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1258 and Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Most people will veer off in different directions seeing this title. In fact one of the possible linkages that I will introduce is somewhat new and requires to be studied in depth by those interested. As you will see, stars crossed for some in different parts of the world, they proved to be better aligned for Calicut and its people.

The year 1258 was to prove to be of great significance to Calicut. In fact as the Mongol descendants of Genghis Khan roared into Baghdad on their horsebacks, the city of Calicut was perhaps not even well formed. The city was yet to be completed on well understood Vasthu principles. But as you all know, it would soon imprint its name on the world map, thanks to a number of enterprising Karimi traders and the need for spices around the world, not to forget many other lasting contributions by way of the spice trade with the East and the West.

Trade in Malabar and the areas south of Malabar, focusing on ports such as Muziris, Quilon and many others were originally controlled by some guilds notably Anjuvannam and Manigram. The former was composed mainly of Jewish and Christian traders whereas the latter was run by the Chettys of the Coromandel. The western traders had yet to make a large impact, but they were already established at Quilon and Muziris. Soon enough it had moved upwards to Calicut and a number of surrounding satellite ports following the move of the Nediyirippu swaroopam out of inland Ernad and their settling down at Calicut after a tussle with the Porlathiri’s (a story which I recounted earlier). The Zamorin rule quickly stabilized and he soon became the suzerain of the mid Malabar region. Why did the traders flock to the new port city during that time?

Interested readers might come up with questions about the Kulashekara’s of Mahodayapuram. Whatever happened to the famed Muziris and other related ports? How did the Kulashekara Empire disintegrate? Some years back, we looked at the story of the Cheraman Perumal and his leaving for Mecca. Whether he did that or move elsewhere like the mythical Kailasam is mired in historic myths and is not clear in anyway, but we will embark on collecting more details eventually, but before all that, let us stay on the topic of the formation of mercantile Calicut.

Well originally, the trade routed stretched from the Persian Gulf to Quilon and the key control was exerted from Baghdad. Once Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, the route heads changed to the Red Sea ports and were controlled out of Mamluk ruled Egypt. The Karimi merchants of Egypt (including the Genizah Jews) gained ascendance and they favored the Malabar ports, paramount among them being Calicut due to the strong and just rule of the Calicut Zamorin and the open trade facilities provided in the region by him. Equally important was the military strength the Zamorin could marshal to keep any usurpers at bay and the resulting stability to business this produced. Calicut as I mentioned in my Pragati article on medieval trade, was a medieval trade hub and soon the trading communities comprised the Karimis, Maghribhis, Bohras, Chettis and Vanias to name a few. Thus the importance of Calicut started with the decline of international trade emanating from the Persian Gulf after the Mongol conquest of Abbassid Baghdad (1258) and the concentration of the Al-Karimi at the port of Calicut.

Now let us move southwards and go to the events centered on the formation of the Cochin harbor, the island of Vypeen and what is called the Puthu Vaippu era. Vypeen (the Portuguese form of writing Vaippu) itself lying between Cochin and Kodungallur (Cranganore) is sixteen miles in length, three miles broad and was known as Puthu Vaippu. The various geographical changes which affected Cochin, Vypeen and Cranganore were apparently commemorated by what is called the Puthu Vaippu Era. Vypeen, also known as Puthu Vaippu (Puthu Vaipu, i.e. new formation or new deposit) and the people there commence an era from the date of its formation A.D. 1341. This phenomenon was responsible for opening a new harbor which is what we know as today's Kochi (Cochin) harbor loosely meaning Kochazhi or ‘small harbor’ (Kochangadi of the Jews is the place where the Jews first resided - clarified by Thoufeek).  As events played out, this new harbor would soon outdo Calicut, but it would take all of 500 plus years and the support of many a foreign nation, notable the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, not to mention the internal rivalries between the Zamorin and the Cochin king which as we saw, these nation cleverly manipulated for their own good.

