The original Calicut Vikramapuram palace is no more to be seen, nor are the palace grounds or other structures. The Zamorin’s family after the destruction of the palace post Hyder’s arrival and the then Zamorin’s immolation, moved to distant Southerly parts of Kerala, and the land has since then been sold off to house businesses and other institutions such as the commonwealth Trust after they came back. I had written about the story of the Zamorin’s death some months ago.
But then I have always wondered about the main palace, the kovilakom or the fortress as writers chose to term it. Of course there were many other related structures around it or close to it like the other major kovilakoms, the treasury, the horse stables, the tank (which still remains) and so on, but let us for now start with the palace, a.k.a. Vikramapuram palace at Kottapuram.
Where would it have been? Many of you would jump to the answer; it was adjoining the Mananchira area of Calicut. Well, that is correct. But how many of you know what it looked like and how big it was? I provided some clues in earlier articles, especially in the ones covering the Portuguese visits such as Vasco Da Gama’s audience with the Zamorin, the sketches of the visit and so on. Nevertheless, let us take a look. Calicut’s skyline was dotted with some fine houses with tiled roofs but mostly homesteads with hay thatched roofs as you can see in the early sketches (1572).
Coming to the place where the Zamorin lived, you reach to the Manachira area. Of course we all know that the Manavan chira was the pond used by the palace for water and for various other purposes. In front of the pond, if you draw a square of 40 acres which would correspond to 1320’x1320’, you would cover the four walls of the palace grounds. It is not known when the palace was built, but mentions from the 15th century indicate a royal palace existed in those environs. The Eastern corner is roughly the GH road; the western side adjoins the KP Kesava Menon Rd, the Southern side somewhat beyond the Court road (close to the Palayam stand) and the Northern side just adjacent to the Manachira pond. The royal procession street stretched from the court road westwards. Adjoining the palace were the various Kovilakoms (denoted by their situation with respect to the Tali temple) such as the Padinjare, Kizkahkke, Ambadi, etc and also the minister’s homestead. After the establishment of supremacy by the Zamorin over the Polathiri, the first of the buildings constructed near the Tali temple was the Ambadi Kovilakom. Later the Kizhake and Puthiya kovilakom were built and also the Poonthanam palace. Somewhere in the 15th century the main Vikramapuram palace and its fortifications with low walls were built as the riches came in.
The palace was finally consigned to flames after close to three centuries by a desperate Zamorin who had no way of standing up to the Mysore Sultan. The later Zamorins never rebuilt the Vikramapuram palace, perhaps for financial reasons, perhaps due to the ill luck resulting from an untimely and ill-fated death in the location. Instead they lived in the Tiruvacchira (Meenchanda) residence or their respective maternal kovilakoms. What we can thus summarize is that the palace built in the 15th century lasted for roughly three centuries, till Hyder Ali chose to mess around with Malabar and the palace was burnt down in April 1766. Let us read extracts from what certain important visitors stated about the area.
Abdur Razak 1442
When I obtained my audience of this prince, the hall was filled with two or three thousand Hindus, who wore the costume above described; the principal personages amongst the Mussulmauns were also present. After they had made me take a seat, the letter of his majesty, the happy Khakan, was read, and they caused to pass in procession before the throne, the horse, the pelisse, the garment of cloth of gold, and the cap to be worn at the ceremony of Nauruz.
Vasco Da Gama 1498
Vasco de Gama and his retinue were conducted to the palace of the Zamorin. It was built of mud, but was pleasantly situated amidst trees and gardens…..
Joseph the Indian 1501
The Zamorin had a huge palace which housed 7000 men. 300 of them guarded the palace at night by taking rounds as it was not fortified. In the Zamorin’s palace there are four halls, one each for Hindus, Mohammedans, Jews & Christians.
