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Ottoman links to Medieval Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Pre Khilafat Turkiye Malabar Connections, ante 1919

Some years ago, I had touched on the connections between Malabar and Turkey in relation to the Khilafat movement of the 1920’s and how and why it all fizzled out, culminating with the terrible days of the 1921 uprising. But Ottoman Turkey did have a link with the muezzins of Calicut and the clergy at Ponnani even before all that. I may have touched on the subject while writing about the Fathul Mubeyin, but let’s now see how it all adds up.

Turki kappal ailasa….I am sure every Malayali can connect to this usage, even today. Some who have dabbled in history will remember of a period when the people of Malabar were battling the Portuguese and the Turkish Ottoman Sultan finally sent out reinforcements in the form of a naval unit to battle the Portuguese at Diu and support the Malabar efforts. Well, that was just one part of the whole story, for it all started much before that event, so let’s go back in time…

That the spice trade was lucrative was well known since time immemorial and the seafaring Arab as well as Jewish traders had tight control over it till the Portuguese mastered the art of long-distance sailing and discovered the route to the Indes after circumventing the Cape of Good Hope, around the start of the 16th century. The Franks took over and seemingly impacted the Red Sea trade by embargoing it and making restrictions using their cartaz or permit system, all aspects we covered in past articles.

16th Century spice trade, with pepper from Malabar as the main produce much desired in Europe, dominated the sea channels. The placid seas now saw a great many sailing ships churning the waters in an urgency to profit. New sailing techniques, innovative ship designs, lethal naval armaments, the concept of armadas, navigational aids, food storage and preservation methods, were all the byproducts of that era. But it was as you can imagine, not just the Portuguese and the Spanish plying the waters. Many others wanted a part of it and so, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the French and the Brits were watching and waiting to get their bite of the spicy produce from Malabar.

Back in Europe, especially at the Mediterranean and the Arabic fronts, there was much commotion due to the rising power of the Ottomans of Turkey. From the 14th century they had been consolidating and moving westward, decimating well entrenched Christian powers and taking over Constantinople in 1453. It was during the 16th and 17th centuries that Sultan Suleiman extended its reach to control west and east. From an Indian point of view a critical phase was when Sultan Selim defeated the Mamluks and took over Egypt in 1516-17 as well its control of the Red Sea ports. Later, he conquered Hungary, other parts of Eastern Europe and Mesopotamia. Close to 900,000 miles in area, the Ottoman Empire spanned three continents. The Ottomans had become a problem for the Portuguese who, in order to break free from Ottoman trade monopolies, had only just found a route to and opened the treasure chests at Malabar.

But if you have been to Istanbul and wandered around the golden horn area, the old historic part of Istanbul, you would not have failed to spend a few hours in the Misir Carsi or spice bazar (Egyptian spice market) and marveled at the spices from the orient, the sights and smells of all the spices we know so well such as chillies, coriander, pepper, cardamom and cloves. I remember that whenever I felt a little homesick during my 6 year stay in Istanbul, I would drive down and wander through the Eminonu area, never missing these areas and I would wonder about the times historic Istamboul teemed with traders from various parts of the world (Misir carsi itself was built only in the latter half of the 17th century).

The confrontation between the Ottomans and the Portuguese at sea was inevitable and its effects on Malabar is a topic not studied so much or detailed in Portuguese Indian chronicles, but has been finding some interest in recent times, from historians like Giancarlo Casale. His papers and a wonderful book, read together with Andre Clot’s works on Suleiman, detail these aspects to some extent and provides a good understanding of the situation. What I can do is help you get interested by providing a precis…

What is quite interesting is that the Ottomans actually brought in a concept of free trade, liberating the Red Sea channels from restrictive policies previously adopted by the Egyptian Mamuluks. But the Ottomans did want a bigger slice of the trade, for they needed money for their wars and expansions. They could try out various strategies with a boldness others could not afford, and they did. As Casale explains – These became progressively more sophisticated over time, until by the end of the 1560s a comprehensive infrastructure was in place, including a rationalized Empire-wide tax regime for regulating private trade; a network of "imperial factors" who bought spices for the sultan in overseas emporiums; and an annual convoy of spice gal leys that shipped cargoes of state-owned pepper from Yemen to the markets of Egypt and Istanbul. All of this, combined with natural advantages of geography and the goodwill of Muslim traders in the Indian Ocean, enabled the Ottomanss to mount a formidable challenge to the Portuguese "pepper monopoly."  

But was it just goodwill and a desire to profit by Sultans which triggered all this or was it a direct request for support from Malabar? In what way did the Pardesi traders of Malabar fit into the Ottoman circle? Here is where the concept of the Khalifa or the caliphate comes into the picture. During the period of Ottoman growth, Ottoman rulers claimed caliphal authority and formally became the defender of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Then again, one could also debate if the Ottomans just wanted to keep this all going and get a cut or if the Ottomans actually wanted to invade India and bring it into his Caliphate.

The Pardesi traders of Malabar who had all the support from the Egyptian Mamuluks were now under siege, fighting for their existence in Malabar, from the Portuguese intruders. The first half of the 16th century saw a huge turbulence in their fortunes, having to wage continuous skirmishes at sea and land with the accursed franks. Seeing that the Ottomans were getting powerful, the Muslim religious leadership at Calicut had to appeal to the Ottoman powers now in control, namely their new caliph – Sultan Suleyman. But Suleyamn had a problem, while he saw that he could sit back and get a fixed 10% of the revenue from the Kanuname (kanoon name) tax code, he had to be proactive and control the Portuguese at sea if that slice had to get bigger. But he had no real navy to boast of, so it was time to make one and be in control, not just depend on freelancing corsairs.

Let’s recoup a bit. Before the advent of the Portuguese, ships from Malabar, mainly Calicut left for Aden, sometimes escorted by armed ships maintained by the Yemeni Rasulids, to protect them from the ever-present sea pirates. The goods were trans-shipped at Aden and sent to Egypt on Rasulid al-diwan ships, to be sold at a much higher price in Alexandria. This next stage was Karimi merchant controlled, and things progressed to everybody’s mutual benefit until the Mamuluks insisted on their cut. Pepper prices continued to rise.

And then Vasco Da Gama, looking for Christians and pepper found the route to the land of black gold, and with that came a changed dynamic on the pepper trade. A large amount of literature make it seem that the Portuguese took over the entire business, but that is quite a wrong impression, for it is recorded that they held on to perhaps just about 10% of the business, in the 16th century. As the embargoes put into effect by Portuguese naval might began to bite, the crafty traders of Malabar recouped in different ways. They became bulk suppliers of pepper to the Portuguese, for there was no way the Frank could get to or influence the source, the hill and lay producer as well as the Moplah collector of the seeds.

Larger volumes were directly smuggled out through complex routes, partly overland and then by sea, through the Kayalpatanam or other Coromandel ports, or through Diu up North closer to Gujarat. In parallel a militant organization sprung up near Ponnani, backed by the Zainuddin Makhdum’s call for a Jihad. The Zamorin was firmly behind them in the wars against the Portuguese, small or big. It was important for him, for the Pardesi trader who held the purse strings and the connections in the Arab land was getting nervous and considering if they should leave or drift to safer environs to ports not controlled by the Franks. Many did move after the 16th century anyway and with that influential Moplahs supported by the Marakkars were slowly taking over the pepper trading business from the Pardesi, in Malabar.

The Northern Gujarati ports were well fortified, especially Diu which the Portuguese mostly left alone. But many naval encounters did occur and we talked about those in the past. As the trunk route to Egypt came under threat, the Mamuluk sultans assembled an offensive armada which sparred with the Portuguese in the opening decades off the seas of Calicut and Cochin, an interesting story which I will recount separately. Nevertheless, the Mamuluks lost the battles on the Arabian seas, and with it their power was on the decline. Meanwhile, at Cairo, the Ottomans who had been eyeing the pepper business or the spice trade, had arrived, conquered and taken over control.

Sultan Suleiman
Nevertheless, we can see that even before the advent of the Ottomans, the Qazi’s of Malabar were being amply compensated by Rasulid grants from Aden. In return, they invoked his name in the Friday prayers in Malabar mosques. Documents from that period detail the existence of various Pardesi groups, Turkish, Persian, Arab and so on at Calicut and we can see a mention that as the Rasulid’s were weakening by the 1440 time period, the Timurid’s attempt to get involved, evidenced by the visit of Abd-el razaq, Sharukh’s ambassador, to Calicut, which as we know was a fiasco.

Out West, the Ottomans had already made their presence felt when they repulsed a Portuguese attempt to take over Mecca and Medina. The Muslims of Malabar too respected them and the opposition of the Portuguese cemented their position as their new Khalifa.

