Chapter XIII. The Moslem and Other Natives of Malabar.

We are informed by the Moslem historians that their faith spread wide and took deep root in the southern parts of Western India, principally in consequence of the extensive immigration of Arabs. It may be observed that the same cause which provided the Hindoos with serfs, supplied the stranger with proselytes: a Rajah would often, when in want of money, dispose of his outcastes to the Faithful, who, in such cases, seldom failed to make converts of their purchasers.

The Moplahs, or Mapillahs, (115)--the Moslem inhabitants of Malabar--are a mixed breed, sprung from the promiscuous intercourse that took place between the first Arab settlers and the women of the country. Even to the present day they display in mind and body no small traces of their mongrel origin. They are a light coloured and good looking (116) race of men, with the high features, the proud expression, and the wiry forms of the descendants of Ishmael: their delicate hands and feet, and their long bushy beards, (117) show that not a little Hindoo blood flows in their veins. They shave the hair, trim the mostachios according to the Sunnat, (118) and, instead of a turban, wear a small silk or cloth cap of peculiar shape upon their heads. The chest and shoulders are left exposed, and a white or dyed piece of linen, resembling in cut and colour the "lung" or bathing cloth of Central Asia, is tied round the loins. The garment, if we may so call it, worn by the males, does not reach below the calves of the legs, whereas the fair sex prolongs it to the ankles. Unlike the Hindoo inhabitants of Malabar, the upper portion of the female figure is modestly concealed by a shift buttoned round the neck, with large sleeves, and the opening in front: according to the custom of the Faithful a veil is always thrown over the head.

The only peculiarity in the Moplah lady's costume is the horrible ornamenting of the ear. At an early age the lobe is pierced, and a bit of lead, or a piece of Shola wood (119) is inserted in order to enlarge the orifice. After a time the lobe becomes about the size of a crown piece, and a circle of gold, silver, or palm-leaf, dyed red, white, or yellow, is inserted into it--the distended skin of the lobe containing and surrounding the ring. There is something peculiarly revolting to a stranger's eye in the appearance of the two long strips of flesh instead of ears, which hang down on each side of the head in old age, when ornaments are no longer worn.

The countenance of the Moplah, especially when it assumes the expression with which he usually regards infidels and heretics, is strongly indicative of his ferocious and fanatic disposition. His deep undying hatred for the Kafir (120) is nurtured and strengthened by the priests and religious instructors. Like the hierarchy of the Moslem world in general, they have only to hold out a promise of Paradise to their disciples as a reward, and the most flagrant crimes will be committed. In Malabar they lie under the suspicion of having often suggested and countenanced many a frightful deed of violence. The Moplah is an obstinate ruffian. Cases are quoted of a culprit spitting in the face of a judge when the warrant of execution was being read out to him. Sometimes half a dozen desperadoes will arm themselves, seize upon a substantial house, and send a message of defiance to the collector of the district. Their favourite weapon on such occasions is the long knife that usually hangs from the waist: when entering battle they generally carry two, one in the hand, and the other between the teeth. They invariably prepare themselves for combat by a powerful dose of hemp or opium, fight to the last with frenzied obstinancy, despise the most dreadful wounds, and continue to exert themselves when a European would be quite disabled--a peculiarity which they probably inherit from their Arab (121) ancestors. Like the Malay when he runs a-muck, these men never think of asking for, or giving quarter, they make up their minds to become martyrs and only try to attain high rank in that glorious body by slaying as many infidels as they can. At times they have been eminently successful. On one occasion we heard of a rencontre in which about a dozen desperate robbers, dropping from the window of a house into the centre of a square, inopportunely formed by a company of seapoys, used their knives with such effect upon the helpless red-coats' backs, that they ran away with all possible precipitation. The result of a few such accidents is, that the native soldier cannot always be trusted to act against them, for, with the usual Hindoo superstition and love of the marvellous, he considers their bravery something preternatural, and connected with certain fiendish influences.

