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The Sunken Ruins of Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

I was intrigued by mentions of sunken ruins of an old part of Calicut city in a few history books. Having lived there for many years and not having heard of any such ruin perked my interest. Also I have been out into the sea having undertaken a dhow trip two miles into the waters to board a merchant ship captained by my uncle, many years ago. I had certainly seen no underwater ruins at that time. So what where these historians talking about??

Varthema first stated in 1503 that the city of Calicut had no wall around it and that houses extend for a mile or so from the shores. In town the houses are built close together, and he then explained that larger houses with a compound could be seen for another 6 miles. He also states that if you dig about 4-5 spans, water can be found and thus large houses were never built. For this reason, the Zamorin’s palace in the middle of town was low and insignificant. (Strange to note: This shows that Calicut did not change much until the 20th century).

Hamilton stated that around mid Feb 1703, when he visited Calicut, as he stood and looked, he chanced to see some of the ruins of the sunken town (on Coote’s reef off Calicut) and the remains of a fort built by the Portuguese in former times. He is not sure if the town was undermined by the sea or swallowed by an earthquake. This devastation apparently happened in the 1550-1585 time frame.

Forbes in 1772 confirms having seen underwater temples & minarets and explains all these in greater detail in his accounts.

Stanhope confirms in 1785 that he had heard about an event in 1585 where there was a sudden uprising of the sea that killed all the local inhabitants. He claims to have anchored at the spot where the old city stood and saw the foundations of the old city with naked eyes!!

Newbold confirms in 1846 that he saw the ruins of the Portuguese factory underwater as well. Local people also mentioned of underwater ruins some 12km north towards Kappad.

Let us now look at the geography – At the south extreme part of the Calicut reef somewhere close to the Kallai - Beypore entrance of the Chaliyam river is what is called the Coote’s reef (about 1.5 miles from the lighthouse). This was called Coote’s reef due to the loss of an EIC ship (sloop of war) of that name which ran into the reef and was destroyed at that location on 1st Dec 1855. (A detailed coast survey of the Calicut shores can be read on Page 148 of the Manual of administration of the Madras Presidency Vol 2, 1885). This was also the reef that Hamilton’s ship struck and where he stepped aside to see the ruins.

Logan believed circa 1900 that there definitely was sea encroachment to the shores of Calicut, but that reports of a Portuguese fort was found among sunken ruins at the location of Coote’s reef is not conceivable (Malabar Manual – page 75) though affirms that Sheikh Mammu Koya’s tomb probably stood at that location.

According to Logan, the said Portuguese fort was square in shape (see picture in MGS – Calicut the city of truth page 29) facing the sea and built in 1513 & designed by Thomas Fernandez. This was abandoned after hostilities, in 1525. If this was located at the reef and was overrun by the river or sea, the foundations may have been visible. The general conjuncture however was that this kind of rising of the sea has not taken place, for many other parts of inhabited Calicut would also have had reported flood situations consequent to this event.

However, let us now look at Danver’s accounts for more details on the fort’s construction – It states that the Zamorin of 1513 expelled the Arab traders who would not trade with the Portuguese and assisted the Portuguese in the construction of a fort in Dec 1513. He states that the foundations of the fort were laid underwater at the reef, close to the shipping anchorage. The fort was of the same size as the one at Cochin. Albuquerque placed Francesco Nogueira in charge with a sizeable force to protect it (The story of this Zamorin is interesting – He was apparently the Eralpad who poisoned the reigning Zamorin at the behest of the Portuguese and ascended to the throne – Also the person involved in deputing Dom Joao Da Cruz (refer my blog - The torn earlobe and the horse trader) to Lisbon as his envoy)

Looking at Earthquakes & Tsunamis of that period, it was determined that a small one occurred in 1524 (recorded in history by Vasco Da Gama and some others). Subsequently small quakes were felt in Calicut in 1881 and 1882. However this was not the cause of any event outlined above and from a different period as you can see.. In 1887 Lt RN Helby and party surveyed the region between Beypore & Calicut thoroughly and the reefs were mapped. I must however admit that I have myself heard many people admit that there has been considerable sea encroachment at Calicut

One may thus conclude with evidence available that the underwater city of Calicut is basically a myth and that there was no great erosion or cataclysmic event that inundated Calicut underwater around1500-1600. It is also clear from Danver’s accounts that the ruins seen were actually the real foundations of the Portuguese fort at the edge of the reef.

But well – the one thing that survived a long time was the British built screw pile at Calicut. One end stood close to the customs Bungalow (see picture from 1903) and the other end went as far as 4km in the mid 1800’s. This is the screw pile ‘Kadal Palam’ or sea bridge. The pile or Jetty as it thence got termed was shortened to some174 yards (500ft long). This screw pile pier of Calicut was built in 1871 at the cost of Rs 64,000/- . (pg 23/24 MGSN ‘Calicut City of truth’). Until it was fully operational, the pier built to receive the Prince of Wales at Beypore was used, even for transporting & boarding troops. Today the historical cast iron Jetty is lost and only a few forlorn pillars are testament to the lost glory of that great trading port that once dictated the fortunes of medieval Malabar.

Note – When the HMS Coote ran into the reef, a lot of effort was made to salvage it, but it was of no avail. The hull was sold for Rs 10,000/- to a local merchant who unfortunately lost his entire investment due to the fact that it could not be towed ashore.

Himalaya & Tibet (Study by Bendick & Bilham) – Allison Mcfarlane, Rasoul Sorkhabi, Jay Quade
The Portuguese in India : A.D. 1481-1571 Frederick Charles Danvers

Pics – Thanks to the BEM Calicut archives, District website


  1. Nikhil Narayanan

    I did not like the fact that you do not believe in the under water city theory.
    I hope ASI does some marine exploration to check the veracity of this theory.


  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Very interesting account of the myth surrounding the Portuguese Fort. Thank you sir.

  1. Maddy

    hey nikhil - can we make something that is not there? if you read this carefully you would have noted that the British surveyors had done the survey as well in 1887. In reality the area west of the western ghats is actually reclaimed area and was ll under water once upon a time. I wish we could see an underwater old calicut like they are seeing Mathura now. Also remember that even if there were ruins, they would not have lasted to seen by forbes as towers and minarets under water. The building technology at that time was thatched roofs and mud bricks. Mosques & temples were not built of rocks and marble unlike the north Indian buildings. Rare use of laterite was evident, but more towards the 17th century.

    Thanks PNS - I still believe that the fort foundations existed at that location, not an underwater city.

  1. Nikhil Narayanan

    Okay. :-)
    In reality the area west of the western ghats is actually reclaimed area and was ll under water once upon a time. Very true.Many areas to the west of W Ghats have sandy soil and is evident that they are reclaimed areas.I know a stretch abt 10km long on the NH17 side(Payyanur -northwards)having sandy terrain.There are many areas where fossilsed shells are seen some metres beneath the surface.(Some connection with the Parasurama theory?)I have seen this specific spot where the terrain changes all of a sudden and becomes hilly/laterite soil.

    Laterite, though was available in plenty was only used by the rich and famous(palaces and forts)?Okay.
    Even now,unlike other parts of Kerala where houses are built using bricks,many parts in Malabar use Laterite stones.


  1. PT

    Very interesting... thank you sir