The Many Faces of the Zamorin

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 Vasco Da Gama’s meeting with the Zamorin at Calicut 1498

There were many depictions of the natives or savages of Malabar before the arrival of Vasco Da Gama and I had covered some of them earlier. But the first time the Zamorin of Calicut was presented formally to the European public in pictorial images was after Vasco Da Gama met him. The Zamorin was by then titled as Samorin, Samuli, Samudri, Chamorin and so on….

The "Roteiro," or Journal, on the contrary, as is emphasized by Ravenstein in his translation for the Hakluyt Society, has the highest value, and from it the following description of the visit at Calicut is taken. The description of the meeting from the ship’s Roteiro of Gama, authorship unknown goes as follows. I am taking up the narrative from the arrival of the coterie at Manachira.

When we reached the palace we passed through a gate into a courtyard of great size, and before we arrived at where the king was, we passed four doors, through which we had to force our way, giving many blows to the people. When, at last, we reached the door where the king was, there came forth from it a little old man, who holds a position resembling that of a bishop, and whose advice the king acts upon in all affairs of the church. This man embraced the captain when he entered the door. Several men were wounded at this door, and we got in only by the use of much force.

The Brahmin priest is depicted in most paintings, as the main with the shaved head and the tuft. As you can see, the incongruity in hair style of the Iyer or Namboodri Brahmin seems to have been firmly imprinted on various minds which talked to the artists.

The king (Zamorin) was in a small court, reclining upon a couch covered with a cloth of green velvet, above which was a good mattress, and upon this again a sheet of cotton stuff, very white and fine, more so than any linen. The cushions were after the same fashion. In his left hand the king held a very large golden cup (spittoon), having a capacity of half an almude (eight pints). At its mouth this cup was two palmas (sixteen inches) wide, and apparently it was massive. Into this cup the king threw the husks of a certain herb which is chewed by the people of this country because of its soothing effects, and which they call atambor (Arabic tambur, "betel-nut "). On the right side of the king stood a basin of gold so large that a man might just encircle it with his arms: this contained the herbs. There were likewise many silver jugs. The canopy above the couch was all gilt.

The spittoon and the Vetilla thalam are obviously of brass, which have been confused with gold. The fact that the Zamorin was sitting on a reclining couch is somewhat confusing for many other pictures depict a throne. The green velvet is also a little confusing, it would normally be red, but then again it may have been a Persian or Arabic gift. Silver jugs would be approipriate for water. The canopy in gilt is also difficult to reconcile with. But let us assume all these are correct, for the time being.

The captain (Vasco da Gama), on entering, saluted in the manner of the country; by putting the hands together, then raising them toward heaven, as is done by the Christians when addressing God, and immediately afterwards opening them and shutting the fists quickly. The king' beckoned to the captain with his right hand to come nearer, but the captain did not approach him, for it is the custom of the country for no man to approach the king except only the servant who hands him the herbs, and when any one addresses the king he holds his hands before the mouth, and remains at a distance.

Some of the paintings obviously want to show the Gama as a person of higher standing that the Zamorin, so they show him close to the Zamorin on his right side.

"When the king beckoned to the captain he looked at us others, and ordered us to be seated on a stone bench near him, where he could see us. He ordered that water for our hands should be given us, also some fruit, one kind of which resembled a melon, except that its outside was rough and the inside sweet, whilst another kind of fruit resembled a fig, and tasted very nice. There were men who prepared these fruits for us; and the king looked at us eating, and smiled; and talked to the servant who stood near him supplying him with the herbs referred to.

Apparently the fruit is the jack fruit and the fig type fruit being bananas. But then again offering jack fruit seems a little stange, especially with the rough outside. Usually the jack fruit is plucked out and served, never will the skin be shown in an offering to the guest. Was it perhaps a tender coconut to be drunk? As you can see, the Zamorin was conversing with his Brahmin advisor who was at the same time preparing his betel leaves.

