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Marriages and Cosmopolitanism in Kozhikode

By Hameeda C. K.


Malabar is a dynamic region that has played a vital role in the formulation of a major part of the history and culture of Kerala. The region has been well-known for its maritime trading activities, and this aspect of the Malabar has been a favourite subject of study for various scholars. Throughout centuries, the ports of Malabar have remained a coveted centre of maritime trade for many European, West-Asian and East-Asian countries. These trade contacts strongly influenced the socio-cultural life of the people in this region. Consequently, the Malabar Coast also opened the gates to Western religions, primarily Islam, Christianity and Judaism. According to sources, Kozhikode or Calicut was one of the ancient port cities in the region. Under Zamorin’s rule, the city flourished with foreign trade. Names of some of the local areas in the city such as Jooda Bazar (Jew Market), and Pattierathu= pattu theruvu or silk bazaar[1]   indicate Kozhikode’s long history of transnational maritime trade relationship with several foreigners such as Chinese and Jews.


The political prominence of Malabar was a critical factor that favored, encouraged and invited the foreign traders to engage in sea trade. The rulers understood the prospects of economic prosperity and encouraged the Arab traders. The Zamorins, the local rulers of the times, welcomed the traders to settle down in their territory especially in Kozhikode and to marry local women. Thus, Malabar became a significant region in India as the areas of Arab settlements and inter-marriages. Gradually the trade relationship helped Islamic proselytizers come and settle in the city. These settlements and marriages had a relevant role in the social and cultural changes of the region over a period. The social conditions were equally suitable for the inter-cultural Mappila-Arab marital relations. When proselytizer’s families remained endogamous, Arab sailors and traders from West-Asia made the best of this opportunity and married women from the coastal areas.

Onomastics of many houses in Kuttichira, an important locality in the old city of Kozhikode, such as Kalliyaarakam (Khazi Family)[2], Baramintakam[3], Jifrintakam[4], Ghaleefantakam, Arabeentakam, Somaleentakam, Elaapparabintakam, Ahamadahammadintavide, Kuloomintavide, Ibrahim Kasimintavide, Amraante Veedu etc. reveal people’s familial and marital tie with different racial groups like Africans, Arabs and Persians. Another interesting observation from the onomastics of family reveals whether the family keeps some sort of exclusivity or not. The history of social stratification of the area and the exclusive local identification by the local people shows the high status enjoyed by Khazis, Thangals, Baramis and Arabs as well as Africans who settled in this area from the pre-modern period. However, all these families are not entirely foreign but the businessmen, sailors and other workers, who came here as the part of trade, married local women from various stratum of society and settled. Though Thangal families, Khazi families, etc. came from Yemen and they claim their descent from Prophet Muhammed, a complete exclusivity is not even obtained from the local and oral narrative. Interestingly, the progenies and their ancestral traders cum settlers had special acceptance and reverence in the locality, which often reflected in the socio-cultural development of cosmopolitanism in Kozhikode. This makes Kozhikode a unique place to every kind of people who came from across Kerala and outside both as migrants and travelers.


Before the advent of Islam, the matrilineal kinship system was prominent among the people in Calicut. In this system, women were both the centre of family and the custodian of the children in the family.  In his article, “Kinship Organisation and Marriage Customs among Moplahs on the South West Coast of India”, social anthropologist Victor D’Souza argued that this matrilineal kinship system  not only existed among Nairs of Malabar but was also observed among the Thiyyas, Mukkuvas and other castes and communities. Francis Buchanan has given an example of this in his book, A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar. He narrates that the Mukkuva women in Malabar Coast are fair and beautiful, compared to people from other castes.  The reason, he argues, is that women of this region and community had unhindered relations with any man they liked including foreigners. The off-spring from the conjugal relation was retained by the women themselves. Men had no claim over the off-spring. It meant that the Victorian morality had not yet conquered the sentiments of conjugal or sexual relation of women at that time. Today this matrilineal joint family system is almost replaced by the patrilineal family structure due to many reasons, including the application of Muslim Personal Law.

In his book, Mappilas of Malabar: Studies in Social and Cultural History, noted historian Muhamed Koya writes that for Arabs, Persians and other traders from the west, the prevailing socio-cultural ambience of Malabar gave easy access to mingle with the locals and create their own progenies in this region. The practice of Mut’a[5] marriage among those trading groups from the west left them no cultural rupture, but a convergence or left no immoral concerns of the modern sort having conjugal/sexual relation with the local women in Malabar.  While the western scholars articulate this practice as a variety of prostitution, neither the local culture nor the trading West Asians considered it as prostitution or an act of immorality or against the religious values. In fact, it was a two-way process, which was legitimized by the matrilineal kinship system of that time.