The palace of the king is about a mile in circumference. The walls are low, as I have mentioned above, with very beautiful divisions of wood, with devils carved in relief. The floor of the house is all adorned with cow dung. The said house is worth two hundred ducats or thereabouts. I now saw the reason why they could not dig foundations, on account of the water, which is close to them.
Francois Pyrard of Laval 1607
His principal seat is at Calecut, where he hath a very handsome and well-built palace, all enclosed with good walls and moats, with drawbridge to the gates, and water all around in the moats. A large number of soldiers day and night guard the gates, which are four in number. They admit no one unless he is well known, nor such a one without questioning him, and conducting him or having him conducted to the part of the interior whither he desires to proceed. If he wishes to speak with the king, he is passed from one guard to another until he arrives at the door of the apartments where is stationed what you might call the bodyguard, and these gain him speech of the king. I have said there are four gates at the four great entrances; but before reaching the apartments of the king you have to pass three gates on each avenue, and at all points soldiers are on guard, without counting those at the doors of the king's apartments. Besides all these guards, there is a strong body in the middle of the palace, in a covered place built expressly for the purpose, and all the other guards take their orders from this one. Overhead is a great bell, which only sounds for the assembling of men-at-arms at the palace, and about the king when he hath need of them. At all the gates of the palace there are spaces with closed barriers and palisades round about, for fear lest the crowd should approach the gates. Outside these barriers, and near the gates, are men whose only duty it is to give fresh water to all the thirsty that ask it; and when anyone wants a drink, whatever his quality or religion, they give it him in the manner described.
There are plenty of wells in the country districts, and even at the king's palace; but it is not permitted to drink at them, for they are guarded, and only certain priests may draw water there for their superstitious observances. All the avenues of the palace are marvelously beautiful and delightful. All the roads are straight, like pall-mall alleys, and relieved on both sides by high terraces and palisades covered with trees of all sorts, among others, many of the trees they call tristes, of which they make saffron. Throughout all the country their roads are of this fashion, or nearly so.
The prisons are all at the king's palace; and the Malabars and all manner of foreigners are subject to the jurisdiction of the Nair kings, albeit one hears of but few lawsuits among them.
Between the town and the palace is about a quarter of a league, the road being as described, with fine mansions on either side; in front of the gate of the palace is a great square, where the market is held every day in the morning of all kinds of merchandise of the country, but not foreign. It is opened at seven o'clock, and one of the king's officers has the duty of sounding a bell to warn the king's servants and purveyors to go buy what is necessary for his house, for none would dare buy anything ere the king's household was supplied. That done, the bell is sounded a second time to call the merchants; but before the merchants enter, the tax farmers take their dues off even the smallest of the goods. Before the king's officers have taken what is due to them, no one would dare to go near or touch any goods, least of all anything eatable. Even after that, unless they be Bramenis or Nairs, they would not dare so much as touch any goods that are for sale ere a price has been made, and then they are obliged to take them. Care has to be taken also in going through the market, where all those that sell are seated, not to touch either their persons or their goods, unless they be of the same caste and religion. This market lasts only about three hours or more, and they come from all parts of the town and elsewhere to buy, in order afterwards to sell at the great market or Bajar, which is held every day and all day. After ten o'clock you see no one in the market near the palace, and everyone goes about freely. At that place, too, besides the shops and warehouses of particular trades, there are three or four large spaces for the people, wherein to bargain and sell their goods. All these houses and shops are used solely to hold the merchandise, yet throughout all the rest of the town there are great and rich merchants, who never come to this Bajar, having their own warehouses full of goods, which they sell not by retail, but wholesale.
Near this large square where the market is held is a large building where the king's money is struck, which is current on all the Malabar Coast. This consists of gold pieces with his effigy on one side and a pagoda or idol on the other.
But to return to the king's palace: it is a very large enclosure, and contains many blocks of houses, all detached and well built, of many stories and galleries, with flower-beds, and orchards, tanks, fish-ponds, and canals, all fitted and paved with stone, and constructed on all sides of stone steps leading to the bottom. Add to these many springs and fountains, whose water is cold and excellent to drink. In the palace, too, is a magazine or arsenal, full of arms, cannon, powder, and munitions of war. But the great and chief arsenal of the king is at Panany, for that is his chief war town.
