The story of Dom João de Tanur

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When the Tanur king converted to Christianity

The scene - After Vasco da Gama’s unsuccessful attempts in obtaining a foothold in Malabar to increase the pepper shipments to Lisbon and after Cabral’s show of force failed to shake the Zamorin, the Portuguese settled down around 1500 with their newfound ally the Cochin raja. The furious Zamorin had decided then to teach the Cochin king a good lesson. Intrigues and battles followed, with one or the other ascending the ladder of supremacy. But the Raid on Cranganore (October, 1504) and the defection of the Tanur king to the Portuguese were serious setbacks for the Zamorin. These events pushed the front-line of battles north and effectively placed the Vembanad lagoon out of reach. Any hopes the Zamorin had of quickly resuming his attempts to capture Cochin via the backwaters were effectively dashed.

Chaliyam’s (the nearby locales of Parappanad, Beypore, Tirur, Tanur are all known in history from ancient times and form part of this locale) history is certainly checkered after that, and the events in that region were to determine the futures of many a king, namely the Zamorin, the Portuguese, the Chinese, the Arabs and Moplahs. One can think a bit and easily figure out why the place was important. One was the access to the river Bharatapuzha, trade connected to it and secondly the geography of the vicinity. As you will note the serene Puzha flows over the Nila valley and empties the waters from the mountains into the Arabian Sea at Ponnani, so it was an important sea port that connected though a major river to inland centers where material for trade arrived. This locale in early Malabar history was called Vettathnaad, Vattathunad, Vattathukovil, Prakasha Rajya or land of light. Today the family that ruled these areas is extinct, and their story is not very easy to piece together, but we do know that at one time, one of the chieftains for the sake of survival even changed religion to side with the Portuguese. Rivalry with the neighboring Zamorin of Calicut determined the future of that place.

Readers should note that there were two chieftains, one being the Tanur king or Vettath raja, the other being the vassal of the Zamorin called the (N) Parappanad raja. Vettatnad (Vettam) or Tanur Swarupam comprised of parts of Ponnani and Tirur Taluks. It included within itself such places as Tanur, Trikkantiyur, Chaliyam, Triprangode etc. Chalium on the other hand was controlled by the Parappanad raja called UrinamaThe Tanur kingdom was in those days very learned, and produced many famous people, mathematicians and artists. Tanur was thus a swaroopam. Somewhere during the 1350 period the wars between the upcoming Zamorin and the Vettah raja intensified and the dynasty were defeated by the Zamorin. The Ponnani port was very important for Arab trade and thus the strategic importance meant that the Zamorin had to have a long term relationship with the raja. Following this the Tirunavaya wars took place and in the uneasy truce that followed the Vettam raja was given a significant position in the ceremonious Mamankham where he stood to the left of the Zamorin and the Shahbandar koya of Calicut to his right.

The local kings of Vetathunaad, Beypore and Chaliyam did not quite like the policy adopted by the Zamorin (recall that they were connected family wise to the Cochin king already, not to the Zamorin) to conquer Cochin. The Vettath raja was the first to decide that he should align himself to the Portuguese and obtain an insurance against a Zamorin overture.

Initial forays in 1504 by the Portuguese to firmly ally with Tanur and find other allies in the region were not conclusive but the Tanur Raja helped some shipwrecked Portuguese in 1528 by giving them shelter & support. Da Cunha who succeeded Lopez finally sued for peace with the Zamorin towards 1529, after a tumultuous period where fortunes seesawed. Da Cunha seizing the opportunity sought support from him to build a fort in Tanur. However the building materials shipped for that purpose were lost in a shipwreck.  Tanur continued to be in the Portuguese eyes for they not only had rice, coconuts and tradesmen, but also a number of ships. But the Portuguese had established a fort in Calicut instead and this lasted during 1513-1525 before being destroyed.

At Calicut a new Zamorin had come to the sthanam in 1531. Da Cunha, hell bent on securing that strong foothold in Malabar, enticed the Chaliyam Raja - Unni Rama by offering 2000 pardaus and 50% of the customs revenue, and requested permission to build a fort, which he agreed to after persuasion by his neighbor the Raja of Tanur. Using stones from the tombs and the old mosque (quoting Zainuddin Mukkadam) at Chaliyam or Pappu kovil, the Franks finally started building their base much to the annoyance of the local Muslims. With the help of the Chaliyam raja, a fort and a chapel ‘Santa maria de Castello’ were built at Chalium in 1532, together with a house for the commander, barracks for the soldiers, and store-houses for trade. The thoroughly incensed Moplahs and Arab moors appealed to the new suzerain at Calicut (Note that Tanur, Chaliyam and beypore were always under the Zamroin’s suzerainty). As you will realize, the fort at Chalium was strategic for it controlled the entrance to the sea and the waterways providing much control over trade in the region.

