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The many mysteries behind the Cheng Ho Voyages

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , , , , ,

Much is written about the voyages of Cheng Ho. In fact there is even a voluminous book just listing bibliography of published works detailing Cheng Ho’s life and time. But how much of all that is conjecture, myth, lore and legend and how much of it is fact? That seems to be the biggest problem, because the scribes of the Ming period rewrote history and fudged fact with fiction with impunity, so much so that filtering truth from them is an art in itself. The importance of the voyages, the treasure ships themselves which awed and terrified onlookers from any shore, the expenses in making them, the reasons for these voyages and the reasons which ended the voyages are still steeped in mystery. The man behind it all, the seven foot tall Muslim eunuch, is who they say brought Islam to Melacca, defeated pirates, established relations and leaders, fought a war with a Lankan Monarch and took away Buddha’s tooth to Nanking. But Zheng He or Cheng Ho, who suddenly found himself adrift when his patron Chu Ti (Zhu Di - the Yong Le, Yung Lo monarch) passed away mysteriously, also met a mysterious end.

Those 35 or so years in history are testament to the heights reached by the Ming dynasty and the depths they sunk to, as events took its toll on the uncle who usurped the throne from his nephew. They are all connected in a way and it is always interesting to see just how fate intervened and upset a merrily trundling apple cart. And for that, we have to start at the very beginning with an ill-fated child king named Chien Wen, for it is, as Julie Andrews put it , ‘a very good place, to start’.

The Chien Wen period 1398-1402 was a turbulent phase in Ming history. It is closely tied to the succession issues which cropped up after Chu Yuan-Chan, the Hung Wu (1368-1398) Ming emperor died. Even though he had a number of powerful sons well placed in positions of governance in various provinces, he chose Chu Piao, the son of his principal consort Ma as his crown prince and successor, but as destiny would have it, this bloke passed away before his father, in 1392. The Emperor for some reason then chose this Chu Piao’s second son and his grandson, the 15 year old Chu Yun-Wen, as the crown prince. Chu Yun-wen ascended the throne in Nanking on 30 June 1398, at the age of twenty-one, a few days after his grandfather's death, much to the dismay of Chu Ti, his powerful warrior uncle, the 4th son of Chu Yuan-Chan and Prince of the Yan province (Yanjing, Beiping, Peking, Beijing). The position was very important for it was the Mongol frontier and at that time, an invasion by Timur was anticipated. Thus started the apparently benevolent Chien Wen reign, a period which is still a mystery due to its erasure from all records by Chu Ti, who usurped the throne a few years later following a civil war and much intrigue.

JianWen - Chu Yun-Wen
The changes the new emperor brought about were more for centralized governmental rule and the enforcement of the rule of civil law, reduction of taxes and finally clipping the powers of the regional chieftains, i.e. his own uncles, by abolishing their princedoms. But naturally, they were furious and the person who spearheaded the rebellion was the lone remaining (of the 5 who fell, two had died) Yen prince, his uncle Chu Ti. Now one should also take note that a rule existed that no princes should head to the Emperor’s capital Nanking (Nanjing) in the South unless there was a potential threat against the emperor by wicked officials. Secondly Chu Ti’s sons were being held in Nanjing as hostages. In 1399, Chu Yen-Wen made a blunder by sending back those sons to Peiping and Chu TI seizing the opportunity, rose against his nephew resulting in a 3 year civil war. By mid-1402, Chu Ti and his eunuch supported army (Zheng He included) broke through the Chin Chuan palace gates which had been clandestinely kept open by conspirators.

During the melee that followed with the arrival of the Yen prince's armies, the palace compound within the Nanking city walls was set ablaze. When the fire subsided, several badly burned bodies were produced and declared to be those of the emperor, his wife empress Ma, and his eldest son.The emperor's second son, Chu Wen-kuei, just two years old, was captured along with other surviving members of the imperial family. He was spared but was jailed with the others and released many years later. The true fate of the deposed Chien Wen emperor however remained a mystery.

As legends go, Chu Yun-Wen knew what was coming. He had been provided a lacquer box some time ago by a monk. He opened this, as Chu Ti broke through the gates. The sealed box contained a tonsuring knife, 10 pieces of silver and monk’s garb, enabling him and nine followers to escape from the palace through a secret passage. Some 13 more followers joined them later in exile. So stated the lore.

Yongle - Chu Ti
Chu Ti took over as a new emperor after ensuring that his nephews reign was expunged from all records and proclaimed the following year, as the first in the reign of Yung-lo (Lasting joy). Nevertheless, there was as it seems, popular sympathy for the previous emperor’s suffering and legends about his mysterious fate spread. Whether Chu Yun-wen died in a palace fire (as was officially announced) or escaped in disguise to live many more years as a recluse is perhaps a puzzle that troubled Chu Ti until his own death and has been a subject of conjecture by Chinese historians ever since. Some believe that Chu Ti did little to kill the rumors because he wanted people to believe that he had not killed his nephew, and had taken over the throne at a time of unrest in the country’s best interests. Whatever said, he would have desired to know where Chu Yen-Wen was and keep an eye on him.

The first Zhu Di confidante who was sent out to track down the Chien Wen emperor in the land areas around Nanjing and afar was one Hu Jung. He set out and came back twice with no information but assured the emperor that Chu Yun-Wen had no populist support and was no more a challenge. Many years later, in 1440 a monk named Yang Hising Hisiang appeared with 12 followers and claimed to be the Chien Wen emperor but this was quickly debunked as he was over 90 years old and the real emperor would have only been 64.

Zheng He’s (Ma he, San bao or Cheng Ho) association with Chu Ti had started in the 1380’s after he was captured from the Mongol armies and was castrated to become a eunuch. A huge, commanding man (his family records claim that he was seven feet tall, with a waist five feet in circumference, glaring eyes, and a stentorian voice), he was considered to be a fierce warrior and was very much involved in campaigns against the Mongols from 1393 to 1397. He is also believed to have played a key role in Chu Ti's move to Nanjing and the usurpation of the throne. Chu Ti was now in place, the eunuchs had replaced the scheming monks and the king was building up his image and power base while planning a move of the nation’s capital to Beijing. Getting back to the Chien Wen story, it was believed by some that Zhu Di requested Zheng to check all sea ports and countries he visited, if the Chien Wen emperor was hiding in any of those nations.

Meanwhile, Chu Ti was perturbed with the relations with Timur the Mongol whom he feared the most, for his envoys had not returned, not did those his father had sent some years earlier and it was becoming clear that Timur wanted to annex China next. Timur deputed his armies to build forts and farm the land at the borders well ahead of his attack so that when his large armies arrived, they had no supply issues. In Dec 1404, he commenced his march to China with some 200,000 troops. But as luck would have it, he died enroute in Feb 1405 and his son Shahrukh decided that war with China was not a good idea.

This was the background to the Ming voyages touching ports at South East Asia and South India. Many reasons were provided by subsequent historians as to why these apparently expensive voyages were planned and carried out under the captainship of Cheng Ho. While it could have very much been for the new monarch (who had secured the throne by force) to cement his position and obtain a tacit approval and formal recognition from the rest of the neighboring countries, especially those they traded with, it could have been a number of other reasons.

The reasons usually discussed are a) to search for and weed out the deposed Chien Wen emperor Chu Yun-wen, who was rumored to be wandering around the SE Asian countries in the guise of a monk b) to obtain support from Muslim countries and ward off a potential invasion by Timur c) encourage tributes and endorsement by the various foreign states of the fragile legitimacy of the new emperor d) to display China’s military prowess and extend the new emperor’s political influence e) to bolster and improve trade relations e) Southern expansion policy f) to fight off piracy in the South China seas.

It is quite clear that there was no need for a huge armada to go hunting for the Chien Wen emperor who was actually rumored to be lurking in the North Vietnam (Annam) area (South Vietnam was Champa) . Also by that time private shipping was virtually banned and only state sponsored ships piled the seas. But then again, Zhu Di could always have asked Zheng He to keep an eye out and the ears open for news about the absconding emperor. So that was not a reason, nor was the Timur invasion a reason for the attack was aborted and Chu Ti would definitely have heard of Timur’s demise, in time.

A treasure ship 
Starting in 1405, six expeditions were launched and continued through the reign of Chu Ti. With Chu Ti’s mysterious demise, the expeditions stopped, though a final 7th voyage captained by Cheng Ho traversed SE Asia, circumvented South India and touched African shores, one last time. When the ships came back, they were without their admiral, for he had met his end, as they say, at Calicut in 1433. The voyages, their composition and the routes are covered in so many sources, so I will not get into them. But let us for a moment check again some of the remaining reasons. Why were they launched with much fanfare and expense, when the very same Chinese had already been trading with the very same countries for many centuries before the Mings? They had a tributary system in place with Maabar and Quilon, as well as many other countries since the Sung period (I had covered some of this in the Sha-mi-Ti mystery article

During the Sung period, foreign trade flourished under private management, and half of the government's revenue came in the form of returns from monopolies and excise taxes. As much as twenty per cent of the cash income of the state came from maritime trade. The Emperor even stated: The profits from maritime commerce are very great. If properly man- aged they can be millions (of strings of cash). Is it not better than taxing the people? Before the fall of K'ai-feng in 1127, thirty-five per cent of the tribute with trade missions came to China by land and sixty-five per cent by sea. After this date, all tributes came by sea. So you can imagine how important sea trade was to China in those times and this continued through the Yuan period.

