Prosperity at the Marketplace - Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

This here is a legend from Calicut, and was originally narrated by the great writer Kottarathil Shankunni in his magnum opus ‘Aithihyamala’ a brilliant collection of fables, folklore and legends of Kerala. While it is not factual history by itself, it tells you quite a bit about the times, and a little about the royal affairs of the Zamorin and the importance of legends & superstition in those times. I have tried to understand and analyze the story after re-narrating it in English, by adding some meat here & there to create better perspective for today’s readers.

We have all read so much about the words of the many travelers who wrote about Calicut. They called it a prosperous trading place, with honesty that prevailed and people who lived harmoniously despite the many religions, castes, nationalities etc. We have read much about the Zamorin and how he conducted his administrative tasks and patronage of arts in medieval times, we have heard about later colonialists and their accounts, some very exact and some grossly exaggerated. But this one is still folklore. I would assume that this is set in the 1760 AD time frame, a period when the city is doing well and trade was prospering. The Mysore Sultans had not yet arrived and the Dutch traders were quite localized in Cochin.

Let’s first look at another legend – of how it all started. A seafaring merchant reaches the coastal sands of Calicut - Kozhikode. During an audience with the sovereign, the Zamorin, the traveller requests that a consignment of jars filled with pickled food be entrusted with the royal house for safekeeping until his return from the next voyage. The merchant’s son returns the following year to reclaim them from the ruler’s custody. The king, knowing only too well that the jars had in fact contained hidden gold, returns the entire consignment untouched. The young merchant proclaims: “This is the harbour of honesty”. Word spread, trade flourished…

And so things were going well. The benevolent Zamorin was going about his work of reviewing his relationships with the neighboring principalities of Polanad, Kolanad, Valluvanad and sometimes troubled by the stances taken by the Cochin Varma’s and the Dutch rulers there (See my article on van Rheede ). The ‘mamankhom’ festival at Tirunavaya was coming up and the various assistants were gearing up for the pomp & splendor. The various Samoothiri (Zamorin) Kovilakom’s had their own subterfuges, quarrels between relatives and as Karanavar, the Thampuran (for that was how he was called in the family) had much to ponder on, mediate and order. Sometimes he got involved, sometimes he allowed his heir apparents the Eralpads (second in line) and Moonalpads (third in line) to take decisions. He had to be careful though and on the watch always, for you never knew who plotted against whom. He had to keep careful watch over the revenues from the ports around Calicut, and had to ensure that the Moplahs and Koyas kept full control over the trade and tendered the taxes & duties. Things had been getting a bit difficult with the Moplahs after the death of the Kunjali Marakkar.

As was the practice, the Zamorin’s palace had many scribes, the Menon’s recording all decisions and the karyakkar’s took care of the various petty issues and administration acts. Among the ministers, the principal revenue collector or Dewan was the most trusted among the lot in his retinue. He had to be a master of many languages, had to be very clever and be an excellent judge and arbitrator and have full control of the various junior ministers or Kariakkars. The reigning Zamorin in this instance was fortunate; he did have a good Dewan.

However, the Zamorin was distressed, for some time his right shoulder had been bothering him. The pain was becoming intense and any amount of massage, Ayurvedic treatments and ‘kashayams’ (herbal medicines) did not help. Many a local (Moosad) doctor had tried to find a cure, but the pain would not recede. Tantric’s and others tried, but of no avail. They all expressed that this was an incurable ailment, a ‘teeravyadhi’.

As days went by, the distress grew. The Zamorin was becoming listless and very much distracted by the pain. One fine day a youth appeared at the palace and stated that he had heard about the problem and may have a solution. The young man was summoned to an audience with the Zamorin. As he went in, he saw the Zamorin lounging on his easy chair chewing betel leaves and staring vacantly at the ceiling. The man asked briefly about the Zamorin’s illness and after listening patiently, said that he had a very simple solution. He said “respected sir, all you need to do is apply a wet Thorthu (towel) on your right shoulder for a while and everything would be set right’.

The Zamorin considered this for some time. As he had already tried all kinds of things, there was no harm in trying this rather silly experiment as well. The others in the palace who heard this were skeptical, but said nothing. So the Zamorin did exactly as the young man advised and lo and behold! The pain was gone in a jiffy. The Zamorin was very pleased and gifted the young man with a number of Parithoshikam’s (gifts) and a Veera Srinkala (Ankle bracelet).