Hard by there is a block of buildings allotted to the secretary and clerk to the king, for keeping all the registers. The order and system is most admirable herein, and I have oft-times wondered to see the great number of men with no other duty or work all day but writing and registering. These posts are of much honour; the clerks all reside in the palace, but in different apartments, and they have different duties. Some make entry of all goods arriving for the king; others, the dues and taxes paid day by day; others, the expenditure of the king's household; others, the most notable incidents of each day, both what happens at court and in the rest of the kingdom; in short, all news, for he has everything registered; and each clerk has his separate room. They keep also a register of all strangers who come there, taking their names and nationalities, the time of their arrival, and the business that has brought them, and so they did with us. It is a wondrous thing to observe their number and the perfect order that exists among them, and how fast they write on their palm-leaves, as described: these are of the length and breadth of the leaves of coco-trees, but thicker and stiffer. They make of them a kind of book, by means of holes in the thicker ends of the leaves, through which they pass a fillet, and thus bind together as many as are required.
The king hath the like writers in all towns, ports, harbours, and frontier passages of his kingdom, who render account to those of the palace, all being well organised and in obedience one to another, each having his proper superior. Throughout the whole Malabar coast there is the same manner of writing and the same ordering thereof.
Pond - After that he straightway rubs his body all over with odoriferous oil; this lasts about an hour, and then he goes to bathe in one of the ponds within the palace closeless he be of their religion, caste, and quality. When he comes forth of his bath he most often goes to the temple, and thence to his food in another palace within the same enclosure, which is a part of the grand palace, devoted entirely to that purpose. While he takes his repast he sits upon a piece of well-polished wood, and eats off balsam leaves, like the other Bramenis. After his dinner he despatches his business, and then changes his apartment, going to another prepared for him to receive all comers; and it is not that wherein he sleeps, takes his leisure, or eats. Here he is, as it were, exposed to public view, and if any would speak with him he may; if no affairs present themselves, he passes the time with his lords, and is much amused with buffoons and mountebanks, whereof he has always a goodly number. The Nair kings and lords often play a game of chance, which is a kind of chess, played with dice. He takes pleasure also in seeing the Nairs fence with one another with sword and buckler, whereat they sometimes get wounded; others, again, use pikes.
As for the queen, she lives in a separate palace, yet within the same enclosure as the great palace. She never eats with the king, and is seen but rarely, and then only at the windows and galleries of her palace or of the king's, whither she frequently proceeds by a gallery which communicates between the two, and there they see each other in private. She bathes in the same manner and with the same ceremony as the king, and in the same pond; but they cannot see each other, for they each have their own end of the pond with a space covered in. She has ordinarily her ladies about her, who pass the time for her. The pond where they bathe is well enclosed and locked, and none but the king and queen do bathe there; there is a gallery whereby the queen descends on her side, and another for the king on his side. The ladies who are present to wash the queen do not enter the water, but remain in the closets and pavilions that are upon the pond, where the oiling, drying, and perfuming is done; and these ladies use all the same artifice and ceremony towards her as the lords use towards the king. The queen is of the Brameny race as well as he. She has her own Pagode, where she betakes herself with her ladies, then to her own apartments to take her food, and so on, as with the king. Only great ladies are about her person, and she has the pavements or boards, and the walls and passages where she goes, cleaned with this cow-dung of which I have spoken. I must not forget to mention, in passing, and as the opportunity arises, the great honour rendered by these people to cows, however low-bred, filthy, and all covered with dirt and dung they may be. They are allowed to enter the king's palace, and whithersoever their way leads, without anyone disputing their passage; even the king himself………….
