The Kollam Calendar Mystery – A discussion

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Kolla varsham- that is what we call the Malayalam calendar. The interesting aspect is that here again we have two versions, the Malabar version and the Travancore version, the former centered on Pantalayani Kollam near Calicut and the latter around Kurkeni Kollam or todays Quilon. In some old records they are mentioned by experts like Kielhorn and Sundarama Pillai as the Trivandrum calendar and the Calicut calendar. The two calendars are separated by a month with the year starting in August in Calicut and September in Quilon. But getting to the well accepted Kurkeni Kollam calendar, how would one explain the origins of this calendar, so different from some of the others of the region, like the Tamil calendar? Let’s take a look at the various legends, theories and stories. None may provide a clinching answer, and as usual, various communities and groups are satisfied by the one they empathise with!

To get to the obscure origins of the Kollavarsham, you have to go to the Gregorian months August or September of 824 AD. Typically anthropologists and historians contend that these things start by commemorating an event. What could it be? Here is where multiple stories and legends get cited, the construction of a Siva temple, the opening of a new port town, the departure of Cheraman Perumal to Mecca or Mount Kailasam, the death of Sanakaracharya and so on. We will get to them one by one after noting that while most calendars are Lunar or Luni-Solar (note that adjustments needed to be made in these calendars for the extra month), the Kollam era is entirely Solar. While most others start with Aries, the Kollam era starts with Leo. Also peculiar is that while other calendars are expired years calendars, the Kollam era is a current system (Note that the year zero does not exist in the Anno Domini system of the Gregorian calendar and the Julian calendar where the year 1 BC is followed by AD 1 and the 20th century for example begins on January 1, 1901. However, all eras used with Hindu and Buddhist calendars, such as the Saka era or the Kali Yuga, begin with the year 0. All these calendars use elapsed, expired, or complete years, in contrast with most other calendars which use current years). The months are named after the rashis in the North of India whereas they are given lunar names named after nakshatras in the South.
One of the popular stories mentioned in oral accounts is that of the departure of the Cheraman Perumal to Mecca. If you for a moment assume that to be the case, then the question comes up about the one month difference between the two calendars. Does it signify the time he took to sail from Quilon to North Malabar from where he eventually veered westwards to the Red Sea? But why would he go to Quilon to sail off when he was possibly based in Kodungallur which was an active and popular port where many vessels bound towards the Arab ports embarked? Then again why would a predominantly Hindu Malabar celebrate an event such as his conversion to Islam? That too after an event which in addition disintegrated the Chera country into petty warring kingdoms! Why would these Hindu kingdoms celebrate such an event? Not quite a justifiable explanation.

Now we get to the other account related to the Perumal (we will talk about this Perumal and his departure in greater detail in the next article), namely the Periya Puranam which is much older than the oral tradition or the medieval Keralolpatti where it says that when it was time for the perumal’s friend and Saivite saint Sundaramurti to leave Tiruvanjikulam (Cranganore), the Perumal also followed him to Kailasa. While it is somewhat farfetched, it does establish that the Perumal disappeared mysteriously, but again provides no reasoning for a new calendar to be established in Quilon or Calicut. Nevertheless, it is a fact that this event is dated pretty close to the start of the Kollam era.
The next legend is connected to the Sankaracharya who died around 820 AD. Now you can see that he died a full 4 years before the Calendar started. Why would one celebrate his death? So it could not have been his death. Keralolpatti mentions that Sankaracharya established the Kerala anacharam or irregular customs on Aug 25th, 825 AD or the new Kollavarsham at both Kollams’s. To lend weight to this is the chronogram A car ya va ga bhed ya (which literally means that the acharya’s word is unalterable) which stands for 0 6 1 4 3 4 1, to be read backwards. If you do that it becomes the Sept 25, 824 which is the first day of Malabar’s Kollam era in the Kali era. Sankaracharya perhaps died in 820 or some time earlier, so we see a 4-5 year difference. The details of the anacharams are mentioned in the Sankarasmriti and this itself was written only after the 12th century or perhaps even later (as it lays down rules for the Portuguese, Dutch, French and the English!). And then again, after considering the 11 day Gregorian calendar adjustment by the British, the Kollam era in reality, started on July 25th 825 AD. And then again, after considering the 10/11 day Gregorian calendar adjustment by the British in 1752, the Kollam era in reality, started on August 15th 825 AD. But why start a new calendar because new rules are being laid?