On that eventful day, the learned Dewan was out traveling the region. When he returned later in the afternoon and heard the story of the miraculous cure of the Dewan, his suspicion grew. A young man from nowhere curing the ailment that other specialist had failed to cure? They had said that it was a ‘teeravyadhi’, one that would be with the old man until death. This did not look very good to him. When he learnt the details and the fact that the Zamorin had been made to apply his wet or “eeran” towel on his right shoulder, he knew exactly what had happened. He sensed not only danger to the Zamorin but also imminent disaster for whole kingdom.

He exclaimed ‘what a mistake’ and in great haste left the palace. He walked about for a while, looking at the people milling around and conducting various affairs of trade. Around dusk, he proceeded towards ‘Angadi area’ (big bazaar) or market area. Soon he spotted her, for she was standing alone in a corner as though waiting for somebody, and she did look out of place with her simple but elegant dressing, and her lovely high born appearance. But the Dewan had no doubts and had found her, just in time. Walking up to her, he informed her with great humility that he had a matter of great importance to discuss with her. Would she be prepared to listen? The lady graciously agreed, stating that she would of course be happy to listen to the Dewan. But natural I guess, for the Dewan was dressed in resplendent fashion, spotless dhoti and a well adorned turban. He was obviously a titled man from the palace, how could one refuse?

But the Dewan looked very flustered; he said “Oh, please madam, could you wait for a few minutes? I have forgotten my Mudra (palace seal) at the palace courts. Can I quickly go and get it? It is too dangerous to leave it lying around there. I have to pick it up and then come back to you and we will discuss the grave matter in a moment. Will you wait?”

The lady nodded in the affirmative, but the Dewan was insistent. He asked again ‘Will you promise me specifically that you will wait here till I come back?’ The woman promised that she would wait till he came back.

The Dewan went back to the palace with leaden feet and a tired countenance. He met the Zamorin and told him how grave a mistake he had committed. He explained that there was a good reason for the pain in his right shoulder; after all, it was Maha Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth & prosperity residing there and dancing on his shoulder. The family was prosperous, his luck was shining.

“This resulted in much prosperity for Calicut. What you have done, respected sir, is the most inauspicious and vile thing by putting a wet towel on the godess. By doing it, you drove her away and brought on the sister Bhaghavathy in her place. The situation was very clear to that clever youth and he used his knowledge to drive away the pain, but it is also going to bring you ill luck. Anyway, I have fortunately found a timely solution to the crisis. But it also means that I can live no more”.

Saying this, the Dewan swiftly left the Zamorin. Within the hour he took his life, killing himself by drinking poison.

It took a while for the events of the day to sink into the minds of the learned people of the palace. Much later, somebody explained them for the benefit of the public.

The Dewan had known immediately that the young man had done. The inauspicious deed was committed, now the only thing left to do was some ‘prathividhi’. Accordingly the Dewan set out to locate ‘Lakshmi’ the Goddess of prosperity. He saw her as soon as he entered the bazaar, for that is where her subjects are and that is where she wanders around, keeps an eye on their actions. By asking her to wait for him, getting the promise and killing himself, there was no way he was going to return. The Goddess had to keep her promise to remain where she was, that is, at the Agnadi or bazaar of Calicut, until the Dewan returned to talk to her.

And so there she remained, and there she remains to date and will for ever. It is said that the Calicut market takes a special hue in the evenings and is a beautiful place to see, for the Goddess graces the market in those hours. And that is the reason why the markets of Calicut have always remained prosperous. The Dewan had done justice to his title, he had with his actions and his very life ensured that the revenues will always be generated in the markets.

But the Zamorin had done the unthinkable; he had cast a wet towel on his right shoulder and driven away the Lakshmi from his personal life.

And so, as it was to happen, he lost the kingdom and position soon after.

1. The first time the Zamorin lost his kingdom was when Hyder Ali attacked Calicut and the Zamorin took his life by committing the palace to flames. The Zamorin was from the Kizhake Kovilakom and died on April 27, 1766.

