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Introducing - The Vencaticota Ola

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

A manuscript describing Malabar history and the Portuguese arrival

For some years, I have been lamenting on the absence of history material archives especially Granthavari copies and translations in the public medium related to Malabar. Then there are the Brahmin and Chetty archives (who were among the few who had the skill and permission to indulge in writing) lying somewhere. In the Zamorin’s court, Menons (or more correctly Menokki in the Zamorin’s Malabar) were the court scribes creating the records. It is my belief that a large number of these records were (thankfully in hind sight)  carted away in the early 19th century to Madras or other places by the EIC and other administrators. Some are listed in document collections. But they are sealed away and out of sight. If they are now made available, it would be useful and could be correctly translated and archived. An example can be seen in this article..

Somewhere around 1816-1817, a Pana Ola or palm leaf manuscript surfaced which had on it the history of the Portuguese arrival and departure from Malabar briefly recorded. The Pana ola (or Brab tree) or Palmyrus leaf text was translated by some officer in the EIC and posted in the Asiatic journal and monthly miscellany. I doubt if anybody else has seen it in recent times, for I have never ever seen any reference to it thus far. It was subsequently republished in 1834 together with a comparison to the Rowlandson’s translation of the Tuhfat al Mujahideen (by contemporary religious scholar Sheikh Zainuddin – See my blog on the subject).

For those who do not quite understand this type of manuscript and writing technique, suffices to say that these are handwritten Malayalam records on dried palm leaves as pictured, using an iron nail stylus, held between the writing fingers and is the hereditary task of scribes or court clerks – otherwise from the Nair caste, subclass Menon. After the writing, the dried leaves are in most cases etched with oil & carbon black to provide contrast. For details of the technique, refer this article.

The original Ola bundle in this case was supposedly obtained by the British from a Vencaticota Raja belonging to the Tamuri (Zamorin) family. I spent some time trying to figure out what Vencaticota meant and concluded correctly that it had to be the Venkatta kota (Venkotta) at today’s Kottakkal where the Kizhakke Kovilakom is located. That certifies the lineage to the Zamorin family and the source. So we can trust the statement from 1817 that it was acquired from the Zamorin family. In the course of the next two or three blogs, I will detail the brief text, possibly add some further comments of interest and provide my own inferences with respect to the similarity with Zainuddin’s text.

Considering that this document has not seen light in recent times, it would surely be of some interest to history enthusiasts, buffs and Malabar specialists. I can only begin by offering a small token of thanks to today’s modern search engines like Google and the good sense of the long lost Englishman who consigned this to paper and archived it for posterity. Regrettably, our own precious original history & manuscript collections are slowly rotting away and disintegrating in Kerala, if not gone already, for lack of care & finance.

And above all I must thank Nabeel Moidu who by asking questions made me recheck some aspects of the authorship of the Tuhfat and this led to the discovery of the said text referred below. As is evident, this was possibly written around the 1585-1590 time frame, and is a second record of the times by an Indian source.

It will of course be surprising if the original Ola was ever traced in England, for then the translation from Malayalam could be crosschecked. It will then doubtless prove to be an older history text compared to what we know today as Vellayude charithram dealing with a later period, covering the nefarious visit by Haider Ali to Malabar, to exact tribute from the Zamorin.

It would also be very interesting if one day we found out who translated it from that old Malayalam ola to English, perhaps souls who aided and abetted the EIC, like our nemesis Swaminatha Pattar. Note here in perspective that the Tuhfat was translated from Arabic to English & much later from Arabic to Malayalam.

Without further ado, I will recount the translated text of the Ola.


Part 1 -The Background

When the Emperor Perumal was about to depart for Mecca, he gave the whole country of Malabar in shares to the different Rajas; at which period the Tamuri Zamorin was at some distance, which was the reason of his not having a country given to him. The Tamuri Raja after this came back; Perumal gave his seal and sword to him, telling the Tamuri he must conquer countries, and retain them by that sword. Accordingly in a short time the Tamuri Raja employed himself diligently to do as Perumal ordered him and he got the country of Korikote.

At this time the people of the tribe of Islam came to see the Raja, took up their residence at Korikote, and from diverse countries, merchants and trades-people came; and by exercising their respective callings, Korikote began to grow a large place. Throughout the whole of Malabar, the city of Korikote was the first in rank, After this the tribe of Islam came from several places, and assembled together by which the Tamuri became the most powerful, and the principal among the Rajas of Malabar, of whom some were possessed of strength and some were not.