The only event of some importance in 824 was the appearance of a comet over China, hardly the reason for a New Year establishment unless the Chinese were in control of Quilon at that time or this had something to do with Chinese New Year. Again we see no points of commonality here. There is also a general issue that the Kollam era is mentioned in written records only dated after the 12th Century AD! Why did it take so many years for its acceptance? We do not have a real answer for this as yet.
Consider for a moment that the Nambuthiris and Nairs came from somewhere in North India as legends put it. Would the Kollam year have anything to do with the older era current in places like Jammu and Kashmir, i.e. the Saptarshi era or the Sastra Samvatsara? This was the era where the first two digits had been removed from a 4 digit running calendar, i.e. 4292 would become 92 in writings. But then what happened after 99? Sundaram Pillai explains that the two calendars were the same until the year 99 of the Saptarshi calendar. But even that does not run to a conclusion for the Saptarshi calendar starts in Mesah and the Kollam era started in Simha. Then again the Saptarshi era was Luni-solar while the Kollam calendar is solar. Was the difference a correction to make the former to a solar calendar (Then again the Saptarshi calendar runs with a 25 year difference with the kali yuga)? How would one calculate and drop out a few months? Did the mathematicians of Malabar and Travancore differ about the formula which explains the one month anomaly Simha and Kanya?

Perhaps the answer comes with the next account which is narrated by Shangoony Menon in his History of Travancore – “In the Kali year 3296 when King Udaya Marthanda Varma who was residing in Quilon, convened a council of learned men in Kerala with the object of introducing a new era, and after making some astronomical researches, and calculating the solar movements throughout the twelve signs of the zodiac, and counting scientifically the number of days occupied in this revolution in every month, it was resolved to adopt the new era from the first of Chingam of that year, 15th August 825, as Kollam year one and to call it the solar year." But this was found to be wrong when the source date he used from the Padmanabha Swami temple inscription proved to be 801 years later than originally thought and secondly due to the fact that there was no Udaya Marthanda Varma in the Kollam era origin period.
Pillai goes on to state that this also sounds a little obscure for it was perhaps better to use the Saptarshi year in that case, rather than create a new calendar. But then again, the Kollam era seems to have been devised by somebody who understood the difficulties of adjustments in lunar calendars.

Herman Gundart however was of the opinion that the “Kolla Varsham” started with the erection of a ‘Siva’ temple at Kollam. But this does not make sense as there is no such temple and the establishment of a temple cannot be the reason to create a new calendar. Others mention that its origination was strictly local and religious, and “Kolla Varsham” was not accepted by the people living in other regions, but, when Kollam or Quilon became a major trade center trading with the east and the West, the traders and the people of other countries began to follow “Kolla Varsham”. But then how do you explain the Northern Quilon? Now could it be to commemorate the establishment of both Pantalayani and Kurkeni Kollam port towns? Unlikely since both of them were popular centuries before the Kollam calendar was formed. But a usage Kollam Tontri allows us to conclude literally that it was after the establishment of a port of Kollam, or perhaps more correctly after the establishment of the Kollam era. Sanskrit texts incidentally mention the Kollam era as the Kolamba era. Tamil texts name the area around Quilon as Kolamaba so it was perhaps associated with Quilon in the South.