Then, throwing his eyes on the captain (Vasco da Gama), who sat facing him, he invited him to address himself to the courtiers present, saying they were men of much distinction, that he could tell them whatever he desired to say and they would repeat it to him (the king). The captain-major (Vasco da Gama) replied that he was the ambassador of the King of Portugal, and the bearer of a message which he could only deliver to him personally. The king said this was good, and immediately asked him to be conducted to a chamber. When the captain-major had entered, the king, too, rose and joined him, whilst we remained where we were. All this happened about sunset. An old man who was in the court took away the couch as soon as the king rose, but allowed the plate to remain. The king, when he joined the captain, threw himself upon another couch, covered with various stuffs embroidered in gold, and asked the captain what he wanted.

Many an artist working with cloth, wood, paint media presented him thus. It is certainly amusing to see how the scene was transformed into an image. Let us take a look at some of the images

The 1752 Le Abbe Prevost image
Shows the Zamorin with a golden conical crown which is a depiction of a possible Thalapaavu or turban. Did the Zamorin wear a turban for ceremonial occasions? It is doubtful, but may have been keeping up appearances. The people around are obviously half clad (in reality just wearing a dhoti) and look terribly muscular (virtually impossible). As we read in Correa’s and other writings, the possibility of rings around his shin and calves like Romans is pretty doubtful, though he wore a Shringala. The large spittoon is depicted wrongly and the overall ambience thoroughly inappropriate. The room itself looks too high (impossible for a thatched roof dwelling) with ornate curtains and hangings. Note that the Zamorin has no beard.

The Moore’s depiction Voyages & Travels on copper plates in 1778 

The room looks even bigger, the Zamorin looks very young, no beard, the spittoon has become a kettle, the throne has become more ornate, but in general a version based on the Abbe Prevost image with the same conical crown.

The Maurício José do Carmo Sendim (1786-1870) sketch

This one is pretty interesting. The Zamorin has anklets which is the veera shrinkala, he looks very much Chinese, has a great mogul style crown. The Brahmins have flowing hair, the men are dressed in a strange fashion and the throne looks more like a modern sofa. The hall looks very large, which again is incongruous. The spittoon looks like a large flower vase.

The Calicut Tapestry version (clipped from left corner of tapestry introduce din previous article)

This dates to the 16th Century and of Flemish origin. The Brahmin looks more appropriate, the Zamorin and his courtiers of course very western with typical clothing of that period. 

Jose Veloso Salgado’s painting 1898 - Vasco da Gama perante o Samorim 

Shows a darker and younger Zamorin, with a stylish beard, wearing a lot of jewels and a collection of people closely clustered around him. The throne is also ornate and you can see carpets on the floor. The Spittoon and the water jug (no longer silver are a way away)

The Coke Smyth version 1850’s

Shows a much older Zamorin on the floor, and the persons look wearling Punjabi and Mahrata garb. The brahmin looks dimunitive and the spitoon has become miniature.

An engraving from 1851

Very Arabic style with a general Persian impression. The Zamorin looks more like a traditional Sultan.

A more basic depiction (origin unknown)

An old painting showing Vasco Da Gama (right) meeting the Indian king and his courtiers in Calicut. The Zamorin has become a queen in this version and they are meeting outdoors. 

The 1510 commemorative medal by F Fonseca

This one is pretty interesting, shows the Zamorin with a royal turban, a couple of maidens base don temple forms playing the veena and a vision of the courtyard with elephants and the such. The Zamorin has no beard, is reasonably healthy for his age and sits cross-legged, while receiving his Portuguese visitors.

The commemorative coin released celebrating 500 years of Camoes Lusiad, date unknown (possibly circa 1900)

The Zamorin now has a beard, is fully dressed more in Arabic style including a sultan slipper, looks older, the Brahmin looks somewhat appropriate, and the picture is pretty much similar to the B&W  Lokesh Raina version in the Life magazine. I do not know which is the original sketch though.

Two more recent versions (around 2003)
More versions based on Camoes poems. Shows the Zamorin sitting on an ornate throne. The spears have been replaced with Western maces and the such.The Brahmin has changed shape and the palace walls have changed a lot with pictures of tigers and so on.

Now based on all this and many other factual descriptions, my next attempt would be to describe the palace of the Zamorin as it would have looked in reality. Unfortunately the palace grounds are covered by SM street, LIC buildings and so on these days., but all of the shopping area there encompassed the old palace. A depiction of it as an artist of that time saw it, was quite surprising, but more of that in a later blog.

