Revathi Pattathanam - A historic perspective

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Traditionally a seven day event, this grand festival event is held at the Thali temple grounds in Calicut under the patronage of the Zamorin of Kozhikode. The event culminates with the conferring of the title Bhatta along with a panakizhi (purse of money) to selected scholars. The word Pattathanam is derived from Bhatta-danam, which means "awarding of the Bhatta".

Well that is how this is defined. It was as you may have heard, a very scholarly event full of Vedic debating. But what on earth would it have to do with a love story involving a couple from rival (feuding) chieftains of Malabar? And how did this love story become a reason for the early rise in the power of the Zamorins of Calicut and its culmination in conducting the Pattathanam?

To know that we have to go to the 12th century Calicut, a time when today’s Chalapuram in Calicut (where I grew up & spent my childhood days!!) was Salapuram, a place belonging to some 50-60 Nambuthiri/Moosad families of the Thali ‘gramam’ (village) and where they ran a Vedic ‘patashala’ school.

Readers & followers of Malabar history would know of the rivalry between the Kolathiri raja’s of Chirakkal and the Zamorin (that by itself is a long story – with the origins of the animosity resting on who held suzerainty rights over whom, what & when – to say the least) that lasted centuries and were the reason for many wars and skirmishes. The uneasy truce between the two was finally drawn up towards the later part of Portuguese reign over Malabar trade.

The Kolathiri prince’s reckless adventure
In those times (~ 12th century), the Mussad Urulans were the trustees of the Thali temple. The Mussads in addition to priestly duties were also a caste of Vaidyars or physicians, but placed below normal Namboothiri levels in the caste ladder due to handling blood & operations (Thurston – castes). Elayadhu, Mussad & nambiaydi are the castes lower to the Namboothiri. Mussads (Muttattu) are Siva worshipers. It was once said in Kerala that Muthads (Moosad’s or Moose) are to be regarded as the highest of Ambalavasis, and the Elayads as the lowest of Brahmans.

The Moosads had lost their patron the Polathiri and the Zamorin was now firmly in power at Calicut, which had also just been declared a free port. The Polathiri’s Kuttichira Siva temple that had been desecrated during the war by the bloodshed was made over to the Moplah’s (History of Kerala - KVK Iyer) to construct a mosque. The rules of law had been put into place and trade had started to thrive. The powerless and sidelined Mussad Uralans now decided to throw their lot with the Kolathiri and got involved in a scheme where a Kolathiri prince was smuggled into the Zamorin’s palace disguised as a Brahmin lad. The lad was handsome, well educated and was eminently eligible for a palace ‘sambandham’. But naturally a Thampurati fell for him, only to know his real guise too late. Eventually they eloped during a festival at Thali, with the Mussad’s support, when everybody was busy at the temple, aggravating their guilt even further. The enraged Zamorin disinherited the girl and took his troops to signal the next war against the Kolathiri & Parapanad raja’s where the couple went to. The Kolathiri raja had by then lost face (the prince had committed a grave crime in eloping - he had gone against the ‘Kerala Maryada’) and unable to fight the Zamorins troops, ceded his lands and ‘Koyma’ (suzerainty) rights in the North. The love story as such had a happy ending and the Zamorin, much success.The young couple were eventually settled at far away Nileswaram and provided an allowance.

But the Zamorin I believe, would not rest at that, he turned his rage against the Mussads who had engineered the whole fracas. The Mussads had believed that as Brahmins, they would be untouched by the Zamorin who was after all, a lowly Samanthan Nair in the caste hierarchy. The Zamorin took charge; he banished them all (except one family) out of his kingdom and took over the Thali temple management. The Brahmins would not budge; they resorted to ‘Dharna’ or ‘Pattini’ (fasting unto resolution or death) on the Durgam or mound near the temple. The Zamorin refused to accept what he termed blackmail and did not do much to negotiate a settlement. What happened next is not clear, some Moosads died and reached ‘Swargam’ from the Durgam and it is for this reason that the mound is even today called ‘Swargam’. It appears that since then, the Zamorins never entertained Brahmins from south of Gaunipuzha

The ‘bhrama hatya’ (or being a reason for it) cost the Zamorin dear. Court astrologers blamed every misfortune in his family, on this event. The misfortunes reached a stage where the very possibility of lineage & succession was threatened due to the absence of progeny. Finally on the advice of Kolkunnattu Sivankal during the 14th Century, the Pattathanam or gifting scholars was resorted to as ‘Prayaschitam’ and every Brahmin who came to Thali temple was fed for a period of 7 days. The event takes place in the month of Thulam, with a feast beginning on Revathi and ending in Thiruvathira. 101 Smartans (Vedic scholars) were presented with a purse of 101 Panams each in those days.