In this period none of the Rajas passed each other's boundaries, which was agreeable to the orders of Perumal at his departure. Their kingdoms extended some one kathum (a katham is a measure of distance of four to five miles) and some more. Some of them had 100 men, some 200, some 300, some 1,000, some 5,000, some 10,000, some 100,000, and some had still more. In some countries there were two Rajas, in some three, and in others even more. In the countries that had two Rajas, if one was more powerful than the other, he would not quarrel with and trespass in the other's boundaries.

If any did quarrel, he would get no one to assist him. Amongst these Rajas, the one who had most men governed the country from Tekke (South) Kollam to Kaniakumary (Cape Comorin) at this time and his name was Tripathi (Tiruvitankur Raja). The next Raja reigned over Madi Walaputnam, around Cannanore, Edekaat, and Dhurmapuram; he was called the Kolatirri Raja.

But amongst these Rajas, in point of dignity, power, and consideration in foreign countries, the Tamuri was pre-eminent and amidst all the remaining Rajas in Malabar in honours and dignities, the Tamuri stood first. The reason of this was the gift of the seal and sword by the Emperor Perumal, who himself reposed confidence in the tribe of Islam; after whose departure they came and settled in the country, put trust in the Tamuri, and on account of this friendship, strangers came from other countries with shipping people, whom the Raja received honourably and sent them away in a friendly manner.

When the Raja went to any place, either for war or any other affair of consequence, the sword was carried before him, as formerly before (by the) Perumal. If any circumstance occasioned a war between the Tamuri and any other of the Malabar Rajas, and they gave him either money or country, and sued for peace, then he retired quietly and left them; but if any of the Rajas neither gave money nor country, he then would not cause his army to commit devastation, but remained for a length of time upon the borders of that country, till he was satisfied, such was the ancient custom, nor could he act in any other manner. But if quarrels and wars arose among the other Rajas of Malabar, they slaughtered each other, and ruined each other's country.

Maddy’s comments

The general wording gives one a feel that the original text has been written by an outsider, not an inside court scribe or Menokki, who would have normally mentioned other aspects such as the greatness of the Zamorin house etc, and less about the arrival of Islam and its significance. So was it a Malayalam translation of another work or did much of the text originate from another? Was it perhaps a record for posterity & filing?

The word Tamuri has been used in the text. It was not Samoothirpad or Karanavapad or Thamburan, but Tamuri. A court scribe would have used the appropriate term, viz Tamburan or at best Samoothrirpad. The word Tamuri was mainly used by Arabs. So does this signify the Tuhfat as a possible source? What does the Tuhfat say? Was Tamuri the translation of Thamburan by the Englishman? If that was the case, did the word Tamuri originate from Samuri or Thamburan?

The use of the word Korikote is another interesting aspect. This is strange for the Portuguese and the Dutch used terms like Calicut, Calecut etc. in later documents. I think Korikote was used in the earliest records, so was the original text much older than 1580? Obviously Kozhikode or Koilkot as a word existed then. Koil Kotta is my guess.

The Travancore Raja title Tripathi is not quite clear to me, however, the explanation given by the English translator seemed gibberish, so has been discarded by me (For those interested this was what was stated - The official name of the Travancore Raja's Sircar is Tirinpasaaron, taken, probably, from Tirinpathy). The title could be Tiruvitamkoor raja but I think Tripathi has been used in some situations too.

The most interesting paragraphs in this part are the mentions about the code of conduct of wars and resolution of major disputes.

The action taken in a dispute, especially his stay at the border (refer the Chetwa & Trichur interludes) is very strange indeed and one wonders if it was just a battle of wits. You posed with power, just as they do with war exercises & parades these days, showing your might till the other party acquiesced. However we do know that very expensive wars were fought to settle disputes. So the purpose of this statement is unclear.

The lack of emphasis propagation of Islam, building of mosques and the words of the prophet clearly indicate editing to a certain extent even if this was indeed borrowed from the Tuhfat, but was it?

The other possibility is if the entire work was done together. A Menokki and Zainuddin 2 working in concert, creating two different pieces of work for the same purpose. But here again we fail to conclude the purpose. The Nairs acted in unison when called upon by the Zamorin or their regional head. The need to unite was more needed within the minority group covering the diverse Moplah & expatriate Arab population. Thus Zainuddin wrote in Arabic, also to get the sponsorship of the Bednore prince Ali Adil Shah.