Vasco Da Gama – Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Em nome de Deus: the journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama to India ...Glenn Joseph Ames, Vasco da Gama

Veloso Salgado’s painting – geographical society of Lisbon site
Medals, Abbe Prevost & Moore versions – Columbia Calicut page
Maurício José do Carmo Sendim from Wikipedia page on Vettathunad

Wishing all readers a happy & prosperous new year


  1. Vijay

    Fascinating! Question- the write up implies that the audience with the Zamorin was forced. It was my understanding that the Zamorin gave him an audience willingly, but didn't give the Portuguese the trading concessions they wanted. Did the Portuguese have to "push" their way into the palace?

  1. Maddy

    hi vijay..
    no, the audience was certainly granted, but the crowd had gathered and the Portuguese had to push through the milling public to get to the palace.

    it is still the same in kerala and you may recall the same comments made by Lear when he visited calicut, about the curious public.

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    It is rather unfortunate that we have no records from Calicut end about the historic meetings. All the parties involved knew the importance of the event - all except the Zamorin, perhaps. The Muslims knew that with the arrival of the western countries, their own monopoly would be threatened. The Portuguese, of course, knew that they had broken the Genoese-Venetian cartel. Even the Venetians treated it as a major national disaster (Please see entry at But, we agree with Maddy that for the Calicut crowd, anything is fun - a dead dog on the street or a drunken fellow struggling to get up! Long live our curiosity!!

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Very interesting. Thanks for presenting all the paintings/depictions of the famous meeting.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF...
    I think the Menons of the Zamorin's court must have misread the magnanimity of the occasion...or did they? Sometimes I think that it was just skirmish or war as usual for the Zamorin, for if it were not the Portuguese it would have been the Cochin king or Kolattiri...In reality, the profits and the trade continued unabated, even increased...But for the history writers it was a calamity..

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS..
    The paintings are many, but the depiction is so far from reality that it is difficult to create a proper picture of it now..

  1. kochuthresiamma p .j

    very informative post.
    the fall out of vasco de gama's arrival in calicut was calamitous -for the spice traders in europe & for arabs too.
    these are hisoric moments in the global (?) economy of those days.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks KT..

    how right you are..
    those small ship loads of aromatic spices were as I once wrote, a prime start to globalization.....

  1. R
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  1. R
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  1. bstoneburner

    While having some remodeling done on my house recently, I uncovered a print of Jose Veloso Salgado’s painting 1898 - Vasco da Gama perante o Samorim. The print is in excellent shape. Can you tell me if this is worth keeping?

  1. Maddy

    bstoneburner- i do not think a print has much value, but you never know right?

  1. Maddy

    none of them is right, read the passage and you will know why..the sketches made by people in europe basedon oral commentaries are all too westernised!!

  1. Biju Varghese

    I dont think Zamorin was unaware of the importance of Portuguese arrival. Most of his trading business was controlled by Muslims becuase the business was maninly with middle east and Africa. Doing business with Muslims at that time is something he has in hand but doing business with portuguese was not a sure thing as it was not established and it is something that might come in future. If Muslims favour other ports for their trade, it could be a blow to Zamorin. So he was in big dilemma on how to deal with the situation. inspite of all pressures, he treated Portuguese well which shows his generosity.

  1. Biju Varghese

    I dont think Zamorin was unaware of the importance of Portuguese arrival. Most of his trading business was controlled by Muslims becuase the business was maninly with middle east and Africa. Doing business with Muslims at that time is something he has in hand but doing business with portuguese was not a sure thing as it was not established and it is something that might come in future. If Muslims favour other ports for their trade, it could be a blow to Zamorin. So he was in big dilemma on how to deal with the situation. inspite of all pressures, he treated Portuguese well which shows his generosity.

  1. Maddy

    thanks rameez..
    certainly looks youthful..

  1. manoj

    vasco da gama's dress is not Trou & he wear found dress mattereal, silk , cotten & steching work

  1. aks

    How would the Portuguese have communicated with the Zamorin ? Surely, there wouldn't have been any Portuguese <-> Malayalam interpreters back then. Or would they have interpreted via Arabs who understood both sides ?

  1. Maddy

    thanks akhil
    The initial conversations were in arabic using portuguese-arabic and arabic-malayalam translators.