It was around 1513 that Piri Reis (Ahmed Muhiddin Piri) the corsair made his famous map for Sultan Selim 1, and from that we find that though the Ottomans knew the seas through such corsairs, there was no direct state involvement in exploration or conquest from the waters. When Mamuluk resident Malik Ayyaz of Diu aligned himself with the Zamorin and the Pardesi traders of Calicut, he exhorted the Mamuluk’s of Cairo for support, they sent a 20-ship fleet captained by Hussein Al-kurdi, which was successful in thwarting the Franks at Chaul. But Al-Kurdi was in following years more interested in becoming the lord of Aden himself when asked to sail again in support of Calicut and Diu. Malik Ayaz lost faith in Hussein and decided to get into bed with the Ottaman’s (this was rumored to be one of the reasons why the Ottomans conquered Cairo and Aden) as overlords of the spice trade.
Sultan Selim ordered that 50 more ships be constructed to support the Indians, against the Portuguese ‘in order to push these perfidious troublemakers towards a destiny of blackness, and [with his troops] whose effect is like that of a tempest, he will cast them, soldier by soldier, to the winds of annihilation . . . then there will be safety and security’.

Albuquerque in Goa wrote to Lisbon for support, seeing what was to come, a potential Ottoman conquest of India. But that never happened, and matters were slow to develop, as the Egyptian ports teemed with carpenters and shipwrights working overtime to build the new fleet. Sultam Selim was busy with installing himself as the new Caliph and protector of Muslims worldwide, just as Dom Manuel in Portugal was trying to cement his role as the lord the eastern seas and the Estado da India. They were to face off soon, and that happened when Hussein el-Rumi was sent with a fleet to Yemen which unfortunately ground to a halt when Sultan Selim unexpectedly passed away in 1520. Suleiman the magnificent would soon take over in Istanbul. Ibrahim Pasha who had been appointed at the Egyptian administrator had in the meanwhile received a detailed report on the state of affairs in the Arabian seas and the pepper trade from a well experienced Ottoman corsair and naval hero, Selman Reis.

The rivalry between the Christians in the West, the Turks in the center and the Persians in the East would stretch for the whole of the 16th Century and Suleyman was right in the center, hemmed by his enemies. The Christians wanted to retake Constantinople while the Safavid Shias of Persia wanted to reign supreme, but Suleyman was on the march with his powerful guns and artillery and Hungary was soon taken.

As Albuquerque was presenting his report, the Portuguese ventured deep into the Red Sea and attacked the Arab ports to decimate many. The Ottomans decided to rebuild the Jiddah fleet to defend and if needed attack the Portuguese. It was also important to secure Aden, before it fell to the Portuguese. Suleiman Reis was tasked with rebuilding the fleet at Cairo as Ibrahim returned to Istanbul in 1525. His replacement at Egypt was a portly wizened eunuch, Hadim Suleyman Pasha. Already over 70 years in age, he was a veteran of many a battle. Selman Reis continued his fight with the Yemeni forces and after securing an acceptance of Ottoman suzerainty from the Emir of Aden, planted himself at the island of Kamaran. From 1527, all ships bound for and from India were to call on this port and pay a transit fee.
Hadim Suleyman Pasha

The Ottomans had arrived. Another Ottoman, named Hayrettin Rumi controlled matters at land. Selman Reis now had his sights trained on Yemen, and he proclaimed that a conquest of Aden would mean an inevitable destruction of Portuguese might. It was at this juncture, i.e. in 1527 that the Zamorin sent his embassy to the Ottomans for naval support against the Portuguese, just as Mamale Marakkar of Cannanore opened a new route via the Maldives, supported by Ottoman corsairs. In a cruel twist of fate, an argument between Hayrettin and Salman resulted in the murder of Selman in 1528, while he was playing a game of chess. Selman’s nephew Mustapha Bayram made amends by murdering Hayrettin, but he was no leader and the Ottomans withdrew from Yemen which descended again into leaderless anarchy. The Portuguese did not miss the opportunity, took control of Kamaran, made the Aden Emir submit now to King Manuel and established a fort at Den, manned by 40 Franks.

Mustafa Bayram and his followers (some 600 Turks and 400 Arabs) fled to Diu, with the blessing of the Ottoman authorities in Istanbul. Malik Ayaz had passed on, but his son Tughan was the new governor. Bayram’s timely arrival prepared the island thwart an attack by the Portuguese Nuno da Cunha. The Ottoman name which had sunk low in esteem after the debacles at Yemen was once again celebrated. Bayram and his men stayed in Diu to form what was the first and only Ottoman colony in the world.

Back in Egypt, Hadim Pasha, supported by Ibrahim in Istanbul were working on two ambitious schemes, one to reopen an ancient Pharoh Necho canal between the Nile and Tor at the Red Sea, as well as building a 60 ship fleet to patrol the Arabian seas. Curiously, both projects were shelved by 1531 and the Ottoman sultan decided to invade Iraq, while Hadim Suleyman Pasha was packed off to Syria, perhaps because the Turks had learned of Portuguese overtures with the Safavids against the Ottoman. These objectives were thwarted by the Ottomans when Iraq was taken in 1534 and the Persian Gulf states had been secured. Again, byzantine politics reared its head and in grand style the rising stature of Ibrahim pasha was curtailed with his execution in 1536, abetted perhaps by the intrigues of the bewitching red headed queen Roxelane.

Meanwhile, the old hand Hadim Suleyman was still waiting for his fleet and he was in regular touch with one Khoja Safar in Diu since Mustafa Bayram had defected to join the Mughal king Humayun. But before that, Bayram did establish a formal link with Calicut and made a tie up with the Marakkars in their ongoing attacks against Portuguese shipping. With Bayram’s defection, the Diu chief conceded to Portuguese authority, albeit temporarily as his confidant Khoja Safar got in touch with the Ottomans for further support. Hadim Suleiman then in Romelia, was reassigned quickly to Egypt and asked to prepare for a naval mission to Diu and Malabar. Was it a mercy mission to free Malabar shipping or was it a grand Ottaman plan to invade India by taking Diu and then unseating the Mughals? 78 ships and 20,000 men, including 7,000 janissaries manning a huge amount of armaments (There were nine huge cannons of extraordinary caliber that shot bullets 200 kg balls) make it likely that the mission was not to unseat the Portuguese, but to install Hadim Suleiman in Diu.

Hadim Suleiman had also perhaps cemented ties with Mamale and Pate Marakkar. Mamale controlled the Maldives route while Pattu marakkar had built a flotilla of some 50 fustas and was engaged in attacking the Portuguese continuously. Now it was time for the hammer to fall. As Casale explains - the most probable scenario seems to be that Hadim Suleiman, encouraged by envoys sent from Pate Marakkar and the Zamorin of Calicut sometime in 1537, dispatched Hamad Khan to Aceh at the same time as his own departure for India, with orders to harass Portuguese ships and, if possible, assist in an attack on the Portuguese fortress of Malacca….. By 1538, the pasha had managed to construct an enormous transoceanic coalition, linking Istanbul with allies across the entire breadth of the Indian Ocean from Shihr and Gujarat to Calicut and Sumatra.

The Ottoman fleet
The Ottoman expedition of 1538 followed, with the 70 armed vessels who laid a siege on Diu. But it was not to achieve any large amount of success as even before they left the Suez, Pate Marakkar was getting mauled by the Portuguese at the Ceylon straits and the Achenese attack on Malacca was repulsed by the Portuguese.  Pate (Pattu) marakkar and his fleet had been taken on by the Portuguese at Vedalai off the Ceylon straits, even before they could sail North to support Hadim Pasha. Martim Afonso de Sousa defeated them in Vedalai in early 1538, killing one of their three leaders, Ali Ibrahim, and subjecting the other two (Pate Marakkar and Kunjali Marakkar) to the humiliation of having to return to Calicut by land. We will cover that story also later, separately.

But as it all transpired, after intense bombing by the Turkish forces for all of 40 days, that too just as the Portuguese were about to cave in, Hadim Suleiman, decided to call off the siege and retreat to Yemen. Was it because he feared decimation by a rumored incoming Portuguese fleet from Goa, already on prowl since there was no Marakkar fleet to stop them? Perhaps so, nevertheless, the old admiral saw a possibility of ignominious defeat. But it was not just that, it was also so that he lost support from his Indian allies whom he did not inspire that he could ever take on the Portuguese, as an immensely rotund and aged (over 80 years in age) impervious man who had to be lifted by a team of four to just get off his seat for one, and secondly his people had immediately upon landing in Diu tried to loot and plunder the very city they had come to aid. Hadim Suleiman was not a man worthy of following, for he had at the start of the voyage first exhorted a large sum of money from the Governor of Jeddah, then invited the emir of Aden for dinner and hanged him on the ship’s mast. When his ships reached Diu, four of them had capsized to reveal a large number of saddles proving that the Ottamans indeed had plans to occupy lands, settle down and not just liberate Diu. As Casale puts it - Having lost most of his Indian allies through a combination of his own clumsy diplomacy and circumstances beyond his control, Hadim Suleiman could no longer be sure of his ability to keep possession of Diu even if he managed to conquer it.