Even before Kublai Khan’s regime, Maabar was considered a Chinese tributary. During the Yuan period, Yang Tingbi had been deputed in 1280 to secure Qulion’s participation, perhaps also some other kingdoms with ports such as Xincun matou (Punnaikayal). Later, several delegations were sent from China either to Maabar and Quilon and, in fact, tribute trade between South India and Yuan-China flourished – particularly between Quilon and China as attested, for example, by Ibn Battuta.

During the early Ming period, even though maritime commerce was an exclusive monopoly of the state, and they believed in a larger Chinese world, the state readily accepted the contributions of the Arabs and Hindus in the fields of astronomy, geography and navigation. Places like Calicut and Berawala were of "strategic" importance within the larger networks of fifteenth century emporia trading, whereas older locales such as Kayal only had a minor significance (Perhaps due to the silting up of coastal waters in the Tambraparni delta and a subsequent deterioration of harbor facilities). So one reason would have been to cement ties with the Calicut Zamorin after the rise of Calicut and its establishment as a port. That the Chinese were close by and observing all this, is clear with the Chaliyum activities, as previously discussed when I mentioned the Sha-mi-ti story. 

And so the trips continued, tributes were made, Zheng he and party came and went a few times, they meddled around with some local affairs, placed steles and promoted trade, got some ‘ponnadas’ now and then for Zhu di. Large numbers of people came and went with the treasure voyages, ambassadors went and came back presumably with stories of the magnificence of China, especially the Forbidden City. Many who studied these made mentions of immense expenses incurred in these voyages, with good returns due to the opening up and promotion of trade with China. The treasure ships came back laden with what the Chinese needed. Glue, Gum, Cobalt blue, pepper, spices, hides, wood and so on arrived, while silk, clothes, umbrellas (palm leaf type), paper currency left its shores to pay for the goods.

The ships themselves were not that much of a drain to the state as is widely believed. Of the 2342 ships ordered during 1403-12, some 62-94 were large treasure ships. Also, 249 older transport ships were converted to handle Ocean voyages in 1408. An ocean going ship in 1408 cost aproximately 1000 piculs of rice (375 taels). Considering the state revenue which was 30 million piculs of rice or approximately 200,000 taels of silver, this shipbuilding was not really a huge drain on the coffers (in 1408) as some scholars felt. But by 1410 floods arrived, accompanied by famines and plague and the decade which followed was a disaster period (some felt that the plague came with Zheng he’s ships return voyages). Deaths were numerous and Chu Ti responded with subsidies to farmers and reduction of taxes. From 30 million piculs of rice, the state revenue dropped to 20 million. But Chinese reputation suffered and the paper currency depreciated terribly. A thousand strings of 1000 paper cash which fetched 1000 taels of silver or 250 taels of gold during the Hung-wu (pre Chien Wen) era was now worth only 12 taels of silver or 2.5 teals of gold!

As the Chinese economy suffered, the Mongols in the north invaded and troubles in southern Annam (Vietnam) areas surfaced. Chu Ti moved the capital to Peking in 1421 and further away from the sea ports at a huge expense. Perhaps many of these voyages were also meant to bring in material and equipment for the new capital, but that is a topic we will revisit another day. The entire expense in creating this new capital, feting of other nations ambassadors and so on was frowned upon by Chu Ti’s bureaucrats while he was busy trying to shore up the country against the marauding Mongols in the North leaving his son Shan Chi in command at Peking. All government expense was slashed, travel was curtailed and the treasure ship voyages temporarily stopped. But the 6th voyage of Cheng Ho was already planned and there were embassies of 19 states waiting to go back home. As the Mongols attacked from the north, Hsia Yuan Chi, Chu Ti’s commerce minister protested, was jailed and his war minister killed. Chu Ti then set out on his 5th campaign to take charge of the battles personally.

On August 12, 1424, the 64-year-old Yongle Emperor Chu Ti died on the march back to Beijing, at Yumachuan, after a fruitless search for the fleeing Oirats. Some say he was frustrated at his inability to catch up with his swift opponents, and that he fell into a deep depression and illness, possibly owing to a series of minor strokes or as one mention states, elixir poisoning. Some accounts mention that the emperor was partially paralyzed and took potions laced with arsenic as a stimulant and may have been slowly dying of arsenic poisoning. The king who was famous for his one finger Ch’an (whenever Chu-Ti was asked anything, he would just raise one finger) was gone.

Shan Chi took over, reinstated Hsia Yuan Chi as finance minister, reduced taxes and brought about a series of austerity measures. All sea voyages were banned. All imports were stopped, so also purchase of horses and teak. But there was a problem with the large numbers of crews (some 200,000 of them) in Cheng Ho’s fleet. Shan Chi ordered Zheng He’s deputies to round up all those sailors and proceed to Nanjing and garrison the palace.

Cheng Ho had at this point of time been deputed on a special mission to Palembang, in order to confer a seal of office on the Ming appointed Chinese chief of that Sumatran city. He knew of his master’s death only after he returned. He was then placed in command of the Nanjing palace forces in 1425. The new king now decided to move the capital back to Nanjing but he died in the same year. The sailors were next put to work on repairing the palaces at Nanjing and the great tomb of Chu Ti. Later as the insurgence in Annam grew, many of these sailors were sent south to fight that battle, but as fate would have it, they were trapped and many were decimated. Some were deputed to the grain transportation barge service.

Cheng Ho continued to work on palace repairs with the remaining men, even requesting the new monarch that they be rewarded for their hard work, but got his wrists slapped for making frivolous requests. They were then commanded to complete the mausoleum for the empress Ma. Presumably many were frustrated about all this and a number of them dispersed, many retrained themselves for other jobs and thus the huge number of sailors of the great treasure voyages were soon mostly gone.

No more ships were built, for those shipwrights were no longer available, and the stores had no supplies of wood or other building material, by 1426. The techniques of constructing these massive ships had also been lost. In fact much of that wood was given to the people of Nanking in 1424, when there were fuel shortages, for a pittance. Many of the remaining 118,000 shipbuilders were moved in 1426 to Peking in order to build the mausoleum for the Hung-hsi emperor.

In 1430, the finance minister Hsia Yuan chi died and the new king finally sanctioned the last or 7th voyage. It took a year for Cheng Ho to get everything ready, and it was made up of reconditioned ships from earlier voyages and a few sailors Cheng Ho could find, plus a few new recruits. The voyage which set out in 1431 returned after two years, this time also touching new shores in Africa and the Middle East and Mecca. That Cheng Ho died in this voyage is clear, for in 1434, Wang Cheng was appointed to his post as chief supervisor of the department of ceremonials.

Cheng Ho as is reported, died at Calicut and was apparently buried at Niu-erh-shan outside Nanking. The ships were in Calicut in the last days of March and Mid-April 1433, so that was the time when he passed away. And with his demise, the death knell was sounded on the Ming voyages. The economy continued to deteriorate, the troubles in Annam became worse and the new emperor had to sue with them for peace. Up North, the Chinese lost to the Mongols and the Ming king was taken prisoner. And with all that, Ming China shuttered its gates, ports, and shores, effectively walling itself off from the outside world.

A dynamic era had come to a close….

People ask, what would have happened if Cheng Ho had to contend with the new entrants, the Portuguese, at the shores of Malabar? It is difficult to say, but with the information above, it is apparent that the contest would not have been one sided or fully in favor of the Chinese, but at the same time, the Portuguese would not have acted with impunity as they did, after 1498. 

The Cambridge History of China- Volume 7, the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644
Yuan and Early Ming Notices on the Kayal Area in South India – Roderich Ptak
The Emergence of China as a Sea Power during the Late Sung and Early Yuan Periods: Jung-Pang Lo
The termination of the early Ming naval expeditions (papers in honor of Prof Woodbridge Bingham) – Jung-Pang Lo
The Formation of Chinese Maritime Networks to Southern Asia, 1200-1450 - Tansen Sen
Cheng Ho and Timur – Any relation – Morris Rosabi
On the ships of Cheng Ho – Pao Tsen PAng

The Chien-wen reign name was belatedly restored by the Wan-li emperor in October 1595 as part of an abortive project to compile a history of the Ming dynasty. However, it was not until July 1644, 242 years later, that the Southern Ming ruler the Prince of Fu (Chu Yu-sung, d. 1646) assigned to the emperor the temple name Hui-tsung (Magnanimous Ancestor) and the posthumous name Jang Huang-ti (Abdicated Emperor). The latter honorific title was chosen in response to the popular belief that the emperor did not die in the palace fire, but willingly abdicated the throne in favor of his uncle in order to mitigate the general disaster of the civil war.

