Charles (Claude) Gabriel Dellon, the Frenchman in Malabar – Part 2

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His observations about Malabar circa 1668-1672

In Part 1 we covered his travels around the South of India, his misfortune, the connections with the Goa Governor’s mistress and the inquisition.

Just to get a little perspective, Charles Dellon (a.k.a. Gabriel Dellon/Dillon and Claude Dellon in various books) was a French Catholic physician and traveler to the East Indies., A physician by training, Dellon sailed to India in 1668 with the French Compagnie des Indes (q.v.).Dellon, spent some time in North Malabar and was operating out of the French factory in Tellicherry for five years after which he left the French services. Six months later, he was in jail In Daman, labeled a heretic by the Inquisition of Goa.

Dellon is always specific and precise in his observations and that is why they are so important to a student of history. He starts off by defining the region termed Malabar (malavar). Stating that most people have this impression that it stretches from Surat to the southern tip at Cape Comorin, he clarifies that it is actually South of Mount Eli (under the 12th degree of the North latitude) where the people assume the name Malabars or Malavars. This two hundred leagues (each league is roughly 3 miles) long tract of land had many petty kingdoms according to him and each of those king/lords administered his land independently and were not tributaries of any other prince. Note also that his writing is somewhat confined to the customs of Kolathunad, between Balipatanam and the northern borders of the Zamorin’s territory.

We have in the past read so much about the wars and the difficulties faced by the people of Malabar from the Portuguese, Dutch and the English. Few wrote about the land, though many detailed the customs they felt curious or wrongful. Some like Van Rheede, helped by local experts documented the flora and fauna in great detail in the Hortus Malabaricus, but Dellon wrote freely about what he saw.

Considering that he lived in Tellichery, we can understand it when he stated that the most powerful of them all is the king of Cannanore or Cotitri, the most respected and dreaded of them all. The Samorin who has more territories is considered to be inferior in strength. He goes on to say that it is a very healthy place with clean air, reaps rice twice a year and has a lot of different fruits. Spending a number of paragraphs to the coconut or ‘tencar’, he errs when stating that the tree dies after the coconuts are harvested but spends a while explaining the tapping of its liquor ‘Tary’ collected by Tieves (Tiyyas) who are responsible for coconut husbandry.

Interestingly he observes that the toddy which is sweet to drink, becomes sour by the day, tuning to an equivalent of cooking vinegar and used as such (for cooking) and also further distilled to make a kind of local brandy! The toddy with a little lime tastes as sweet as honey and is boiled to make cane sugar called jagara (chakkara) or the Portuguese jagerry. He observes that the young coconut provides Eliner, the tender coconut water (observe that they are all the very same words we still use..). And of course, he does not forget coir or hemp, used to make ropes used for ship building and also notes that the husk is used for cooking and by goldsmiths. The oil from the tree is used for cooking meats and burning lamps, and the waste kernel is used to feed cattle and hogs (thenga punnak). In essence, he concludes that it is a magnificent tree, providing so much to mankind…Oh! So true…

Other trees are mentioned, but I will skip the details and mention that he then spends a para on the jackfruit and another on the mango which was even in those days pickled (Achar) or eaten ripe. In fact he says that there is a green pepper pickle based in vinegar, and pepper is sometimes preserved in sugar. He does not fail to mention the pepper and cardamom plants of Malabar and the resulting trade. The cinnamon of Malabar is inferior to that from Ceylon and he notes that the Cardamom is mainly added to rice by the people of Arabia and Persia (Foodies take note - perhaps the talassery biryani had not arrived!!). Chewing betel with lime and areque (adekka) was popular, and something new to our friend Dellon but something he liked and recommended to his friends. He even notes that most Europeans living there enjoyed chewing betel like the natives who always offer betel if you visit them.

He observes that Malabar people are not too fond or gardens or flowers unlike the Mughals of the North. He also makes it clear that the women of Malabar are not vain, all they use is a little coconut oil on their hair and persona and not any kind of perfumes, unlike the women of the North. Parrots could be found in plenty and Indians do not bother training them to speak unlike the people of Europe and there are plenty of wild fowls and peacocks roaming round.

He is fascinated by the elephant, whom he accords the first rank among the beasts of the world. Considering them intelligent, he explains that they can drench a person they bear a grudge against in a mighty sprout of water from their trunks and he notices that they have a great memory (which he professes to explain with a small and interesting story of a sweeper boy who insulted the elephant and how the elephant taught him a lesson after several days when it came back to that place). 

Interestingly he also mentions the story of the elephant that was sent to Lisbon and how the mahout scared the elephant about its being sent to a life of slavery. The elephant would not board the ship and the viceroy threatened to kill the mahout after which the mahout told the elephant that it was going to live a life of great happiness with the king of Portugal. Hearing the changed version the elephant finally boarded the ship to cross the seas. The mahout is termed ‘cornac’ by the locals. He also mentions that if a Malabar king is angry with somebody he lets his elephants loose on his grounds and the resulting destruction of property a just retaliation. He then observes that they are used in temples and in all kinds of hard labor situations.