It was therefore no wonder that the Emir Bahadur chose to quickly side with the Portuguese seeing that the Ottomans could be far more avaricious and cruel compared to the former. The Ottoman ships went back to Istanbul and Egypt, and entrenched themselves firmly in Yemen, with all Indian intentions forgotten. Hadim Suleiman was rewarded and installed as grand Vizier in Istanbul, at the age of 90 while Aden was retaken in 1551 by Piri Reis.

The Ottoman Sultans however continued the tradition of rewarding some 20 mosques in the Calicut region, and they in return perhaps invoked the Ottoman ruler now, in Friday prayers. This supposition is proved by a very interesting complaint of graft in a document (an edict that Soqullu Mehmed issued to his governor- general of Egypt in 1576) which tended to a complaint -

In times past, one hundred gold pieces [a year] were sent to the mosques of the twenty- seven cities located in the Indian port of Calicut for the Friday sermon. However, it has been reported that for the last few years only fifty gold pieces have been sent, and sometimes not even that amount […]. Be diligent in this affair and see to it that, in fulfilment of the requirements of my orders, one hundred florins are sent every year without fail and in perpetuity from the port of Jiddah for the above- mentioned sermons. As far as any payments that have still not been paid from previous years are concerned, these also should be paid in full from the revenues of Jiddah.

So we see that, the Ottomans, now controlling Aden, had also inherited the network of religious patronage which included the payment of the above mentioned stipends to Muslim communities on the Malabar Coast, cementing their links to the Muslim trading infrastructure as Caliphs. But interestingly, the Portuguese almost mauled at Diu and after suffering defeats at Aden and Hoimruz afterwards, sued for peace.

Diplomatic channels were also open in the meantime with Duarte Catanho who was sent to Goa by Sultan Suleyman, who met the Portuguese governor Nuno da Cunha and informed him that the Ottoman Sultan wanted to make peace with the Portuguese; for his palace needed 5,000 quintal (250,000 kg) of pepper. The Turks, in return, would promise not to fight against the Portuguese for between five and fifteen years, and to provide them with 5,000 moio (about 3,800 tons) of wheat.
Dom João’s III’s wanted the Ottomans to leave the Indian Ocean and leave unrestricted access for their own ships in the Red Sea and clearance to trade freely in Aden and Jiddah under the same conditions as Muslim merchants. In exchange Dom João would to compromise his monopoly over the pepper trade by granting the sultan permission to purchase up to three thousand quintals (roughly 130 metric tons) of Indian pepper every year.

The Ottoman Sultan as we can see, did not agree and countered in 1540 – That the Portuguese merchants could trade in Ottoman ports and agreed in principle, to limit Ottoman pepper imports to four thousand quintals a year, but at the same time insisting that this pepper was to be supplied by Muslim ships from the independent port city of Calicut. Wheat from Turkey could be supplied through French and Venetian intermediaries and the Portuguese were not to transport it with their own ships.

All this as you can see, is a very interesting and extensive subject, one which I can better appreciate due to my stay in Turkey, so I will get back in more detail to specific sections of the Ottoman influence on the Red Sea pepper trade, later.

But in conclusion I will repeat Clot’s quote from orientalist Armin Vambery. In more detail - Sultan Suleiman went much further; he aimed at the subjugation of the whole of the then existing Moslem East, hence his diplomacy in the Arabian and Persian seas, and his deep-laid plans for taking Ormuz from the Portuguese in order to obtain a firm footing in Gujarat. If this plan had succeeded, he would have broken the growing power of the successors of Baber and established himself as sole ruler of Hindustan. If Suleiman, instead of deluging Hungary and Austria with his janissaries, had put the conquest of India on his programme, his efforts would have been crowned with greater and more lasting success than that which attended them in the Danubian provinces. He had at his disposal a mighty, ever victorious fleet, while the descendants of Baber were entirely without one. His prestige was great and without parallel in Arabia, Egypt, nay even in the whole of the Islam world, and the victory which a handful of Central Asian adventurers could obtain over the Vishnu worshippers, would have been child's play to his disciplined, well-armed, valiant bands of Janissaries. The Ottoman rulers as masters of India would have played a far more important part in history than any of their predecessors on the road to conquest, and who can say what might not have been the fate of Asia under such conditions?

The Ottoman Age of Exploration – Giancarlo Casale
Suleiman the magnificent – Andre Clot
The Travels and Adventures of the Turkish Admiral Sidi Ali Reïs: In India - Seydî Ali Reis, A Vambery

Hari Singh, Haider Ali and the Zamorin

Posted by Maddy Labels:

A Punjabi adventurer and Calicut 1756-58

It is certainly a point of interest to note that a Punjabi adventurer in the employment of Devarajaiya the ruler of Mysore had something substantial to do with the eventual fall of Calicut in 1766. Not may are aware of this sub plot in the advance of Haider towards Malabar and how Haider usurped the Mysore throne. Let’s take a look.

The Mysore kingdom was ruled by the descendants of Yaduraya Raja after Wodeyar’s death in 1617 and until Chikka Devaraja Wodeyar came to the throne in 1704 (there were four rulers in between), none could beget legal heirs. The sole exception to the curse was Chikka Devaraja's deaf and mute son Kantheerava Narasaraja Wodeyar II, also known as Mookarasu. He was succeeded by his 12 year old son Dodda Krishna Raja Wodeyar, who ruled from 1714 to 1732 and with him Yaduraya’s direct lineage came to an end. The Raja's lack of interest in state affairs, led to the ascent of two Dalavoys (Dalawa), or ministers, Devaraja, the army chief, and his cousin, Nanjaraja, who was both the revenue minister and the privy councilor, to wield all authority in the kingdom.

Chamaraja Wodeyar VII, one such titular king reigned for two years until he was imprisoned in 1734 after falling afoul of the brothers and for trying to create a new honest government. He was followed by the 4 year old Chikka (Immadi) Krishnaraja Wodeyar II who continued to rule under the Dalavoys, until 1766 after which one Nanjaraja Wodeyar took over as the ruler.

But it was in 1766, that a lot of things changed. The Dalvoys were replaced by Haider and thereafter, his expansionist overtures led to the death of the Zamorin in the same year, when Malabar succumbed making Haider pretty much the defacto ruler of Mysore and Malabar. The acts played by the various parties and what led to the battles in Malabar present great drama and one that most historians writing about the Mysore Sultans in Malabar did not really cover. I will try to make some amends. The rivalry between two military adventurers, Haider Ali and Hari Singh culminated in Haider’s march into Malabar and hastened the decline, if not the end of the 400+ year reign of the Zamorins of Calicut.

Hari Singh or Herri Sing was certainly an interesting character, and we have to bring him to the fore slowly after studying the situation created by the two cousins, Devaraja and Najaraja. The kings brought in by the cousins with the support of queen mother Devajammanni, were from parallel branches of the old Wodeyar royal family and pretty soon, Nanjaraj the cousin died only to be replaced by Devaraj’s direct brother Karachuri Nanjaraj as the Sarvadhikari. The younger brother proved to be a nuisance and replaced the retinue of advisors and servants with his own, forming a separate power structure, in direct confrontation with his elder brother Devaraj. Things continued on without much issue until 1746, when one Nasir Jung from Deccan attacked Mysore seizing an opportunity as Nagaraj and the Mysore army were away in Coimbatore subduing the Polygar of Dharmapatanam. Devaraj who was quite old could not hold off the new attacker, sought peace by agreeing to pay a tribute. Nanjaraj after coming back took over as Dalavoy. 

It was during this period that Haider Ali commenced his meteoric rise to fame, projecting his command abilities during the lengthy siege of Trichy by Nagaraj and his troops (a long story in itself involving the French, English troops and the Mahratas). Nevertheless, the Mysore kingdom under the old Dalavoy presented an easy conquest once again to the Deccan Subedar’s as we had seen previously and faced renewed pressure from the Mahratta’s in the North. Large tributes were exacted by them to stay away and the Mysore government was weighted down with first of all huge expenses from the disastrous foray in Trichy, but also the Deccan tribute debts (56 lakhs). There were only two persons who could rescue Mysore, namely Hari Singh or Haider Ali.

Haider’s entry into all this is interesting, but not surprising as his family were one comprised of mercenaries. From Haidernama, we note that his family hailed from some part of Arabia and his father Fatheh Ali ended up in Kolar and moved on to Gummanahalli serving one Diler Khan, but died in a battle, leaving his sons indebted to the tune of 10,000 varahas, to the Governor of Sira. Haider and his brother Shahbaz finally found support from Dalavoy Devaraja at Sreerangapatanam and managed to pay off the debt. During the siege of Devanahalli in 1746, he managed to impress Nanjaraj and was made the commander of 50 horse and 200 foot soldiers. To rise further up, a large financial base was needed and it was during a battle at Ginjee during 1751 that Haider enriched himself with a large haul of Akbar-shahi gold mohurs, 500 guns and 300 horses. The Trichy affair which followed did not go well for Nanjaraj, but Haider rose up to become a Bahadur and commanded his own army of 2,000 horse, 4,000 armed peons, and 4,000 infantry forces, as well as 4-6 cannons.

