakkar will Mohanlal be?
With all four Kunjali Marakkars having fought notable battles, it is anybody’s guess tbh. But I’d put my money on Mohammed Ali – Kunjali Marakkar IV. The war with the Portuguese had progressed quite a bit to that point and from a story-telling perspective, Mohammed Ali’s biography seems to have the best hero’s journey. Also, there’s a clue in the trailer.
Chinali the lieutenant
Marakkar IV is said to have rescued a Chinese boy from slavery on a Portuguese ship. The boy was rechristened to Chinali and went on to be Marakkar IV’s trusted right hand.
Kunjali Marakkar temple
The Marakkars seem to have fought for their people and earned the love and respect of the people of the region. So much so, that there is a temple dedicated to Kunjali Marakkar in Madhavan Kurichi village in the Thoothukudi district of distant Tamil Nadu. The village is situated in what used to be Portuguese territory in the 16th century, and the temple was probably constructed after the admiral rescued it from some danger. While the exact origins of the temple is unknown, Kunjali Marakkar is worshipped as a deity and is venerated through annual festivals and prominence in local Villu Pattu.
Freedom fighter or Pirate?
Now, this is a question that is bound to pop up post-viewing. While they seem like two parts of the same coin, they are two questions – one that holds significance and one that doesn’t. Were the Kunjali Marakkars pirates? My answer is a “No”. They were vassals of the Samoothiri and were entrusted with fighting a war against invaders. The Portuguese accounts might label him as a pirate but to us Malayalis, the Marakkars are local heroes who displayed exemplary leadership and strategic thinking.
I guess, it is around the vicinity of this topic that the question about where the Marakkars can be labelled as “freedom fighters” come to the fore. The point in history that Marakkar lived in is so removed from the country that India is today, that I believe this question holds no significance at all. The Marakkars probably were, like all their contemporaries in most feudal kingdoms of the time, nobles serving their kings to climb the royalty hierarchy over time.
So that was my list of things you should know before watching Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea.