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The Porlathiri Epoch

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , ,

The reign of the Porlathiris at Calicut is one of the complicated periods in Malabar history, not well documented but mainly covered under legends and myths. It was therefore difficult to get more information than the oft mentioned takeover of Calicut by the Zamorin. I had to dig around quite a bit to get a wee bit more and thought it would add some balance to many of the Malabar accounts posted thus far.

Malabar History discussions these days tend to cover the period after the Chera rule and the Cherman Perumal’s retirement. A look at the two maps (sourced from C Radhakrishnan’s site with many thanks) provides an idea of the area the Zamorins or the Nediyirippu Swaroopam of Eralnad annexed, to form their vast reach over medieval Malabar. While each of the old dynasties or swaroopams has their stories, let us try to glean over what we know about Polanad.

As we understand, the city of Calicut and its suburbs formed part of the Polanad Kingdom ruled by the Porlatiri, sometime around the end of the 13th century, the period when a number of things were changing, such as the floods of Periyar, the rise of Cochin and so on. But the overriding aspect was the move of coastal trade from Quilon and Muziris to more Northerly ports and the movement of the various wealthy Arabs - Pardesi Muslim traders and Moplah community towards the coastal ports in the Malabar Coast line North of Ponnani. I will cover the reasoning behind the emergence of Calicut as a port in a separate post, and its connections to events in the Arab Middle east, such as the drop in Gulf trade after the fall of Baghdad, and the emergence of stronger links in the longer and perhaps richer Red sea trade with Mamluk Egypt. One could question when the Porlathiri’s were dispossessed by the Zamorin. Well we have no dates but can only assume that it was some time between 900-1200AD.

Were the Muslim traders behind the decision of the Eranad (Nediyirippu or Kunnala) Thamburans to seek a location near the coast for economic reasons? Were they the reason behind the Eradis forsaking the norms of war and accessing the land of another? The Eradis did have an empire building strategy, so the desire to form coalitions with the wealthy Muslim traders was important, so also the financing by way of export trade. It is conjecture that this strategy was behind amalgamation of a mercantile state around Calicut. One could also summarize, the Eradis of Nediyirippu in Ernad (somewhere around present Kondotty) were land-locked and sought an outlet to the sea to initiate trade and commerce with the distant lands. Perhaps a determination was made that an appropriate port or combination of ports existed around Calicut between Ponnani and Pantalayani Kollam. The location that came into the crosshairs of the Zamroin juggernaut was of course Polanad, many times bigger than Eranad, but not well utilized or developed. As we know from the legends, two Eradis brothers known as Manikkan and Vikraman established the ruling family at Nediyirippu. Who led the efforts to take over Polanad is not clear, but we do know that the Nediyirippu Thamburans led the attack of Polanad. As they say, to accomplish their aims, the Eradis marched with their Nairs towards Panniankara and besieged the Porlatiri in his headquarters, resulting in a 50-year long war called Samoothiri - Polarthiri Wars (the reasoning as to why it stretched so long is interesting and deals with the way a war was fought in those days, we will cover it in another article). While we will try and cover a little bit of the highlights in succeeding paragraphs, the result was that the Eradis subsequently moved their capital to the coastal marshy lands and established the city of Kozhikode, then also called 'Thrivikramapuram'. It is also interesting that the original Calicut palace at that time was not the Vikramapuram palace that we described in the earlier article, but a palace near the beach. Perhaps that was where the Zamorin lived and met the Vasco Da Gama. Perhaps that is the palace attacked by Coutinho and covered in an earlier article.

We will get to all that presently, but let us start with the division of the Chera Empire by the Cheraman Perumal. According to The Keralolpatti KUP version translated by Gundert, the kingdom of Polanad had the following specialties, after its formation.