As we saw, Mysore was in doldrums, indebted heavily and thus its rulers decided to usurp monies from other distant lands. It was under these circumstances that Haider was dispatched to Dindigul, to fight and conquer the Polygars - Amminayaka, Appinayaka and other Polygars of Palani, Virupaksha & Mille-Mirangi. Historians such as Wilkes comment that he deceived these Polygars and amassed wealth to the extent of 20 lakhs of rupees from these conquests and earned himself the title of Foujdar of Dindigul, and developed an ambition to become the Sultan of Mysore. Soon his sights were trained on pickings in Malabar and Travancore, and he waited for an opportunity to present itself. Meanwhile in 1756, the two brothers fought over a matter concerning the treasury and the aged Devaraja left Srirangapatinam to settle down in Satyamangala.

At that time Haider, his brother-in-law Syed Mukhadam and Dewan Venkata Rao were sent to fight the Zamorin and the nairs of Calicut to finally agree for peace on the understanding that the Zamorin should pay a tribute of Rs. 12 lakhs. But the Zamorin secretly negotiated with Devarajaiah and promised to pay him the stipulated tribute of Rs. 12 lakhs (in instalments) instead of to Haider, if Haider were persuaded to withdraw from Calicut. When Devaraja asked Haider to come back, the latter refused to do so unless he was compensated Rs. 3 lakhs towards the expenses incurred by his army. Devaraja did so and after withdrawing Haider’s army, sent Hari Singh to collect the 12 lakhs of the promised tribute.

Thus we get to this mysterious Hari Singh. Who is he? What became of his trip to Calicut? How did he become a conduit between the Zamorin and the Mysore raja as well as Dalavoy Devaraja? How did this raise an ire from Hari’s nemesis Haider Ali? What happened thence?

While the British historians term Hari Singh as a Rajput Jamedar operating in Mysore and heading a Rajput mercenary force for Devaraja, Prof Saletore maintains that he was a Sikh based on other inscriptions related to Guru Nanak and Sikh presence in the armies of the Wodeyars. Hari Singh appears not only in the Haider Nama, but also in the detailed accounting by Wilks, as a potential competition to Haider. While Haider was under the protection of Nanjaraj, Hari Singh had the ailing Devaraja as his benefactor.

It is in 1753 that we first come to see the valor of Hari Singh, during the battles at Trichy involving the Mysore forces, the Mahratta’s, the British and the French. Hari Singh (“ Harrasing” of Orme’s Military transactions accounts - The Morattoes under the command of Harrasing, came galloping up at a great rate, and making a resolute charge on the left of the line, where a body of Sepoys were posted, broke through them sword in hand), was a Rajput soldier. He commanded the Mahratta’s in the valiant action of the 10th May 1753 engaging the English at Srirangam and later joined the Mysore army under Devaraja according to Hayavadana Rao. Kirmani terms him a Rathore who commanded a 150 horse with his own pugh, 500 horses and 2000 foot under him.

Wilks writes - Herri Sing and his Rajpoots were first abroad, and made a vigorous charge fairly through the first line, but were checked by a reserve of Europeans and by the sepoys, who rallied with spirit, and compelled the Rajpoots to retire with great loss, sustaining in their precipitate retreat the fire of ten pieces of cannon.

His enmity with Haider is also stated in a subsequent attack - Herri Sing was not only the rival, but the personal enemy of Haider; whom he considered as an upstart, indebted for his success in life more to fawning and flattery than to military merit; and would never condescend to address him, or speak of him, by any other designation than the Naick. The horse of Meer Aly Reza, the brother-in-law of Haider, happened to be restive, and on being corrected, became unmanageable, and ran off at speed towards the enemy's ranks. Herri Sing, seeing through the openings of the wood, the brother in-law of Haider precipitate himself towards the enemy, concluded that he was followed by his troops; and calling out that the Naick would have the credit of the day, gave the word and the example to charge. A shot had not yet been fired, when the shout of the Rajpoots was heard; and the troops on both sides of the road, depending on the judgment of Herri Sing, who was deemed their best officer, charged at the same instant in all directions; and the English troops marching in platoons, without any expectation of such an attack, were cut down before they could make a second discharge. When the hurry of the action was over, Haider, always attended by his Beder peons, was found to be in possession of all the guns and tumbrils: and Herri Sing, who now understood the nature of his first error, claimed them as his own right from having actually carried them; and such was the state of the fact. The honor of the day properly belonged to Herri Sing, but the guns were in possession of his rival; and after a long discussion, he was obliged to compound for one, and to leave the remaining three to Haider, as the substantial trophies of a victory which he had not gained.

Before long, we find Haider as the Foujdar of Dindigul and he gets approached by the Kombi raja of Palghat who fears for his safety after the Zamorin’s Naduvattom overtures. We also take note of the strained relationship between Haider and Devaraj, for when Haider returned to Seringapatanam to help the Dalavoy brothers who were being coerced by the Mahratta’s, he is not able to conduct any discussions with Devaraj in Satyamangalam and has to use Konde Rao as a mediator.

Haider Ali
According to Wilks - Before Haider's departure from Dindigul, he had received a deputation from the Nair Raja of Palghaut, situated on the eastern frontier of Malabar, opposite to the great chasm in the range of western mountains, which leaves a communication between the two coasts of the peninsula, covered only with forests of the stately teak, without the intervention of a hill. This chief was at war with the Rajas of Cochin and Calicut; and being hard-pressed by his enemies, the object of his deputation was to desire succour from Haider, who, at the time of his journey to the capital, had detached his brother-in-law Muckhdoom Saheb with two thousand horse, five thousand infantry, and five guns (the first Mohammedan corps that had ever entered Malabar) to his assistance.

This chief, in conjunction with the Nairs of Palghaut, carried his arms to the sea coast; and the enemy finding resistance to be unavailing, had compromised for the restitution of their conquests from Palghaut, and a military contribution of twelve lacs of Rupees to be paid by instalments : but finding the presence of the strangers while waiting for the money to be burdensome, and meditating to evade the payment altogether, they had now sent secret agents to Deo Raj, offering to pay the money to him, provided he would rid them of the Mussulman troops of Haider, and send Hindoos to receive it. This transaction furnished the means of arranging the negotiation between Deo Raj and Haider. The resumed revenues were restored to him, together with Soucar security for three lacs as a reimbursement of extraordinary expenses incurred in the expedition to Malabar; and on these conditions Muckhdoom was recalled. Haider relinquished his claim to the military contribution of twelve lacs; and the Rajpoot corps of Herri Sing, the most zealous adherent of Deo Raj, was sent to receive it.

It was during this period that Devaraja reconciled with his brother Nanjaraj, but soon after, suffering from dropsy or otherwise, passed away under suspicious circumstances. Tobias George Smollett mentions - Haider and Kunde Row procured the public reconciliation of the two brothers, Deo Raj and Nunjeraj, at Mysoor, but the former died six days after this event; as preliminary to this, however, Nunjeraj had been compelled to make an atonement to the young Rajah for the insults offered to him in his presence.

Now Hari Singh was in Calicut at this time and finding it difficult to get any money from the Zamorin who had not the resources to pay the huge amount. Smollett continues - Herri Sing, who had been sent to receive the military contribution of Malabar, found himself unable to realize any part of it; and on hearing of the death of his patron Deo Raj (June 1758), marched, during the torrents of the S. W. monsoon, to the province of Coimbatore; where a distance of scarcely thirty miles from the periodical rains of Malabar always presents fair weather and the most striking change of climate. In this province he encamped at the village of Aounassee (Avanashi – Coimbatore), ostensibly to refresh his troops, but in reality negotiating for the service of the Raja of Tanjore.

Herri Sing whose personal enmity to Haider we have already had occasion to notice, had been particularly protected by Deo Raj, as Haider had been by Nunjeraj; and was, next to Haider, the most opulent partisan in the service of the State of Mysoor. Deo Raj had always opposed his brother's rapid advancement of Haider, adopting the opinion of Herri Sing and all the old chiefs, who attributed that advancement more to his intrigues as a courtier, than his merit as a soldier. Herri Sing, in particular, made no scruple of avowing on all occasions his contempt for the Naick. Their hatred, in short, was mutual and open, and the time had now arrived when Haider was enabled to take a complete revenge.

Sinha avers - Hari Singh was the one man in Mysore who was thought to be a better soldier than Haidar. But being a man of implacable revenge, Haidar could never forgive or forget personal insults, injuries and rivalries. So it would now be clear to readers that the chance Haider was searching for, dropped at his doorstep! As expected, deceit which was natural to the Naick at Dindigul, manifested itself and he ambushed the unsuspecting Harri Singh.