The next theory is that it was started by Christian settlers in Quilon. Since it took a month for news to travel to North, the start in Pantalayani differs by a month! But according to Sreedhara Menon, this is not acceptable as the Christian community was insignificant and did not have the weight to create a new system in both Travancore and Malabar.
M.G.S.Narayan in his paper on Cera Pandya conflict in the 8th – 9th centuries which led to the birth of Venad writes, “It is not surprising that the Chera king who was contemplating the development of the new harbor town at Kurakeni Kollam welcomed the foreigner and permitted him to settle down at the new harbor site. This was the period when the Cera-Pandya conflict was developing in the south. Subsequently Vilinjam was retained in the Pandyan sphere of influence while the Vel country with new headquarters at Kurakkeni Kollam became a division of Cera kingdom. The foundation of Kollam in 825A.D. must have coincided with this victory of Cera in the Vel province. Therefore it is easy to understand the anxiety of the Chera king to please foreign merchants and settle them at Kollam so that the harbor might grow quickly and compete effectively with Vilinjam further south which had passed under the control of the Pandya. This incident reveals the practical wisdom of the rulers and throws light on the economic –political motivations of men who promoted ideas of religion and culture. The Syrian Christian merchants who took advantage of the situation were equally clever and resourceful .In the absence of materials for a detailed history, it is difficult to ascertain whether Mar Sapir Iso was a merchant or a (priest) missionary. Perhaps he was both at the same time and there was no inherent contradiction between the two roles.

Logan however opines also that the Kollam era was perhaps established by the Kolathiri rajas, of which two factions existed, one at Malabar and one at Quilon to commemorate events at both places. This again is refuted by astronomers who maintain that it was not a political announcement or change which started the new calendar. This line of thought is also untenable since the Kolathiris rose to the fore only around the 12th century.
Others like Col Warren connected it wrongly to the Parasurama cycles. The era of Parasurama or Parasurama Sacam is a cycle of 1000 years, which is said to have begun in B.C. 1175 ¾ complete, or 1176 B.C. current. It is also mentioned that the Nambuthiris travelling southwards brought it with them and made the necessary adjustments to start the third thousands of the Saptarshi eara which originally started in 1176BC.

Even more theories follow with people trying to exercise their brains to create reasons. One such theory states that Onam celebrations started with the Kollam era, but Onam hardly starts on the first of Chingam and then again this is also not correct since Onam was celebrated even in the Sangam era. Sreedhara Menon concludes his discussion by agreeing with Sundaram Pillai that it was the continuation of the Saptarshi era after it counted down to 100. He adds that it took a few hundred years to be accepted and became popular only by the 10-11th centuries after the Namboothiris gained ascendancy in Kerala and that the month difference between the Malabar and Travancore calendars is accounted for due to the calculation methods used by the North and South astronomers!

Other theories hover around the lost Jewish tribes, with the Namboothiris being actually the Nampthali Jews and so on, but all of them fall on the wayside. Prof Jayaprakash’s theory, the newest is perhaps the closest to reality and has some grounding, but requires more study to reach conclusions. According to him, the Buddhist culture appeared in Cheranad or Cheralam during 3 B.C. and it had an influence on all religions which were later introduced in this land. According to him, after the brutal annihilation of the Buddhist culture by the Brahmins from the North, Cheralam was christened Keralam. Through the annihilation, many of the important Buddhist shrines were converted into Hindu temples. He opined that the biggest influence Buddhism had in the Subcontinent was in Kerala and it was Kollam which was the citadel of Buddhism and that it was after destroying the Buddhist culture that the Brahmin enforced caste system got established in Kerala. Kollam was earlier called Kolam, and when it came under the rule of Jayashimhan Perumal, the land came to be called Deshinganad. He also had specific comments about the establishment of the Kollavarsham.

According to late Historian M.S. Jayaprakash the launch of Kollavarsham marked the complete transition of Kerala from the Dravidian-Buddhist tradition to the Aryan-Vedic system. According to him, Kollavarsham also marked the political transition of the land from the reign of Perumals to a caste-based rule. The commencement of Kollavarsham was in fact the declaration of a political and cultural change in Kerala. He also opines that the Kollavarsham declaration was made by two separate sessions of almanac experts and mathematicians held simultaneously at two places known by the same name Kollam – one the present headquarters of the southern district and the other one near Kozhikode in the north. So that is another train of thinking about the reasons for a new system, we need to get into. The implementation still follows the earlier theories.
In conclusion, one can assume that the rather unique solar, current calendar was developed by the immigrants moving in from the North, perhaps the Namboothiri’s who settled down in Malabar and later in Quilon, and then the calendar got a little bit adjusted to what we know as the Kollam calendar. This has some traction due to the fact the calendar was first established in Malabar and a month later in Quilon, though it does not explain it satisfactorily. Nevertheless, due to the fact that it is also called Kolamba era, it is somehow more associated with Kurakkeni Kollam. But these are all assumptions based on obscure documents and you can perhaps imagine that with more research on the Buddhist – Jainist past of Kerala more facts will slowly come to light including the Sankaracharya aspects and you may even see the conclusions of Dr Jayaprakash gaining more credence.

New input - Please refer linked paper 
Malayalam Year alias Kollavaṟṣaṃ by Joseph Don Bosco which gives a mathematical explanation and another reason.

Dates of the Kollam or Kolamba era – Kielhorn
Miscellaneous Travancore inscriptions – P Sundaram Pillai
Kollam era - KV Sarma
Survey of Kerala History – Sreedhara Menon
Cera- Pandya conflict in the 8th – 9th centuries which led to the birth of Venad- Narayan,MGS,

Notes – Just to establish some perspective, why did the Buddhists and Brahmins start this big quarrel? Interesting legends and perhaps lots of caste politics – It seems that King Pasenadi (Prasenajit) of Kosala admired the Sakyan clan as Buddha was from that clan and decided to marry into it (second marriage) and strengthen the alliance by asking for the hand of a Shakyan bride. But then, he was sent Naga-Mtinda the daughter of the Sakyan chief whose paramour was actually a naga worshipping slave! Not knowing this, Pasenadi married her; and had a son, Vidudabha and a daughter Vajira.  When the truth came to light, both mother and child lost their royal honors but were reinstated after Buddha pacified Pasenadi. However after Pasenadi’s death and Vidudabha’s accession to the throne, mayhem occurred resulting in the massacre of the Shakyan clan who fled Kapilavastu to various places like Nepal and we also hear mentions of Lanka and the South of India, perhaps Quilon and other locales.
 The Vedic revival during the 8th century A.D. was referred to as the revival of Hinduism by the Western Scholars. This was initiated by Adi Shankaracharya in the Gangetic plains of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. During this time, devotion to the Buddha was sought to be replaced by devotion to Hindu gods such as Rama and Krishna.

The East India House - Casa da India

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The offices that controlled the Estado da India

It was as if fate decreed it, in return for the plunder of Malabar for 250 years. A Deeply religious Lisbon, locked in rituals like the inquisition, then Europe’s 4th largest city, was planning a merry start of the All Saints day on Saturday 1st, Nov 1755. As the sleepy city woke up, a massive earthquake (9.0R) shook Lisbon for all of 10 minutes, bringing it down to dust and then proceeded to light it with fires which burned for a whole week destroying much of what she had made with the trade money. The city which was defined thus – “He who has not seen Lisbon has seen nothing”, was not visible any more. Many tens of thousands of people were killed and their fortunes destroyed, bringing the once proud country rapidly to its knees with a thud, for perhaps it was the wrath of God!

Well, if one had done a trip to medieval Lisbon and got through to the commercial and political heart of the city on the banks of the Tagus, or the Palace square - Terreiro de Paco, you would have noticed the large palace or Paco da Riberia to the left of the square, a handsome building designed by architect Terzi, remarkable for its grandeur, tapestries and riches therein. An extension of the original building actually housed the Casa da India where all the goods from Malabar were destined to and which the king standing on his balcony could watch being loaded or unloaded, with a lot of reassurance. The pepper that came from the vines near the hills, dried and blackened in the sun, carried over to Calicut, fought over by the many people eager to trade it to the white man, passed hands finally and found its way to the hulls of the ocean going ships belonging to the Portuguese and vying for valuable space with other spices, articles of plunder and sometimes even slaves. These articles were the ones being unloaded and taken to the building they called Casa Da India.

We have all heard and read so much about the East India company, but how many of you know about the much powerful office that existed even earlier called the India house of Lisbon? That is the Casa da India that decided the futures of Goa and Malabar, let alone many other acquisitions of the Portuguese in India, between the 1500-1800 timeframe. The bureaucrats of the building decided and guided the kings in what was to be done and what was not though actually in existence even before Vasco Da Gama set out to Calicut. Let’s take a look at the organization which started out as the Casa de Guine, Mina e India.