The Zheng He ships are a subject of much discussion, and their sizes vary greatly in different accounts. They were supposedly 44 chang long, 18 chang wide (1 chang=3.3mts) and built at Lungkiang near Nanking. Woodcuts of these ships show 4 masts, while some showed 3, but they were not complete records. General design notes stated that for every 10 chang length, two masts were required. Further studies by Pao Tsen Pang and others establish that the big ships should have had 9 masts and that the armada comprised many types of treasure ships. The pictures of the largest with more than 4 masts are not available.

The Rowther community

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , , ,

On the origins and history of the Rowther Muslims

Ravuttar, Rowther, Ravuther

Most people from Palghat would recognize this community name, for a number of them are settled in various parts of the district. As a child, I would hear stories of them being remnants of Hyder’s and Tipu’s cavalry forces. If you recall these forces were camped around Coimbatore, Pollachi, Dindigul and thereabouts during their many forays into Malabar. Growing up in Koduvayur, I came across many Rowthers, mainly traders in and around Palghat. The Palghat community spoke a kind of Tamil signifying that they once belonged to Tamil regions and were not connected with the Malayali Moplah communities. OV Vijayan frequently mentioned them in his books, and even had a few characters in his famous Khasakinte Ithihasam (legends of Khasak). That reminds me, it is time for a reread of that great book, I have forgotten most of it.

Recently a student asked me details on the Rowther’s, and since it had been in my plans to cover them sometime, I got hold of a few interesting articles and papers, and was soon engaged in pursuit of the origins and development of this interesting community. It was a tricky subject for I could glean that the narrative was over time getting tailored by vested interests, tending towards irrelevant Turkic origins. Anyway, let us see how it all came about though one thing is amply clear, that the term Ravuttan came from the Tamil ‘irauttar’ meaning horseman or cavalry trooper and that they once belonged to the Tamil regions. As times progressed, the uniqueness of the community seems to have suffered and Thurston even defines it as a title used by the Labbais, the Marakkayars and Jonagan Muslims of the Coromandel (The reasoning is that during the 19th century many Tamil Muslims believed that any kind of martial ancestry gave them a superior status compared to a lowly trader or sailor).

As far as Tamil Muslims are concerned, the conversions and adaptions to Islam followed either out of trade or out of invasions. In the case of the Kayalars (Tarakanar - broker) and the matrilineal Marakkayars, the communities arouse out of intermingling with Arab traders at various sea ports such as Kayalpatanam and Kalakkadu. These Shafei School followers (though there are instances of Hanafi Marakkars) are better known to us, since a number of Marakkars graced Malabar history in later times. The low density Pattanis are Urdu speaking North Indian (also known as Dekhani – from Deccan) origin Muslims, while the Rowthers descended from Tamil Hindu communities which converted to Islam and later served as cavalrymen in the Nawab’s army. Many of the Pattanis went on to own land away from ports and classified themselves as Zamindars, living near their Sufi shrines or dargas.

Fanselow brings in an interesting dimension when he explains the origins of the Rowthers and the Tarakanars, he says they are people without a history, in that they lack any conventional, collective, standardized account of their origins, and possess only some vague and ambiguous legends purporting to be statements of their origin. But one thing was always clear, that they were once Hindus and they were Tamils who converted at some point in history, not from one caste, but from a wider spectrum of castes including Brahmins. Why they converted is also not clear, if it was caste reasons or due to saintly influences. Strange, but not so strange considering the above, is the fact that many of them preferred to support the DMK or AIDMK, rather than the Muslim league! The Marakkars and the Pattanis on the other hand always preferred to consider themselves non-Indian.

The Rowthers however insisted that they were just like any other Muslim and not influenced by caste claims such as foreign or first Muslims etc. in order to create separations or hierarchies. They started out as a client community, under the Pattanis and the Marakkayars descendants of the Nawab’s soldiers during the 18th century. Once the Nawab’s rule was replaced by the British, the Rowthers started to adopt new professions and moved to new regions. As the Madras presidency started reclassification, the Rowthers and Tarakanars were placed in the Labbai Tamil speaking category, while the others remained in an Urdu speaking category. From a strict point of view the Rowthers belong to the Hanafi sect, though they generally take no objections to marrying the Shafi sect Tarakanars. The Rowthers incidentally are called Appa Kootam while the Tarakanars are termed the Wapa Kootam, from the way their fathers are called. In a social level, the Rowthers stood between the Trakanar on the low end and the Pattani on the high end and both communities still carried some of their old Hindu beliefs and traditions.

JBP More contends that even during the time of the Hindu rulers in Tamilakam, the horsemen were known as Ravuta or Ravats and the term is seen in Tamil literature as early as the eighth century. It is also interesting to note that the earliest conversions in Madurai were carried out by Sufi saints and before the arrival of the Delhi Sultans. The terms used after the arrival of the Turkic sultans are as we know, Tulukan or Tulukar and until the 16rth century, there were just three categories, Tulukar, Ravuttar and Sonagar (Chongar or Yonaka). Note here that the Sonagars originally encompassed the Arab origin Labbais and Marakkayar communities and later on were associated only with the Marakkayars.

BA Beeran’s thesis however provides differing origins – he states (Citing Kamal’s book Muslimgalum Tamilagamum) “The Tamil speaking Muslims of central and south central areas of Tamil Nadu are understood as Rowthers. The ancestors of the Muslims of Rowther group were attached to horses. The wide utility of horses was not known to the people of Tamil country up to the medieval period. When the later Cholas and Pandyas understood the importance of horses of Arabia and their usage, they contacted Arab horse traders for the supply of horses. Accordingly, the traders brought horses in large number to the ports of Malabar, Konkan and Coromandel coasts. From there they were brought to interior parts of Chola and Pandya kingdoms. Along with horses, the Arabs arrived in Tamil Nadu as traders, agents, trainers, breeders and soldiers and settled down in the Tamil Kingdoms. They were also known as Kudirai chettigal. Some of them married Tamil women and converted Tamil population into Islam. In course of time, the descendants of the Arabs, offspring of the Arabs and the converts constituted a Muslim community which was named after their profession. Thus emerged the group called Rowthers among the Muslims of Tamil Nadu”. This as you may note contradicts the inferences of all other researchers.

He adds - Considering the territorial origin, the Rowthers are classified into a number of denominations which are named after their profession and areas from where they migrated to different parts of Tamil Nadu and settled down. Parimala Jamath, Puliyankudiyar, Eruthukarar, Vaigaikarayars, Nallampillayar, Musuriyar, Jambaikkars and Palakkad Muslims are the major denominations. The Parimala faction for example, migrated from Nagalapuram, Kovilpatti and Ettayapuram of Tirunelveli district to different pockets of Tamil Nadu are collectively named as Parimala Jamath (perfume trading). Puliyankudiyar were the migrants from Puliyankudi, a town in Tirunelveli district. Their origin was Karupatti a town located near Cholavandan, on the banks of river Vaigai. Being the migrants from banks of Vaigai they are styled as Vaigaikarayars. Those belonging to Eruthukarar group are seen in Tenkasi, Rajapalayam and Cumbum. The earlier generations of them were cattle breeders and traders through which they obtained the name Eruthukarar, a Tamil word meaning people dealing with Bulls. Members of this group living in Cumbum are understood as Rajapalayattar as they migrated from Rajapalayam. The Nallampillayar group is inhabited in Dindigul and Theni districts. Their ancestors belonged to Nallampillai village, located near Attur of Dindigul district. It was founded by Chinnakattiranayakan, Poligar of Kannivadi. In course of time a batch moved towards west and inhabited at Uthamapalayam, Cumbum and Gudalur, towns in Cumbum valley. They were basically agriculturalists.

The Muslim migrants from Musuri, a town of Karur district are called as Musuriyar. Their major settlements are eight in number located at Velvarkottai, Ilangakuruchi, Pillathu, Sittuvarpatti, Rajakkapatti, Puttanatham, Natham and Kovilur of Dindigul district. They have engaged in trade, professions and small scale industries. The Muslims who trace their origin from Ilayankudi and nearby areas to it in Sivagangai district claim themselves as Ilayankudiyars and they are found in Paramakudi, Chennai, Thiruchirappalli, Madurai, Poona and few towns of Karnataka and Kerala. They engaged in trade in leather, rice, grains and groceries in Burma and Malaysia before the Second World War. The Muslims hailed from Jambai, village located near Bavani town of Erode district are understood as Jambaikkarars. They are now inhabited at Erode, Avinasi, Mettuppalayam, Edappadi, Kothagiri and Conoor, they are engaged in leather, iron and jewelry business from 1970’s through which they have attained upper middle income status.

The Muslim migrants from Pothanur, Kuniyamutthur and fort area of Coimbatore and Pollachi are concentrated at Pudunagakaram, Tattamangalam and Kolinjamparai, towns of Palakkad districts of Kerala. . They are the Palakkad Muslims. Speaking Tamil they have flourished in rice, iron and real-estate business and maintained matrimonial links with the families of the places from where they migrated.