In former days, the Moplas played a conspicuous part among the pirates who infested the Malabar coast. Marco Polo mentions that there issued annually "a body of upwards of one hundred vessels, (122) who captured other ships and plundered the merchants." He alludes to their forming what they called a ladder on the sea, by stationing themselves in squadrons of twenty, about five miles from each other, so as to command as great an extent of water as possible. But in the old Venetian's day, the corsairs appear to have been by no means so sanguinary as they afterwards became. He expressly states, that when the pirates took a ship, they did no injury to the crew, but merely said to them, "Go and collect another cargo, that we may have a chance of getting it too." In later times, Tavernier describes them as blood-thirsty in the extreme. "The Malavares are violent Mahometans and very cruel to the Christians. (123) I saw a barefoot Carmelite friar, who had been taken by the pirates and so tortured, in order to obtain his ransom, (124) that his right arm and one leg were shorter by one half than the other." He alludes to their audacity in attacking large armed vessels with squadrons composed of ten or fifteen barques, each carrying from two hundred to two hundred and fifty men, and describes their practice of boarding suddenly and setting fire to the ship with pots of artificial fire. The style of defence usually adopted was to prepare for them by closing the scuttles, and swamping the deck with water, to hinder the fire-pots from doing execution.

The Moplahs being now deprived of their old occupation, have addicted themselves, in some places, to gang-robbery and smuggling. The principal contraband articles are tobacco and salt, both of which are government monopolies. (125) To strengthen their bands, they will associate to themselves small bodies of Nairs and villains of the lowest Hindoo castes, who shrink from no species of cruelty and outrage. But, generally speaking, especially in the quieter districts of Malabar, the Moplahs and the Nairs are on terms of deadly enmity. The idolaters, who have been taught to hate the Faithful by many a deed of blood, would always act willingly against them, provided that our rulers would ensure subsistence to their families, according to the ancient custom of the country. (126) Both are equally bigoted, violent, and fond of the knife. In few parts of the world there are more deadly feuds than in this province; and whenever a Nair is killed by a Moplah, or vice vercâ, the relations will steep a cloth in the dead man's blood, and vow never to lose sight of it till they have taken revenge upon the murderer.

Near the coast, the Moplahs are a thriving race of traders, crafty, industrious, and somewhat refined by the influence of wealth. Those of the interior cultivate rice and garden lands. Some few of the latter traffic, but as they do not possess the opportunities of commerce enjoyed by their maritime brethren, their habitations and warehouses are not so comfortable, substantial, and spacious. Both of them have a widely diffused bad name. Among the people of Southern India generally, the word Moplah is synonymous with thief and rascal. All are equally celebrated for parsimony, a Hindoo, as well as an Arab, quality, and for rigid observance of their religious rites and ceremonies. The desire of gaining proselytes is one of their ruling passions; consequently Islam is steadily extending itself. The zeal of its followers is well supported by their means, and the willingness with which they admit new converts, even of the lowest and most despised classes, to perfect social equality with themselves, offers irresistible attractions to many wretched outcastes of Hinduism. They transgress the more laudable ordinances of their faith, and yet cling fondly to its worse spirit. They will indulge to excess in the forbidden pleasures of distilled waters and intoxicating drugs, in immorality and depravity; at the same time they never hesitate to protect a criminal of their own creed, and, to save him, would gladly perjure themselves, in the belief that, under such circumstances, false oaths and testimony are not only justifiable, but meritorious in a religious point of view. (127)

The faith professed by the Moplahs is the Shafei form of Islam. All their priests and teachers are of the same persuasion; and such is there besotted bigotry, that they would as willingly persecute a Hanafi (128) Moslem as the Sunni of most Mussulman countries would martyr a heretic or schismatic. No Sheah dare own his tenets in Malabar. We doubt whether the mighty hand of British law would avail to save from destruction any one who had the audacity to curse Omar of Usman at Calicut. They carefully cultivate the classical and religious branches of study, such as Sarf o Nahv. grammar, and syntax; Mantik, or logic; Hadis, the traditions of the Prophet; and Karaat, or the chaunting of the Koran. They seldom know Persian; but as they begin the Arabic language almost as soon as they can speak, and often enjoy the advantage of Arab instructors, their critical knowledge of it is extensive, and their pronunciation good. The vernacular dialect of the Moplah is the Malayalim, into which, for the benefit of the unlearned, many sacred books have been translated. The higher classes are instructed by private tutors, and appear to be unusually well educated. The priest has charge of the lower orders, and little can be said in praise of the schoolmaster or the scholar.