Business representation in overseas locations became a necessity when the trade links grew and that was how the Portuguese factor or feitor came into existence. If you recall we saw this usage many a time in books covering the medieval periods in Malabar when it came to the Portuguese, Dutch French or the English. The concept is hardly new; in fact we saw the same in our studies of early Jewish traders in India and the Arabs. The factor or Feitor was slightly different, for he was not only the Portuguese ambassador, but also the person who had a ruling command over the Portuguese community in such far flung locales. Such a community was called the feitoria and this term morphed sometimes to the word factory and as you can see, it did not mean the building was a manufacturing unit. They usually had their own chapel and burying place and in the case of the Portuguese, not only decided quarrels between merchants but also represented the Crown.

As Portugal’s King Joao II came into power after Henry, he inherited the lucrative African trade and the first feitoria was established in Arguim Island. The second was at Sao Jorge da mina (Elmina) on the Gold Coast. The third was at Wadan. As trade increased, new feitoria’s were established on the African east coast. The next step of course was to establish them at the Malabar Coast and Cabral was entrusted with the responsibility after Gama had discovered the route to the wealthy Indian West Coast. We read about the story of the first Portuguese factory in Calicut in the previous article covering Koya Pakki where Ayres Correa and the others were killed. Eventually, Cabral settled an agreement in Cochin and Gama established the first formal working fetoria there. Later many more were established, to formalize Portuguese representation in India.

But the organization back home in Portugal which implemented the crown’s capitalism as Diffie and Winus explain, was the Casa de Guine, Mina e India or as it came to be called the Casa da India. Basically it started out as the warehouse, storage sheds and the customs post, serving to outfit and receive the many ships that were sent out in the name of trade. They also served to collect the percentages of royal duties from authorized merchants. Interestingly there was another separate organization, the Casa dos escravos to handle buying and selling of slaves. Henry’s early organization in Lagos was moved by Joao II to Lisbon in 1481-82 to serve as the home office, clearing and accounting house of the Feitoria’s. Not only did it do that but also the powerful function of setting prices for purchase and sale as well as issuing licenses and certificates for personnel. Interestingly it also handled postal services for the outposts. The most important position in the Casa was that of the treasurer or the provedor, the king’s most trusted.

In 1508, King Manuel I started expansion works on the palace, which ended in 1510, and appointed Diogo de Arruda as head architect of the project. The King was an absolutist in all manners, and sought to concentrate all his powers in Ribeira Palace, by holding the Portuguese Cortes and installing the Casa da Índia, the imperial administration, in the palace's walls. The hallmark of the palace, not just in the Manueline era but in all it's history, was its Tower of the King, in the southern wing. During the Manueline era, the Casa da Índia was installed in the tower, which hoisted a large sculpture of the Royal Coat of Arms of Portugal on the exterior of the tower, facing the river.

Joao was not too savvy a merchant, and had his own problems dealing with the system of financing fleets. Initially he had private companies from other countries of Italy, Spain and Germany as partners, paying a 30% duty, but all this ended up in quarrels on prices till the Fugger’s became a major player in what was to become a formal monopoly during Manuel’s reign. As all this was going on in the 1520’s the hub of business slowly moved to Antwerp where the goods supplied from Lisbon were sold at very high retail price levels. An Antwerp merchant syndicate was formed and as major purchasers from the Casa da India, wielded immense power over Lisbon, taking over from the German banking houses. Trade in Antwerp was routed through the local feitoria there. Portugal soon found itself in a state of indebtedness as the syndicate increased its grip on King Joao III’s neck. Anyway let us not ramble on about the business sense or ethics of the Portuguese monarchs, but concentrate on the Casa da India which as you saw was essentially the market for Indian spices, and as some opine, slaves as well. Suffices to note that in a hundred years the Portuguese fortunes were going downhill, so to say but still large enough to be prominent in medieval Europe.