Delle Valle 1624
The first and principal gate of the Palace opens upon a little Piazza, which is beset with certain very great trees affording a delightful shade. I saw no Guard before it; it was great and open ; but before it was a row of Balusters, about four or five palms from the ground, which served to keep out not only Horses and other Animals (this contradicts the comment of Pyrard Laval) but also Men upon occasion. In the middle was a little flight of Stairs, outside the Gate, leading into it and another within on the other side. Yet, I believe, both the Stairs and the Balusters are movable, because 'tis likely that when the King comes forth the Gate is quite open; otherwise it would not be handsome, but this is only my conjecture. We enter'd this Gate, ascending the Stairs above the Rails, where we were met by the Messenger whom the above-said person had sent to the King and who again invited us into the Palace by the King's Order. Within the Gate we found a great Court, of a long form, without any just and proportionate figure of Architecture; on the sides were many lodgings in several places, and in the middle were planted divers great Trees for shade. The King's chief apartment, and (as I believe by what I shall mention hereafter) where his Women were, was at the end of the Court, opposite to the left side of the Entrance. The Edifice, in comparison of ours, was of little consideration; but, according to their mode, both for greatness and appearance capable of a Royal Family. It had a covered porch, as all their structures have, and within that was a door of no great largeness leading into the House…………….
Nor was it long before an Order came from the King for us to enter, and accordingly we were introduced into that second Gate ; and passing by a close room like a chamber, (in which I saw the Image of Brahma on his Peacock and other Idolets) we enter'd into a little open Court, surrounded with two rows of narrow and low Cloysters, to wit one level with the ground and the other somewhat higher. The pavement of the porch was also something raised above the plane of the Court, so much as might serve for a man to sit after our manner.
The second thing that made me laugh was that, when the King enter'd into the little Court, the door, whereat he and we had enter'd before, was immediately made fast with an Iron Bar, people also standing continually to guard it; and so likewise when anyone came in, or was sent out by the King, it was 'presently shut with diligence.
Many others made passing mentions of the palace, but after 1766 it was no more to be seen. Hamilton – Sea captain 1607 states that the palace is built of stone and there is some faint resemblance of Grandeur to be seen about his Court. K Balakrishna Kururp opines that the Gama perhaps met the Zamorin at the Kuttichira palace ( which later became a mosque) . The details of the dismantling and sale of the property were covered by Prof Raghava Varier and some details can be gleaned from this article.
PCM Raja in his book also provides an interesting insight to the Mananchira tank. He comments that the seashore some 1000 years ago was closer to the locale. The Zamorin later had the tank called Manavedan chira dug and finished with eight sides. This later became Mananchira or Manavancheri chira. He also clarifies that there were many kovilakoms in the area, a major palace at Ponnai, another at Kottakkal and of course many more around Malabar where the Zamorin lived during his field trips.
And with all that background, let us summarize how the palace would have looked.
The palace grounds were enclosed by low walls with wooden inlays, there were perhaps some moats around the walls (I doubt it), that the walls had four gates and were well guarded. The palace was in the middle and the courtyard housed other buildings such as the women’s quarters, the main meeting halls etc. the roads within were lined with tress, ponds and so on, and some of the buildings were multistoried with tiled roofs. There were bathing ponds within the palace and outside, the Manachira tank provided water supply to the large numbers of people employed. The manachira grounds hosted competitions and bazaars often. Close by was the Tali temple, the mint and the stables.
Now you may want to look at a plan of the grounds as they existed. Well, we do have one, thanks to Pietro Delle Valle. See images below.
The travels of Ibn Batuta – HAR Gibb
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Malabar studies – NM Nampoothiri
Calicut History – K Balakrishna Kurup
Samoothirmaar- PCM Raja
India In the eyes of Europe – Donald F lach
The voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval
The travels of Pietro Della Valle
Durate Barbosa travels – ML Dames
Pics – Various web sources, acknowledged with thanks. Google for Google maps and Atlas of mutual heritage for the palace picture.