More About Kayalpatnam

An extract from The Travels of Marco Polo, Volume 2, by Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa, et al, Edited by Henry Yule and Henri Cordier. Marco Polo was a Venetian explorer (now Italy) who lived between 1254(?) and 1324.

[It must be mentioned there are some historians who question the veracity of Marco Polo's recordings]

Chapter XII talks about the city of Cail (or Kayal). At the end of the translation, there are notes added by Henry Yule - which clearly dispute the claim (quoting Rev.Caldwell) that present Kayalpatnam is same as the ancient Kayal (the one talked about by Marco Polo).

Few doubt today that an ancient city called Kayal (Qail, Quil) ever existed. It is widely acknowledged by the scholars that a city by that name did flourish in ancient time as a commercial port - carrying on trading with countries as far away as Greece and China.

There are several references to this trading port in various literary works, notably in the travel work of Marco Polo. What is less certain, however, is whether that ancient port is what that exists today as the bustling town of Kayalpatnam. Several archeological evidences seem to suggest so, but still some doubts persist.

Early settlers of Kayal

The First Wave

In about 875 AD, or so the legend goes, not far way from Cairo, the capital of Egypt, on the shadows of Mount Mukhadham, existed a town called Qirafathul Kubra. It was from this town that year, the legend continues, about 224 men, women and children, all descendants of the first caliph of Islam, Abubacker Siddique (Ral), belonging to the Bakhri tribe, left the Egyptian shores, under the leadership of Mohamed Kalji, in a ship made of wood (hence marakayar?) and eventually landed on the shores of Kayal.

This region, at that time, was under the rule of the Pandya king Abhirama Raja Adhiraja Raja Jayaveera Rajukaar. It is said that the new arrivals were given land by the King to settle and carry on their trading. A land title was also issued by the King to this effect.

The Second Wave

In about 1284 AD, it is said, 5 boat loads of people, escaping repression and natural disaster, left Egypt to various destinations. One such boat people, it is believed, reached the city of Kayal. The number of people in this 'second major wave' of settlers is unknown, but they were reportedly well received by the Pandya ruler of the time, Sundarapandya Thevar. The settlers were lead by Syed Jamaludeen, believed to be the 21st descendant of Prophet Muhammed (Sal).

It is said that the Pandya king sent Syed Jamaludeen as his emissary to the court of Kublai Khan. After his return, it is believed, Syed Jamaludeen regularly supplied horses to the king and eventually rose to become the commander of the king's army. Following the death of Sundarapandya in 1294 AD, Syed Jamaludeen is believed to have succeeded to the throne.

Is the present city of Kayalpatnam remnant of an ancient city?

Literary Argument

As evidences to the claim that the present Kayalpatnam is indeed on the site where ancient Kayal existed, several passages from literary works are quoted. One such is from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India. Bishop Caldwell's History of Tinnevelly is also quoted.

Archeological Argument

Burial grounds of Kayalpatnam have turned in few objects of interest. At one place, chinese porceleins were found. They are believed to be centuries old. At another place, swords and other arms were found. These, it is suggested, probably belonged to a dead soldier who was buried along with his armaments. These evidences point to a well developed, major urban settlement dating to some time early in the present millennium.

Numismatical Argument

Bishop Caldwell, in his History of Tinnevelly reports discovery of large quantities of Arabic coins on the roads leading to Kayalpatnam. It is a well established belief that there was brisk trade between the people of Kayal and other foreign countries.

Tombstones Argument

The Muslim community of Kayalpatnam must have mostly consisted of Arabs and also some persians. This is reflected in the early tombstones found in the town. Some of the tombstones record the origin of the deceased as al-qahiri, indicating that the person or his ancestors were from Egypt. Another tombstone at a different site records the origin of the deceased as al-iraqi. Some other tombstones carry the surname al-mabari (the natives).

Doubts raised

There are many who dispute the claim that Kayalpatnam is the Kayal of the legend. Among them is Henry Yule, who has translated the works of Marco Polo. He says that the real site of this once celebrated port (Kayal) has never been identified in any published work. He continues,

They state also that the name of Kayalpattanam has only recently been given to it, as a reminiscence of the older city. The old Kayal, and the erroneously named Koil in the Ordinance Map of India, is situated on the Tamaraparni river about a mile and a half from its mouth.

Yule tentatively suggests Nagore as the probable site. There are also many other suggested sites.

Why the name 'Kayalpatnam'?

In Tamil, the word Kayal stands for the sea and the adjoining lands. Patnam literally means a city or town. Hence Kayalpatnam refers to the city adjoining the sea. Few towns nearby also carry Kayal as part of their name.

This page has been almost entirely adapted from the souvenir released to mark the centenary of Kayalpatnam Selection Grade Town Panchayat Board (released in 1990)


Maricar In History

Maricar's hail from Kayalpatnam, a seashore town in Southern Tamil Nadu, India which is steeped in history. Arab traders had a flourishing business in South India with the Pandian Kingdom (capital at Madurai), the rulers of Malabar (Kerala) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Kayalpatnam was a major international port with trade relations with the Arabs, Europeans & Chinese. The great international traveler of yore, Marco Polo had visited Kayalpatnam in the middle ages and described it as a thriving international port.

With the advent of Islam, these Arab traders introduced the new faith in the region. They married amongst the local population and their descendents are the present day population of Kulasekarapatnam, Kayalpatnam, Keezhakkarai, Maricarpatnam, Adirampatnam, Tondi, Karaikal etc. along the Tamil Nadu coast; many settlements on the Malabar / Kerala coast and the southern sea coast of Ceylon like Galle, Batticola.

The main item of trade of the Arabs was natural pearls fished in the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Strait separating Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from South India and horses. These pearls were exchanged with horses brought from Arabia.