The Casa da India also facilitated the flow of goods from Europe to India, items such as copper and silver ingots, and also tried a hand at controlling the saltpeter trade. As we see, it grew from the Casa da Cueta (1434) to Mine e Guine and finally to Casa Da India. The Casa da India was popularly known as the India house and started receiving formal orders from Joa II in 1509.All imports and exports were stored there for registration, customs, freight expenses were met, sales were arranged, ships were chartered, loaded and unloaded at the Armazem da India or the India dockyard in Lisbon, inspection for contraband was carried out and crew payments were made. All registers were held there for safekeeping, so also all routes and maps, in strict secrecy. In addition, it was also a premier center for cosmography and cartography (Barros whom we came across in our studies was the factor in 1532). Just imagine what the records from 1490-1755 would have revealed, for the records were voluminous and meticulous.

The palace was remodeled later - The highlight of the Philipine renovations was the reconstruction and enlargement of the Tower of the King, which transformed a three-story Manueline tower, which housed the Casa da Índia, into a five-story Mannerist tower, complete with an observatory and one of the largest royal libraries in all of Europe.

What a powerful organization it must have been, not that such organizations do not exist today, but to imagine this amount of discipline and controlled from Lisbon, was unimaginable in the minds of one in mediaeval Malabar. Every scrap of valuable history the building housed was consigned to the roaring flames, obliterating the stories of voyages, pioneering, trade, adventure and avarice, as well as destroying a valuable resource on the history of Malabar. But some accounts of how the house looked and functioned exist as secondary sources, so let us take a trip to Lisbon in the 17th century, even though it was a time of decline for the once famous Casa da India.

 As we saw, when it was first established on the river bank of the Terrario do Paco, it was housed at the ground floor of the royal palace so that the king himself could see the loading and unloading of the ships. The Casa da India collected duty and tolls on all merchandise from overseas and sold the pepper on the king's account; while its officials supervised the loading and unloading of the ships, inspected them for contraband, and paid the crews. The East India House (Casa da India), as it was also known, was thus responsible for fitting out sails and the trade in monopoly products of the crown. While at the Lisbon end, trade and to a certain extent administration of it was supervised by Casa da India, at the Indian end, the Estado da India with its headquarters at Goa was the principal seat of power. Later the king established a general royal monopoly over the spice trade, and had it regulated by the official Casa da India, but after a couple of hundred years of existence, the India House’s fortunes took a trip south when parts of the building had to be sold to pay dues to the royal army. But during the heydays, the India house incomes were used to maintain the Fidalgo’s of Portugual, just imagine amounts to the tune of 18 million reis, which incidentally was just a fifth of the income of the India house!!

Borrowing the words from ‘Lisbon before the earthquake – Panoramic view’ –

Following in the same direction as the sea current, starting at the new customs house and store house, there is a wide open space, closed on the northwest by beautiful constructions and to the south by a colonnade that is worth seeing, the oriental side opens out into the sea. In the western corner of this space is the Casa de Seuta. Not far from this building in a sequence of adjoined buildings stands the sixth monument, a magnificent and marvelous work. In this building known as Casa da India, there are abundant collections of combat bounty, spoils of war with many peoples and where, thus the name matters about India are dealt with. I am of the opinion that it should be called the emporium of aromas. Pearls, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones are brought here every year from India. Perhaps it would be truer to call it a warehouse of silver and gold, stored both in bars and artifacts. There exhibited for whoever want to see, divided into numerous compartments, distributed in an ordered and artful manner is all the precious stuff – and mark my word, it has to be seen and touched to be believed, this accumulation of marvels.

Early in the 17th century, the Casa Da India had been moved under the Conselho da Fazenda (council of finance) which had responsibility for fiscal, juridical and administrative aspects of royal government. During the times of Spanish authority, the Casa da India was supervised by Spanish officials as well. Can you imagine how much the monarch made from all this business with the Eastern lands? In 1510, the figure almost a million cruzados per annum from the spice trade alone. This was how King Manuel I of Portugal got to be called "le roi épicier", that is, “the grocer king”.

Royal monopolies were also leased out sometimes by Casa da Índia to private traders for a certain period. As we see - After 1570, the monopolies were abolished, except for the purchase of spices and the trade in copper and silver. By about 1560 the income of the Casa da Índia was not able to cover its expenses. The Portuguese monarchy had become, in Garrett Mattingly's phrase, the owner of "a bankrupt wholesale grocery business." But it was also the time when pepper ruled.