On the pretense of returning a portion of his troops to Dindigul, he detached Mukhdoom Saheb with one thousand horse, and two thousand infantry, by whom Herri Sing, carelessly encamped at Aounassee giving repose to his men, naturally unsuspicious as he was brave, and ignorant even of the movement of this detachment, was surprised and massacred in the dead of the night, together with a large portion of his troops. Among the plunder acquired by this infamous exploit were three hundred horses, one thousand muskets, and three guns, which were brought in triumph to the capital. To the Raja, Haider presented in form the three guns for the service of the State, and fifteen beautiful horses for the royal stables: the remainder of the horses and military stores, together with the money and property, found their accustomed appropriation.

During the absence of the force under Muckhdoom Saheb, Haider revived the subject of the Soucar security for three lacs, which had been given by the late Deo Raj. The claim was recognized without difficulty by Nunjeraj, and approved by the Raja; and an assignment on the revenues of Coimbatore was appropriated for its liquidation. It was also proper and decorous to reward by some public mark of confidence and distinction and thus the fort and district of Bangalore were conferred on him as a personal jageer.

Kirmani whom Kareem uses as a prime source, writes differently, blaming Hari Singh for conducting a Dharna at Nanjaraj’s doorstep for payment of (and his soldiers) arrears as the cause for Haiderr’s attack on him, placing the said account not at Coimbatore, but near Seringapatanam. Let’s see what he says.

Hydur All, in whose personal character he (Nanjraj) had great confidence, and a Rathore Jamadar, named Hurri Singh, who commanded a hundred and fifty horse, these, with his own Pagah, five hundred horse, and about two thousand foot, he kept with himself. The entire want of money and supplies, however, so oppressed the soldiers, that, Hurri Singh forgetting the ties of salt, or gratitude to his master, in order to obtain his arrears of pay forbade the sleeping and eating of the Dulwai, by placing him in Dhurna, or arrest, and that in so great a degree as even to stop the water used in his kitchen. The Dulwai, losing heart from this rigour, with his clothes and the vessels of silver and gold brought for his use in travelling, and a small sum of money, paid him off, and discharged him.

As soon as the Jamadar had obtained his money and discharge, he marched away with his baggage, to a place within about three miles from Seringaputtun, and encamped there; and his men being free from care and want, in body and mind, after eating and drinking joyfully, laid themselves down to rest with the greatest confidence.

On witnessing these occurrences, however, Hydur became exceedingly excited, and going to the Dulwai, addressed him in reproachful terms, saying to him, "Why have you acted thus? What you have done is unworthy a man of rank! Is it proper, that, without the knowledge of your most particular friend, and for the sake of paying one of the meanest servants, of the Raj, or Government, you should have incurred the discredit of selling your plate and clothes and of discharging demands without proof of the justness of the claim? This is far from correct; seeing that to make one man insolent by such an unwise indulgence, is to open the door to similar claims and insults from the rest of the officers of the troops. It is indispensable therefore that he who has placed his foot beyond the circle of obedience, and by that means sought misfortune, should be punished; and, if you authorise me, I will punish him so that he shall be an example to others.'

The Dulwai lent an attentive ear to this advice, and requested that it might be as Hydur All had said. Hydur, therefore, immediately rising, without a moment's delay returned to his own place of encampment, and taking five hundred musketeers, or matchlock men, and a store of ammunition with him, he marched straight towards Hurri Singh's halting ground, and falling suddenly on his sleeping party, whose death had arrived, and firing volley after volley among them, slew some, the more fortunate on their beds, and others were slain rising and advancing a few steps, with their swords and shields in their hands. In fine, the whole of the troop, with their mutinous Jamadar, were slain by the sword, bayonet, and all their arms and baggage, with their money, utensils, horses, and the articles they had collected, were brought to the Dulwai, who, with the exception of the money and articles belonging to himself, presented the whole of the plunder & horses of these slaughtered men to Hydur Ali whose prudence in this action acquired for him great renown.

A few days after this, the Dulwai sent for Hydur, and, seating him on the musnud with himself, he consulted with him on the re-establishment of his own affairs, complaining bitterly of his distress for want of money. Hydur immediately took the management of his affairs, (that is, to say, the collection of money for his wants), on his own responsibility, and without delay, like a raging lion, marched with his brave soldiers towards the Poligars; and, in the course of one year, having thrown all the Nairs and Mapillas into the utmost trepidation and confusion, he collected a large sum of money. In this expedition those persons who, according to requisition, came forward with a good will, and did their best to provide the sum demanded, he spared in life and property; but, on the contrary, those who disobeyed his commands, and, without having the license or exemption of the Raja, refused to pay the required tribute, he so completely destroyed, that their names, and those of their children, were erased from the book of time.

Now here is where the key aspect comes to light. The amount due to Haider which was 3 lakhs for the advancement of Makhdoom’s forces to Calicut had been paid, so all arguments by historians that Haider attacked Calicut to get back monies due to him are wrong. The 12 lakhs due to the Mysore government was to be paid in installments, as agreed. But Harri Singh did not wait and rushed back to his dying master’s side.

Haider meanwhile had figured out that the warring rajas of Malabar could be easily manipulated, as Sinha states - But this Malabar episode made Haidar realize how easy it was to conquer divided and distracted Malabar from the landside. Of this knowledge acquired by the reconnoitering expedition of Makhdum Ali, he made excellent use later.

But that was not all, the Mysore government owed large amounts to the Mahratta’s and Deccan rulers and soon enough, Haider rose against his own patrons and usurped Mysore, a story which can be retold in more details another day. A quick summary can be gleaned from Smolltee’s words.

During the ten years which followed, Haider gained in strength, dealt with a Dharana by his own soldiers who had not been paid, while the Queen mother Laksammanni was plotting hard to get rid of him by involving the Mahratta’s, French and British on varying occasions. Smolltee states - The troops of Mysoor were at this period in a state of mutiny, from the long arrears of their pay. Haider and his friend and accountant, undertook the liquidation of these arrears, and accomplished it by a sale of public property, this circumstance would not have been worth recording, but that it caused very considerable popularity to Haider among the citizens, which could not but be of very considerable advantage to his future projects. Haider prevailed as we know, dealt with treacherously, his various benefactors Raja, Nanjaraj, and Konde Rao and rose to become the Nawab of Mysore, and upon his deserved painful death following battles in Malabar, was succeeded by an even more ruthless ruler, Tipu.

Thus we come to a conclusion on the matters regarding the Mysore overtures against Calicut in 1756-58 and we are also clear that the Zamorin did indeed owe the Mysorean’s the 12 lakhs, not Haider himself.

Regrettably the Malabar conquests by Haider and Tipu have been treated and analyzed by different historians in different ways, nationalistically, religiously or sometimes deliberately underplayed or manipulated as for example by British writers, writing to please their masters. A quick perusal of all these sources show that we have still a long way to go in realizing the true nature and effects of these conquests, their reasons and the true nature of the conquerors. The true roles of Srinivasa Rao and Syed Mukhadam, who remained in Calicut to rule have been glossed over, in most cases. Also misunderstood is the complete story of the desperate fightback by the local chieftains, the Ravi Varma’s of the Padinjare kovilakom, their Nairs and even some of the Moplahs, all stories usually underplayed by writers concentrating on either the heroics or the villainy of Haider & Tipu. But we will get there eventually, of that I am sure.

Historical Sketches – History of Mysore - Lt Col Mark Wilks
Modern Mysore from the beginning to 1868 – M Shama Rao
History of the Wodeyars of Mysore (1610-1748) – A Satyanarayana
The Khalsa & the Punjab – Ed. Himadri Banerjee (The Sikhs in the South – BA Saletore)
Mysore gazetteer – Chapter 9
History of Hyuder Naik – MHAK Kirmani, Trans Col W Miles
Kerala under Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan – C K Kareem
Dutch in Malabar - PC Alexander
Haider-nama – Kannada work, hitherto unpublished
History of Mysore – C Hayavadana Rao
Haider Ali - N K Sinha
A history of Kerala – KM Panikkar

The Moplah Rifles (1902-1907)

Posted by Maddy Labels:

A Short Lived experiment

Many have asked me why I continue to use the word Moplah, and not the word Mappila. I have no real answer to that, perhaps it is because it is more often used in historical text and finds more results in searches. I have also never been a great supporter of changing well accepted names like Bombay to Mumbai and Madras to Chennai, but then I should not digress. We will spend some time today studying the creation and the untimely disbanding of the Moplah Rifles in the British Army.

The Moplah rifles owes its lineage to the 17th Battalion, former the Cochin State Infantry of the Princely State Forces. This went on to become the 17th Carnatic Battalion and later the 17th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry in the Madras Army. In 1796 it was the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment of Madras Native Infantry. By 1824 it had become the 17th Regiment of Madras Native Infantry and in 1885 became 17th Regiment of Madras Infantry. It was in 1902 that the 1st Moplah Rifles were constituted and in 1903 became 77th Moplah Rifles. The first Moplahs were enlisted in 1900 as part of the 25th and the 17th Madras regiments and these were the ones which became the 1st and 2nd Moplah Rifles.