The Ravuttans of Madura and Trichinopoly believe that they were persuaded to change their religion by Nathadvali whose tomb exists at Trichinopoly and bears the date of his death 417 A.D. Among the Ravuttans there are also the Nagasurakkarar and the Vettilaikodikarar who yielded a place of honor at social functions to the members of the other sub-divisions. "Rabithu" in Arabic, ' Ravuth" in Telugu "Raw in Tamil, "Rahootha" in Sanskrit - all terms are titles connected with horse traders, cavalry soldiers, horse riding or training and this title was applied to all those who were connected with these activities; later it came to be retained by a section of Tamil speaking Muslims only.

Mohammed Raja’s research concludes the following - The well-known legend of the Siva Saint Manikkavasalgar of the eighth century A.D. is connected with the purchase of horses for the Pandya king. In that the Lord Siva who appeared in disguise as a horseman to protect Manickavasagar and he is called by the name Rawther ‘Lord Muruga is praised as Rawther by saint Arunagiri. Thus the term Rawthar was also being used as a title of respect and honor. Though the present day Rawther Muslims are without horses and activities connected with it, the title Rawther stayed among them and was faithfully followed to this day. There are many place names like Rawthamatham (Kallakurichi) Rawthanpatti (Kulithalai) Rawthan Vayal (Pudukkottai Dt) Rawthanpalayam (Thiruneiveli). These places might have been their early settlements or their stronghold. They remember their ancient trade and heroic valor in their marriage ceremonies and the bridegroom is conducted in procession on a horse.

Qadir Khan deals with the subject differently, showing that there had been much intermingling and misunderstanding during his times. He states ‘To this day, in the midst of whole areas peopled by Ravuttans, it is not uncommon to find single families of priests, preserving their original purity and enjoying the universal respect of the people around them. Like the Dakhnis these converted classes are as a rule Hanafites. Though Musalmans, they have naturally retained many of their original customs. The Ravuttans, as the derivation of the name from the Marathi Rava, ‘King’ and the Sanskrit ‘duta’ messenger signifies, were originally a class of cavaliers or horse-soldiers whose occupation was to look after and train horses. They seem to have been once largely employed in Tippu Sultan’s cavalry. They are mostly scattered in the Tamil districts, their centers being Melur and Palni in Madura, Pettai in Tinnevelly, and Pallapatti in Coimibatore. A great many of them live in the Vellore and North Arcot Districts, where however they have come under Dakhni influence to such an extent in dress, manners and even in language, that they form a separate class by themselves and are called 'Sahebmars'. The Sahebmars pretend to an Arabian descent like that of the Mappillai or the Marakkayars, but as Dr. Thurston puts it “their high nasal index and short stature indicate the lasting influence of short broad-nosed ancestors. The different sections of Ravuttans were converted at various times by missionaries who are venerated as saints and whose tombs exist to the present day. The most famous of these are the Nathad Vali (969-1039 A. p.) of Trichinoply, Syed Ibrahim Shahid (born about 1162 a. d.) of Srvadi, Sha-ul-Hamid (1532 to 1600 a. D.) of Nagore. The Ravuthans are a pushing and frugal not to say a parsimonious class. They have no dynastic longings or recollections like other Musalmans. They conduct the important trade in leather and do a great deal of the commerce of the country. Some of them earn a livelihood in making mats and in betel cultivation in both of which they are especially skillful’.

One thing I noted as I perused different accounts is the fact that while one expert stated that a community followed the Hanafi sect, the other would mention that they were actually Shafei. What this demonstrates is that there was some amount of intermingling over time and when they migrated to farther lands, the practices followed seems to have changed. One example is the case of marakkayars. While the studies in the Tamil ports showed that they were Shafeii, the studies of Mathur in Kerala mentions them as Hanafi’s. Similar is the case of Rowthers in Kerala, they belong to both sects and arrived at first in Palghat and Muvattupuzha, but spread all over now. The Palghat Rowthers are usually Shafei and seen in Pudunagaram, Kozhinampara, Koduvayur, Pudukode and Melrkode, and were traditionally weavers. It may also be noted that the Shafi Muslims in Travancore were termed as Methans.

Many Rowthers of Travancore adopted the Pillai surname and placed themselves above the Mappila. Interestingly a Rowther could walk through a Brahmin Agraharam, whereas a Tiyya or Ezhava was not allowed to! And they did not eat food cooked by an Ezhava or Tiyya! The old and established Rawther families even identified with a particular vamsam name which traces their Hindu origins. They celebrated the child’s first haircut, and the circumcision ceremony was according to Mattis, called Khatna ceremony (done in the old days by the barber – Ossan), rather than Sunnath. And like the Pattanis who were usually the moneylenders, some Rowthers also partook in this trade, accepting interest.

As far as migration to Kerala is concerned it is said that Pandyan persecution or post Nawab constraints led them to migrate, and they did, to Palghat, Trichur, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Quilon areas. Typical professions they adopted earlier were as butchers, frozen fish and meat vendors and petty vendors. Some of the Shafi Rowthers continued cloth weaving while others managed and indulged in Beedi manufacture. In Tamilnadu however, they excelled in trading dried lentils, betelnuts as well as beedi leaves and cloth. Known to have no qualms about travel, they were always shrewd businessmen.

As we saw earlier, the Kayalars had more slang in their Tamil and were Wappas while the Rowthers and Labbais were the Appas. For the Rowther, mother was amma, while it was Umma for the marakkar and brother was kaka for the Marakkar, while it was annan for the Rawther. Sister was raata for Marakkar while it was akka for Rowther. Grandfather was Appa for the Marakkar while it was tatta for Rowther.

And that brings us to the story of another demigod, the Muttal ravuttan, very much a part of the Draupadi cult of Tamilnadu, especially Gingee where the Ravuttan signifies a Muslim horseman, Draupadi’s guardian, and as Wendy Doniger puts it, ‘a folk memory of the historical figure of the Muslim warrior on horseback, whether he be the sufi warrior leading his band of followers or the leader of an imperial army of conquest’. At the Chinna Salem temple, the offerings to Muttal Ravuttan include marijuana, opium, cigars and Kollu (muthira – horse gram) for his symbolic white flying horse. The Muttal Ravuttan himself is known by many names, such as Muttal Rajputan (from Nepal), Muttal raja, Muttal Rajaputtiran etc. As the story goes, Muttal Ravuttan was born in Gingee. One night he had a dream in which Draupadi-amman told him that she would give him whatever he desired if he would sacrifice a pregnant woman to her. Muttal Ravuttan had a pregnant younger sister named Pal Varicai (Row of Teeth). He readied her for sacrifice, but Draupadi stopped him, thinking: "She is a woman like me." She praised Muttal Ravuttan's dedication, however, and told him that she would still grant him a boon. Whatever he thought of would be done; but he must give up his religion and come serve at her residence (i.e., her temple): "Serving at my feet, you can live with me." Muttal Ravuttan thus gave up his religion and came to serve Draupadi. Henceforth it was agreed that she would receive pure offerings of milk, flowers, vegetables, and fruits. And he would receive live sacrifices (uyirinankal paliyitutal; i.e., blood sacrifices) such as cocks, goats, and even humans. And Muttal Ravuttan, after he has apparently been tested by Draupadi in the dream that nearly brings him to sacrifice his pregnant younger sister, is told not to perform this rite before he "converts" to Draupadi's service as the guardian who accepts animal "and human" offerings. He thus gives up his mantravadi ways and his Muslim religion, but at the same time retains such traits, turning his "meat-eating'' religion and his magical gifts to the advantage of the "purer" Hindu deity whose grace now extends, in return, to include Muslims. There are many more versions, such as the Mutalakkani story where Muttal Ravuttan was the Muslim field general of a Hindu king named Muttala Maharaja of the North Indian kingdom of Muttalappuram who came over to serve the Pandavas when the king married his daughter Muttalakkanni to Dharma. Muttal Ravuttan did this because he had always been devoted to Muttalakkanni, and wanted to serve her until his death. So he also served the Pandavas as the guardian of the northern gate of their palace. Those interested in these myths and legends may refer to the two part work by Alf Hiletbeitel.

When they arrived in Kerala is not quite clear, but loose figures of different waves over 900 years are floated, some of them could have been the descendants of the Muslim soldiers who faithfully followed their Pandyan masters to Poonjar(1152 C.E) and Pandalam. Then again it is said that Raja Kesavadas invited them when Alappuzha port was formed, and during the later years (1799 - 1805), some Rowthers had to flee the religious persecution in the Polygar areas to settle down in the eastern parts of Kerala. Conversely, some Meenakshipuram Muslims also belong to the Ravuttar descendants of converts who served in the army of the Nawab of Arcot defending the area against neighboring Travancore in the early 18th century. There is also a strong belief that Ayyappan was a Vellalla and the close relationship enjoyed by the Rowthers and Velallas in the eastern districts of Kerala point to the possibility of Vavar being a Rowther Muslim. Their marriage symbol is a Thali (in the old days tied by the grooms sister), and are a patrilocal community

So that was a little journey into the past of the Rowther, a community which Fanselow stated had no history. Conjuncture put them as converted Hindus of Tamil Nadu, who originally served as cavalry to many kings. Over time, they migrated to various parts of S India, and Kerala as well. Today many of them are all well integrated into the vibrant Kerala Muslim community, dispersed into many occupations, and very well educated.