To the Porlathiri king was granted the good land of Polanadu and 10,000 nairs born to the ‘Human’ classification in 3 groups and 76 Tharas or settlements along with 5 guardians to oversee 3 kathams ( 30 miles) of land. (This is roughly from kallayi to Ealttur according to Krishna Iyer). From the Malur Kovilakom, 18 acharams (activities) had to be followed. They were Skins (?) I would assume war attires, Legs – I would assume marches, Kana – Institutions, karimbadam – right to wear a blanket, Ankham – Duels ( I wrote about this earlier…SEE…), Viruthi , Chungam, Ezha, Kozha – Taxes, tolls, duties and bribes, Ana, Vaal – Elephants and swords, Veerachangala – Hero’s chains, Viruthu – titles, vadyam – music, Niyamavedi, Nettipattam- ceremonial fireworks, forehead ornaments ( for elephants), Pata pidam, pata vidu – battle seats and homesteads, Para, Koothu – measuring vessel and folk dances, Munnil thali, Chirutha vili – sprinkling of cleansing water in front, announcements….these were the mandated customs of Polanad.

Now we come to the next chapter of the KUP – The times of the Thamburans…

A careful study of the old Malayalam text reveals many plots and subplots in the Nediyirippu attempt to annex Calicut. It starts with an explanation that the forerunner among the Nediyirippu is the Kunnala Konathiri or the lord of the hills and the seas. Interesting is the fact that the preceding section uses the phrase 10,000 Nairs but the next section mentions the Nediyirippu befriending of the Lokars of Polanad. So is it correct to assume as some historian’s state, that Lokars are the same as Nairs?

As it happened, the Zamorin met the local chiefs of Chavara and Puthukot at the Panniankara gate where he was encamped and obtained their oath of agreement by a handshake that they will support him in his attempt to annex Polanad. The purpose of course was to marshal their forces in battle (The KUP text lists the various chieftains and their forces). From then a battle of 48 years was fought against the Polanad 10,000 and the 5 closely knit (as though blood related) groups of the Polanad bodyguards. The battles continued, but the Nediyirippu was not victorious and so he decided to pray to the Porkalli Bhagavathy. The long prayer lasted six months (some say 41 days) after which the goddess appeared before the Zamorin, who requested that she accompany him. The goddess did, as an apparition behind a ceremonial door that was carried by the Nediyirippu since then into all battles (Now – that brings up a very interesting conjecture. Was this the door that Continuo tried to carry away – in order to nullify the power of the Nediyirippu in battle? Perhaps – unless he was misled to pick up the heavy main palace door, for the Nediyirippu was already away at battle and must have had the door with him). Another corollary states that as soon as the Nediyirippu saw the goddess he tried to touch her and so she disappeared. Hence he carried around the door of the temple. Yet another version states that the Nediyirippu (which one?) was the door keeper of the Cheraman Perumal, and so had an affinity to the old palace door which he carried around (kind of silly – right?).

The next plan was to win over the Polanad 10,000. Accordingly Unnikumaran Menon and Para Chankaran Nambi were sent to invite them for a meeting under the Perumplavil tree near the Ganapati idol. The Nediyirippu (note here that we are talking about both the Manikkan and Vikraman) vowed to support them in the future if they moved with him and would treat them as their own.

But that still did not provide the Nediyirippu the clinching hold. For that the favorite Menokki (Menon) of the Porlathiri chief was won over with promises of lordship over two regions and many other inducements. While all these discussions took care of the outside staff, a victory could be claimed only after the Nediyirippu entered the Nalukettu , palace or Kovilakom of the Porlathiri and fired three (kathanas) rounds of fireworks. How could the Porlathiri enter the fortified palace without any bloodshed?