With this, it appears that the curse was finally removed. Since then it is an annual event at Calicut. This is roughly the Krishna Iyer version.

A second version can be seen in Sreedhara Menon’s ‘Survey of Kerala History’. According to him the Viceroy of Pantalayani belonging to the Kolathunad family met & fell in love with a Thampurati of the Zamorin family during a visit to Calicut and thence eloped to Pantalayani. The enraged Zamorin attacked & captured the port area and then aimed his sights at the Kolathiri Raja. However he does not get into the Thali Moosad aspects at all.

Another story (briefly alluded to by MGS Narayanan– ‘Calicut City of Truth’) mentions vehement disagreement on the banishment order and an altercation in which certain Mussads were executed by the Zamorin’s men and buried under the Durgam.

The Pattanam or Pattathanam as it was
An event that attracted scholars from afar, it was a serious contest in which scholars vied with each other for the coveted price. As they attended and got more and more Thanams, they got elevated to the position of judging the event. They then became the old Sabha judging the new Sabha. It was a tough event and even Melpattur Narayana Bhattatiri the author of Narayaneeyam got through only after 7 attempts. The Vathil Matam housed the event and Bhattas from Cheviyannur and Kothamangalam yogams representing the Northern and southern parts. Finally after 7 days of dissertations and debates, the winner’s name was announced by the Mangat Achan and the purse of 300 (went upto 1141 panams) panams was handed over by the reigning Zamorin.

By the 15th century, the Pattathanam was a veritable mental feast for contemporary scholars, lorded by the Saraswathanidhi Zamorin (a leaned one) surrounded by 18 ½ poets. The half poet was the one who wrote in Malayalam, namely Poonam Namboothiri. Some historians however contend that it was a collection of eighteen ‘half scholars’ for they all had scope to improve.

Some call the Pattathanam of these days a farce and a touristy type event with dances, Kathakali events and spiritual lectures, but it still has its scholarly elements and awards presented to the best temple art personality, best poet etc.

As such the Pattathanam at the Calicut Thali temple is stated as an example of aristocracy surrendering to divinity.

Samoothirimar – PCM Raja
History of Kerala KV Krishna Iyer
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Survey of Kerala History – Sreedhara Menon
Calicut - City of Truth – MGS Narayanan
Castes & tribes of Southern India – E Thurston
Nayars of Malabar – F Fawcett

Picture – Courtesy Hindu: Zamorin of Calicut P.K.S. Raja leading a procession from the Tali Mahadeva Temple as part of Revathi Pattathanam in Kozhikode on November 11, 2008. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Videos of recent Revathi Pattathanam

Part 1-
Part 2 -

Authors Note:
Many centuries later, members of the Zamorin family got involved in another Brahma Hatya attempt. More on that follows in another blog.

Manjeri Moplah’s revolt against Tipu

Posted by Maddy Labels:

On 7th Dec 1782, Hyder died aged 60 and his son Tipu succeeded him. If Hyder had a chance, he would have allowed Hyat Sahib to succeed him as he always desired in his heart and soul, but that never happened. If you recall, I had introduced the fascinating Hyat (Ayaz Khan) in a separate blog. One must keep in mind now that when the Sultans of Mysore attacked Malabar with intent to get the overdue tribute or protection money of 12 lakhs apparently owed by the Zamorin, a number of North Malabar Mappilas supported the Sultans with a hope that they would be favored by fellow Muslims. You must also remember that a beleaguered Zamorin (after the many wars with the Cochin kings, the Portuguese and the Dutch) had by then weakened his relationship with the Moplah’s of Malabar, his erstwhile ally’s. This had happened during the capture and death of the Kunhali Marakar who according to the Moplah’s was sacrificed to the Portuguese by the Zamorin. The Moplah’s were a depressed lot by then, having lost the trade to the Portuguese and Dutch, without land and title or any say in regional matters or any sway in the circles of power.

When Hyder Ali took control of Malabar and the Zamorin family and other land owning wealthy families fled to Travancore, a number of punitive measures were put into place to ensure an increased revenue collection. Hyder needed the money desperately to fight his wars against the Marathas and the British. Stiff tax was imposed and it is said that he taxed only Hindu landlords, but not Muslims. The land and revenue tax was set at 50-80%. The governance was accorded to Hyder’s deputy Arshad Beg Khan a man reputed for his honesty and kind behavior. A number of entreaties by the landlords (Janmi’s) with various supporting reasons that I won’t get into at present, resulted in the taxes being subsequently reduced to 20-33% by Arshad Khan.