Back to 1341. How did this event take place? The north bank of the Cochin River is formed by the island of Vypeen, which is said to have been created in 1341 A.D. by a cyclone or earthquake. It is said that the island was formed by the deposits of silt brought down by the rivers discharging into the backwaters and sea. Elsewhere, it is said that the Periyar river mouth silted destroying the access from the sea and thus finishing off the trade which the port of Muziris conducted with many a country for eons. The Cochin royal family or the Perumbadapu swaroopm moved from Vanneri to Cochin with the support and permission of the Paliyath family, the real landlords of the region. Perhaps they to saw the opportunity of increasing seaborne trade, spilling out of Muziris and now suffering from the recent events. Some accounts even mention that there occurred a severe earthquake along the Kerala coast in 1341 due to which the Vypeen Island was raised above the sea level, and the Cochin bar mouth was formed. What could have been a more supportable fact?

Let me now veer away to some 100 years before the 1341 event and talk about a massive tropical volcanic eruption which shook the world in 1258. In fact, I was discussing the 1258 eruption and the British mass graves with esteemed blogger Nick Balmer and he asked a simple question as to what would have happened in Malabar at that very same time. This will perhaps be an attempted answer.

January 1258 – One of the largest volcanic eruptions of the Holocene epoch occurred, possibly from a 
tropical location such as Mount Rinjani, Indonesia, El Chichón, Mexico; or Quilotoa, Ecuador. Observed effects of the eruption include the following anecdotal accounts: dry fog in France; lunar eclipses in England; severe winter in Europe; a "harsh" spring in Northern Iceland; famine in England, Western Germany, France, and Northern Italy; and pestilence in London, parts of France, Austria, Iraq, Syria, and South-East Turkey. This event is still being studied and the previous locations as well as locations in Saudi Arabia were finally discounted and the present focus is at the Rinjani Volcano of Indonesia.The eruption was so big that it injected somewhere between 190-270 megatons of ash and other material into the atmosphere (or 300 and 600 megatons of sulfuric acid). This was one of the possible triggers to the little ice age.

The Muziris port reportedly silted up as the result of unusual flooding by the Periyar River in 1341 AD. What if the Tsunami of 1258 started the issue of the silting?? To check the veracity of all this we have to see how the mention of the 1341 flooding get substantiated.

A non-academic account mentions that geographical layout Cochin City as we know it today traces back to the great flood of 1341 CE, caused by a tsunami triggered by a gigantic undersea volcanic eruption (but is not referenced to any source). During this year the river Periyar flooded like never before (or after), and changed its course. The hitherto flourishing port of Cranganore silted up from the mud up-stream. Only that no such recorded volcanic eruption event took place in 1341. Perhaps there was a strong Pacific Rim earthquake and we will get to that soon.

How did 1341 become important in the annals of history? We know that the first synagogue was built by Jospeh Azar in 1344 after the Jews from Shingly arrived at Kochangadi. Many a book mentions the great Periyar flood of 1341. WW Hunter is the first to detail the connection between the flood and the Puthu vaippu era. He states ‘The date at which this island was formed by the action of the sea and river, a. d. 134 1, is sometimes used in deeds as the commencement of an era styled Puttuveppu (new deposit)’. Others mentioned ‘the floods in the river Periyar in 1341 choked the mouth of the Cranganore harbor and rendered it useless for purposes of trade’. Padmanabha Menon mentions this as an extraordinary flood which opened up an estuary. As you delve into the usual Malabar history sources you see mentions that the 1341 year had record monsoons resulting in the Periyar flood and the silting up of the harbor mouth.

The following extract is from Dr. Thomson's paper on the Geology of Bombay (Mad. Lit. Trans.) It bears directly on the subject, and carries us three centuries further back: I have not considered the description specific enough for the text, but fee no reason to doubt the authenticity of the fact:—" The Island of Vaypi, on the north side of Cochin, rose from out the sea in the year 1341: the date of its appearance is determined by its having given rise to a new era amongst the Hindoos, called Puduvepa, or the new introduction. Contemporaneously with the appearance of Vaypi the waters, which during the rainy season were discharged from the ghaut, broke through the banks of the channel which usually confined them, overwhelmed a village, and formed a lake and harbour so spacious that light ships could anchor where dry land formerly prevailed."—Bartolome's Voyage to the East Indies. Borne 1796 ; Translation 1800.