Considering the sovereignty of the Zamorin, my belief is that a Menokki started the draft and Zainuddin altered it or vice versa, for the Tuhfat had a purpose and before it was issued, it had to be whetted by the person in power. But then again, the sponsor of the Tuhfat was Ali Adil Shah king of Bednore, not the Zamorin. Why was that so, Why not the Zamorin? Was the relationship already strained due to the Kunjali episode? We will get back to the discussion in the Part 2 which is very interesting indeed and, until then, this will be food for thought & comment.

Vencata cotay or Venkatta kota is the seat of the Kizhake kovilagom in Kotakkal – Malappuram. It was once the Srinada taluq. Hamilton Buchanan for example was a visitor there in the early 19th century and he writes about meeting the prince there and at length about his visit to the area and the palace.

                                    (To Be Continued...........................)

Pics - from the net, thankls to the uploaders, They are not not the manuscript described above


  1. Nabeel

    Interesting to find old texts come out in the public. I hope we can find more of such texts and have a better idea of those times. Anyway the first impression I get from this is that its most likely an abridged translation of some possibly larger text, written by the Englishman from what he understood of the original. The whole style of writing looks much different from those of the medieval era be it the Tuhfat or Tudela or Barbosa or Battuta. Will wait for part 2 before coming to more conclusions.

  1. Maddy

    thanks nabeel - I am sure there are many more waiting to see light. I believe you are probably right that it forms part of a larger text, only difference being that the original may have been a larger malayalam text that both the menon scribe and Sheikh Zanuddin used..

    It is definitely not Rowlandson's doing

  1. Nabeel

    I was going through some old texts, and happened to see the Zamorin referred to variantly as Samory and Tamuri Rajah in two translations of this 1510 book The travels of Ludovico di Varthema Its an Italian to English translation dated 1863, but the way the translator refers to the name, it looks like he's quoting from the original directly.Given that he was travelling with Arabs in disguise, its quite probable that he used the terminology used by the Arabs.But given that some similar versions of the story exists even in Barbosa why do you think this would really have something to do with the Tuhfat?

    Again the style of the text you've quoted makes me feel its abridged by the translator. Most medieval texts I've come across have a distinctive style of writing with hyped up narrations that try to sensationalize the events and stories, but this one is markedly different in its style.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Nabeel - I will post the part 2 soon and you will see why I mention Tuhfat, for there is a marked similarity between the ultimate translations into English even though one was Arabic to English and the other Malayalam to English. And in between there was possibly an Arabic tro Malayalam translation!!
    yes, there is no doubt it is an abridged version. But where or which is the original??

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Quite interesting. Incidentally horoscopes in our family are on palm leaves without being blackened.

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    While going through the Epigraphia Indica (Vol 3)I came across terms like Muyirikkodu for Cranganore, Kallikkotai for Calicut and Tamudiri for Samoodiri. Just thought of sharing.

  1. drsabu

    Maddy, the destruction of the Chaliyam Mosque is quite well known among the mappilas.
    Infact among the original mosques(supposedly) built by Malik ibn Dinar-the ones at Chaliyam,Pantalayini Kollam and Barkur(Udupi dt)were demolished by the Portuguese.In addition ,several mosques including the Nakhuda mosque at Kuttichira were set on fire by the Portuguese.

    p 330 &334 Malabar Manual Vol I- William Logan
    p 85.A short history of Kerala-K.V.Krishna Aiyar ;Pai & Co 1966 Ernakulam


    Maddy, I am working on medieval sculptures from Kerala, roughly around fourteenth century AD. I am looking at the emergence of a Keral style of sculpture making. But I a, also looking at the sculptural body and its connection with performance inside temples and also with warrior communities. What manuscripts and texts should I look to understand the everyday life of temples, patronage, monarchy of this period from entire Keral region especially South Kerala.

  1. Maddy

    thanks premjish..
    it is difficult to mention one writer, but you will find bits and pieces in books by Elamkulam (studies in kerala history), MGS about kulashekara perumals, and perhaps books by bernier, Veluthat and I recall there was one book by gouri lakshmi bayi about teh padmanabha temple also.

  1. Maddy

    also there are books covering the devadasi periods - especially the manipravalam style writing. you will find details of temple practices