For those a little unfamiliar with Malabar history, Hyder together with Arshad beg Khan (1783) were the first to implement a ‘formal and documented’ land tax structure in Malabar. The Cochin & Travancore Raja’s and their subjects did not pay taxes they paid a fixed amount of protection money, tribute or premium!!

It was at this stage that Hyder suddenly died while camping at Chitoor. Tipu took over the reins of the Mysore empire, Hyat Sahib at Bednore handed over his local kingdom to the British and fled to Bombay (a very interesting tale in itself) and Tipu decided to take his revenge on the populace of Malabar.

Arhsad Beg Khan, an able and humane soul who was Hyder’s appointed governor, was actually under threat when Tipu took over. Mir Ibrahim was given civil authority and he promptly cancelled all the previous agreements made by Arshad & Hyder. His next step was implementing heavy taxation that was neither acceptable nor payable by any of the landowners. Now Hyder had decided that temples need not pay tax, Tipu changed it. Tippu’s next ruling with respect to change of currency and other measures raised taxes far above 50%.The need for money was acute due to Tipu’s wars in other parts of the country. Then he demanded change of culture and forced conversions to Islam. Many alarmed land owners - the wealthy Nair’s, Namboothiris of the Eranad Valluvanad, Malappuram, Nilambur areas and other Nair landowners decided to flee South to Travancore, and they sold off (or in reality just exchanged in words) their land to the tillers or to the local Muslim populace for a pittance.

The revenue collector of the Zamorin and later Arshad at Manjeri (though he tendered no taxes to Arshad) was Attan (Hassan) Kurikkal. Let me now introduce to you to this old ally of the Zamorin. His was a reputed (tharavadi) Muslim family in Manjeri and he was also the tax collector for the Zamorin in that district. But somewhere in history their relations also soured and Athan Gurukkal (Attan Kurikkal in British books) himself administered Manjeri and collected the revenues, not sending the agreed amounts to the Zamorin. The rest of the Zamorin family and the heir apparent were in Travancore, so Gurukkal did not have to bother about claimants.

When Ibrahim took over he even taxed standing crops, and exacerbated the situation. But a question came up in my mind. If Muslims were exempted, why did a branch of powerful Mappila’s led by the Manjeri Thangal (kurikkal) himself a tax revenue official of Tippu, go against Ibrahim and Arshad beg khan?? The intrigue had to be cleared and I scoured many books for an answer. It appears that while Arshad was benevolent to Muslims, Tippu wanted to collect taxes even from the Moplas. Why? Simply because the Hindu land owners had fled, the benami owners were the Moplahs, who of course paid no taxes and tax revenues had crashed. Tipu realized that the Mopilah’s had the land now but were not paying any tax, and he needed the money desperately.

Athan Koya refused to pay any taxes or what he collected. It was under his leadership that the Mopla’s rebelled as Tipu became insistent. During this period there was one person who kept on indulging in guerilla warfare with Tipu and his army, which was Ravi Varma from the Padinjare Kovilakom at Calicut. The Manjeri Muslims were the first to revolt against Tippu on various occasions between 1785-1788, later joining Ravi Varma the nephew of the ousted Zamorin, in revolt.

Arshad Khan had managed to keep Ravi Varma at bay previously. Curiously, he had with Tipu’s approval paid Ravi Varma a ‘jaghire’ (a tract of land, tax free) in 1784 to keep him quiet and in order to help Tipu subdue the Manjeri Kurikkal. The intrigue is interesting, Tipu using a Hindu warlord to fight a fellow Muslim, but that is how situations change – call it manipulation of the fickle human mind.

After Tipu’s war in Coorg, he concluded a treaty with the British around 11th March 1785. According to Mark Wilkes, Mir Ibrahim’s actions had by then set the local populace aflame. Arshad Khan had earlier written to Tipu that this was going to create no end of problems and it was thus that Tipu had to come personally with a hurt ego and fury in his mind in 1788 to Malabar where he jailed Ibrahim and sent him away. Arshad (Wilkes says he was in Malabar till he was jailed by Tipu in 1788, Logan states he went to Mecca in 1786) resigned and went to Mecca on a pilgrimage.

Tipu was furious with the people of Malabar even though he was obtaining large revenue overall from the region and insisted that they obey his conversion dictums. After a disastrous affair involving Kishen Raja’s deputation of his dewan to meet Tipu instead of meeting him himself, Tipu lost his temper and the much talked about atrocities and mayhem against the Hindu’s occurred. It was Tipu’s revenge not only against the Hindu’s of Malabar but also (in my opinion) his revenge against his father Hyder and Hyder’s relationship with Malabari Hyat Khan.