The disinvention of caste among Tamil Muslims – Frank S. Fanselow (Caste Today - CJ Fuller)
A handbook of Kerala Vol 2– T Madhava Menon
Social stratification among the Muslims of Kerala - PRG Mathur (Frontiers of embedded Muslim communities in India – Ed Vinod K Jairath)
The Political evolution of Muslims in Tamilnadu and Madras 1930-1947 - J.B.P More
Muslim merchants – Mattison Mines
The cult of Draupadi - Parts 1 & 2 – Alf Hiletbeitel
Muslims of Tamil Nadu and hajj pilgrimage to Makkah (Thesis) – Basheer Ahmad Beeran
Muslims of Tamil Nadu 712 to 1947 A D a study   - Jan, S F Naseem
Muslim politics in Tamilnadu 1906_1947 (Thesis) - Nazeer Ahamed, M
Maritime activities economy and social customs of the Muslims of Coromandel Coast 1750-1900 (Thesis) - Mohamad, J Raja
South Indian Mussalmans – Qadir Hussain Khan
Islamisation and Muslim Ethnicity in South India - Mattison Mines (Man, New Series, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1975), pp. 404-419)
Islam in Tamilnadu: Varia TORSTEN TSCHACHER (In German)
People of India – Kerala – Vol XXVII, Ed KS Singh, (Rowthers D Tyagi)

The Kalikavu incident - 1915

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An attempt on Collector CA Innes’s life

Some articles ago, we studied the impact of the Turkish Khalifa, the Khilafat movement and its effects on the Malabar populace, culminating in the violence of 1921 and a terrible aftermath. We also studied about the discontentment amongst the Malabar Mappilas and the attempts of earlier British administration, especially HV Conolly in countering what was termed as the Mappila outrages resulting in the attempt at disarming the disaffected Mappila. As all these were progressing from phase to phase, many a foreign cleric entered the area to whip up the emotions of the relatively illiterate Eranad Mappilas. These have been well studied and recorded by various historians, forming three categories of texts, one by left leaning scribes attributing everything to land tenures and as the outburst of have nots, the British stories calling them revolts against the crown, to be dealt with a  firm hand and thirdly the events as seen by the Hindu aristocracy of Malabar. Two lesser known events from the earlier days are not quite well reported in any of these collections, one being an attempt to kill a British collector and secondly the British attempt at mainstreaming the Mappila’s desire to fight. I will detail the first now and then in a later article provide information on the second.

If you recall, a number of armed and violent acts took place in the early 19th century ending with the confiscation of the Mappila war knives and ending with the murder of HV Connolly in 1855. Logan was appointed to concentrate on the land tenure aspects, we studied his story as well. The administration did not quite accept his report and the general consensus was that the outbreaks were due to mixed motives, agrarian and fanatical. It was in this situation that Charles Alexander Innes was deputed to Malabar to enquire, as a settlement officer. He added his views to the above stating that poverty was a third cause, but that the overriding issue was fanaticism. He also concluded that the repressive orders of 1854 had a salutary effect and that things had largely been brought into a semblance of control.

Actually there were larger issues still at play and the Mahdis were seemingly at work, for in 1884 there was a major disturbance relating to the conversion and later reversion of a Tiyya man at Chembasseri. As the account reported by TL Strange stated, this man decided to revert back to Hinduism and the Chembasseri Mappilas, furious at the event, wounded the man, who complained to authorities and was compensated by the British administration. A Sudanese Mahdi or his Hungarian representative was considered to be the catalyst behind this and the British quickly sent in (perhaps the Dorset’s) troops from Bangalore who in a surprise swoop, promptly disarmed the whole Ernad taluk, taking away 9,000 firearms and 12,000 swords. Close to 8 years passed after that without any major issues.

In 1894 a terrible tragedy occurred, known as the Pandikkad event where some 32 Mappilas killed themselves in a fanatical outbreak and this was followed by an even more terrible event in 1896 when some 92 Mappilas of Chembaseri became martyrs at the Manjeri temple. Because they were mostly wanton acts with little by way of concrete reasons the Mappilas were placed in the backward class for educational purposes, by the British. But something positive was now being done, strategic roads were laid into Eranad and schools were started. The Mappilas were pulled into the mainstream with army employment, jobs in Singapore, Colombo and the rubber estates, the Kolar gold fields, timber depots at Kallayi and other locales. This resulted in relative peace until 1915. Hitchcock the other player in these stories had incidentally been deputed a few years earlier and was well placed in the Madras special police at Malappuram and heading the intelligence acquisition team. In addition the Pukoya Thangal had issued a pamphlet to his people, sternly denouncing outbreaks as acts opposed to true religion.

Two events were to cause the next set of disturbances, one being the disbandment of a Mappila army battalion (I will cover this in a later article) and the second being the start of the first world war, with Turkey and the Islamic Caliph on the side of the Axis powers. During the First World War, the Mappilas came to believe that Germany had accepted Islam and, with the entry of Turkey on its side, and that the defeat of the British and their allies had become inevitable. They believed that the Germans and the Turks would relieve them of the British and that all their rent, revenue demands and debts would thus be cancelled. Since 1911 (Turco-Italian war) the Mappilas had professed support for Turkey and a 40 day prayer was regularly conducted at the Perinthalmanna mosque in support of the Ottomans. Pilgrims returning from Mecca reaffirmed the rumors that the Turks and Germans were drubbing the British.

These wild rumors now spun into conclusions that the German army had landed in Bombay and with that the entire Ernad area was in a state of unrest. In Sept 1914, the German warship Emden shelled Madras and the news hit the region like a bolt from the blue. Soon the British needing the armymen elsewhere, replaced the regular army at the Malappuram barracks with a less experienced reserve battalion, manned by local recruits, with the result that the Ernad Mappilas now stepped on the gas, increasing dacoities and forced conversions (Wood 135-137). It was one such forced conversion that triggered the Innes event at Kalikavu.

Let’s now step back a bit and see how Charles Alexander Innes landed in the midst of all this. Born in 1874 in Secunderabad, Innes was educated at the Taylor Merchant School and later at St Johns College Oxford. He passed his ICS in 1897, and secured a posting in Madras, with his surgeon dad’s connections.  Initially he worked as a settlement officer and provided all the main inputs for the imperial gazetteer, and the Malabar gazetteer, on Malabar and Anjengo, living in Malabar. In 1910 he was appointed as acting collector and later in 1911 as Collector, and Chief Magistrate of Malabar.

The conversion complaint reached Innes in Jan 1915. Innes (Malabar gazetteer p84-85) reports that a Tiyya boy aged 10-12 was apparently, quite willingly converted to Islam. As Innes records - His brother who had neglected him, complained. The district magistrate (Innes) found the facts proved and fined the Mappila responsible, Rs 50/- on a technical charge of kidnapping. Outside the immediate area, this was magnified as an apostasy forced by the District magistrate and a plot seems to have been formed to murder both the magistrate and the boy, commence dacoities and to collect arms and followers for an outbreak. 

The claim that the boy was forcibly converted by one Seythali at Kalikavu was investigated by Innes. Seythali was nabbed and he admitted that he had directed the boy, who according him wanted to change religion, to the Musaliyar who did the needful. Innes traced out the boy and released him, who was stated to be underage by the examining doctor. According to custom only somebody above 15 could be converted. Since the boy was only 10-12, the conversion as deemed invalid, and the released boy was handed over to his brother. Seythali was fined Rs 50/- and the Musaliyar who did the conversion was spared by Innes, in the interest of communal harmony. What happened next was ‘the blown up reporting in the Calicut newspapers’ stating that the boy was definitely over 15 and that Innes had insulted Islam.

Most of the finer detail which follows comes from the fine work by Annie Jose, so with my thanks and appreciation, let me borrow some highlights from her paper so referred at the end, under references. Additional details come from the relevant sections of the Malappuram and Malabar Gazetteers.

Collectors as usual tour their districts and Innes was on the beat, at Melattur. Innes while resting at night on 25th Feb 1915, was informed by the retired adhikari, Kunjunni Earadi (accompanied by a couple of Mappilas) that an attempt was being planned on his life for having released the Tiyya boy, by one Thangayathil Alavi and his cohorts. The plan according to what Innes learned, was to draw him to Wandur or Nilambur and murder him.

These days, you would see the action which followed in a different light. There would be screaming sirens, police cars, teams of police in pursuit of the villains, much shooting and shouting and dramatic car chases. But what actually happened was nothing remotely close to that, and is an interesting study.