The geographic Survey of India Vol 132 mentions a severe earthquake in 1341 resulting in the floods. Bilhm’s paper on Earthquakes in India mentions thus - A storm near Cochin in 1341 caused an island to emerge, but inspection suggests this to be a common accretional feature of storms along the Malabar Coast (Bendick and Bilham, 1999).

Rajendran, Biju, Sreekumari and Kusala in their fine paper on Malabar earthquakes studies this in more detail and discounts the earthquake – Quoting them

Another glaring example is the oft-quoted Malabar Coast earthquake of A.D. 1341. The report by Ballore (1900), one of the earliest studies on seismic phenomenon in British India treats this event as “a severe earthquake” as a consequence of which Vypin ‘Island’, (referred in Newbold’s report as Waypi), was raised above the sea level. Newbold (1846) considers the 1341 catastrophe as a large storm, which brought about remarkable changes in the vicinity of Cochin,including the emergence of the new sand bar known by the name Vypin (see also Bendick and Bilham, 1999, for details),and consequently a new harbour. The critical evaluation of the available data suggests that the 1341 event was not an earthquake but a storm.

We have obtained independent evidence of flooding in the Bharathapuzha River basin that occurred sometime between A.D. 1269 and 1396. This probably represents the 1341 flood – a severe event that probably affected many river basins of Kerala.

Now we move eastwards to the 1258 Indonesian volcanic eruption suspect. We do know that there is a connection between earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. What if the 1258 eruption followed a massive undersea earthquake in the Pacific Rim? An earthquake which created the eruption could create a bad tsunami as we witnessed recently, the effects of which were felt with some severity on the South Malabar coastline. We know that such massive eruptions, especially near the sea level produce large Tsunamis. The question is if the Rinjani eruption produced a cataclysmic tsunami. Quite doubtful and occurring a hundred years before the recorded facts in Cochin. So let us move to Cochin and discount any effect of the eruption on the formation of Cochin

While we see some mention of a massive earthquake off Japan in 1341 we have no real details at hand. Perhaps that caused the tsunami which resulted in the silting events at Muziris and the formation of Vypeen, but then again we can conclude that there was no direct impact of the 1258 volcanic event on Malabar.

VKR Menon (History of medieval Kerala) is a person who studied the Putu vaipu Era and wrote about it. He believes that the start of an era in 1341 has nothing to do with the purported overnight formation of an island, but is related to the founding of the Vijayanagar dynasty instead. He concludes that in 1341, the Cochin raja entered into a treaty with Harihara of Vijayanagar (to keep away the Tughlaqs) and in order to pay the tribute imposed taxes for this purpose on his subjects, all for the first time in 1341. Therefore Pudu Viapu means ‘New foundation’, supporting this theory. What this alludes to is that the island was formed over time, that the silting occurred over time, and that the cause is not necessarily one severe event in 1341. He also makes it clear that such a disastrous calamity was never explicitly mentioned in temple records, or by Ibn Batuta or Feristah and so did not possibly occur.

Nevertheless, let us get back to 1258, the year without a summer. What impact did it have in Europe and the rest of the world? RB Stothers provides a summary of general effects as follows in his interesting paper, He explains - Tropical eruptions in modern times generate globe-girdling stratospheric aerosol veils (dry fogs) that persist for several years, slowly settling out. The aerosols block some of the incoming sunlight and alter atmospheric circulation patterns, and by these means cool much of the Earth’s surface. This temporary disturbance of the world’s climate, often involving increased precipitation, can adversely affect agriculture. Consequences may be a greater human susceptibility to famine and disease, leading ultimately to social and political unrest.