After the first Afghan War, the British decided to unify the various regional armies and foru wings were formed, the Punjab, Bengal, Madras (Burmese units were part of madras) and Bombay. Each command had a lieutenant general and they reported to the Commander in Chief. Now some clever guys might ask how the numbering was done. Well the numerical preference went to Bengal, followed by Punjab and Madras, then Hyderabad and finally Bombay. The cavalries were formed and Madras set itself apart by initially being non-siladar, meaning that their horses were government maintained. The other units were siladar with the soldier owning and maintaining his horse and were paid better. Most of the Burmese security battalions belonged to the Madras, and the British were becoming aware that the southern soldier was not as well cut out for military duty as compared to their Punjabi Sikh and Muslim (mainly from the NWFP) brethren with the result that even the Madras regiments were soon to get Punjabised. But let’s now track the entry of Moplahs into these forces (Many a British source called them the Mop’s). A quick aside, did you now there was even the 3rd Brahmans?

Stephen Luscombe opines - Although the Moplahs took on the position in the Madras infantry line of the 17th and 25th, it is unlikely that any Moplahs were in those regiments prior to 1902 as they had, as a race, a reputation for causing trouble. An official report had earlier dismissed them as 'a turbulent and fanatical community'. In the previous 60 years they had participated in no less than 33 outbreaks which required military assistance to suppress. Troublesome races had been successfully recruited into the army before (e.g. Sikhs and Gurkhas) so it seemed a good idea to try the Moplahs.

In 1885, District collector HV Connolly had been murdered and the British came down on the community with an iron hand. Soon, the Moplah outrages as the British called them, in Malabar, had subsided and there was some agreement in assimilating them into the British forces after having observed their vigor in battle during these skirmishes. The District magistrate observed thus (not sure if it was W Logan or CA Galton) about their entry into the armed forces - In 1900 the enlistment of Moplahs was commenced in the 25th Madras infantry, and that regiment and the 17th Madras Infantry are now being gradually reconstituted as the 1st and 2nd Moplah Rifles. The men when treated with discrimination, are found most amenable to discipline and are well behaved. Their soldierly qualities are evident from their history, and their physique leaves nothing to be desired. As these people number a total of over 200,000 males, they should be able to supply us with a number of battalions of efficient soldiers, and no doubt when the time comes, they will prove their efficiency in and value on the field of battle.

At the beginning of the 20th century the basis for recruitment was changed from Madrasis to Moplahs. The Moplahs had a reputation as an aggressive race and it was hoped to make use of their martial skills in the Indian Army. A problem from the beginning was that the population numbers available for recruitment were limited. In 1907, shortly before disbandment, the regiment numbered only 350 men.

Brian Stevens adds – In 1901-02 the 17th and 25th Madras infantry were re-designated the 1st and 2nd battalions Moplah Rifles, recruiting Moplahs or as they were known today, Mappilas, a Muhammedan people of Arab descent living in the Malabar district. The 1903 renumbering resulte din their becoming the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles, although why the 78th was so numbered is not known, Strictly speaking, it should have been the 85th in accordance with the rule that the old Madras regiments added 60 to their previous number.

Two battalion-sized regiments of Moplah Rifles were thus formed and the 78th was posted to the North West Frontier in 1905 to be tested under active-service conditions. The experiment was not considered a success. It is explained that this was possibly die to the difficulties experienced by British officers in learning Malayalam ( a language they said did not include any military terms!). Another problem mentioned was that the Moplah sepoy, accustomed to the moist humidity of Malabar did not take kindly to the dry climate of the Punjab frontier.

In 1902, the 2nd Moplah Rifles were shipped to England for the Coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Their costume attracted much attention, and their scarlet Zouave jackets and red tarbushes (Turkish style Fez cap) - a headdress not previously worn by the Indian Army stood prominent.

In 1903 when the two battalions became the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles, the uniform of the senior battalion changed to one that was green faced with scarlet and that of the junior became red faced with green.

Getting back to the Moplah recruitment process, Major Pryor notes - Small isolated attempts," Major Holland-Pryor writes, " to recruit Mappillas were made by various regiments quartered in Malabar some years ago, but without success. This was probably owing to the fact that the trial was made on too small a scale, and that the system of mixed companies interfered with their clannish propensities. The district officers also predicted certain failure, on the ground that Mappillas would not serve away from their own country. Their predictions, however, have proved to be false, and men now come forward in fair numbers for enlistment." In 1896, the experiment of recruiting Mappillas for the 25th Madras Infantry was started, and the responsible task of working up the raw material was entrusted to Colonel Burton, with whose permission I took measurements of his youthful warriors. As was inevitable in a community recruited by converts from various classes, the sepoys afforded an interesting study in varied colouration, stature and nasal configuration. One very dark-skinned and platyrrhine individual, indeed, had a nasal index of 92. Later on, the sanction of the Secretary of State was obtained for the adoption of a scheme for converting the 17th and 25th regiments of the Madras Infantry into Mappilla corps, which were subsequently named the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles. These regiments," Major Holland-Pryor continues, "at present draw their men principally from Ernad and Valuvanad.

Laborers from these parts are much sought after by planters and agents from the Kolar gold-fields, on account of their hardiness and fine physique. Some, however, prefer to enlist. The men are generally smaller than the Coast Mappillas, and do not show much trace of Arab blood, but they are hardy and courageous, and, with their superior stamina, make excellent fighting material." In 1905 the 78th Moplah Rifles were transferred to Dea Ismail Khan in the Punjab, and took part in the military maneuvers before H.R.H. the Prince of Wales at Rawalpindi. It has been observed that "the Moplahs, in dark green and scarlet, the only regiment in India which wears the tarbush, are notable examples of the policy of taming the pugnacious races by making soldiers of them, which began with the enlistment of the Highlanders in the Black Watch, and continued to the disciplining of the Kachins in Burma.

The last two annual reports on the Moplah Rifles sound negative, stating that 'fanaticism' amongst the sepoys made these units unsuitable for garrison duties in Madras. In view of the problems faced by the 78th MR when posted to the North-West Frontier Province, service with the field army was not considered a feasible alternative. The two regiments accordingly were included in Lord Kitchener's reductions of 'generally inefficient' Madras regiments and were disbanded in 1907, but there is as you can imagine, a sordid story behind this so called reorganization.

So a few words on why the reorganization and disbandment took place would be in order. It was during the period 1885-1911 that the ethnic composition of the army gradually changed from what is termed as a Hindustani majority/Hindu/Non-Muslim dominated army to a Punjabi Majority/Punjabi Muslim heavy army by 1911. The Martial races theory and recruitment policy states - The Punjabi was generally regarded as a better soldier not because he was a Muslim, but because they belonged to a rugged area where the weather, terrain and climate made him tougher and sturdier, and thus a better soldier. It was in this situation that a new threat assessment was made, with the possibility of a Russian conquest of India over the Northern border looming near as part of the ‘great game’.

General Lord Kitchener was in late 1902 appointed Commander-in-Chief, India and quickly he recommended preparing the Indian Army for any potential war by reducing the size of fixed garrisons and reorganizing it into two armies, to be commanded by Generals Blood and Luck, much to the dismay of Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, who had been the person recommending him. Until the arrival of Kitchner, the Indian armies were mainly for internal security aspects and not built to fight an external enemy. With the thinking that the Russians would set out to conquer India, the British reorganization of the forces took on some urgency. Agha Amin explains - According to Kitchener's perception, the Indian Army was ill organized to face the external enemy i.e. a likely Russian invasion of India, which was regarded as a serious likelihood by the British since the Panjdeh incident of 1885. The brigades and divisions as per Kitchener’s system were to train as complete formations in peacetime Staff College for the Indian Army was established on the lines of Camberley in 1905. Kitchener stressed the fact that general officers must lead in war the field formations that they had trained in peace.

Perhaps the problem was actually with Kitchener who was instrumental in pushing the MR to the NWFP to test them out as Conrad Wood opines in more details after a fine study. It is clear that Kitchener was one of the main reasons for the weeding out of the Moplah sepoy from the Indian army.

Even so, by the 1900s they had attracted the antagonism of the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces in India. It is clear from his own private papers that, at least as early as 1904, Lord Kitchener was most anxious to see Gurkhas take the place in the Indian Army of Madras regiments like the 77th and 78th Moplah Rifles to which he showed himself antipathetic. Meeting resistance to his plans from high government circles, Kitchener seems to have obliged the authorities to accept his plan for the disbandment of the Moplah regiments by what was contemporaneously described as “a cruel scheme for bringing the officers and men of the two Battalions into general contempt”. In 1905 there was arranged a sudden transfer of the 78th Moplah Rifles from the tropical south of the sub-continent to the North-West frontier where, Kitchener had disingenuously assured his superiors, the regiment would “have the advantage of being associated with frontier troops, and enjoy special facilities for training”.