The strategy was an interesting one. The Chalappuram Kovilakom senior mother or Chalappurathamma of the Porlathiri place who was aligned to the Nediyirippu met the senior lady of the Porlathiri household and offered her 4 elephants and 40,000 gold panams for advice. If she also helped in keeping the doors open at the opportune time, she would be made head of four lineages and made the 4th in line for the succession to the throne as part of the Zamorin family.
Soon an opportune event presented itself. The Porlathiri sent his nephews and other members of his family to the Kolathiris area while remaining at the Polur palace (Now I am confused, we hear of the Malur and the Polur kovilakoms – which is right? Some books also mention that the Porlathiri was ensconced at Kuttichira, but will get to clarifying it later). The Nediyirippu people had in the meantime set out to Calicut. Anyway the Porlathiri was at his pond, having his bath when the doors were opened and the Nediyirippu people got inside and set the three rounds or fireworks signifying the takeover of the Polur palace.

Again books differ in their storytelling after this event; they say he ran to the Kolathiri sanctuary from the pond. However the KUP provides the following detail. The Porlathiri did not complete his bath, but went indoors and had a leisurely indoor bath, and had his usual ample breakfast after which he summoned people from Kizhalur and Kurumbatur and cursed the traitors of Polur and Cherupatta (all this while the Zamorins forces were around the kovilakom??). Then he slunk away to Talassery with the Kizhalur nairs. Here again there is a conflict of words. The text mentions that the Porlathiri had asked his nephews and relatives to come to Kolathunad to meet his brother, and not to Calicut. So was he planning to abscond to Talassery himself even before all this happened? Perhaps….

The Porlathiri was pacified by the Kolathiri and granted a 30 mile square area to live and govern at Kadathanadu with 3,000 Nairs. At Calicut the Kizhineer Menokki was allowed to live in the Porlathiri palace and titled an Earand Menon. Later friction cropped up in the ranks and the Mangat achan was responsible for reconciling two factions within the defected.

I feel this stuff about the Chalappurathamma confusing to say the least. First of all it is not clear if she was the previous Portlathirs wife or the new Thamburan’s, it could very well have been the previous Thamburan’s wife. If the 10,000 and the chief minister had been won over, and the Nediyirippu men plus his Muslim help was ringed around the palace, what was the problem in getting into the house? Probably to end it all peacefully, but even that contradicts the issue for they had anyway been fighting a war for 48 years, so there had been ample bloodshed already. As it is, we know that the Porlathiri had sent his family off to Tellicherry in anticipation of what was to come. So he was prepared for the event. The door opening was perhaps symbolic. We also see that the Porlathiri did not even skip his breakfast, instead had an ample one at that. So when other historians talk of betrayal by the women of the house, take it with not a small but a big pinch of salt. It is just playing to the gallery as they say.

But do all other historians concur with the KUP? Logan and Innes do, in the Malabar Manual. Sreedhara Menon mentions that the Kottayam King and the Kolathiri sided with the Eradis. KVK Iyer confirms that it was the disadvantaged position of being cooped up in Eranad and being cut off from the profitable trade with the Arabs and Chinese that made the Zamorin want more from his landlocked interior position. He also provides an aside that the Porlathiri and the Kolathiri had marriage connections cementing their families whereas the Eradis the Kottayam family and Kurumbranad families were in alliance.

Krishna Iyer explains that after setting up base in Panniyankara, the Nediyirippu crossed the Kallayi River to Invade Polanad. It was eventually based on the advice of the Kottayam king that the Zamorin prayed to the Kottayam tutelary goddess at Porkali. About then that the Mangat Achan a feudatory of the Kottayam raja joined the Zamorin. He however does not mention the return after praying, with a door, but states instead that it was with a sword. Iyer then explains that the turnaround came when the new Porlathiri who had succeeded the older one at that time was unpopular and thus did not get help from the Kolathiri at the time of danger. All that the Zamroin wanted was a small space near the Kallayi port which the Porlathiri would not provide. The Zamorin threatened bloodshed, and the Mangat achan negotiated for a peaceful settlement. This was when the Porlathiri send his nephews and family to Kolathunad and remained by himself in the Kuttichira (or Polur?) palace. Once he found that he had no respite, he too fled to Tellicherry or Chirakkal. The Porlathiri 10,000 became the Zamorin’s personal guard and received many privileges. Iyer also clarifies that the Zamorin subsequently moved to Calicut, and brought along with him the door panel (Pallimaradi) from Eranad. Iyer now states that the palace or Siva temple at Kuttichira was then handed over to the Muslims by the Zamorin for they had supported him during all these endeavors. This became the Kuttichira mosque. If that was the case, that perhaps would be the oldest building of Calicut.