As an example in Britain -  During the four-year period 1258–1261, only the year 1258 fits this criterion of universality. The heavy summer and autumn rains in 1257 and 1258 ruined crops throughout England, western Germany, France, and northern Italy. Severe famine is explicitly attested in many localities, and can also be inferred elsewhere from the high prices of staple agricultural commodities. England was especially hard hit. Famine in the countryside drove thousands of villagers into London, where many of them perished from hunger. Richard of Cornwall, the king of Germany, was able to ship some grain from Germany and Holland into London to alleviate the distress of the poor who could afford to buy (Matthew Paris, 1259). The price of food throughout England rose, nonetheless, and eventually specie itself became in short supply, having been already depleted by heavy tax exactions at the hands of both the church and state. France had a similar situation. In England, the cold winter and spring of 1258 produced outbreaks of murrain in sheep, as well as various famine diseases within the human population, especially among the numerous urban paupers.

Soon the mass burials that were resorted to became the norm and until the 1258 eruption mystery was solved, historians accounted it to a plague epidemic, calling these burial pits as the plague pits which numbered upto some 18000 skeletons at Spitalfields.

But interestingly, the problem was equally severe in the Middle East. Stothers explains - Finally, in the Middle East the historian Bar-Hebraeus (1286) reports a famine during 1258 in the general region of Iraq, Syria, and southeastern Turkey. Nevertheless, this disaster may have been just one of the side effects of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in that year, which brought about the end of the Abbasid caliphate. But what else other than the 1258 eruption could explain the arrival of pestilence in the Middle east. In the Middle East, there was also reported a great pestilence in 1258, affecting Iraq, Syria, and southeastern Turkey (Bar-Hebraeus, 1286). It was called ‘plague’ by the 14th century Syrian chronicler Abu l-Fid ¯ a’ (Dols, 1977), and was said to have been especially severe in Damascus; it is also mentioned by the 15th century Egyptian historian al-Maqrızı (von Kremer, 1880). Because the Middle East has been historically prone to epidemics of bubonic plague, possibly that is what it was.

Anyway the habitants of Baghdad were soon to see the ‘scourge of god’ or the khans of the Mongol. At around the same time as the eruption occurred in Indonesia, the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan swooped down astride their swift horses into Baghdad, sacking the city and pillaging it, to bring to an end the Islamic golden age. That Mongke, Hulagu’s brother planned this siege carefully since 1257 is clear, and the resulting massacre was so macabre that Hulagu himself moved his camp upwind of the city, due to the stench of decay from the ruined Baghdad. Tigris waters were red from the blood of the massacre, and the city of the Arabian nights was no more one.

"They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror...beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged...through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a the population died at the hands of the invaders." (Abdullah Wassaf as cited by David Morgan)

The Ayyubid head An-Nasir Yusuf at Damascus then sent a delegation to Hulegu asking for peace. Hulegu refused to accept the terms and so An-Nasir Yusuf called upon Cairo for aid. As it happened, this plea coincided with a successful coup by the Cairo-based Mamluks against the remaining symbolic Ayyubid leadership in Egypt. The Bahriyya Mamluks were soon in power in Cairo which became more prominent as a result and Cairo remained a Mamluk capital thereafter. As KM Mathew explains - Eventually the entrepreneurial activities of the Arab/Al-Karimi traders of Cairo, who were commercial allies of the Mamluk Egypt and gradually settled down in the city for the furtherance of their trade, favored the rise of Calicut as a prominent exchange center in the Indian Ocean region.

In summary, the events in the Middle East of course was a reason for the emergence and resulting maintenance of the trade links with Calicut. The Periyar floods that occurred around the same time resulted in the necessity of the move of trading ports northward from Muziris to a more stable area geographically and politically, thus resulting in the choice of Calicut. As this was happening, I would come to the conjecture that the worrisome situation in Europe and the Middle East owing to the 1258 volcanic eruption, resulted in increased export volumes and profitability, speeding up the maritime passages and numbers, which at one time were forays by smaller groups of Jewish traders like Abraham ben Yiju.

As you can imagine, Europe was in recovery mode - coming out of the horrible effects of the 1258 dry fog. This recovery needed larger amounts of spices, not just as a possible cure for pestilence but also to enhance preservation of smaller supplies of meat.

