Trade and Polity in the Indian Ocean: State Formation in Late Medieval Kerala



The term Malabar denotes the Indian Subcontinent’s southwestern region, which comprises Malayalam-speaking areas. Geographically, it extended from the Western Ghats to the Arabian Sea. Following the intrusion of the Europeans, the process of state creation and the idea of the power structure in various areas of Kerala underwent a massive change.


The Europeans arrived at a period when the state’s principal maritime exchange cities, including Cannanore, Calicut, Cochin, and Quilon, were in the process of establishing themselves as emerging new power centers by profiting from their maritime trade. Despite this, the arbitration of the Europeans halted the state-formation initiatives by the Samoothiri (Zamorin), a move that had the Kerala polity in a segregated state for a significant period.

The Decline of the Chera Dynasty 

Long before the trade winds were discovered in 45 AD, the Chera dynasty maintained not only commercial but also religious exchanges with the West. The discovery of trade winds on the west coast had increased the frequency of ships calling at ports on the west coast.

The Chera dynasty, separated from the mainland by the mountains of the Western Ghats, was associated with seafaring, and its people proved to be excellent sailors. The kingdom maintained its Navy during the time of King Senguttuvan, but the later Chera dynasty was eclipsed by the Cholas with their formidable fleet. At that time, the Cheras were more interested in promoting passive maritime trade than investing their time in the war.

Territorial Expansions within Malabar 

From the disintegration of the Chera kingdom until the 18th century, the political formations in Malabar were perceived as “fragmented polities.” The entire region of Kerala was under Chera /Perumal rule from 800 AD to 1124 AD. Most studies agree that the collapse of the centralized Kingdom of Chera had created several smaller kingdoms called Swaroopams. Qazi Mohammed in “Fathhul Mubin” says that Cheraman Perumal, the founder of Malabar Coast, divided the state into three parts and gave the Samoothiri the highest authority by giving him a sword. The three kingdoms were Cannanore (Kolathunadu), Calicut (Kozhikkod), and Venad. These kingdoms got more attention because they participated in the long-distance pepper trade.

Swaroopam is an important concept in understanding the political system of Malabar in the early modern period. The term Swaroopam means “self-form” in the broadest sense. By the 15th century, there were four major swaroopams. The first was Kola Swaroopam in Cannanore, which was ruled by the Kolathiri family. Nediyiruppu Swaroopam was based in Calicut under the control of the Samoothiri. The Kingdom of Cochin was governed by Perumbadappu Swaroopam, and Travancore was under Venad Swaroopam. These were the main political systems that existed in Malabar in the 15th century. These Swaroopams were characterized by a tharavadu (matrilineal joint family). These were legitimized by the Namboothiri’s, the native Brahmin priests of Kerala.

One of the most important changes in the development of the Kingdom of Calicut was the rise of the lineage of the Samoothiri, who originally possessed an inland country. They later moved to a port city and expanded the Kingdom of Calicut. They belonged to Nediyiruppu Swaroopam, a major successor state of Makotai Cheras. They conquered the city of Calicut from the rule of Polathiris and the hinterland of Spice production from the ruler of Ernad. Therefore, the conquest of Calicut by Nediyiruppu Swaroopam was regarded as a landmark for Calicut’s development as the region’s most important political entity.

Influence of Arabs Sailors

Arabs were renowned sailors before the birth of Islam, but after the advent of Islam, they seem to have doubled their efforts in deep-sea trade. There were Arab settlements in southern India, mainly in Malabar on the west coast and a few settlements scattered on the Coromandel Coast on the eastern seaboard.

Some Arab voyagers before the fourteenth century had referenced that it was difficult to sail to Malabar because of two fundamental reasons: first, there was no strong harbour in Malabar which could oppose the perilous rainstorm. Also, there was no security for the boats to stay seaward. As opposed to this experience, Ibn Battuta (1335) portraying conditions in the fourteenth century says that the improvement of the safe and strong harbour welcomed numerous Arab and Chinese dealers to Calicut. This shows that both commercial development and the improvement of political strength went hand in hand.

During the Sri Vijaya and Chola periods, Arabs reached the peak of maritime trade and monopolized foreign trade by the end of the 15th century. The takeover of the trade from South Indian merchants by Arab middlemen took place at the end of the Chola dynasty’s power. As long as the Chola dynasty was using naval power, the Arabs do not appear to have dared to intervene in the existing trade dynamics. However, the decline of Chola power and the Srivijaya Empire created a void in foreign trade, which was filled in by the Arabs. With the transfer of foreign trade to the Arabs, Indians showed little or no direct interest in foreign trade and were content with trade with Arab intermediaries and agents who sailed east and west with their goods.

Major Political Developments till the Seventeenth Century

In the sixteenth century, Calicut stood firm on the main footing in Malabar. The king of Cochin submitted himself symbolically and financially to the Zamorin. The Portuguese endeavoured to create a pepper monopoly in Calicut which saw no achievement. From that point onwards, they shifted their focus to the kingdom of Cochin and the ruler acknowledged their requests to battle against the supremacy of the Zamorin. By 1500, the Portuguese fortified their presence in Cochin and pursued many battles against the Zamorin. The sixteenth-century saw a progression of battles between the Portuguese and Calicut over pepper trade and territory.

Muslim traders from Yemen, Arabia, and Egypt were vital in leading the long-distance overseas pepper exchange of Calicut. The local community (Mappila Muslims) was likewise significant in associating the hinterlands and the port markets and in completing the pepper trade. The primary aim of the Portuguese was to monopolize the pepper market and expel these merchants. The Zamorin didn’t give consent to this idea, which prompted the Portuguese to shift their base to Cochin.

A significant gathering of Muslim vendors known as the Marakkar people left Cochin for Calicut in 1525. This shift was because of the constant conflicts between them and the Portuguese in Cochin. After this, the Marakkar group became significant in the political development of Calicut. Their chiefs became naval commanders of Calicut who controlled the maritime inflow, previously controlled by the Samoothiri.


The decline of the Chera dynasty contributed immensely to the rise of Samoothiri from among the other Swaroopams, although several other Hindu kingdoms continued to rule even afterwards. And the decline of the Chola dynasty contributed to the dominance and monopoly of Arab traders in the Maritime trade in the Malabar area. As we saw above, there were a few endeavors to gain political predominance over the Malabar Coast by both the Colonizers and the  Samoothiri. However, regardless of the countless interventions by Europeans to influence the evolution of state development, it wasn’t able to strip Kerala of its independence.


  1. Sridharan, K. (1982). A Maritime History of India. Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.
  2. Girija, A. N. (2017). Between the Indian Ocean and South Asia: State Formation in Early Modern Calicut. Master’s Thesis, Department of History, University of Leiden.
  3. Iyyer, Krishna. (1929). A History of the Zamorins of Calicut. Ramakrishna Printing Works.
  4. Champakalakshmy, R. Kesavan Veluthat and T.R Venugopalan Ed. (2002) State and Society in Premodern South India. Thrissur: Cosmobooks.
  5. Gupta, Ashin Das. (1967). Malabar in the Asian Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Malekandathil, P. (2010). Maritime India: Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean. Primus Books.

Menon, D. M. (1999). Houses by the Sea: State-Formation Experiments in Malabar, 1760-1800. Economic and Political Weekly34(29), 1995–2003.


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