In fact failure to provide adequate equipment to contend with the northern winter ensured the breakdown of the regiment with more than a quarter of its complement hospitalized. Lord Kitchener’s handiwork, described by the Madras Mail at the time as ‘‘nothing less than disgusting”, was completed by an ingenious manipulation of army regulations. This reduced both Moplah regiments to mere skeletons, the parading of which in cantonments where “low-class gharry wallahs” were driving about in discarded uniforms of the Moplah Rifles afforded merriment to every other regiment. The disbanding of the “sickened” troops of the two Moplah regiments was effected in 1907. However, even after the outbreak of the Great War, it was reported that Ernad and Walluvanad were filled with Moplah ex-sepoys who vividly remembered their treatment in the British army.

CJ O’Donnell questioning in Parliament shows that this is a fact- To ask the Secretary of State for War if he will state the necessity of moving a Moplah regiment last winter from the hot, humid climate of South Western Madras, where it was recruited; to Dera Ghazi Khan, in the Punjab, where the temperature was under freezing point when it arrived; what was the barrack accommodation prepared for this regiment; and whether 400 out of its strength of 820 men were in hospital a few weeks afterwards.

Sadly no formal answer was provided. Another sad fact was that these forces were hit by a plague outbreak while at Dera Ghazi Khan.

Maj Pryor adds - In the general overhauling of the Indian Army, the fighting value of the Moplahs has come into question, and the 78th Regiment is now at Dera Ismail Khan being measured against the crack regiments of the north." In 1907, the colors of the 17th Madras Infantry, which was formed at Fort St. George in 1777, and had had its name changed to 77th Moplah Rifles, were, on the regiment being mustered out, deposited in St. Mark's Church, Bangalore.

Another issue noted with the Moplah was the difficulty in assimilating them with other troops due to their ‘clannish propensity’. But they were recruited for a while and ironically, while they were serving reasonably well, the district authorities in Malabar had started to brand them as criminal in nature, due to the disturbances which culminated in the Moplah rebellion of 1921.

Whatever happened to the disbanded units now without any means of subsistence? The second battalion of the 10th, recruited from the eastern region of Rai and Limbu, was split in two and they became the two battalions of the new 7th Gurkha Rifles. The majority of officers for this new regiment came from the 78th Moplah Rifles which had just been disbanded. They brought with them mess silver and band funds and instruments. The sepoys drifted away back home and it is stated that some of them supported the armed factions of the 1921 revolt in Malabar.

Conrad wood explains - Although isolated cases occurred of Moplah ex-sepoys rallying to the side of government in the course of the rebellion, in general those with experience of service in the armed forces of the Crown showed little of the resistance to the rising which was evident among other categories of government servant. In fact there can be no doubt that the insurgents were able to draw on the military expertise of large numbers of Moplah ex-sepoys who joined their ranks which in some cases, such as with the gang of Kunhamad Haji, were made up largely of men of this type.

That it was considered to be one of the many causes of disillusionment among the Moplahs prior to the 1921 revolt is clear and evidenced by this missive in the British parliament in 1907 related to the reduction of Strength of Moplah Rifles. Mr. REES: To ask the Secretary of State for India whether the two battalions of Moplah Rifles have each been reduced to 200 non-commissioned officers and men by stopping recruitment, though a recruiting officer is maintained in Malabar, and by offering discharges to men who had not served their proper time; whether the Governments of Madras and India did not decide against the proposed disbandment of these battalions and, seeing that if the answer is in the affirmative, the action of the military authorities practically amounts to overriding the decision of the Government, whether he will make inquiry into the matter on account of the political objections to introducing discontent among the Moplahs, as well as on account of the merits of the case.

(Answered by Mr. Secretary Morley.) I have not the information required for a reply to this Question, but I will refer it to the Government of India….

The military colors of the 77th Moplah Rifles infantry Regiment, after disbandment (1907) are displayed on the west wall of St. Mark’s Cathedral Bangalore. But while the officers were commemorated, this soldier of the Raj was sadly forgotten as a dismal failure, mainly due to characters such as Kichtener who as history recorded went on to become a Field marshal (he was hoping to become the Viceroy!) and after spearheading Britain’s WW 1 efforts and lost his life at sea in 1916 when a German U boat 75 torpedoed HMS Hampshire (another conspiracy theory involving the ace spy Duquesne exists) which was taking him on a diplomatic mission to Russia.

But Conrad Wood concludes that some of these sepoys did not participate in the 1921 rebellion, and is emphatic - The history of the Moplahs in the Indian Army from 1905 to 1921 affords an explanation for the failure of one section of the Ernad Muslim community with experience of government service, to reject participation in the rebellion of 1921-22.

Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Volumes 30-33-Some accounts of the Moplahs and Corrgs – Maj RG Burton
Expansion of the Indian army during WW1- Brian DN Stevens, Journal of the society for army historical research
Ethnicity, Religion, Military Performance and Political Reliability -- British Recruitment Policy and The Indian Army -- 1757-1947 Maj (Retd) AGHA HUMAYUN AMIN
Sons of the John Company – John Gaylor
The Rise and Fall of Modern Empires, Volume I: Social Organization - edited by Owen White
Recruiting, Drafting, and Enlisting: Two Sides of the Raising of Military Forces - edited by Peter Karsten
The Moplah Rebellion and Its Genesis – Conrad Wood
Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Volume 4 – Some accounts of the Moplahs

77th & 78th Uniform, officers and sepoys – courtesy Stephen Luscombe

The Kunisseri Mamamkam

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

The Kummatti at Kunisseri

Nestling between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea is the rice bowl of Malabar, todays Palakkad. Its strategic location and rich agricultural tradition was a cause for many a battle. Primary was its produce being important for expanding populations and secondly because it was the entry point of the Tamilakam trade route, i.e. the Palakkad gap. Carts and animals of trade carried produce back and forth through a domestic highway of sorts. As time went by and the kingdoms in North Malabar became more and more affluent and populated, and as import of rice from the Konkan and Coromandel rice traders came under threat, the southern rice producing areas became even more important.The Palghat rajas, whom we talked about in the past, were not always the overlords of the entire district as we know it today, since some parts of it were either under the suzerainty of either the Zamorin or the Kochi raja.

At its southern extremity, and bordering the Nelliyampathy jungles and the Tamil border were a bunch of small principalities of Chittur, Kollengode, Pallasena, Pallavur, Nemmara, Kunissery, Trippalur and finally Alathur. Today a bustling national highway connects Alathur to Palghat via Koyalmannam, but in the past, the important road from Palghat passed through Koduvayur and Kunissery to reach Alathur and through the Kuthiran hills to Trichur and beyond. Cart traffic and an occasional bus passing through Pallavur and coming from Pallasensa also touched Kunisseri, thus defining its importance as a junction.

Before the advent of bus traffic, Kunissery was a sleepy village, then became a little junction of importance till the NH47 came into being, after which it went back to its previous lethargic being. As you stop on the road and look, only paddy fields and palm trees dot the landscape, with the skyline interrupted only by the dark rock hills of the Sahyadri. Sometimes hidden behind trees you could see old stately Nair tharavads, with associated ponds with coconut trees ringing them. People in these lands went about their ways, mostly untouched by the outside world busy with change and destroying itself.

As little children, we would cycle to Kunissery from Pallavur either to buy something from the five or six duty shops or to pick up medicine from a lone medical shop in the vicinity. The only movie theatre, Kunissery Prabha was visited during vacations with large numbers of us stuffed into my uncle’s Premier Padmini, bursting at its seams and trundling through the empty road at a majestic 20-30 kmph! I still remember the first movie we saw there, Nagarame Nandi way back in 1967, when it opened its doors to public.

That the area was home to a bustling prehistoric civilization was always clear to historians who documented such matters during the 19th century. Pallavur and Kunissery had large numbers of granite dolmens and menhirs all around which we would gleefully clamber upon, though you see none today, perhaps they were simply picked up and used by people constructing something. One survey mentioned a group of 82 dolmens and 306 menhirs (as well as Megalithic cists) have been noticed in Pallavur, while Kunissery had 120 dolmens, 25 menhirs and 250 stone circles. Sad isint it? Just one stone circle in Stonehenge UK brings in millions of visitors, while even older stone circles and dolmens in Pallavur and Kunisseri simply vanished in less than 50 years!! Tells you how little we care for our history. Anyway, as time went by, all these areas became rice paddy fields owned by a few Nair families. Where they came from is an interesting story, and perhaps a part of my own search for our roots. They were perhaps connected to a famous battle we will talk about today.

On the Punartham star of Meena masam (roughly March-April), the small village awakens itself and the Pookulangara Bhagawathy Temple gets ready for its annual festival, the Kunissery Kummati, on the birthday of the goddess. Elephants arrive, the temple is festooned with colors and glitter, percussionists drum up the public’s enthusiasm and small traders arrive in hordes to profit as the public made merry. The three tharas of Kunissery, namely Kizhakkethara, Thekkethara and Vadakkethara unites to administer and execute this festival which as you can imagine, has an interesting bit of history behind it. The serene pond, the tired looking banyan tree and lush paddy fields surrounding the temple get ready for the hordes trooping to the locale. While the Kummati is annual, once every 12 years, the Valiya Aarattu is grandly conducted when the Pookkulangara Bhagavathy sets out to bow to Trippallavur Mahadevan from my own village, Pallavur, just a mile away. The Kummati is intimately connected to the Zamorin of Calicut and the legend is an interesting one. How and what on earth made the Zamorin come there is the story we will retell.