Back to Athan (a.k.a Hassan Koya) Gurukkal – He refused to pay taxes (by now termed raitwari) to Tipu and then destroyed a temple belonging to the Manjeri Thampuran (Tipu had earlier warned Gurukkal not to do that) for reasons I do not know. I think he got the thampuran killed as well. The rebellion rose in intensity, Ghulam Ali was sent by Tipu to Manjeri to quell the riots and some 90 odd Muslims were killed (Roland Miller implies that 20 were killed by fellow Mopilah rioters to avoid their capture by Ali and became martyrs of Shahid’s). Athan Gurukkal and his son were captured and interned in the Srirangapatanam jail.

But this interesting rebel escaped from the jail and came back to Manjeri. Interestingly the situation had changed by then. Tipu had been defeated by the British and he ceded Malabar to the East India Company. The EIC then made Athan (Hassan) Gurukkal the local police superintendent.

The situation would take a dramatic turn again. Later this Gurukkal, his son by the same name and other interesting characters like Chemban Pokker and Unni Moosa Moopan joined up with Ravi Varma, and the Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma in their revolts against the East India Company, again for the main reason of unjust and unreasonable taxation and refusal for self governance. The men were declared outlaws with a bounty of Rs 5000/- per head. Athan (Hassan) Gurukkal was eventually killed in 1802.These families were later involved in the 1849-1921 agrarian revolt and Muslim riots.

Ghulam Ali who captured the Gurukkal went to Istanbul as Tipu’s emissary to meet with the Ottoman Sultan between 1786 and 1790. After the 1799 defeat and Tipu’s death, Ghulam Ali Khan became a pensioner of the British, and allegedly received 3000 star pagodas per annum. He was appointed as District Munsif of Krishnagiri in 1816; retired in 1854 and died at Krishnagiri in 1863 at the age of 105.

Trivia – A new movie will be released soon in Malayalam – titled ‘Pazhassi raja’ and Mamooty will play the Kerala varma role. Athan Gurukkal will, as I understand, be played by Mamu Koya.

Historical sketches of South India – Mark Wilks
Kozhikodinte Charithram - Balakrishna Kurup
Tipu Sultan – Kirmani
Malabar Manual - Logan
Tiger of Mysore - Henty

Calanus and Alexander

Posted by Maddy Labels:

When Alexander and his troops (Anabasis of Alexander) stormed down upon some Jains and Brahmins walking around in the meadows around the Indus valley, the Brahmins did not flee, but just looked at them and stamped their feet in unison on the ground. Alexander was amazed. When he asked them to explain their actions, they said “Every man possesses as much of the earth as this upon which we have stepped, but thou being only a man like the rest of us, except in being meddlesome & arrogant, art come over so great a part of the earth from thy own land, giving trouble to both thyself and others, and yet thou also will soon die and possess as much of the earth as is sufficient for thy body to be buried in”. Alexander was spellbound and decided not only that he needed a new Guru, after decades of advise from Aristotle, but also decided to take on of them back to Macedonia after his conquests…That guru who accompanied him happened to be a Jain called Calanus (certain quarters maintain that the emperor actually preferred a more sober ascetic called Dandamis (or Mandanis according to Strabo), a senior to Calanus).

Much later, when the ailing Calanus, after a long march over the desert to Perisa, late 325BC, sitting still on his funeral pyre somewhere (Pasargadae Iran, Sush or Susa Iran or Babylon) on the Bampur Basin of the Iranian Plateau, told Emperor Alexander ‘we will meet again soon, in Babylon’, the Macedonians were horrified. This Dikambara Jain saint, who had never fallen ill till his 73rd year, took the fateful decision in his life to leave the holy land when he accepted Alexander’ invitation to go to Macedonia much against the wishes of senior sage Dandamis. A few days later, Alexander died in Babylon in a way that is, to date, an unsolved mystery. The prophecy of Calanus came true in a matter of days…

So who was Calanus, Calanos, Kalanos, Kalyanaswami, Shobhanaswami, Sphines or Kalyan? Alexander first met him discoursing with a senior saint Dandamis. While Dandamis refused to move away from Indian soil, the curiosity in Calanus and the persuasion by the king of Taxila (Takshashila) took the better and he agreed to accompany Iskendar despite vehement disagreement from Dandamis. Alexander thus took Kalyan or Kalyanos in Greek, a Jain saint, as his guru or mentor in replacement of his boyhood tutor Aristotle. In 325 BCE (roughly 2 years before Alexander's death) the Macedonian Army withdrew after an unsuccessful Indian war. The Army was forced to march through the deadly Makran - a high desert. The retreat was disastrous. Some accounts say that three quarters of Alexander's forces perished in the Makran and Calanos also took ill. But rather than burden his fellow travelers, Calanos decided on death by immolation.