PCM Raja’s accounts are pretty interesting. He opines that the Porlathiri was requested to provide some land near the beach (perhaps for the Moplah traders). The Porlathiri scoffed – “you who profess antagonism with us will not even be given space equivalent to a needle hole. Thooshi kuthanulla idampolum vashiyil kazhiyunna ningalkku kittilla”. So he had a fight with the Zamorin’s forces who were lined up behind the Durga temple of Panninyankara. Porlathiri himself was based at the Kuttichira Siva temple. The war was lost and the Nambuthiri’s and Brahmins deserted the defiled temple. Subsequently the temple became a mosque. However even though the Polathiri ran away, his wife – the Chalapurathamma remained and she was treated honorably by the Zamorin and resettled. The Zamorin’s forces increased thus to 30,000. The Kallayi harbor was reinforced with a stone lining (Kallu Azhi thus became Kallayi). All this happened during 900-1000AD. The date of 948-950 is a possibility due to the fact that the Bhageerathi-Kolathiri wedding and the Nileswaram creation came about in that year.

A good amount of text detailing the Tali temple problems from the Nambis after the departure of the Porlathiri is provided in some of the texts, but it would be more appropriate to cover it separately. This episode also covers the relationship between the girl from the Zamorins house (Nilakeshini or Bhageerathi) and the boy from Kolathiri living at Kannivakay. A brief introduction to this episode had already been provided in the Revathi pattathanam article.

Balakrishna Kurup provides a slightly different explanation. According to his opinion, the Zamorin first entrenched himself at Beypore and Chalium and built forts there with the help of the Arab traders and Moplahs. Then he settled near the chullikad allocated to him, near Calicut. Next he incited the Moplahs of Kuttichira to harass the Porlathiri at his residence there. The Kuruthedathu Nambuthiris left the Porlathiri due to this (Kurup cites Padmanabha Menon’s writings in support). Kurup continues with the comments that many of them converted to Islam (Were they the Koyas of Malabar?) at that time and were aligned under the Shabander koya. The Porlathiri palace became the Juma’ath mosque. The Zamorin built a palace close to it and this was where he met the Vasco Da Gama and this was the palace that Coutinho tried to destroy. This Zamorin’s palace became the Muchundi mosque later. Later the fine Mishqual mosque was built in the same lines.

Perhaps with all this background, if you look at the pictures of these mosques and the picture of the Zamorin’s palace at Vikramapuram (you can notice the similarity), you can get a good idea how the major buildings of that time looked like.

Well, according to Kurup, the Porlathiri was on the run, first moving to his house in Panniyankara and then to Polur where the Chalapurathamma betrayal supposedly took place. Now the Porlathiri has two choices, either to live under the suzerainty of the Zamorin or leave in exile. He chose the latter.

PCM Raja now explains that the chullikad we talked about earlier was actually granted to the Nediyirippu Thamburan by the Perumal, so the war actually started when the Porlathiri tried to destroy it to spite the Eranad family. Even though the Polatiri was dispossessed, the 10,000 nairs of the Polathiri later formed the Zamorin’s own elite bodyguard.

Now a quick update on where the Porlathiri resettled. They went to Kadattanad. Quoting here from the various treaties listed by Logan….