But what astounded me was that he observed that there were plenty of Tigers in Malabar and notices three distinct types. The first is cunning and not bigger than a large cat (they had one in the French quarters), the second is the size of a calf (here is where I learned that mutton meant the meat of a slender calf). Anybody who killed the second type got a gold bracelet from the prince as reward and observes that people could wear a gold bracelet only after getting it or after being permitted to wear one by the prince. The third is the royal tiger, as big as a horse, but actually found only in parts north of Goa. And of course he mentions oxen, civet cats, jackals and plenty of apes. He is surprised that the men worship these monkeys and observes monkeys robbing wares laden on the heads of women who are headed alone to the market. The monkeys also try to drink the toddy from the tapping containers on coconut trees. Then he notices that there are plenty of boars in Malabar and the Nairs or gentlemen of Malabar hunt them often (panni vetta) and eat pork. The Nairs do not eat rabbits and they sell them to the Europeans. And of course there were snakes, plenty of them (called bambou – pampu) and he considers the natives stupid to worship them in temples and records some of the superstitions concerning snakes in vogue those days and is surprised they never kill a snake.

As you can see, Dellon has by now settled down famously, observing and penning his diary with good accuracy. If you read his accounts, you would be amazed at the seriousness with which he went about the task of understanding his new world. His study of the flora, the fauna, the people, the animals were outstanding, be they the Tiyas or the Nairs, or the coconut tree, which he rightly termed the greatest tree of the universe. He observes that pickles are called achar and toddy called exactly as it is today, but sees so many parrots, peacocks and wild boars and so on in Malabar, now all gone. Having observed the animals, the flora, the fauna and the region he gets to the people of Malabar.

The working class is well shaped, brown or black, but not as ugly as Africans, they wear their hair long. Dellon considers them treacherous, and the Mohametans even more perfidious and notes that breach of faith is commonplace. The working class serves the upper echelons of society which is four in number, the first being princes, the second being Namboothiris or chief priests, the third being normal Brahmins or assistant priests and finally the Nairs or the gentlemen. Only the Nairs have a birthright to bear arms and bear that responsibility without obstructing normal activities. The Tiyas take care of coconut trees and are allowed to bear arms with prior permission. The mukkuvas of course take care of fishing and live near the seashore and are not allowed to take on any other employment. The weaver tribes are called mainats. The pulayas are the despised accursed, and best avoided.

He also notes poignantly – It is a fundamental law amongst the Malabars, as well as most other nations of the Indies, which they look upon as unalterable and never to be neglected to wit, that nobody can rise beyond the degree of his tribe, wherein he is born, and let his riches be never so great, neither he nor his posterity can exclude themselves from that tribe or change their condition.

He spends a full chapter on the Nairs, that they are always the travel guards for anybody and escorts for any group. If they were not part of an entourage, no prince will accept any claims or complaints. As they moved from region to region, Nairs of that particular place took over from the previous escort. The daily going rate was 8 silver tares per diem ( ½ panam). When a nair is guarding your house, he gets only 4 tare as salary. They are most courageous and if a person in their care gets killed on travel, the Nair escort also kills himself instead of surviving him as a coward. He also notes that in case a traveller is escorted by a nair child, the child is never accosted by robebrs as it is a custom never to harm a child. In these cases the Nair boy carried a sharp 1 ½ foot long stick and not arms. Poor travelers used this method and paid only a small amount to the child.

He notes that different castes did not intermingle, especially in respect to eating and drinking, and details the caste rigors which we already know about. He notes that if a Namboodiri or Brahman girl are seen to transgress at this point, then the prince takes the ultimate decision of excommunication (the older version of smarta vicharam) by selling the girl to the highest bidder, especially foreigners who consider them the fairest of the Malabars. He then goes onto narrate a firsthand account of meeting one such lady who later converts to Christianity.

He notices that there are no jails, but that convicted persons do get chained in fetters till they are discharged or executed. Larger cases are tried by the prince and here he talks about a special type of ‘kaimukkal’ ordeal, different from the usual oil version. The person who pleads not guilty is asked to stretch his hand upon which a banana leaf is laid and on it a red hot iron is placed till it becomes cold. The hand is then covered with a piece of cloth dipped in gruel water (kanji vellam) by the prince’s washer man and sealed by the prince. After three days the seal is broken and the hand checked. If there are no marks, he is excused and if there are any, he is punished accordingly. There is never any appeal to any prince’s decision. Executions are conducted by Nairs, wherein a lance is run through the accused’s person after which they are cut into quarters and hung on trees.

He then explains the method of succession in the princely families of Malabar where the oldest prince succeeds the dead. The next is the most important aspect, the choice of a chief lieutenant/minister or the highest dignitary of the state who is always chosen by the ruler and is a person of outstanding quality, a Nair or a chetti!!! This was a bit surprising to me, for usually these are also from the ruling family in most cases. Did Dellon err? He notes that all matters of importance are recorded on palm leafs with iron quills. The chief minister then takes over the management as the old titular ruler retires to a life of comfort.