When the Zamorin remonstrated, the Chaliyam raja immediately agreed to stop support for the Portuguese, but the Tanur (Vettath) Raja decided to formally side the Portuguese and even take a step further by converting to Christianity to get the full support of the Franks (the Cochin king had meanwhile, refused to convert) and protect himself in future endeavors. The dates go a little awry here, for Krishna Ayyar mentions that these events took place in 1531, however Jesuit documents reconfirm 1545 as the date when the conversion of the king was planned to be carried out in secret.

It was sometime in 1545 that Francis Xavier came to Malabar. He left Lisbon in 1541 and by fall 1542, he had reached the fishery coast to tend to the Paravas (Read my articles listed under references for further details of his work and the persona of Joao da Cruz). While Xavier did succeed in getting many conversions done, his work was considered to be very unsystematic. This was the time when a new iron handed rector named Antonio Gomes entered the scene and soon locked horns with Xavier, but Xavier was on his way to Japan already after being disappointed by the Indians (barbarians, inconstant, and liars according to him) compared to the Japanese whom he found likeable. Xavier who was in theory Gomes’s superior, also found the Portuguese bureaucracy stifling. Gomes using his stronger connections in Lisbon, decided to start a number of Jesuit colleges and Chale or Claliyam was one of the locations he chose. Gaspar Barzaeus was to take care of this college. Xavier complained that António Gomes had no qualifications “to be in charge of the brothers in India and of the college”. But while the Jesuit college proposal for Chale never took off, Gomes did end up in Tanur.

Quoting Zupanov - From April until September 1549, he resided in part in Tanur, close to the Portuguese fortress in Chale, and in part traveled down the Malabar Coast. Officially, he had been sent by Bishop Juan de Albuquerque to instruct the king, who had been secretly converted to Christianity the previous year and who, in Gomes’s words, was “a man of good prudence and knowledge and, in what he shows he does not aspire to anything more than his salvation. In fact, more than or in addition to his spiritual salvation, the king of Tanur banked on Portuguese temporal, that is, military, support.

So we see that the king converted in 1548. Stepping back in time and looking into Jesuit records, we see that the Tanur King expressed his desire to convert in 1545, but as the whole idea of making a grand spectacle of baptism very risky, and since other matters were more pressing, delayed the event and then again, Xavier was away in Malacca. Another reason was that the King actually wanted the conversion to be done privately “in order to preserve the external signs of his caste and religion, such as the (sacred Brahman) thread and other pagan rites” (Note here that unlike the Zamorin who was a regular Nair, the rest of the Tamburans including the Tanur king were considered to be Samanthan Kshatriyas who could wear a poonool). This was not acceptable to Goa in 1545, but the resistance decreased in the next two years (It also appears that Diogo de Borba who was sent to Chaly on a fact finding mission felt that the Tanur king was just trying to use this ruse to get concessions from the Zamorin). But following Gomes’s intervention and involvement, the king allowed himself to be secretly converted following a concerted effort by João Soares, the vicar in Chale, and the Franciscan Frey Vicente de Lagos, who gave the neophyte a metal crucifix to hang onto his thread, “hidden on his chest.”

Now you see Gomes, entering the scene, having had a bigger win at converting a noble man compared to the lower classes Xavier had converted. Gomes spent five months at Tanur educating the new Christian Dom Joao, into Christian ways. He also converted the wife of the king, christening her as Donna Maria later in 1549.

In Goa, Albuquerque grandly stated: “It is the same in our case of Dom João de Tanur, who on the outside is dressed like others and in his heart wears the Catholic faith (en seu coração traz vestida a fé catoliqua), for the goal of converting many grandees and Nayars in his kingdom. . . . And when the time comes . . . he will break the Brahman thread, and will tear his old clothes and will be dressed in Christian clothes, which are Portuguese, just as the knight St. Sebastian did.

Perhaps the Tanur King felt a little insecure now, for he expressed his desire to travel to Goa. His relatives and the people of Malabar dissuaded him, so also the authorities at Goa. They wanted their pepper economics to be stable and to keep the game in play. The Zamorin also refused permission, and even offered additional territory near Ponnani to prevent him from going, but he left anyway. He is accosted, and imprisoned in a temple in Cannanore, but he escaped and reached Goa.