Another thought on the identity of Calanus - Ashvaghosha is the author of The Acts of Buddha (Buddhacharitra). The name can be spelled, using various diacritical marks, as: Asvaghosa, Aswaghosa, or Acvaghosa. Dr. Ranajit Pal says “the real name of Calanus, Alexander's Guru, was Sphines which is the same as Aspines or Asvaghosa, the great Buddhist scholar." Islamic writings however indicate just the opposite trend for some strange reason. They state that Pythagoras had a student named Calanos who went back to India and created the Brahmin sect…

Calanus (Plutarch's Life of Alexander, translated by John Dryden) is said to have shown Alexander an illustration of rule, which was this. He threw a dry shriveled hide upon the ground, and trod upon the edges of it. The skin when it was pressed in one place still rose up in another, whosesoever he trod round about it, till he set his foot in the middle, which made all the parts lie even and quiet. The meaning of this similitude being that he ought to reside most in the middle of his empire, and not spend too much time on the borders of it. Calanus was one of the local philosophers who were known for both great physical fortitude and as a dikambara, the practice of total nudity. Dandamis however, was far from impressed by world conquerors who epitomized material might but held no sway over a spiritual universe he had spent his life contemplating. In periods of idleness, when the army was encamped or in winter quarters, this eastern teacher held forth to those assembled Macedonians.

Lysimachus, the penultimate survivor of Alexander's marshals - Lysimachus was an avid pupil and despite the barriers to real understanding of the wisdom of Calanus what can not be denied is the affection between the hunter warrior and the naked guru. Calanus had got through the desert march of Makran when men half his age had died of exhaustion but it had irreparably damaged his health. His condition became debilitating by the time the army was almost in sight of Susa and he decided to die rather than drag out his days as an invalid and as a burden on his friends. He persuaded Alexander to allow him to die in the traditional manner of his sect. A great funeral pyre was constructed in front of the army and court (Alexander had Ptolemy the son of Lagus take care of this) and he proceeded to mount the structure, to be burnt alive in the flames. As he did so, bidding goodbye to his intimates, he bequeathed his richest possession, a fine Nesaean horse (normally used only by kings), to Lysimachus. He also distributed all the golden cups and ornaments that Alexander had planned to put in his funeral, to the soldiers.

As he was going to the pile of wood, he greeted and kissed the hands and bade farewell to the rest of his entourage. He would not kiss Alexander's hand and said that he would meet with him soon at Babylon. That was his last prophecy. Nearchus tells us that as soon as the fire was started, Alexander had the trumpets sound. All the army that was witness gave a shout as if they had been ready to join in a battle. Also at the same time the elephants made a noise like they used to do when they entered into a battle. It was as if all had planned to honor the funeral of Calanus. (Arrian)

He then sprinkled himself with libation and cut off part of his hair to cast into the fire (Plutarch). After he had prayed, he lay down upon the golden couch on the pyre in a becoming manner and with unflinching courage, in full view of the whole Macedonian army; he exhibited throughout a serene fortitude and self-possession (McCrindle)

Onesicritus says that he conversed with Calanus. He says that Calanus happened to be lying on stones when he first saw him; that he therefore approached him and greeted him; and told him that he had been sent by the king to learn the wisdom of the sophists and report it to him, and that if there was no objection he was ready to hear his teachings; and that when Calanus, saw the mantle and broad-brimmed hat and boots he wore, he laughed at him and said: 'In olden times the world was full of barley-meal and wheaten-meal, as now of dust; and fountains then flowed, some with water, others with milk and likewise with honey, and others with wine, and some with olive oil; but, by reason of his gluttony and luxury, man fell into arrogance beyond bounds. But Zeus, hating this state of things, destroyed everything and appointed for man a life of toil. And when self-control and the other virtues in general reappeared, there came again an abundance of blessings. But the condition of man is already close to satiety and arrogance, and there is danger of destruction of everything in existence. And Onesicritus adds that Calanus, after saving this, bade him, if he wished to learn, to take off his clothes, to lie down naked on the same stones, and thus to hear his teachings; and that while he was hesitating what to do, Mandanis (Dandamis?), who was the oldest and wisest of the sophists, rebuked Calanus as a man of arrogance, and that too after censuring arrogance himself; and that Mandanis called him and said that he commended the king because, although busied with the government of so great an empire, he was desirous of wisdom; for the king was the only philosopher in arms that he ever saw, and that it was the most useful thing in the world if those men were wise who have the power of persuading the willing, and forcing the unwilling, to learn self-control; but that he might be pardoned if, conversing through three interpreters, who, with the exception of language, knew no more than the masses, he should be unable to set forth anything in his

Interestingly, Calanos opined that Alexander respected the law too much.