As regards testaments and the law of inheritance, the Moplahs have generally adhered to the Koran; in some families, however, the succession is by nephews, as amongst the Nairs. (129) This custom is palpably of Pagan origin, like many of the heterogeneous practices grafted by the Mussulmans of India upon the purer faith of their forefathers. Of course they excuse it by tradition. When Cherooman Rajah, they say, became a convert to Islam, and was summoned by Allah in a vision to Mecca, he asked his wife's permission to take his only son with him. She refused. The ruler's sister then offered to send her child under his charge. The Rajah adopted the youth, and upon his return from the Holy City he instituted the custom of murroo-muka-tayum, in order to commemorate the introduction of Islam into the land of the Infidel.

The Mokawars, Mokurs, or as we call them, the Mucwars, are an amphibious race of beings, half fishermen, half labourers: (130) generally speaking Moslems, sometimes Hindoos. Very slight is the line of demarcation drawn between them, and they display little or no fanaticism. It is common for one or two individuals in a family to become Poothoo Islam, or converts to the faith of Mohammed, and yet to eat, sleep, and associate with other members of the household as before. (131)

In appearance these fishermen are an uncommonly ill-favoured race; dark, with ugly features, and forms which a developist would pronounce to be little removed from the original orang-outang. Their characters, in some points, show to advantage, when contrasted with those of their superiors--the Nairs and Moplahs. They are said to be industrious, peaceful, and as honest as can be expected. A Mucwa village is usually built close to the sea; the material of its domiciles consisting of wattle or matting, roofed over with thatch; the whole burned to blackness by the joint influence of sun, rain, wind, and spray.


Servitude amongst the Moslems partook more of the nature of social fraternity, and was dissimilar in very essential points, to that of the Hindoos. The slaves were always domestic, never prædial: instead of inhabiting miserable huts built in the centre of the paddy fields, they lived in the housed of their proprietors. They were efficiently protected by law, for in case of ill-treatment, duly proved before the Kazee, the complainant was either manumitted or sold to some other master, and so far from being considered impure outcasts, they often rose to confidential stations in the family. This is the case generally throughout the Moslem world.


The native Christians do not constitute a large or influential portion of the community in this part of India, although the Nestorians in very early times settled and planted their faith on the western coast of the peninsula. About the towns of Cannanore and Telliehery, there are a few fishermen and palanquin bearers, called Kolakar and Pandee, said to have migrated from the Travancore country. The other "Nussuranee (Nazarene) Moplahs," as the Christians are styled by the Heathen, are almost all Catholics, either the descendants of the Portuguese, or converted by them to Romanism. They reside principally in the large towns upon the coast: unlike their brethern in "Canara, they imitate the European costume, and occupy themselves either with trade, or in the government courts and cutcherries. They are notorious for dishonesty and habitual intoxication. (132)


Amongst the many social usages and customs peculiar to the natives of Malabar, the two following deserve some mention. There is a kind of general meeting, called Chengathee koree, or the "Society of friends," established for the porposes of discussing particular subjects, and for inquiring into the conduct of individuals. It is supported by the monthly subscriptions of the members, and all must in regular turn--the order being settled by lots--give an entertainment of rice, flesh, and fruit to the whole party. As the entertainer is entitled to the amount of money in deposit for the month, and the feast does not cost half that sum, each member is anxious to draw the ticket with his name upon it as soon as possible. In some places these convivial meetings are heterogeneously composed of Nairs, Moplahs, and Tiyars; when such is the case, the master of the house provides those of the other faith with raw food, which they cook and serve up for and by themselves.

The way in which "dinner parties" are given show some talent in the combination of hospitality with economy. A feast is prepared, and all the guests are expected to present a small sum of money, and a certain number of coca-nuts, plantains, betel-nuts or pepper-vine leaves to the master of the house. An account of each offering is regularly kept, and a return of the invitation is considered de rigueur. Should any member of society betray an unwillingness to make the expected requital, or to neglect the gifts with which he ought to come provided, they despatch a little potful of arrack, and the bone of a gowl, desiring the recusant in derision to make merry upon such small cheer. The taunt is, generally speaking, severe enough to ensure compliance with the established usages of society.