We go back to the late 13th century, a turbulent period in the history of Malabar. It is not clear if the Kunissery desam was under the control of the Palghat Raja or the Perumbadappu swaroopam (Cochin had not yet formed). Some years later we find it under the suzerainty of the Perumbadappu chieftains, so gifted to them by the Palghat Tharoor swaroopam for some reason, hitherto unknown. One legend states that the Tharoor swaroopam were childless and so two young ladies were married off to the nephews of the Perumbadappu chief at Trichur and Kunissery was gifted to the Perumbadappu as some kind of a dowry,

Anyway during a series of military conquests the Zamorin of Calicut intent on expanding his domain and power, as well as his Nair forces surged through the region in 1363, first capturing the home base of the Perumbadappu south of Valluvanad and conducting the Mamankam at Tirunavaya. That by itself is a long story and we will get to it eventually, but suffice to say that the victorious Zamorin then brought Trichur and the surrounding regions under his reign. Vadakkanchery, and all the desams we talked about earlier in the vicinity of Pallavur were quickly taken over by the Calicut raja. But one desam resisted him (through the year of 1364), and his mighty forces, namely the Kunissery desam.

Six months of fighting stalled into a stalemate and the Zamorin and his commanders were perplexed as to why they could not defeat this small principality (though supported by the Perumpadappu forces), only to conclude that the goddess was perhaps the power behind the opposing forces. Appeasing her was the only way out as the Zamorin had discovered during earlier battles with the Valluvakonathiri (when he appeased the Valayanad goddess and defeated the Velathiri) and the Zamorin set out doing just that. As the story goes, the Zamorin succeded eventually and after defeating the opposing forces, he built a Kovilakom there for himself, signifying the importance of the goddess and the location itself, as a perch for future plans of empire building towards the south and southwest. That these lands were in his name since then is clear from ancient land records and legal battles between future tenants and the Zamorin named as the landlord. Quite a bit of these lands were according to KV Krishna Ayyar, donated by him to the temple at Guruvayur.

Yet another legend states that the Zamorins forces decimated the Perumbadappu forces situated at neighboring Vadakkancheri and Kunissery. All the men, numbering some 500 were killed and the women of Kunissery were thus widowed. These helpless women sought the help of the goddess and she commanded them to get ready for a battle with their Ulakka’s and Muram’s. The Zamorin’s soldiers seeing this were amazed and seemingly saw the fierce countenance of Goddess Durga on each face, and quickly withdrew. The court astrologer informed the Zamorin of the wrath of the Pookulangara goddess and the Zamorin quickly prayed to her for forgiveness. The Pukulangara Bhagavathy is supposedly connected to the Kodungallur Bhagavathy and the famed Kanngi of the Shilappadikaram, so I guess you can imagine how powerful she could be.

She commanded him to do proper reparations and thus the Zamorin quickly brought in 500 Nairs from Calicut to partner the men-less village. It is said that at this time, some 80 Nairs were resettled in Pallavur as well, by the Zamorin. Life went on, but as you can see, this village was quite far from Tirunavaya where all the Nairs of Malabar congregated for the mamankham festival. They complained to the Zamorin that they could not attend the mamankham and so, it was in compensation that a parallel mamankam was held in Kunissery and called the annual Kummati festival. The original order by the Zamorin to conduct a mamankam at Kunissery was conveyed through a panan (bard) but as he arrived late after conveying the message, the Zamorin supposedly sent a Paraya to ensure the message was conveyed. All these are commemorated in today’s Kummati celebrations. During the celebrations, a formal question is also put to the 580 nair families of Pallavur and Kunissery if the celebrations could begin.

The responsibility to conduct the Kummati rested with the Vellattu panikkar, the Kandeth panikkar and the Kannath families of Kunissery. The legal title that the Zamorin had over the lands is indicated by for example by a well-documented court case in 1903 when one Theyyan nair of Kunissery fought the Zamorin (Punthurakon) for title over land leased to him. There are many related stories in the history of the Zamorin’s hold over Palghat’s Naduvattom, and I will get into those one by one.

The jottings by BS ward who passed by these regions during his survey in 1820 is interesting

To the North and South East of Pullacherry are several ridges of black rocks, the largest, and highest being Wanmulla, flat at the summit; and to the North and East of Pullavoor are many running in ridges to Taloor, a square high-peaked rock. Pullavoor, S. S. E. nine and three-quarter miles of Paulghaut, consists of two gramums with a celebrated pagoda within a walled enclosure, lies S, of the above and to the N. an extensive Nair population. Gooduloor S. S. E. one and a half miles, Pullacherry E. three miles, and Koonucherry N. W. one and a quarter miles from Pullavoor, are large straggling villages, inhabited by Vellalers: at the two former are gramums, and a few small pagodas.

6th November 1820—At 8 A.M. left Allatoor, and proceeded by a good road leading to the north and east; crossed the Nemary river from whence the road towards Paulghaut goes off north; from thence proceeded over extensive fields through Koonichairy, an extensive and populous village in Malabar, then through fields again; passed the above river, which here forms the boundary of Cochin and Malabar; then over a waving country intersected by narrow vallies of wet cultivation to Nemary, a populous village with a palace and pagoda and the capital of a sub-division insulated by Malabar, only a few miles north of the great range of mountains; arrived at it at 1 P.M.; weather close and sultry; morning fair.

19th January 1820. Left Wembaloor; made a circuit of its cultivated lands, which are narrow and partly in deep vallies occasioned by ridges of black rocks at intervals; then along the limit to the river, which again divides Paulghaut from Nemary, to Kudaloor, an extensive village; then proceeded north-west, making a circuit on extensive lands of flat cultivation dependent on it, with some insulated houses amidst it, to Pullavoor, the capital of a sub-division, an extensive village with a large pagoda and an appropriate Bramin Agrarum, besides a large population of Nayres and other casts, and a broad flat valley of cultivation to the north of it; from thence proceeded to Kakoor and arrived at it at 7 P.M.; weather warm.

Why is this called a Kummatti? Kummatti is prevalent in parts of Palakkad districts and is usually associated in propitiating a goddess.  They are typically associated with Devi temples where they are performed as part of rituals; and as mock preparations for war following which the participants enact the war. The limericks and nonsensical verses of Kummatti reflect the rustic sense of humor of village folk. Wearing colorful masks representing the faces of mythological characters and covering the entire body with Kummatti grass and leaves, the performers go around, dancing and collect money. The name of the ritual is derived from the Kummatti grass they wear and its long sticks they hold with them.

The events enacted during the Kummati are numerous, with Kanyar kali holding center stage, followed by the Ponnani Kali and many other events. Ten elephants lord over the festival, caparisoned and majestic while the villagers make merry. Kanyar Kali as they say, is connected in this context to the practicing martial arts, for the region, was under the constant threat of attack from neighboring Kongu Nadu. At the high point of the celebration, the villagers who have assembled near the temple are asked if they will defend the village. Only upon getting a positive answer can the celebrations proceed.

The tourist brochure states- During the commencement of Kummatti mamamgam , villagers sing “kummoo…Kumu kumukummooo…..” along the premises and harvested paddy fields to inform everyone about the start of mamangam. The devotes from the take bath in the temple pond reciting devotional hymns praising the goddess by using a large bamboo poles which is brought from the sacred forest in Nelliampathy, which marks to the start of the festival celebrations. They circumambulate around the temple with these huge bamboo poles in hand. Theses bamboo poles are placed at their respective positions in Vadakkethara, Thekkekara and Kizhakkethara. Another attraction of Kummatti is a folk art called Ponnani Kali. Darikavadam kalampaatu lasting for 18 days is a main event in the Kummati Mamagam. During the festival, the villagers don the dress of such common folk as 'Panan' the pot maker, 'Chakiliyan' the leather worker, 'Vannan' the washer man, 'Cheruman' the farm-hand connecting up to the previously mentioned legend of the Zamorin’s messengers from Calicut.

So many interesting aspects can be gleaned from the aforesaid study, as to how an overlord moved his armies and people around to border towns in order secure it over long periods of time, how important a titular festival can be and the grip temples and goddesses had over the warring kings of Malabar. Who said the history of Kerala is boring?

Mamankhavum Samoothiriyum – PCS Raja
Kerala Sthala Charithrangal – VVK Valath
Memoir of the Survey of Travancore and Cochin 1816-1820 – BS Ward

Pookulangara temple and Kummati image courtesy Abhay Santhosh
Kunissery paddy fields- @kv_wandererlife