Kunhelu’s battle: How an 18th century war in Malabar still brings Hindus and Muslims together

Why did Kunhelu, a Hindu goldsmith, side with Muslims in the war?
Kunhelu’s battle: How an 18th century war in Malabar still brings Hindus and Muslims together
Kunhelu’s battle: How an 18th century war in Malabar still brings Hindus and Muslims together
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Every year, a group of Muslims come together at the Valiyangadi Jummamasjid in Malappuram to pay homage to a martyr who died nearly three centuries ago and was buried at the mosque. The mosque also invites descendants of revered man and holds a prayer meeting, after which the "aandu nercha", or yearly sacrament, is executed.

The name of the martyr is Kunhelu, a Hindu by birth and goldsmith by profession.

About 290 years ago, when the then ruler of Kozhikode attacked Malabar, Kunhelu fought with 43 other Muslim warriors and died on the battlefield.

Several generations later, through the religious polarization in the past century, the blood that he shed for his Muslim brothers has not been forgotten. Kunhelu is a revered figure and the mosque continues to offer prayers at his grave even today.

Behind this seemingly ordinary story of Hindu-Muslim unity story is the interesting tale of trade, religion, politics and social structures and how it pushed lower-caste Hindus closer to the Muslim community in Malabar.

Hussain Randathani, a historian and author from Malappuram, says that the story of Kunhelu, "a low caste Hindu goldsmith", is based on an 18th century ballad on Malabar.

"Even today, a local festival held in Malappuram has a procession in Kunhelu's name," Hussain says speaking to The News Minute

Why did Kunhelu, a Hindu goldsmith, side with Muslims in the war?

To know why, it is imperative to understand the socio-economic situation of Malappuram in the 18th century.

Explaining the "Growth and Genesis of the Muslim community" in the Malabar region of Kerala,  Hussain Randathani writes how it is likely that Islam reached the region through Arab traders and thus was formed the Muslim community of Mappilas.

"The egalitarian ideals of Islam, the existence of Arab colonies, the social and economic systems in the region and the positive attitude of the native rulers were the main factors which made Malabar a fertile region for Islam," he writes.

What also supported its growth was that a "majority of the people had become fed up with religious exploitation and land lordism of feudal jenmis and they found refuge in a new system which provided them relief and emancipation. With the decline of Buddhism and later its gradual absorption by Brahmanism, a vacuum was developed where the oppressed people suffered without a philosophy to depend on. Islam filled the vacuum and offered them an alternative."

With a rigid caste system, and extremely discriminating practices, the social setup of Malabar at the time saw Brahmins exercise their supremacy over the lower castes. There was untouchability and the practice of maintaining a certain distance between members of each caste to avoid "pollution", and no men and woman, apart from the Namboodiris, were allowed to cover the upper half of their body.

Violating the law could mean excommunication or even death for those from the lower castes.

Swami Vivekananda had described Malabar thus: "Is there anywhere in the world a folly which I have witnessed in Malabar? A poor Paraya cannot walk through the streets where the caste Hindus walks.... The people of Malabar are mad and their houses are mad houses. What judgement will you reach, other than that the different races of India will treat them with abhorrence and aversion until they reformed themselves and enriched their knowledge. Those people who observe such satanic and obnoxious customs are shameless."

It is then, Randathani writes, that "The lower class welcomed Islam as a chance to win some degree of social freedom denied to them by Brahmanism through its cruel and rigid caste system."

Muslims did not have an issue with "pollution" and treated the lower castes fairly well. This also enabled the latter to work more freely under their "Mappila masters". In times of natural calamities like droughts or famines, Muslims often helped the lower castes with aid.

However, Randathani points out, it was not just the good and human behaviour that drew lower caste artisans and daily wage labourers towards supporting Muslims or embracing Islam.

Muslim traders were also financially well-off and had a high standard of living, so much so that the eleventh century scholar Al Biruni observed, "it even aroused curiosity even among Hindu elites who stayed in the urban centres and got into contact with them in consequence."

Randathani further writes, "The attitude of the artisans towards Islam and Muslims is clear from the cases of Kunhēlu the martyr of Malappuram and Asari Tangal of Ponnani. Kunhēlu was a Hindu goldsmith, but fought on the side of Muslims in their battle against the Hindu chieftain, Paranambi at Malappuram in 1738. Asari Tangal was the carpenter whoheaded the construction of Ponnani Juma Masjid in the sixteenth century. After completing the construction he mounted atop of the roof and when looked towards the west he is said to have witnessed the vision of Ka’ba at Makkah. Immediately he embraced Islam. He was later, so respected by Muslims that after his death he was buried in the grave yard of the Makhdums, the Muslim religious leaders at Ponnani."

The Malappuram War

In his paper, "War Songs as a Source of Kerala History- An Analysis of Malappuram war song by Moyin Kutty Vaidyar", Randathani delves into the root of the Malappuram war, of which Kunhelu was believed to be a part of.

The historian states that the war was because of "purely economic and political reasons" and " it cannot be regarded as a part of Hindu Muslim rivalry as put by British authorities."

He further writes, "Muslims of Malappuram lived quite peacefully under the Zamorins and his chieftains and the construction of the mosque itself was a gift of earlier Paranambi. Basically the cause lay in the land lord- tenant conflicts since the immediate reason for the war was the decision of Nambi to exact the tax arrears from the lords. What happened was that when Ali Marakkar asked the lords to pay the arrears they lodged complaints to Nambi against Ali Marakkar for which he was not basically responsible. The lords, being the relatives of Nambi he put the blame up on Marakkar and was forced to support the lords in their cause. It is also to be noted that the Muslims, in their battle were helped by the local Hindu tenants that a gold smith called Kunhelu was one of those who killed in the battle on Muslim side."

As the nation debates communal politics today, the story is perhaps a reminder if society can divide communities, then mutual interest can also bring communities together.

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