Innes contacted Hitchcock, the Police Superintendent at Mapalappuram and informed him of the developments. He was to come to Karuvarakkundu with the required backup. Innes had been told that Alavi was to be found at Karuvarakkundu some 32km NE of Manjeri. So he set out to nab him on 27th Feb, cycling from Melattur, all alone, in his bicycle. Along the jungle routes, was a hill, called Chuliot Mala. As Innes was cycling on the pathway, just beyond the stream, slowly up the hill, he heard the muted report of a gun.

In his own words, Innes reports “At first I did not realize what it was, then I looked over my shoulder and saw just above the road in the jungle, a Mappila with a smoking gun in his hand. The Cap had exploded, but the charge had not ignited either because it was damp or because it was not sufficiently rammed home. Thinking it was only one Mappila, I dismounted, but no sooner had I done so than I saw the movement of another Mappila in the bushes, and it suddenly stuck me that the outburst had begun and the plot to murder me in a lonely spot had materialized. Being unarmed and not knowing how many fanatics there was, I thought it would be foolish to linger any longer in so dangerous a neighborhood and I leaped on my cycle once again. The chain smashed immediately and leaving the useless bicycle on the road, I made a dash for a turn in the road about 50 yards, and I made my way as quickly as I could to Karuvarakundu police station”.

Hitchcock and his police team were notified, and they converged to Chuliot Mala in search of the perpetrators, who had escaped. Innes investigating the matter now discovered that some 5-8 people were involved in the plot and that they had now moved off to Kalikavu, and were in hiding.

The initial short report read thus - Five men ambushed Innes this morning. Gun missed fire. Innes had miraculous escape. Innes, Hitchcock and Elliot, pursued Mappillas all day in two parties without success. Number of rioters now reported to be eight with four guns.

The rebels then acquired another gun from one Kantodiyil Kuttan and were planning the next step when they were accosted by Sub Inspector Amoo who tried to get them to surrender. They shouted back at him that they would not, they had ‘taken care of the boy’, had shot the collector and that they were proceeding to the Ayyappankavu at Alanallur. They also told Amoo that he was welcome to bring in the white men (Vellaikar) or company (kompanikkar) i.e. MSP police to catch them. On the way they slashed at a Tiyyan with their sword (It is not clear however, if the converted boy was murdered by them). After reaching the temple, they barricaded themselves and planned their own death, to die as shahids.

SI Amoo informed Hitchcock, who proceeded to Alanallur with his RSP forces. Innes wanting to avoid bloodshed contacted the local Thangal and asked him to talk to the men barricaded in the temple. The Thangal tried telling them that they would be shot and that their bodies would be burnt. Meanwhile Hitchcock and his men had arrived and they took positions, cordoning off the temple, planning an assault for the morning hours. At dawn they charged and the Mappilas fired their guns from within, starting a brisk fusillade. It was as you can imagine, of little use and the British entered the temple soon after to see four of the plotters dead and one injured. The dead were Seythali (who had fired on Innes), Moideen Kutty, Kunjalan and Moideen. The injured person was the Tangayathil Alavi. To ensure no further issues, the dead were buried and not burnt as would have been the practice following police action.

Alavi and 7 others implicated in the plot were jailed or transported to other districts. Later on it was concluded that Pottayil Kunju Ahamed Musalliyar had initiated the whole thing during the Kappil nercha after stating that the boy was 15 years old. This musaliyar is believed to have nursed a grudge because his uncle had been deported during the 1880 outbreaks.

For the record, Innes summarized thus: As early as January 1915 there were signs of unrest in the "fanatical zone" manifested by an outbreak of both petty and grave crime. A Tiyya boy aged 10 or 12, apparently quite willingly, was taken into Islam. His brother who seems to have neglected him complained. The District Magistrate found ' the facts proved and fined the Mappilla responsible Rs. 50 on a technical charge of kidnapping. Outside the immediate area this was magnified into an apostasy forced by the District Magistrate and a plot seems to have been formed to murder both the Magistrate and the boy, commence dacoities and to collect arms and followers for an outbreak. The plot was discovered and the District Magistrate and District Superintendent of Police with a small force of police promptly went after the conspirators who "went out" in approved Sahid fashion. The District Magistrate (Mr. Innes) was ambushed on his way from Karuvarakundu to Pandikkad and narrowly escaped with his life. This was on 27th February. The reserve police special force and troops from Malappuram were brought into the threatened area (Manjeri-Pandalur-Pandikkad) and the five outlaws were eventually tracked down by a small party of police on 1st March and forced to take refuge in the Ayyappankavu temple at Alanallur. Police reinforcements with the District Magistrate and District Superintendent of Police arrived late that night. The necessary dispositions were made to prevent escape and the following morning the place was attacked. Four of the fanatics died fighting and one was captured severely wounded. Eight Mappillas including the wounded man were deported and kept either in jail or in other districts under Regulation II of 1819. Four Mappillas who had been arrested as a precautionary measure among them being the afterwards notorious Variankunnath Kunhamad HaJi and Potayil Ahamad Kutti Musaliyar were released, their apparent implication in the outbreak being, it was decided, an elaborate concoction of evidence by their enemies. The local Mappillas seem on the whole to have behaved well and gave substantial assistance in tracking down the outlaws.

Hitchcock was awarded the Kings Police Medal in 1916 ‘for heading off an uprising by the Mapillas’ which incidentally was this Kalikavu incident.

Charles did put in quite an attempt to study underlying causes. For example, he rightly states - “Tipu's brutal methods of obtaining converts to Islam, which drove the Rajas and thousands of their principal adherents out of their country broke up the social organism, and engendered a fierce and abiding hatred between Hindu and Muhammadan; and in 1792, when the British took over Malabar, this animosity had reached a dangerous height, and the foundations of law and order had been undermined”. He continued - The Mappila outbreak may be attributed to 3 main causes: poverty, agrarian discontent and fanaticism, of which the last is probably chief. Poverty is still extreme in the fanatic zone, and is no doubt still to some extent accentuated by the Mappila practice in the south of dividing up the property of the father among his wives, sons and daughters."

Charles Innes went on to submit an interesting study of various causes of agrarian discontent and suggest fixed terms for land tenure, but the government and his successor Evans disagreed.  He was, I presume, on account of all this, moved out to serve as director of industries and the controller of munitions and later as the foodstuffs commissioner, in Madras. He then served as a member in the (got knighted in 1924) Governor General’s council. Innes left India in 1927 to take the position of Governor of Burma until 1932 where his Mappila experience was to bear fruit. More on all that, another day.

Kalikavu was to figure prominently during the Aug 1921 revolt too, when some of the rioters burned forty houses belonging to other Mappilas who did not associate with the revolt. It was also Chembasseri Thangal’s headquarters for a while.  Later Stanley. P. Eaton, a planter of Pulleugude Estate, was murdered, when a large number of rioters entered Pullengode Estate, pursued Mr. Eaton, who was in his bungalow, and beheaded him. His bungalow was looted. His body was not recovered, but a bone which was found and believed to be that of Mr. Eaton was buried near the bridge. On Mr. Lescher's suggestion and with his help the Mappilas of Kalikavu seemingly erected a memorial to Mr. Eaton as their duty. During this revolt, the Chin-Kachin battalion from Burma was used to subdue the Mappilas of Kalikavu.

Later on in life and after Burma, CA Innes joined the board of the Mercantile Bank of India in 1933 and served as chairman of the bank from 1938 to 1952. The Mercantile Bank of Bombay, later Mercantile Bank of India went on to become part of the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank or HSBC in 1959, the same year CA Innes died. Innes was also the chairman of Mysore Gold Mining Company and was on the board of the Oriental Telephone and Electricity Company. He passed away on 28 June 1959. An interesting man, indeed.

The Kalikavu riot of 1915 (JOKS Vol8, 1981) – Annie Jose
Peasant revolt in Malabar – RH Hitchcock
The Mappila rebellion and its genesis – Conrad wood
Malabar Gazetteer Vol 1 – CA Innes

Malabar -War years 1941-1944

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A famine and the cholera epidemic....1943

Everybody talked about the Great War as the summer months of 1942 scorched the southern regions of India. The eastern allied bastions fell one after another, by February 42 Singapore had capitulated and in March 1942, Rangoon had fallen and Port Blair in the Andamans had been taken. The overjoyed INA factions in Malaya and Burma were waiting for directions from their new leader Subhas Chandra Bose ensconced in Rangoon, while at the same time, hundreds of thousands of panic stricken Indian refugees (Burmese workers) were in full flight across the seas and borders into India, their ancestral home. Their belief was total that the British Raj would do nothing to help them, for their brethren had not received any great support either at Malaya or Singapore. One could hear the refrain – that invasion was imminent, the Japanese were coming, and that the British are set to flee India. With censor controlled war news channels focused on the action in Europe, rumor machines in India took over and wild tales were told and retold. The Japanese soldier, though smaller than a Burmese elephant, evoked a bigger fear, rivaling a dragon.