Another interesting fact - Calanus joined Alexander’s entourage after he left Taxila and before he marched against Porus, not after the fight. So did he advise Alexander on the fight with Porus? Was he perhaps influential in the meeting between Alexander’s wife Roxanne and Porus and the legend of the Rakhi? That story of Roxanne and the Rakhi was covered in another article..

BTW – Strabo himself is an ‘Asian’ Greek. Was he perhaps from India?

Some philosophy examples & teachings of Calanus can be read in the book The Works of Philo Judaeus - The contemporary of Josephus, translated from the Greek By Charles Duke Yonge, Chapter 33, Every good person is free..(Letter from Calanus to Alexander)

Megasthenes has another take on Kalanos – Read that here.
From Arrian to Alexander By A. B. Bosworth
Many details on Kalanos come from the book Three men of Destiny – ASP Ayyar

Pic - Swami of ancient times - thanks to

The Dhows of Beypore

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The story ‘How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’ from the 1001 Arabian nights (the story of the 410th night), Version by Richard F Burton goes thus – It is one of the many fascinating stories set between the 9th & 14th century AD, and outlines how one Bedouin widower moves from his village to the city, becomes a wealthy Hadhrami trader at Kaubakkan in Yemen, marries again, and on his wedding night fills himself with so much drink and food that at the most inopportune moment lets loose a great and terrible fart, only to lose face in front of his beautiful wife & many relatives & friends. So embittered does he become that he leaves the scene and sails away, sniveling bitterly without even spending a minute with his wife, to the port where he sees a ship waiting to sail to Calicut in Malabar. He reaches Calicut, meets many other Hadhramites and is introduced to the Zamorin who makes him the captain of his bodyguards. There he lived for 10 years, always yearning for his hometown and so returns one fine day, again without telling anybody. In a beggar’s disguise, he wanders around before going home, with just one hope - that nobody remembers his farting incident. He stops to rest near a hut and hears a young girl asking her mother inside if ma could tell her when she was born. The mother tells “of course my girl, it is easy to remember that, it was on the day Abu Hasan farted”. Abu Hasan hearing this is mortified and leaves Yemen again, going back to live his last sad years in Calicut.

That story, true or fable coupled with the remnants of history, establishes the ease at which an Arab could sail to and settle in Calicut in those days, just like how a young man from Calicut can settle in Dubai (though not sail to), today…..But this is not about farts and Dubai, it is about Beypore in Calicut, a port popularized by the Yemeni Hadhramites. The story of Abu Hasan being a captain etc may be just that, but many Hadhrami’s came to Calicut around the early 18th Century (Frietag & Smith) and became the first Sayyids & Thangals. Much before them was the Adenese Arabs and Jews and so many other nationalities. Some of the mercantile Hadhrami’s tracing their roots to Al Mukkalla for example are the Al Jifri’s and Baarami’s of today’s Calicut & Beypore. But more on all that later in this article - let us first establish perspective.

The Indian Ocean trade started from ancient times and strengthened during the medieval times. While in the old days Malabar directly traded with the Greeks and Romans, it concentrated on exchanges with the Middle Eastern ports in the medieval times. This exchange of goods resulted also in transfer of people from their abodes. While it is mentioned that Malabari’s were found along African ports and even Egypt’s, it was mostly Arabs who migrated to the Malabar coasts, mainly to administer, control and conduct the trade with their brethren in Yemen, Basra and Egyptian ports. The ports around Calicut were virtually free ports with only an export import duty imposed by the ruling Zamorins. The intermediaries between the Arabs and the Nairs were the Moplah’s (themselves a community started by the intermingling Arab men and local women from ancient times). Also the SE Malay ports sent ships to Malabar for the cloth from Kerala, until British cloth took its place later in the 19th century. It was also a stop over for Hajj pilgrims from SE Asia. The Arab settlers in Malabar even had African slaves during that period.

We now go to Beypore, some 10 miles south of Calicut where it all began. Beypore was the headquarters of the ancient Parappanad Rajas and their dilapidated palace can still be seen, I believe. Beypore was also that village writer Vaikom Mohammed Basheer (fondly known as ‘Beypore Sultan’)went to ‘‘so that his dreams became his address’’.

Some days ago, we talked about Aden trade and Abraham ben Yiju. This time we go a bit north East of the Red sea ports, to Hadhramaut. Hadhramaut is a historical region of the south Arabian Peninsula along the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea, extending eastwards from Yemen to the Dhofar region of Oman. The people of Hadhramaut are called Hadhramis. During the days the Omani’s and Hadhramis traded with Calicut in the early 18th century, many Moppilas themselves were of Hadhrami descent (I believe also that the famous Malabar biryani can be traced to the Hadhramite Mandi rice – more on that another day). One of the names mentioned in history is Yemeni Syed Muhammed Al Zahir who left Hadhramut in 1830 and settled in Malabar. His son Abdul Rahman was one of the big names of Malabar trade in the later parts of the 19th century and became a kingpin of mercantile relations between the red sea ports and Malabar (even controlling the Dutch Sumatra war of 1873).