Soon larger convoys of merchant ships sailed the oceans, men and states became all the more richer, wars were fought and soon enough after Europe had recovered, brought in even bigger and greedier players like the Chinese, Portuguese, Danes and the English to the equation. It was as if nature itself had deemed that trade had to be conducted where the winds stopped and as we know, the monsoon winds stop at Malabar. The little spot on the world map named Calicut thus became the spice capital of the world. Soon the city and its trade areas were  teeming with Tamil Chettiars, Gujarati Vanias, Tunisian Jews, Karimi traders, Maghrabhi Arabs and Jews, Italians, Turks, Persians, African slaves, Chinese, various half castes, Malabar Moplahs, black Jews and Syrian Christians.

Interesting eh? How events from a particular year had so much to do with the people of a distant land- a place somewhat equidistant between the location of the catastrophic event and the locales teeming with sufferers, diametrically across! Mt Rinjani on Lombak Island these days is a picturesque site, and some adventurous visitors do climb up the mountain to take a look at this sleeping dragon. What next??

But then again these are perhaps the curious ways of the world or the mysterious ways by which it works…

Maritime Malabar and the Europeans 1500-1962 - edited by K. S. Mathew
Climatic and Demographic consequences of the massive volcanic eruption of 1258 – Richard B Stothers
Reassessing the Earthquake Hazard in Kerala Based on the Historical and Current Seismicity - C.P. Rajendran, Biju John, K.Sreekumari and Kusala Rajendran
History of Medieval Kerala – VKR Menon


  1. Sam Jacob

    Learned something new after reading this story. keep up the good writing.

  1. Premnath.T.Murkoth

    Study is deep,scared to test the depth

  1. Maddy

    thanks sam..
    it is something new i hope...

  1. Maddy

    Thanks premnatha
    it is not, just so deep, just covers a few angles that is all!!

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Can we attribute the influx of Karimi merchants and the Genizah Jews to Malabar coast to the conquest of Baghdad in 1258? We need to discuss two more events to put things in perspective. Firstly, the Norman Invasion of Tunisia (1135-1148)had a devastating effect on trade with the East. One of the victims of this conquest was the brother of 'our' Abraham Yiju who was rendered destitute. Yiju himself had left the shores of Malabar much before the fall of Baghdad and he reached Aden in 1149 to seek an alliance for his daughter and also to support his destitute brother ('I have enough to live on for all of us'.)Secondly, there is evidence of vigorous trade on the Malabar coast much before 1258. In fact, Yiju himself has recorded having bought pepper in Fandaraina port a hundred years before.
    Nevertheless, this post links little known international events to development of trading ports in Malabar and adds to our knowledge on how early medieval world was globalised without the aid of 'modern' communication and technology

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF, for the astute observation.
    Perhaps it was felt that I alluded to a start of Karimi trade with Malabar post 1258 in the article, actually not! What is stated is - I would come to the conjecture that the worrisome situation in Europe and the Middle East owing to the 1258 volcanic eruption, resulted in increased export volumes and profitability, speeding up the maritime passages and numbers, which at one time were forays by smaller groups of Jewish traders like Abraham ben Yiju.
    So the Jewish merchants with Karimi linkages, like AB Yiju predated 1258. Now let us focus on Karimi merchants, who went on to become a group/guild of some 50 or so Indian, Yemeni, Armenian (?)and Egyptian merchants! As we can concur, after 1258, they came to dominate the Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade routes. Mentioned for the first time in the 12th century or thereabouts in the Geniza records, the Karimi merchants reached their peak of prosperity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, particularly in Egypt.

    The rise in trade had a number of reasons and catalysts and one of them was the 1258 Indonesian explosion, hitherto not considered!

  1. Indian


    I want add something to this conjecture of the 1258 Volcanic eruption.

    Thamizh scholar Krishnan Ramasamy postulated that such a tectonic change silted Muziris that also altered the south-indian plate. It lifted up the Malabar coast and west and submerged some parts of the Coramandel coast.

    His idea is that what is now known as ram-setu could be an even thicker land-mass, a contiguous land between Rameshwaram and Mannar that got submerged.

    As well as Poompuhar/Kaveripoompattinam and some land mass east of present day Chennai also got submerged by a major geographical event after 10th century.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Indian,
    let me study this and revert in detail