For instance, in the medieval period, the trade between Calicut and the west and central Asian countries flourished immensely. Even though the entry and monopoly of the British in the maritime trade largely affected the trade with Arabs, the marriage relationship between these Arab sailors and local women in Kozhikode continued till the late 1980s in the coastal areas in the city. On the contrary, discovery of petroleum in the Arabian Peninsula made a negative impact on the trade in the port of Calicut. However, the echo of transnational marital relationships has not vanished from the city. Historical texts provide suggestions of these marriages, which were locally known as Arabi Kallyanam. It was difficult to find any written records about the experience of women, who had engaged in these transnational marriages.  Many women in the city who married Arabs and Iranians travelled to different places in Arabia and Iran. Some of them settled in these countries and continued their relationship with their maternal families in the city. Some women who married and stayed in the city expressed that it was a matter of pride for them to be selected by an Arab for the marriage. This is because compared to local men, Arabs were handsome, rich and such marriages acted as a testimony of the beauty these women possessed. The study focused on the oral narratives of such women and how the act of transnational marriage played in the development of cosmopolitanism among the people of Calicut. The narratives indicated that marriage ties, in fact, deeply brought close connection in every sphere of life including food-habit, attire, cultural exchange, behavioural interactions, and language of the people.

Though many women in Calicut are illiterate, they are able to  speak the Arabic and Persian language fluently due to their contact with different countries in West Asia. Fifty-eight-year-old Khadeeja, one of the women in Kuttichira, shared her experience of visiting many places in Arabia. Her husband was a merchant who came from Dubai and had fallen love with her while she was attending her tailoring classes. She felt happy and proud when he proposed to her through her parents. After marriage, she visited many countries – Turkey, Egypt, etc. – as part of their honey-moon trip.  Khadeeja also expressed her happiness in being able to wear fashionable dresses during those days.  She said that her husband was delighted to make her wear modern and colorful clothes. Her neighbors also expressed their wonder while she wore sophisticated foreign clothes and shawls, instead of the local attires such as pavada (skirt), Kaachi[6] and kuppayam (long blouse). Modern lingerie was introduced to these local women through their foreign husbands. Another woman called Saina, from Mukhadar, also shared her experience of living in Yemen with her Yemeni husband and their children. She showed her knowledge in speaking Arabic. Families of these women shared their experience of receiving exotic gifts from their son-in-law. Women who married Arabs and stayed a long time in Arabia have a lot to share. They speak especially about the clothes they wore there as well as the different food items they consumed in their husband’s home. Many women expressed that they did not find it difficult to have Arabian food and often enjoyed  items such as Majboos, Gava, Aleesa, Roobiyaan, Kubbus, etc. because  these food items already  had localized forms in Calicut  owing to their historical interaction with the rest of the world. This shows the true cosmopolitanism of the city of Kozhikode.

The  transnational marriage ties of Malabar not only brought a variety of descendents from different parts of the West and Central Asia, which contributed cosmopolitanism in the cultural and social sphere, but also mutual transmission of different habits and practices. The famous Malabar daggers called, Malappuram Kathi and Arappatta (waist belt), have similar cultural ancestry from Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen, Persia, etc. but modified to the local condition and need. Similarly, two other women, Aisha and Amina, share their experience of their Yemeni and Somali husbands who used to trade in timber from India to Dubai. They said that their husbands mostly brought modern dresses for them, instead of pardha or hijab, which symbolizes Muslim culture today or their interaction with West Asia. Today most of the migrant Muslim men and women from the Arab countries bring pardha and hijab and rationalize that it is the symbol of their cultural identity.  However, the oral history of these women, who married   Arabs, Persians and Africans in Calicut, tells a different story.

To conclude, Calicut’s openness to different cultures and practices for the mutual benefit, of course, depicts that the space and its culture matured to have receptiveness towards difference, which embodies the true sense of its cosmopolitanism. It is also interesting that the adaptability of the population during the gulf migration reflects the inherited sense of cosmopolitanism which helped them to get not only access but also acceptance and reverence. This inherited cosmopolitanism made them successful compared to the other sections of migrants from the state to West Asia.

[1] The name silk bazaar denoting the silk trade with Chinese traders

[2] Kalliyarakam means the in house of Kalli or Khazi family, the spiritual leaders of Muslim community in Calicut; they claim to have descended from Prophet Muhammed.

[3] Baramis are a group of Yemeni traders settled in Calicut.

[4] Jifrintakam  too claims the spiritual leadership of Muslims in Calicut and they are called Thangals, which is an equivalent of Sayyids elsewhere, who claim to be the descendants  of the Prophet.

[5] Mut’a marriage is an ancient Islamic marriage practice for a limited time period. The rituals and other aspects of regular marriage followed in Mut’a except the marriage is limited for a period, therefore called a temporary marriage. No mutual rights of inheritance created between the spouses, but children considered legitimate and capable of inheriting from both parents. Marriage comes to end ipso facto on the expiry of the term, unless extended. Husband and wife do not have a right of divorce, but he can terminate the union earlier by making a “gift of the term” (hiba-i-muddat). In that case, the wife is entitled to full dower. Similarly, the wife has a right to leave the husband before the expiry of the term of the mut’a marriage; if she does so, the husband has a right to deduct the proportionate part of the dower for the unexpired period. These characteristics make Mut’a different from prostitution.

[6] A variant of Dothi, women wear in Calicut

Hameeda C. K., Ph. D Scholar, JNU & Assistant Professor, Department of Gender Studies, Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development, Sriperumbudur, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Pramod Kiran RB #

    nice research madam. best wishes

    March 5, 2016

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