As the story goes, the Tanur King was warmly received in Goa in Oct 1549

It was yet another reason for Goa to celebrate it like a carnival. According to Juan de Albuquerque, Dom João received all the honors due a king, marked by three types of sounds: musical instruments such as trombetas, atabales (kettledrums), and charamellas (shawms); artillery discharges; and church bells. In this way, he was symbolically, or rather acoustically, co-opted into (or captured by) the Portuguese social, military, and religious orbit. At least for a short period of his stay in Goa, the king went “native”; he became a Portuguese because that was still the undisputed goal of conversion to Christianity. Thus, before entering the town, Dom João was “dressed in a Portuguese manner in honorable and rich clothes, with a very rich sword fastened [around the waist], with a rich dagger, one golden chain, black velvet slippers, a black velvet hat with a printed design (com uma estampa).”Fittingly caparisoned, he was paraded through the equally bedecked streets animated by dances, mimes, and gypsies performing along the Rua Direita and led in a solemn procession from the palace to the cathedral for the Mass. The next day he visited the monasteries and, at the invitation of António Gomes, spent the night in the College of St. Paul. He was then confirmed by the bishop and, on October 27, Dom João embarked the fusta, loaded with honors and gifts, and returned home to Tanur. Also his mother and son were converted and baptized.

The Goan Governor paid a return visit to Tanur, following which more conversions occurred and a new church was built. This was all to affect the people of Malabar for in 1598 one of the Zamrin’s nephews converted. We will get to that story soon.

Now why did the Tanur king feel so insecure to adopt this huge risk? As he admitted to the bishop of Goa, his position vis-à-vis the neighboring kings might be weakened by his conversion, and his younger brother who had fled Tanur was only waiting for a chance to snatch his kingly title. Moreover, he was a substitute king for his older, feebleminded (não capaz de siso) brother.

But all this wonderful stuff came to naught in the politics of the pepper trade. The Casa da India in Lisbon wanted Malabar pepper and this came from the Zamorin’s lands or from Cochin. If somebody was reason enough to reduce this regular outflow of pepper, Christian or not, the reason had to be snuffed out.

More wars and tussles took place, the Cochin king and the Zamorin had bones of contention with the Portuguese. The Tanur king tried to mediate unsuccessfully, and the fourth pepper war took place in 1550 over the territory of Bardela (Vaduthala?). The Goan establishment had also started to sense some disenchantment with the Tanur king who they now believed to be insincere. A rebellion of sorts took place against Gomes and Henriques who was appointed as confessor to the king, refused to listen to this pagan. Perhaps realizing the impractical nature of the situation and the complex relationship with the Portuguese, the Tanur raja soon returned to Hindu beliefs and deserted the Portuguese and instead allied with the Zamorin in the pepper war.

Pepper cargo to Lisbon was delayed until 1551 and soon enough Governor Jorge Cabral left for home and Gomes lost his political support in Goa. According to Gaspar Correa, whose Lendas da Índia ends with the Pepper War of 1551, it became obvious to everybody that the conversion of the King of Tanur was a fraud. His only reason for conversion was to renegotiate with the Zamorin certain territorial possessions along the river Ponnani.

We also hear a small story of the Tanur kings treachery and support for the Portuguese, in his papers about the two Dutchmen who were first invited by this king from Achen and Maladives and who were later handed over through the Cochin king and hanged by the Portuguese.

But the region would soon become the scene for more bloodshed, and for details of what happened, and how the Chalium fort was demolished in 1571 and eventually how the marakkars lost out, see the story of Kunhali marakkar narrated earlier. It appears also that when the fort of Chalyam fell, the residents were taken to the king of tanur. It could of course be said that this alignment was commercially better for the merchants of Tanur and the king himself, for they stopped paying the dues to the Zamorin.

The Tanur principality was to play a continuing role in regional politics. This became a base for Jesuit fathers trying to make forays into the Malabar towns. This was also where Father Fenizio started his work about which we will be discussing soon. We see that the descendants of the king also supported the Portuguese and they built more churches there in the early 17th century. But troubles continued when one of them was destroyed and then a plague hit Tanur and the Jesuits left for Calicut.

They not only supplied princes for adoption to the Cochin kingdom, but also Travancore. In 1658 when the Cochin crown fell vacant, five princes from the Tanur and Aroor royal families were taken into the palace by the regent. What followed was a war where the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Zamorin were involved with a lot of intrigues. Later the Tanur royal family lost a lot when the Mysore sultans attacked. Eventually, the EIC took over and finally with no natural or adoptive heirs to succeed the last king of Tanur, the kingdom was declared forfeit to the EIC and the temple was transferred to the Zamorin in 1842. For details on the relations with Travancore and ravi Varma, see the article Raja in Ravi Varma..

Tanur was instrumental for some important events though, for the Vettath sampardayam in Ramanattam (which later became Kathakali) originated from Vettah nadu and is attributed to a later raja of Tanur (1630-1640). During British times, Tanur Sardine oil was popular.

Journal of Kerala Studies, Volume 10 – The king of Tanur on the Malabar coast and the Indo Portuguese trade in the 16th century – KS Mathew
One civility but multiple religions – Ines Zupanov
Missionary topics – Ines Zupanov
Jesuits in Malabar – D Ferroli
The raja in Ravi Varma