2. However this raises a question as prosperity had indeed declined with the many wars fought before the event. The Zamorin’s coffers had run dry already and he could not pay the compensation demanded by Hyder Ali (Krishna Iyer in ‘Zamorins of Calicut does confirm that the Calicut treasury was empty when Hyder arrived). So was this story before this Zamorin?
At that time, the Dewan Shamnath Pattar had not yet entered the scene. While that period of time is much talked about, the presence of another clever Dewan has not been recorded in other books. So the question remains, who could this Dewan have been? Certainly the origin of this legend remains murky.

3. Even today, elders tell us that a wet towel should not be draped over the right shoulder. Practically it may be unnatural to do, for as a right handed person, you can cast it easily over the left, easier than over the right shoulder. According to old Vedic tradition, the sacred thread is worn over the right shoulder only during funeral rites. I understood that wearing something especially wet (as done in a ‘shrardham’ or death rite) over the right shoulders apparently satiates ghosts, spirits & ancestors. However this practice seems to have changed over time.

4. The Aithihyamala was painstakingly compiled by Kottarathil Shankunny over a century ago. It is still a very popular book and has run over 22 editions. The book traces the cultural evolution of Kerala using legends and stories. During evening meetings at the Manorama newspaper office in Kottayam, K Shankunny, the poetry editor would regale his friends including Vargheese Mappila the owner of his newspaper, with these stories. At Mappila’s insistence, Shankunni put them to paper first in a brief fashion for magazine publishing, then in a more detailed format, again after V Mappila asked him to do so. And that left us with this magnificent collection of tales. As Hindu explains - The work by Kottarathil Sankunni, which has not only influenced the imagination of the young and the old for the past one century but also emerged as one of the vital link for the new generation to the rich heritage of the Malayali society, has also remained one of the most loved books in Malayalam. I would earnestly request those who do not have this book to buy it and read it, for it will give you much pleasure.

ReferencesAithihyamala – Kottarathil Sankunni (Story#20 Kozhikottangadi)
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer

Pic – Courtesy Hindu


  1. Fëanor

    Another good one, Maddy. For any that are interested, some of the stories from the Ithihyamala were retold in English - check out Abraham Eraly's Tales Once Told.

  1. PN Subramanian

    Very interesting. Wet torthu on the right shoulder was the cause for the Zamorin's downfall. Incidentally the Aitheehamala is being brought out in Hindi by one Balasubramaniam. I am giving the link. Kindly pat him.

  1. बालसुब्रमण्यम लक्ष्मीनारायण

    Nice story. I am giving the Hindi translation of Aidihyamala in my blog Keral Puran. Do check it out.

    Here is the link:
    केरल पुराण

  1. Nikhil Narayanan

    Reading Ithihyamala again,these days.
    Thanks for the "meat" that you added to the tale.

    Is this a recent publication that The Week reviewed? Forgot to note down the author's name.


  1. Maddy

    thanks feanor..
    in fact there are a couple of versions in english other than the ones you menationed.
    One is 'the garland of legends'... a collection from the original. a translation by Rukmini sekhar. but it has only 64 pages, so must be just 10 stories, i guess.

    A second book is called 'lore & legends of kerala' translation by TC Narayanan.

    The third is the one Nikhil mentions - Selected legends - Penguin.

    Thanks PNS and thanks balasubramaniam..

    It is very nice that you are taking the pains & efforts to do this in Hindi.. I was going through some of it the other day, fortunately I can read & write hindi, so it was not a problem, but it has been years since i read hindi it is kind of slow..

  1. Anonymous

    how did the prefix "kottarathil" in kottarathil sankunni come about? Did he have anything to do with a palace?

    Dr N Nair

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Dr Nair, regretfully I do not know the answer.I read that he was a Tiyattunni, i.e from an upper class brahmin family that traditionally performed Teyattam. Apparently they evolved from the Vaikkom Thrikkovil brahmins who accompanied Parasurama.. So it is not at all likely that he had anything to do with any Kottaram, but some ancestor may have been a performer in the king's court..

  1. Premnath.T.Murkoth

    A Real Fairy tale.-premnath

  1. Maddy

    yes it is oru pazhankatha

  1. Anand Raj

    Thank you M for the fabulous work you are doing. Hope to meet up with you some day