The Baraami’s were the ship builders in Beypore. Local teak wood was used for manufacturing the dhows. These Baramis can be traced to the Al Mukalla tribe in Egypt and struggle to continue the ship building in Beypore.

Beypore was where the great Urus and the tough Dhows were built. They were the mainstay of the spice trade between the sea coasts of Malabar & Arabia. Here was where master craftsmen (Maistry) or the carpenter breed called Khalasis crafted these wonderful ships with the aid of no modern tools like charts or instruments, but from memory & mental calculations. The old ships were crafted from Malabar teak (see my note on Malabar teak – the teak logs came down the Chaliyar river to the boatyards) but sadly now we import a variety similar to Irul, from Malaysia for price (a fifth of the price) reasons.

It was from these Malabar shores that the first migrants to the Gulf launched themselves on a long lasting exodus, when young men desperate for jobs smuggled themselves out of the country in long country boats called uru’s which took cargo to the Gulf ports. Do you remember Mammu koya in Nadodikattu (see the attached youtube video) - Remember the song ‘Kara kana kadalala mele’? Watch Srinivasan and Mohanlala taking the Uru trip.

The Beypore area is today home to the Mappila khalasis, famous for their expertise in lifting heavy weights. Till today, when machines and bulldozers fail, the khalasi teams are called on. Using little more than a wooden pole used as a dower or winch and leveraged by hawsers and pulleys, they move and lift huge masses. The Mappila khalasis were traditionally employed in launching the 400 tonne Arab dhows built at the Beypore docks but now are masters in hauling heavy wrecks.

An exciting fact about the ship-building industry in Beypore is the way in which the craft are built and the variety which can be found. The flat bottomed zambuk, the majestic breek (both Indian and Arabian designs), the boom which boasts of an enormous cargo carrying capacity, and the bahala with its beautiful and intricate carvings and arches, are all made using traditional tools and techniques. Even more incredible is the number of people dependent on this industry. More than 500 families are directly and indirectly dependent on the ship-building industry. Special methods used from historic times were the use of wooden dowels instead of nails, use of coir rope and tar to seal joints etc…Duarte Barbosa first recorded (around 1500 AD) manufacture of keeled ships boats carrying 1200 bahares burden (some 400 tonnes) in Beypore. He also noted that they had no decks. They were classic sewn boats of teak wood (both of which were at that time only available in Malabar – in this context). The caulking was done with shavings off the palm trees and the ships were coated with shark oil or castor oil for waterproofing.

It was the previously described people from Oman, Hadhamut, Yemen & Gulf – Iran who settled in Malabar to build these first Sanbuqs. The Hadhrami Sayyids, built the first ships in the 18th century with the Handramut techniques. Trade shifted from Basrah in 1773 to Kuwait and Qatar. Later Muscat & Jeddah took over; even the aristocratic Baghla was built in Malabar in the 19th century. The Kuwaiti & Omani Bum’s like the ‘the light of the earth and sea’ (the named ship was built in Beypore with Kuwaiti architects & Indian carpenters but did not become a popular ship though). Kambari’s were built using mango wood. Badan’s had the stitched patterns and so on. Once the Arab traders discovered wealthy Kerala, her willing craftsmen and her native teak plantation centuries ago, they shifted their dhow construction to Beypore. This industry thrived till Iron & Steel took over the ships medium of construction.

When the Price of Wales toured Beypore with Logan, he mentioned seeing Moplas, and Robinson explaining that they were of Arab extract & untrustworthy (Russel & hall – Pg 216). The very first ship built by the British in India was launched in 14th Nov 1803, named Duncan in honor of the governer of Bombay. It was a 400 tonne teak boat, but the difference was that nail and tar were used in construction. The tar itself was extracted from the teak sawdust (considered superior to Norwegian and other imported tars) . Information sourced from ‘The good old days of Hon John Co – WH Carey, pg 118.

