Although Marakkala is the modern colloquial term for Muslims, Marakkalage is another uniquely Karava ancestral name and is used by several traditional Karava families of Sri Lanka to date.
Variant forms are : Maha Marakkalage (Maha = great) , Arasa Marakkalage (Arasa = king), Andra Marakkalage (Andra as in Andra Pradesh), Antinna Marakkalage, Kodi Marakkalage (kodi = flag) , Loku Marakkalage (Loku = senior), Manna Marakkalage, Marakkala Hennedige (hennedige = armoured), Sandra Marakkalage and Marakkala Malimige (Malimi = captain).
The name Marakkalage derives from the type of craft used in warfare by the rulers of the Kuru Mandala coast (the region of the Kurus) and Sri Lanka. They were also used by the kings of the Coromandel coast in their naval battles against the Portuguese in the 16th century to attack Portuguese ships. The ancestors of the families bearing these names were obviously the owners or commanders of such vessels.
The Karavas were the only traditional martial and naval community of Sri Lanka and the preservation of that naval tradition in mediaeval names such as the above is of interest. Sri Lankan and Portuguese history mention that Karavas were Naval commanders in the armies of the Nayaks of Tanjore.
Above: an ancient Marakkar boat as illustrated on an Indian stamp. Sri Lanka is yet to recognise it's maritime heritage
The above stamp issued by India shows the Marakkar war-paroe, a boat that could carry 30-40 men and could be rowed in the sea as well as through lagoons and narrow waters. These crafts were also used in their naval battles against the Portuguese in the 16th century to attack Portuguese ships.
Many Karava chiefs also owned large trading vessels and conducted trade with martial caste chiefs in South India , Bengal and south east Asian kingdoms. The items traded included chanks, pearls, elephants, spice and rice.
Below: other traditional Naval vessels of this region
Going back to ancient times , the ancient rock inscription below from the council terrace at Anuradhapura shows that Karavas were navigating the region even as far back as the Anuradhapura period. This inscription is for some reason ignored by modern Lankan historians writing on Sri Lanka's maritime history.
Above: An ancient inscription on the council terrace at Anuradhapura This is illustrated in Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions. One of the dignitaries who used this terrace for their meetings was a Karava Navika - a naval officer. See Karava terrace
Five of the ancient graffiti on the mirror wall of the Sigiri citadel (inscriptions 221, 391, 464, 470 & 570) have been inscribed by dignitaries who bore the title Maadabhi ( ie. Malavi / Maha Navi) This title is also found in the inscription featured in EZ III pg 256 (Paranavitana 1956 page ccxii)
Karavas of the Anuradhapura period were already established in Sri Lanka and influential enough to have their own permanent council terrace in the heart of the royal city of Anuradhapura. The inscription of Ila Barata , Kuruvira, Karava Navika and others is inscribed on a vertical rock face of a terrace to the north west of the ancient Abhayagiri Dagaba in Anuradhapura (Paranavitana 1970 xo 94 )
Sri Lankan Buddhist Nuns had travelled to China by sea in 429 A. D. to establish the order of Buddhist Nuns in China. Many monks and ambassadors of the Sri Lankan kings travelled to Chia by sea during this period (Weerasinghe p. 25,26). Their travels would undoubtedly have been in ships captained by the likes of Karava Navika in the above inscription and other Karava sailors.
The famous 5th century Chinese monk Fa-Hian describes the Sri Lankan ship which took him back to China as : " A great merchant ship which carried 200 passengers and cargo" (Beal p. 166). This indicated the advanced sea faring capabilities of the ancient Karavas, the scale of which was worthy of mention for a Monk from the great Chinese empire. The 8th century Chinese historian Li Chao has written that the ships coming from Sri Lanka were the largest ships that came there and that they had stairways that were tens of feet high for loading and unloading. ( Weerasinghe p. 35).
The Devanagala rock inscription of Parakramabahu I further confirms that Sri Lanka had a powerful navy. According to this inscription, Parakramabahu sent a fleet of a thousand ships and invaded Burma in 1164. And the Sri Lankan general Kit Nuvaragal captured the Burmese city of Kusima (EZ III pgs 312 -325). The Mahavamsa too refers to this event (MV 76: 10-75). Selling elephants to Burma, which would have required very large and strong ships is referred to in the Culavamsa (CV 76.18) The Mahavamsa says that thre was a thriving trade in textiles, rice spices etc between Sri Lanka and south east Asia (MV 58.9).
Our ship building skills and capabilities have been at a very high level during this period as king Bhuvanekabahu I ( A. D. 1272 - 1284) had made an offer to the Sultan of Egypt to build 20 vessels a year (Codrington p. 82 - 85)
Above : A Yathra Dhoni from medieval Sri Lanka
Karava families in Sri Lanka continued to own these large trading vessels (Yaathra) even during the British period, until this international trade was classified as smuggling. The large ceramic jars (Buri) of south Asian origin found in old southern Karava homes bear testimony to their international trading connections.
Below: a model of a Maha-Oru (Great boat) also known as Yathra Dhoni from the Maritime museum in Galle
Other Karava family names indicative of the Naval heritage of the Karavas are: Manavige / Malimige / Malavige- Captain of Ship / Yathra. From 'Maha Nevi' - Great Sailor. Varients are: Manavige, Malimige, Malimage, Malavige, Maalavige, Manamarakkalage, Goniya Malimige, Malimi Patabendige, Marakkala Malimige, Varusa Malimige, Wickramasuriya Maha Malimige.
Beal, Samuel 1869Travels of Fah-Hian and Sung-Yunl (400 A. D. and 518 A. D.) Trubner & Company , London
Codrington H. W. 1919 " A Sinhalese embassy to Egypt" Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ceylon Branch, Volume XXVIII No. 72
EZ (Epigraphia Zeylanica) Colombo Museum
MV - Mahavamsa
Paranavitana S. 1956 Sigiri Graffiti, Oxford University Press
Paranavithana S. 1970 Inscriptions of Ceylon Vol I Early Brahmi Inscriptions
Queyroz Fr. S. J. 1688 The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylaö
Raghavan M. D. Karava of Ceylon 1962 Colombo
Weerasinghe S. G. M. 1995 A History of the cultural relations betwen Sri lanka and China, The Central Cultural Fund, Colombo
Above: A 8th Cent Samban ship from Borobudur stone carvings
Indian Ocean Ships
Kshatriya Maha Sabha, Sri Lanka