Calicut should have been insulated from all this, but it was not. Many of the youngsters from affluent families were employed in Madras and they reported frantically that the situation there was no good either. In April a small incident involving some air strafing at Kakinada and Vizag set off bigger alarms in Madras. There were rumors that Jap ships had been sighted a few miles off the Machilipatnam coast. Madras trembled and the people fled from the city in trains and every other means of transport, inwards to villages and their ancestral homes. The Governor left for Vellore and the Secretariat machinery left by the Blue Mountain Express for the Nilgiris. And as Pulla Reddi mentioned ‘the Police Commissioner, insisting that the animals might break loose if Japanese bombs fell, refused to wait and sent a platoon of the Malabar Special Police to the Madras zoo ’who to his great horror ruthlessly did their job in a few minutes’

Such events should and did have repercussions in our home in Chalappuram as well (My aunt breathlessly explained how events transpired, last week). Everything of value at Ambalakkat was locked up and boarded, dark cloth was put over windows and the whole family left for Manjapra in Palghat, my dad’s maternal home near Vadakkancheri. My bachelor uncle Balamama remained behind to keep watch over the house. But it was a false alarm, nothing happened either in Madras or Calicut. All that happened over the months which followed was the southerly trek of a forlorn stream of refugees from Burma, into Madras.

The monsoon which hit Calicut (I can’t be sure if it was 41, 42 or 43, my aunt explains that her memory is a bit foggy these days) was particularly ferocious. She tells me that the flood waters came right behind our house in Chalappuram and boats plied the waters to take people and goods back and forth. As panic ensued, some burly Khalasi Mappilas were deployed to cut the (azhimurikkal) sand banks on the mouth of the Kallayi River and let the flood waters recede. They struggled initially, witnessed by a great mass of people on the shore, some khalasis were swept away into the raging sea, never to return again, but the others succeeded eventually and the waters ashore receded.

The war panic in Malabar too receded as the British pulled up their socks and geared up in the North East to fight the Japanese at Imphal and Kohima. The role of the Malayali in this war is unknown to many. Strange is the fact that the first IIL/INA subversions from Singapore to challenge the British in India, were launched by a Malayali from Calicut (See my article on TP Kumaran Nair), and even stranger is the fact that the first roads laid in the inhospitable mountain jungles at the far outreaches of Assam were the efforts of a couple of Malayali platoons (together with a Tamil and a Telugu platoon). It was this road that provided a means for the British and allied forces to launch a counter attack on the Japanese and the INA! It is a fascinating story which I will soon present. But for now let us get back to Malabar, briefly forgotten by the British in the chaos of war, where the situation was becoming dire, for other reasons.

The year 1943 is best remembered as the middle year of the Second World War, a period when the fortunes of the Allies changed for the better. The Axis powers were slowly driven back, from the various fronts where they had gotten stalled. The military generals and politicians had until then focused on their own existence and their mother countries, were more worried about events and strategies of the war, preparing on a daily basis to save themselves from annihilation. People ended up showing not only their best, but also their worst behavior, in this eagerness to save themselves. 

Subash Chandra Bose and his INA were sequestered in Rangoon, trying to find common ground with the Japs. The Congress Party's Working Committee were all under arrest, all major leaders of the INC had been arrested and detained. The confused masses were leaderless and protests started to take a violent turn. In large parts of the country, local underground organizations took over. The political deadlock in the country continued throughout 1943. The detained Congress leaders continued in jail with the exception of Mahatma Gandhi, who was eventually released on medical grounds in May 1944. The quit India movement which had been launched, was petering out. Meanwhile famines hit many regions in British India, Malabar, Travancore and Cochin included.

Not many bothered about the South, especially Malabar, Cochin and Travancore.  These were usually considered as areas typically blessed with good monsoons and had in the past managed splendidly according to the many English administrators who passed through, such as Innes, Evans and Logan. And so, Malabar was never seriously considered when the famine act was prepared in the previous century. The first major allocation of funds to Malabar was also connected with the famine act. The money thus obtained by declaring Malabar famine prone was later diverted from the famine insurance fund towards railway construction. In 1881, the Tirur - Beypore rail link was laid and by 1888, Calicut and Palghat were connected. Beypore was soon relinquished and six more lines were laid. The argument was that with the railway, equitable distribution of supplies would keep any future famine at bay.

During the wars, the British in general did not believe in alleviating any Indian situation of distress and concentrated on shipping food to war-torn Britain, sometimes even trans-shipping them out of India in full view of starving masses. Some British leaders even mentioned, that for a future balanced population in India, which was full of teeming breeders, some had to die, following on Churchill’s words that India was a country with beastly people and a beastly religion, who bred like rabbits. When told about the famines in India, he shot back ‘if so many were dying from lack of food, why is Gandhiji not already dead?’  Pundits explained that a potential reason for his apathy at the growing tragedy in India was due to his anger at Gandhiji’s efforts in taking away the jewel called India from the British crown, which he perceived, was his duty to defend. The lack of response in his dealings with the spreading famine was perhaps his way of getting back at Gandhi.

But how did Malabar end up with a deficit in food? Unlike many other places, Malabar indeed cultivated a lot of money crops those days, but they were commercial crops such as spices, tobacco, coffee, tea, sugarcane, castor to name a few. Of course there were coconuts, areca-nuts, jackfruits, cashew, mango and so on, and some amount of rice (food crops) was cultivated in Eranad and Valluvanad. With the outbreak of WWII, food prices spiraled upward and taxation rose. Though the British failed to act in the 1941-42 years, the situation was largely nascent because Burma, the rice bowl of undivided India was producing the required amounts of rice and they were being shipped to various ports in India, including Malabar, Cochin and Travancore. The Chettiars were still in control in Burma and rice of dubious quality continued to arrive in Malabar and Cochin ports. Problems started when the Japanese raided Burma.

The Southeast Asian campaign of WWII started when the Japanese bombed Victoria Point during Dec 1941, cordoned off Burma and followed up with the capture of Singapore, Malaysia and launched a land attack on Burmese targets. The Japanese intent was to get to the oilfields in Burma, a strategic conquest to ensure they had resources for the grand entry westwards across India. Within a span of three months, the British in Burma were in a hasty retreat, and Burma was in Japanese hands. The British, the Chettiar landowners and bankers as well as many hundreds of thousands of Indian laborers fled across the borders to mainland India. Paddy cultivation and its harvest was forgotten and the rice fields and mills in Burma, were at the mercy of the native Burmese and the Japanese conquerors.

With the evacuation of Rangoon in March 1942, there was now practically no hope of some 1.5 million tons of rice imports into Malabar, Travancore or Cochin and the industrial populations of Madras and Bengal. You can now imagine how matters spiraled downwards in rapid fashion. The deficit was not only in the South but in the whole of India.The wholesale price index of rice more than doubled in India and deficit financing surged from Rs 4 crores to Rs 438 crores in 1942-43. The Indian army increased in size 10 times to some 3 million solders and they naturally needed a lot of food, which the British had to provide in required quantities. As rice stocks got depleted, prices soared and the price ceiling acts did not work. As food intake reduced, malnutrition was rampant and the region of Malabar was now facing what usually follows, disease.

Adding to the misery was an uneven monsoon (too little and too much and at wrong times) the previous two years, and domestic production was some 40% lower. As imports from Burma stopped entirely and procurement from Mysore could not take place due to wartime disruptions, speculation and hoarding exacerbated the situation. The Gujarati and Mappila rice traders of Calicut were also to blame for the difficult times, for many were recorded as hoarding stocks.  There were many other reasons too, and one you may find hard to believe was that rice was diverted to feed many European prisoners interned in India (Satara, Bangalore, the Nilgiri hill stations etc)! It was also noted by researchers that during the war years, workers used to work from 7 am to 5.30 pm; while post War, physical weakening due to malnutrition had reduced it to 8 am to 12.30 pm, showing the effects of the famine.

Interestingly the situation was brought up in the House of Lords – Huntingdon stated in Oct 1943 - I have no wish to give more of these harrowing figures. Those I have given are enough, I think, to confirm the dreadful stories of starvation and misery which are coming from India today, especially in the Deccan, and the States of Cochin and Travancore, and even more so in Bengal. Rice has risen over 950 per cent above pre-war prices and in some places even more. Not only is there a shortage of grain and rice, but there is also a great shortage of milk and milk products, and in fact foodstuffs of all kinds seem to be in great scarcity and at exorbitant prices. And whenever food is short cholera makes its appearance. In the Malabar districts 3,000 cases have been reported. Grim stories have come of patients not wishing to be cured of cholera, as the only alternative would be a slower death from starvation. There are also worse stories of parents deserting dying children, and children deserting parents, and even of children being sold for the price of food. But we do not need to stress these stories; I think the figures are enough to stir our imagination and to show how appalling the conditions in India must be.

Many others agreed, but as it appears, nothing came out of those pithy debates!