Beypore was formerly known as known as Vaypura / Vadaparappanad. Tippu Sultan later named the town “Sultan Pattanam. Here was where in 1837, they found an iron box in the riverbed with a huge cache of gold coins with Ceaser’s face on them (some coins as old as 2 BC and some dated later to 50 AD) Source WJ Richards – Indian Christians of St Thomas Pg 69.
A remarkable feature of the technology of Uru making is that, there are no documents, work plans, technical data sheets or drawings right from the concept stage to completion. The construction details are assigned on a day to day basis to the assistants and carpenters by the master carpenter or Maistry. No electrical tools or heavy machines are used. The basic tools are the indigenous carpentry tools. All heavy lifting is done using elaborate pulley systems. Another amazing feature is the pre calculated water line marked around the hull, will be precisely on the water-level while the boat is launched. The master craftsmen of khalasis apparently use certain shlokas (or are they Arabic verses?) as their guide to ship building. Even today, the formula of dhow making remains a closely guarded secret that is handed over from generations to generation. Today, only as few as four master craftsmen are left behind.

Today you can see Beypore dhows in action in Dubai, though not usually around the coasts of Malabar. You can see them come and go in the creek; you can even board one of them. Radha Nair sets a beautiful perspective in her Deccan Herald article ‘Romancing the Uru’ (more detailed Outlook traveler article by her as well). Beypore town today is dotted with dozens of shops that sell model ships and one can notice iron anchors lying on either side of the road, which are tell tale signs of this flourishing industry. According to Captain Iwata, founder member of the Association of Sumerian ships in Japan, Sumerian ships might have been built in Beypore. There are evidences to prove that Beypore had direct trade links with Mesopotamia and was a prominent link on the maritime silk route.

Read these lovely set of articles on Sailing in a Dhow . Some Extracts from above link - Various types of ships were built in Beypore. Some of them were: Boom , Padavu , Bireek , Kottiya , Sambook , Bahla & Pathemar . The Beypore ships were usually around 300 tonnes and sometimes 600 tones. Today’s manufacturing methods are slightly different – Nails are used. The ‘Keel’ is the first part of a dhow to be made. The second phase of work is concentrated on the second layer of the dhow from the bottom called ‘ganel’. Iron and copper nails are used to hold the wood together. Filling the gaps using quality cotton is the next tiring phase of work. It is a very time consuming process that has to be done with absolute care. Making of ‘chukkan’ is the third part of the construction. The ‘Chukkan’ begins from the keel itself and its height would be the actual height of the dhow. ‘Chukkan’ provides the total control of the vessel. Then the inside part of the dhow ‘deck’ and, finally ‘aruthi’ is made. The manufacturing process is completed with the tying up of the sail ‘mat’ (paya) to the mast (chamaram).

The launching of a ship is a festive ceremony, attended by a large number of people. First, a prayer is said by the Qazi. When a Dhow was ready for launch wooden planks were kept up to appropriate height. The logs of the Puvathi tree serve as rollers are put on either side. Over these roller beams (Balus) strong enough to support the ship are kept. The gap between the beams and ship are filled tight with ropes. Then the ship is allowed to slowly move over the rollers with the help of rope and pulleys. In water they dip exactly up to the water mark earlier drawn by the Baramy. After the successful launch, a feast is laid out for all who have contributed to the ship building effort.

An interesting look back at the old times - ‘‘The cry would go out ‘the Omani has come, the Omani has come’ and we would leave everything behind and run to the beach. For weeks thereafter, the nakudah (ship’s skipper) and his men would roam the streets, eat at our homes and we children would accompany them as they haggled over the purchase of cordage, hawsers and various items of ship chandlery for their return journey,” said Libero, recalling a not-too-distant past and Beypore’s pivotal place in the age-old East-West trade.

Snippet – Vaikom Mohammed Basheer – Amongst the many things he did to live, he even found himself sailing as a khalasi on SS Rizvani carrying Haj pilgrims to Jeddah via the Red Sea. Alibayi a recent Malayalam movie set in Beypore & starring Mohanlal is based on the ship building families of Beypore.

Notes: For an Arab a fart at the inopportune moment apparently has a disastrous face losing effect to his esteem. Scholars maintain that this Abu Hasan story was concocted by Sir Richard Burton who surreptitiously inserted it into his translation and does not actually figure in the original Arabian nights. Some others mention that it was actually removed from normal Arabic versions as it was not right for children. Whatever be the case, it is indeed an interesting story and apparently originates (it is either from ‘The story of a Quadi who bare a babe’ or the Muntafiq tribe’s ‘story of the Prince of Kermanshah and his misfortune’) from another collection of Arabian tribal fables.


Khalasi Video
Launching the uru at Beypore
In the Wake of the Dhow Dionisius A. Agius
Ships and the Development of Maritime Technology on the Indian Ocean - Ruth Barnes
Hadhrami Traders, Scholars, and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s-1960s - Ulrike Freitag, W. G. Clarence-Smith
Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut Ulrike Freitag
Southern Arabia – Forbes

Pics - Owned by Radha Nair, reproduced with grateful thanks to her