He notes that the Kolattiri king always wore a huge gold crown weighing 200 guineas and later gets into the details of the matrilineal kinship in Malabar. He rightfully observes that the daughters of princesses are wedded to Nambuthiris, and notes that the Nairs and others can marry one level below theirs, in caste. He also notes with some surprise that the women can have multiple husbands, and that there is no jealousy in this regard with the norm that the man leaves his arms at the door when he is with a lady. He affirms that this is the reason why children owe their pedigree to only their mothers and that is the reason why sister’s sons or nephews become the next heirs. He also makes it clear that the Mohametans observe the same (marumakkathayam) system of inheritance in Malabar and that 12 is typically the marriageable age for girls and that there are hardly any midwives and delivery is usually very easy compared to Europe. He explains that Malabar women are generally well shaped and not ill featured, that the little ones are more popular than taller girls and that Sati is not practiced in Malabar unlike the rest of the country. Both men and women wear their hair long and are naked to the waist, and he is surprised that the women do not try to wear finery, but are satisfied with just pure calico cloth. The richest wear girdles of gold and silver, even horn, but women wear just a ring. They, both men and women do have pierced earlobes which hang down to their shoulders, and wear heavy two ounce earrings in them. Only men favored by the king wear gold chains and all mean are clean shaven, though some are mustachioed.

Houses are typically mud based with thatched (coconut leaves) roofs, use mud pots for cooking and some baskets, even kings do not use gold or silver vessels and at night just use coconut oil lamps for light. They always eat with their backs to the lamp, and mainly based on rice. Since sauces are not used for cooking the food is bland and very basic in taste. They sleep on boards, and mattresses are not used even by the rich, though the upper classes sometimes use tapestry bed sheets. Every house has its own well and each is self-contained, with village life with shared facilities quite rare.

The temples are rich, coated with copper or silver and a tank in front, and have in addition places for travelers to stay as well as large tracts of land under their control ( more about that concept another day!) for yearly revenues. These grounds are holy and any act of bloodshed in this land sacrilege. Mentioning that the sun and the moon are revered, he notes that eclipses are greatly feared. But what surprises him the most was the ardent respect for elders, and that even the fiercest Nairs stand up before their elders. The calendar was based on the moon cycles, and he describes the temple festivals with good accuracy. He sees many training schools or kalari’s and he mentions that the Nairs of 1670, were sharp shooters carrying both muskets and the ball making molds, firing them with the rifle butt on the cheek, unlike Europeans who kept the butt on the shoulder. They had other arms too like the six foot bow and arrows, scimitars and lances. But then again, according to Dellon, even though courageous, the Nair’s never maintained order while marching, and were not structured or disciplined during combat. There are frequent exhibitions of skill attended by many people and he details the ankham or duels to settle a quarrel. Unlike the Malayali Nairs of today the Nairs then were patient and not too jumpy or over passionate. What surprises him the most was that after a battle most of the spoils are returned to the original owners!

In matters of commerce, Nairs are never involved and bazars are always full of foreigners and strangers conducting the trade. He spends a few paragraphs on the Moplah’s and notes that many of them are involved in piracy. He also explains that a tenth of the proceeds of their piratical endeavors were submitted to the prince of the land. Their paros carry 500 men and sail as far as the red sea, but they stay away from European ships. Even though sailing is somewhat unsafe due to these corsairs, traveling by land is safe, with the conduct overseen by Nair escorts. The Mohametans live near the town center and market.

The French factory is permitted by the prince Onotri (Kolatri) and the place given to them in Cannanore is called Tatichery, renamed Tellicherry by the French. Dellon and Flacour set about getting things started up. The Zamorin facing problems with the Dutch decided to approach Falcour to discuss an alliance. The French agreed and were provided a place at Aticote near Cochin to conduct their business from the Zamorin’s kingdom. But as it happened, the Zamorin lost the battle with the Dutch and the French ended up going back to where they were before, to Tellicherry. Dellon was then deputed together with Flacour to Srinipatanam (Srirangapatnam in Mysore) though it was the monsoon season and not ideal for travel, with a palm tree leaf umbrella common in Malabar. The trip was not very nice, with bad weather, leeches, and all kinds of other issues. It was a difficult ordeal and Dellon decided to return taking the support of Kunhali the most famous corsair of the time, at Badagara. He then visits Calicut and Tanore and makes the usual observations, some quite interesting.

Eventually Dellon goes back to Tellichery, but by then he was weary and bored and asked to be relived from Malabar duty. The following January he left Tellichery bound for Mangalore and later for Goa…

A voyage to the East Indies – M Dellon
Historic alleys – Dellon in Malabar part 1
Historic alleys – Ankhams of Malabar
Maddy’s ramblings – Pope and the elephant