The administration turned a blind eye and to make the situation even worse, with agricultural work dwindling, many from the lowest classes became destitute. The cost of living index in Calicut, doubled. Rice cultivation in Malabar actually stabilized later in 1943, but all the produce was shipped to Assam for the military folks amassed to fight the Japs at the border. Meanwhile Bengal was also facing an acute famine, which got some amount of press and attention, but hardly any support. Millions died. Bose and the INA offered to ship rice from Burma for Bengal, but Churchill shot back that if he saw a single merchant ship in the Indian Ocean, it would be diverted to the Atlantic for needy Englishmen. To allies who were offering help to India, he stated that he could neither offer ships nor escort. And he informed them, crossly, that Indians, especially Bengalis, do not eat wheat.

In the twentieth century the import trade in rice was dominated by the Cutchi Memons, Gujaratis and Mappila merchants, at Calicut. They preferred Burmese rice because it was cheaper to ship them to Malabar rather than obtain rice from other northern centers. Interestingly, superior rice grown in Malabar was exported to other areas and the people of Malabar purchased cheaper rice imported from Burma. Cochin imported its rice/paddy requirements from Burma, Siam, and Indo- China. In Trichur a portion of the imported paddy was milled and re-exported to adjoining areas in pre-war times. The superior varieties grown in Chittur taluk were exported to Pollachi and Coimbatore markets. Cochin also received imported paddy and rice from Burma for re-distribution to Malabar.

Academically the situation in Malabar was starkly simple - Owing to the stoppage of imports amounting to about 300,000 tons of rice from Burma, the district of Malabar suffered very badly from shortage of food. The supplies obtained by Government to replace the imported rice came to 15,000 tons a month, which was reduced in 1942 December to 10,000 tons. In reality more than half of Malabar, Cochin and Travancore’s needs were being met by Burmese rice imports, and a loss of this as you can very well imagine, was not possible to counter. The results were malnutrition and disease.

Nobody was really bothered about the situation in Malabar, which by the way was simply dire. Malabar already in the throes of acute famine, was hit by a double whammy as resistance and disease immunity levels dropped. Disease stuck in waves as Malaria, Cholera and plague arrived. By February 43, Cholera had become an epidemic in Calicut. By June, July and August 1943, this virulent cholera strain dropped multitudes like flies in the heat. Initially, Cholera appeared in early June among the street beggars of Calicut. To prevent spreading of the epidemic in the city, these beggars were moved out to southern camps beyond the municipal limits of Calicut. This resulted in the infection spreading to the country villages.

Shankar - Cartoon depicting the Travancore situation
The inoculation drive was another problem. The ill trained vaccinators were not trained, they made the process extremely painful and used no disinfectants, scaring people even more. Tanur was hit as Calicut residents boarded the trains and got off there. Village officials refused to venture into any house where an affected person lived. Collector Mc Ewan and KV Suryanarayana Iyer the Municipal councilor tried hard in getting additional supplies, but getting any bureaucratic machinery to work during these panic stricken situations was perhaps impossible. The Malabar food committee had the Nilambur raja as chairman, and political parties as we saw formed their own helping committees. The taluks of Eranad, Ponnani and Calicut were most affected with a daily death toll of over 50. In Calicut, VR Nayanar’s Servants of India society, the Ramakrishna Mission, the Communist Party and the Malabar relief committee rose up to help. The congress led Cholera relief committee set up over 118 relief centers. Many orphanages sprung up. But one big issue in those days was the non-adaptability of Malabar food habits. Neither would they eat North Indian crops like Bajra, millet or wheat nor would they consume Travancorean Tapioca. As the situation became desperate the poorest of the poor subsisted on green leaves and grass on certain days, according to official records. Eventually, it just became a record of sorts, and it is simply mentioned that in 1943, in the midst of this epidemic, nearly 40,000 people died of cholera, dysentery and diarrhea.

Why Malabar got hit with this kind of a Cholera epidemic was an issue very much discussed in those days. While some administrators blamed unhygienic living, improper disposal of night soil in Calicut and so on, another story doing its rounds was that one last consignment of old Burmese rice sent from Madras to tide over the famine, early in 1943 was unhygienic. Some opined that the symptoms were not typical of Cholera but acute diarrhea.

Statutory rationing was started 1944 and a one pound rice limit was fixed for ration holders in Calicut. But this was conditional on them buying a certain amount of wheat and Ragi. Cochin interestingly led the efforts of weaning away its hungry poor from rice by starting Cochin restaurants making new wheat and millet dishes. Slowly the difficulties abated and matters stabilized in Malabar.

In neighboring Travancore, similar issues cropped up, as they were also affected by the rice export stoppage from Burma. They had an even harsher predicament for a short while as the Madras presidency refused to provide any rice to the kingdom of Travancore due to shortages in the Madras State.

Interestingly landowners prospered to a certain extent, while the Japanese attacks decimated the large food growing areas in SE Asia. South India was the only undisturbed place and despite the 43 famine, they prospered due to higher prices and guaranteed purchases by the government. For example coconut prices rose three fold, rice by 450% and rubber by 750 times. So you can imagine how these landowners fared and why that resulted in the creation of so many small private banks in the state. And this possibility of becoming a landowner and obtaining regular work, coupled with a linient Malabar tenancy act made a number of Travancoreans move and resettle in Malabar’s hilly traits.

But one should also observe how different people gained or lost from the Great War.  Nelliyampathy in Palghat is a prime example. In 1943, the State of Cochin started a farm in Nelliyampathy to feed the British troops.  Many private entrepreneurs, inspired by the market for oranges, converted abandoned coffee plantations to orange plantations. Though there has been a noticeable decline in the area under orange plantations, Nelliyampathy still has orange trees growing in about 240 acres of land.

Another classic is the story ‘Maram’ penned by NP Muhammad, of a saw mill worker in Kallayi who quietly stole driftwood owned by others and became a rich man, a ‘moilali’. A period short story with a love triangle, it details the 1940’s Calicut, mentioning among other matters, itinerant Moplah workers, demonstrating how fortunes can change a man and so on, ending with a gentle twist. Those interested can see the movie online if you google it and see the visuals from the old Kallayi.

All in all, it was a harrowing time. Large percentages of population were decimated, but perhaps some good came out of it after all. Food distribution took effect, rationing and food control came about, there was a realization that rice was not the only form of food and many people found some sense in education, immunizations, hygiene and being responsible for themselves.

And there was something else, the tremendous awe which the British were held in, rapidly dissipated. To the people the state, for once, due to the special circumstances of war, looked brittle and the British no longer in any semblance of control. Some of their selfish acts were exposed during this troubled time as their true color surfaced. The government as many saw, now looked marked for oblivion. Finally, the Indians came out of it with a reborn vigor and a resolve to drive the colonial powers back to Britain.

Most of all, as Robin Jeffrey observes, the war broke down many caste values, restrictions on travel, the value of education and a possibility to work anywhere. It was a direct result of this that the Malayali decided that he never wanted to be hungry and poor again or beg for food handouts. They moved and traveled after this, to seek better fortunes. Many enlisted in the army, and many joined labor battalions to work in Assam and Burma and with it started a new Kerala economy, that of incoming remittances from these hard workers, toiling not only in others parts of India but decades later, in difficult terrains and conditions, abroad.

It has remained so ever since and lo and behold, a few decades later, the Malayali food symbol  morphed into the wheat (maida) porotta. Wheat based dishes such as the Upma (salt mango tree), Poori, Chappati, and the such entered mainstream. The traditional meal comprising a humongous heap of Burmese boiled rice on a plantain leaf with a curry or two, slowly receded to a distant memory.

State failure and human miseries – M Raghavan
Malabar Famine of 1943, a critique of the war situation in Malabar 1939-1943 - Priya P
Food control and Nutrition surveys Malabar and S Kanara – KG Sivaswamy and others
The Cry of Distress - K Santhanam
Politics Women & well-being – Robin Jeffrey
Food Crisis in the Malabar District 1945-47 - N Balasubramaniam

Authors Note
Initially I wanted to write a factual article, steeped in details. As I started to peruse the dense but erudite works of KG Sivaswamy, Kasturiranga Santhanam and the very detailed analysis of M Raghavan, as well as some of those terrible pictures of the sufferers, I grew increasingly pensive and angry. The initial draft had lots of statistics and reasoning which I assumed would be terribly boring to a young reader who I hope will never see, hear or experience a famine, ever. Their minds, I thought, steeped in modernity and some amount of excess would never understand all this, so I dropped the topic and deleted the old draft. But then again, it did not leave my mind, so what I rewrote was a milder version, which you see above. I can assure you my friends, that it was terrible in Calicut in the first three quarters of 1943, far worse than my pen picture, it was a time when hoarding and theft was rampant, when friends turned enemies and when hope left the masses of Malabar.

I was surprised to note that  famed writers of that era did not record this in their books or stories. Basheer it seems did make some mention, but why did SK Pottekat abstain? Or am I wrong? Reader opinion solicited. Was it fear of censorship?