The "Bavnor (lit. Valunnavar, ruler) of Badagara" herein mentioned was the hereditary governor of Kadattanad. The family is traditionally descended from the Porlattiri family of Polanad, the country lying round Calicut. It is said that when the Zamorin dispossessed them of Polanad they fled northwards into the Kolattiri domains. The Kolattiri Tekkalankur (Southern Regent of Kolattanad), who resided at Putuppattanam nearly opposite Kottakkal on the Kottai river, espoused one of the women and gave to his son by her the governorship of Kadattanad, i.e., the southern portion of the Kolattiri dominions lying between the Mahe river on the north and the kotta river on the south. The family thus founded has two kovilagams, viz., Ayyanjeri and Edavalatta and the eldest female of the two branches is still theoretically the head of the house. The two eldest males also hold athanam rank. The fact that Kadattanad belonged to the Kolattiri dominions is specifically alluded to in I—LXVI, and the family is therein mentioned as being of the Adiyodi caste. The eldest male certainly still assumes the title of Porlattiri, and at one time he claimed the high sounding title of "Lord of the sea."


Kerala Ulpatti – Gundert version
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Malabar Manual – Logan, Innes
Samoothirnaad – NM Nampoothiri
Samoothirimaar – PCM raja
History of Kerala – KV Krishna Iyer
Kozhikodinte charithram – Balakrishna Kurup
Chronological history of Kerala – C Ramachandran
Collection of Treaties – Logan

Some explanations on the Symbolic Door

1. NM Nampoothiri explains -
Ancestors of Zamorins conquered the Calicut port and occupied the Valayanattu kaavu and established a planned port city. It is proven that there existed an irregular port at Calicut .It belonged to the Porlathiri according to tradition. Zamorins were Eralanattu Taiyavar during Kulasekhara period. Their ancestral village was Nediyiruppu in Kondotty, a remote internal area of Malappuram District. They moved to Valayanattu Kaavu area for improving maritime trade. They adopted the deity of Valayanatu kaavu as their principal deity. During their royal visits it was customary to take a wooden door by name Palli maaraati in front of the Royal procession .This piece of wooden door is believed to be the abode of the deity.( Palli is a honorific prefix to maaraati. MaaRaatuka in this context seems to mean ‘make abode or hide’. It means that there was a sacred grove as a nodal point).

2. Chespeak however provides yet another ‘door’ explanation..
Quoting Chespeak - For example, the arrival of Samuthiri to the north from his original seat of Nediyirippu near Kondotty is described in the chronicle. It says the conspiracy to open the local ruler Porlathiri's gates from within to allow entry for the intruder Samuthiri was hatched at the vathilmatom, the door place, of this temple which was the only public place available in the region at that time. And of course the conspirators lost no time to put their plans into practice, thus helping the inauguration of the long reign of Zamorins in Kozhikode…As the Samuthiri shifted his seat to Kozhikode and launched forth his rule, one of the key officials in his establishment was known as Pallimaradi, or the Eradi -official- in charge of guarding royal doors. Who could say the Samuthiri did not learn his lessons from history?

3. BM John in his thesis on Aliraja of cannanore, section The Rajas of Kolathunadu however explains
The Zamorin’s, rulers of the nearby Calicut, carried pallimaradi (door panel draped in silk) in front of their army marching against Vellattiri, the rival ruler, because it visualized the presence of goddess ‘Tirumandhamkunnu Bhagavati’, which assured their victory over the enemy.

Maps – Courtesy C Ramachandran


  1. Anonymous

    So it was the Porlathiris who went on to rule Kadathanad. Interesting, so how do we connect the Kottayam / Pazhassi dynasty and Kadathanad. They seem to have some relation / same bloodline in the last stages of their rule at the time of Tipu's invasion and the British takeover of Malabar.

  1. Maddy

    thanks Nidheesh
    All those swaroopams had some kind of marriage/pula connection between them except the zamorins who were not considered as Kshatriyas by the others.

  1. Ajmal Kodiyathur

    dear sir
    may i get your e-mail id?
    i want to discuss you related to my PhD
    or mail me to

  1. Maddy

    thanks Ajmal..
    just click on view my profile and you can see my mail id.