Sunday, July 20, 2008


Mr. Khushwant Singh, in his book, The History of Sikhs, has stated that Moplah is an Anglisized word for mappila in Malayalam, meaning son-in-law. When Arabs came to Malabar as traders, the local communities gave their daughters in marriage to these Arab males, and they called them mappilas meaning sons-in-law. Other authors also have gone astray in assuming the meaning as son-in-law for mappila being the Malayalam equivalent of the Tamil word magal pillai (daughter’s person).

Thurston R (1909) in his book - Castes And Tribes of Southern India- quotes the following authors.

Mr. Logan - Maha pilla was probably a title of honour conferred on the early Mohammedans and possibly the still earlier Christian immigrants, who are also down to the present day called Mappillas.

Col. Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell in Hobson-Jobson say: Moplah - Malayalam, Mappilla. The usual application of this word is to the indigenous Mohammedans of Malabar; but it is also applied to the indigenous (so called) Syrian Christians of Cochin and Travancore. The derivation of the word is very obscure.
Ivor Lewis in "sahibs, nabobs and boxwallahs" says: Moplah, Mappila – 17th century indigenous Muslim inhabitants of Malabar, descended from the Moors and Arab settlers married to Malabar women. Sometimes also applied to Syrian Christians of Cochin and Travancore.
All the above derivations appear to be wrong as explained below.

In Kerala a Muslim is called Mappila, so also is a Christian. When Christianity came to Kerala (1st century A.D.) a family as a whole got converted to Christianity. Hence the meaning “son-in-law” does not fit in this case.

A Christian in Kerala is known as Nazrani Mappila and a Mohammedan as Jonaka Mappila. Nazarani(e) refers to Nazareth, where Jesus was born. Nazrani Mappila means a convert to the religion of Jesus. Jonaka is derived from Yavanaka or Yavana. According to Bhargava’s Standard Illustrated Hindi Dictionary Yavana means a Greek, a European or a Mohammedan. Jonaka Mappila means a convert to Mohammedanism.

I had spent my childhood years (some 75 years ago) in Kalady, Central Kerala, in an enclave inhabited exclusively by Brahmins, near the Shankaracharya Temple established by Sringeri Mutt. Outside the enclave were mostly Christians and a small number of upper caste Hindus, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The Scheduled Castes and Tribes were prohibited from entering the enclave, as they were not only untouchable but were also unapproachable. Some castes among the scheduled tribes known as Parayas and Pulayas used to bring bundles of grass from the nearby fields and forests for selling them to the householders in the enclave for feeding the cows. These castes, being unapproachable, would stop at the boundary of the enclave, place the grass bundles there and depart with the price offered and placed there. The upper caste servants of the Brahmins would bring these bundles to their households. But occasionally, the same Parayas and Pulayas would appear in front of the Brahmin houses with the bundles on their heads. They would also announce in Malayalam “jnangal maargam kooti kazhinju” meaning “We have joined the Maargam” or “We have got converted (to Christianity) and, therefore, are no more unapproachable." They would also announce the change of their names, say from Chathan to Thoma (Thomas) or from Chirutha to Mariam (Mary). Even today “getting converted” is called “maargam kootal” in Malayalam.

Here Maargam is the key word. It refers to the Ashta Marga or the eightfold path of Budhism. Joining the maargam originally meant getting converted to Budhisam. Before Budhism came to South India some 2500 years ago, Saivism was the predominant religion. Its followers were called Saiva Pillais. Saiva Pillai meant a person who followed the Saiva religion. Even today there are several persons in Tamil Nadu and Kerala who call themselves Saiva Pillais or sometimes as Pillais omitting Saiva. When Saiva Pillais got converted to Budhisam they were called Maarga Pillais. Later, Maarga Pillai got shortened as Mappillai and got a general meaning as a "convert". Recent archeological discoveries near Poompuhar in the east coast of Tamil Nadu have thrown up statues of Budha and mud pots with Pali writing, which show that Budhism was well established in South India in ancient times. Mappillai in Tamil became Mappila in Malayalam.

1 comment:

P.N. Subramanian said...

Beautiful analysis. But how could you succummb to the myth of Christianity coming to Kerala in the 1st Century AD