But interesting things which benefitted the world also took place in the Casa da India, such as the first versions of the nautical map of the world called the Padrão Real, and in 1709 the Jesuit priest Father Bartolomeu de Gusmão demonstrated the principles of hot air ballooning by levitating a ball indoors at the Casa da Índia in Lisbon. He narrates - His Majesty invited us to the Casa da India for a royal dinner. The reception was held in the grand saloon, where shafts of the last remaining sunlight shone through its tall narrow windows then I made a second balloon which landed on the palace roof, and finally I made a third balloon, which went out through a window of the Casa da India, never to be seen again. He later fled from Portugal to Spain, for fear of being accused of performing magic by the Inquisition. This was also the location where the famous Elephant Rhino fight took place in 1515, one that I will detail some other day the event when the two animals confronted each other in a courtyard enclosed by high walls between the Paço da Ribeira and the Casa da India.

Quoting David Bressan wiring in Scientific American - At 9:40 all the bells of the city began to ring simultaneously and only seconds later the first buildings collapsed. Three major shakes followed in the next 10 minutes, most people were killed by the collapse of the churches, full of believers attending the second mass of the day. People fled in the direction of the seaport where the large squares of the royal palace promised shelter from the debris of the collapsing buildings. It was there that they witnessed a strange phenomenon: The Sea had vanished and the riverbed of the Tejo was dry. At 10:10 a 12 meter high tsunami-wave reached the city and destroyed the entire harbour, thousands of people standing along the shores were swept away and killed. After the earthquake and the tsunami a terrible fire broke out; raging for five days, it destroyed what earth and water had left over.
What actually happened after the Earthquake hit Lisbon? Did the buildings catch fire or did they get inundated by the Tsunami that followed?  To get to that story which is not usually told, one has to take a look at a number of private letters that were sent and published in England – in magazines such as the Gentlemen’s. One such letter testifies that the Casa da India was actually set afire by a French deserter. The letter goes thus -

Several villains have been apprehended and executed, mostly foreigners, and to our reproach, among other nations, some English sailors, for robbing and plundering the palace. The others were French and Spanish deserters, and some from the common prisons, which, in the general havoc (except those under the ruins) let forth their contents in common with other edifices. A Moor, who got out with the rest from the Calleas, where the galley slaves were confined, confessed, before he was hung up, that he set fire to the city in seven places, after the cessation of the first shock. A French deserter confessed he did the like in three places, one of which was to the India-house adjoining to the palace.

So that was how the India house, perhaps the most powerful gate keeping institution of the world, met its end, consigned to smoke by an irate Frenchman.

The Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, coordinated a massive rebuilding effort. The Royal Palace was not to be rebuilt, and the square was given a regular, rational arrangement in line with the reconstruction of the new Pombaline Downtown, the Baixa.

The royal family abandoned the Ribeira area and moved to palaces in the areas of Ajuda and Belém. The old Palace Square (Terreiro do Paço) gave rise to a new square, the Pombaline Commerce Square (Praça do Comércio). The two towers at the corners of the square are still reminiscent of the old tower of the Ribeira Palace. The Alfandega Grande on the S. side of the Rua da Alfandega, became the new fire proof custom-house of Lisbon built on the very site of the Casa da India. Fittingly it maintained its high bureaucratic past, they say it took no less than 16 signatures (1874)to clear something through it!!

But Portugal had by then become a minor player in the world arena. The renaissance glory had faded away and the last vestiges were lost with the Earthquake. Brazil left its clutches in 1822 and the Industrial revolution overtook the vastly illiterate Portugual which was still trying to get a firm foothold in Africa. Finally in 1961, Goa was liberated under VK Krishna Menon’s orders and Lt Gen Candeth’s actions, to end the 460 odd years of Portuguese presence in India, ironically under the leadership of these two people from erstwhile Malabar!


Wrath of God – Edward Paice
A History of Portuguese Overseas Expansion 1400–1668 - Malyn Newitt
Gentleman’s magazine Vol 83, part 1
History of Portugal: vol. 2, António Henrique R. de Oliveira Marques
Asia in the Making of Europe, Volume I: The Century of Discovery- Donald F. Lach