The name Maricar / Marikar / Maraicar / Maraikar is a corruption of the Tamil word "maraikkalayar" meaning people engaged in shipping trade. Yes, it was indeed so. The community of Maricars, found amongst settlements along the Tamil Nadu,Kerala and Sri Lankan coast were engaged in international trade in gems, pearls, horses and commodities for centuries. Today, we talk of foreign and global trade, but they were the pioneers. The present generation have not given up their forefathers' tradition of international trade. They can be found all over the world in important trading cities in India, Sri Lanka, South East Asia, China, Far East, Middle East, Africa, Europe and Americas, engaged in a variety of international trade and industries, more so in centers of gems and jewellery.

Lankan Muslims' Historical Links With India
by PK Balachandran
Hindustan Times
April 3, 2006

Sri Lanka's indigenous Muslims, called Ceylon Moors, like other communities in the island, have had historical ties with India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala in South India.

India's impact on the Ceylon Moors (a community distinct from Indian Moors who are more recent Muslim migrants from India) cannot be ignored because it can be seen in the language, culture and practices of the community.

The active links have snapped, but the legacy is there for all to see.

Early migration from Kerala

Ceylon Moors are of Arab descent. Although from the earliest times, Arabs from the Gulf had been coming straight to the island for trade, the really significant migration for settlement came via the Malabar coast in what is now Kerala.

Marina Azeez, in her contribution to The Ethnological Survey of the Muslims of Sri Lanka (The Razik Fareed Foundation, Colombo, 1986) says: "The first Muslim fleet is said to have sailed to the Indian Ocean in 636 AD during the Caliphate of Omar; and since then Muslim traders began settling along the Malabar coast of India wherein pre-Islamic-time Arabs had settled as far back as the 4th.century AD."

"According to Tennent (James Emerson Tennent, London, 1859) when these settlements expanded with increase in trade as well as migration, the people spread to the coasts of Sri Lanka, settled here and carried on their trading activities."

By 7th Century AD the Arabs had settled in Kayalpatnam in what is now Tamil Nadu. From Kayalpatnam, they spread to the East and West coasts of Sri Lanka.

Although the Arabs had been traders from the earliest times, Islam gave their occupation a tremendous boost. Expansion of trade meant more settlers overseas and more converts from non-Arab peoples.

"By the 9th century AD all trade between Europe and the East was transferred to the Arabs, and by the 14th. Century AD they were operating in the region of the Persian gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Malay Archipelago and China," says Azeez.

The Muslims of Arab-Indian origin from Malabar and Kayalpatnam, along with those from Arab lands, settled in Colombo and Beruwela, a coastal town en route to Galle.

Beruwela, which retains its distinctive Muslim character even today, received its first Muslim immigrants in 1024. It is acknowledged that the art of weaving was introduced in Beruwela by migrants from Kayalpatnam.

Colombo, which has a substantial Muslim population even today, was predominantly Muslim when the Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505, says Azeez.

Muslims of Arab and Arab-Indian descent, married local women in Sri Lanka. They mostly took Tamil wives because the Tamils populated the coast and were the local traders too.

Those who headed for the Eastern Sri Lankan coast, arrived first in Kathankudy near Batticaloa. Today, Kathankudy is perhaps the only all-Muslim town in Sri Lanka. It also has the largest number of mosques per square kilometre in the world.

In Batticaloa, the Muslim Arabs and those of Arab-Indian descent married local women from the dominant Mukkuvar caste.

Adoption of Tamil language

The early Muslim settlers in Sri Lanka adopted Tamil as their spoken language. This was because Tamil was the language of the traders in South India and Sri Lanka and it is these Tamil trader families the Muslims married into.

The Portuguese chronicler, Duartes Barbossa, wrote in the 16th.century AD that in the port of Colombo, the Muslims spoke a mixture of Arabic and Tamil and used the Arabic script to write Tamil.

Tamil, written in the Arabic script, came to be known as "Arabic Tamil".

Many Muslims in the Sinhala majority areas now say that their mother tongue is Arabic Tamil.

The Muslims of Sri Lanka produced literature in Arabic-Tamil, as well as pure Tamil, using the Arabic script, besides the Tamil script.

However, Arabic Tamil as a literary tool is not in vogue now. The Muslims today use the purest form of Tamil in their writings and formal speech. But their spoken Tamil remains unique, with the use of Arabic and Islamic words, terms and expressions.

In his paper "The Language and Literature of the Muslims" MM.Uwise says that "Muslim Tamil" is different from the Tamil spoken by Sri Lankan Tamils in terms of words used and also pronunciation.

The use of Arabic words and terms is easily noticeable.

But many of the differences could be traced to the Sri Lankan Muslims' historic links with Indian Tamils and Malayalees of Kerala.

To give just one example, "Itam" (Sri Lankan Tamil word for place) becomes "Etam" in Muslim Tamil. But in Tamil Nadu too, Itam is pronounced as Etam or Edam.

Some of the Muslim Tamil words are actually classic Tamil words, which are still in vogue in Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Lankan Muslims use "Nombu" for the "vrat" or "vritham" (fasting). Recitation of prayers is "Odhudhal" not "vaasithal." But both Nombu and Odhudhal are pure Tamil words, which are used in Tamil Nadu as substitutes for the Sanskritic terms Vritam and Vaasithal.

There are signs of Malayalam influence too. "Kudithen" (drank) becomes "kudichcha" which is but a variation of the Malayalam "kudichchu".

In Tamil Nadu Tamil too, Kudithen is Kudichchen.

Uwise says that the Tamil spoken by the Muslims living in the Sinhala areas is very different from the Tamil spoken by Muslims in the Tamil areas. He also says that the Muslims in the Sinhala areas use many Sinhala words.


Tamil Saying

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