The Habshis and Siddi communities of India

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Africans in India, over the ages

During the medieval period, affluent rulers fighting their many wars provided employment to able-bodied mercenaries, and their kingdoms provided job placement for many slaves. Later on, with the arrival of the Europeans, the slave industry spread globally and many Indian and African slaves were shipped around the world. While the African slave stories have been studied in great detail, the tales of the Africans in India or that of Indian slaves abroad, have not been well-publicized. The African community are called the Siddi’s and as you will soon note, there were quite many of them at one time, with some rising up the ranks, while others floundered as petty slaves or house servants, in wealthy homes. Remnants of that robust community which made India their home for 500- 800 years or more, can still be seen here and there in India, some retaining bits and pieces of their ancient musical and artistic heritage even after assimilation into the Indian society.

The Kalaris of Malabar

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Kalari, Kalari Vidya and Kalari payattu – their origins

Most who chance on this would be wondering if there is more to the Kalari than the historic martial arts form practiced in Malabar and some other related versions in other parts of today’s Kerala. While academicians and practitioners have focused on the practice and the schools in Malabar, many have neglected the free flow of mercenaries between Sri Lanka and Malabar, as well as the Lankan and Tulu connections to the martial art form. In this short essay, we will go over the legendary origins of Kalari in Malabar and cover hitherto neglected links to similar practices which existed in erstwhile Ceylon and Tulunad.

Arthur Rowland Knapp – An unpopular ICS bureaucrat

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The Knappan of Malabar

Knapp is well known in Kerala, not as the person, but more from the connotation 'Knappan' which in colloquial Malayalam slang, means an incompetent man, prone to erroneous or unsuccessful acts, apparently a testament to Knapp’s poor administrative skills. Now how on earth did this person, a knighted civil servant, well decorated and so highly thought of in Britain, later a member of the executive council, get such a reputation? I thought it should be quite interesting to trace out this bloke’s story.

The Arakkal Swaroopam

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 Its Checkered History

In the medieval history of Malabar, there existed but one Muslim kingdom, and that was known as the house of the Arakkals. Legends about the way it came into its being can be read in the Keralolpathi, the Aithihyamala, various travel diaries, as well as the ledgers of the Dutch VOC and the British EIC. They do hold a reader’s attention, and fleeting reports of the power and wealth it possessed at some stages in the past still pop up now and then, in the news media. Let’s take a look are some highlights and the family’s interaction with the many global players who swooped into Malabar to enrich themselves on its spice produce.

Legends of the Sacrifice Rock

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Velliyankallu – The Sacrifice Rock at Malabar

Velliyankallu is a two or three-acre rocky island in the Arabian Sea, about 20 miles from Calicut, or 10 miles from Payyoli and Tikkodi, placed between Elathur and Tellicherry. Today, it is an island where people go for leisure, while some prefer it for bird watching. But most would either associate it with Mukundan’s brilliant novel Mayyazhipuzhayude Therrathail, or with the legendary Kunjali Marakkar at the Santos Island of the Portuguese. Not a very large island, its rocky precipice rises to some 855 feet above sea level. Interestingly, there are quite a few legends associated with this rock, some dating back many centuries. Let’s get out there and find out.

The Zamorin – VOC treaties of 1691, 1710

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A most famous document, and a turning point in the history of the Zamorins

As treaties go, the content of the two treaties signed between two reigning Zamorins of Calicut and the Dutch VOC establishment in Cochin is quite dull and uninteresting to a lay reader, but it was made at a turning point in the history of the Zamorins, as we shall soon see. From a linguistic point of view, there are some peculiarities in these works, and experts opine these early examples of written Malayalam show its development as a language. The 1691 Malayalam contract was written on a gold foil (ola) and is perhaps the longest gold scroll in the world. Over time, the scribed text has disappeared to a large extent whereas the silver foil contract made in 1710 remains a robust specimen which still (especially due to the tarnish) provides a clear view of the scribed text. Let’s try and find out some detail in these obscure documents, which have hardly been mentioned or talked about, thus far.

Vasco Da Gama - Voyage to Calicut - 1498

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Where and when? Doubts remain.

At the tail end of the 15th century, an event occurred which opened the Indian subcontinent to the West, and ushered a plethora of changes. Internationalism, wars, expanded trade, profiting, rivalry, monopolism, greed, subjugation, and finally, colonialism arrived. Even though there were many visitors from the west coming and going, and of course drifting towards the parts of the south in search of spices and Christians, it was the arrival of Portugal’s Vasco Da Gama in 1498 which brought about these huge changes and ended free trade. This article will dwell on just the arrival of the first fleet from Lisbon and its Admiral Vasco Da Gama at Calicut. Most people are content to record that he arrived at Calicut in 1498. Do we need to correct history books on the when and where after over 520 years? Perhaps! As they say, the devil is in the details.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the British and Jinnah

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Wrangling over ownership

Historically, the Andaman Islands were dreaded by the Indians, known as the Kalapani after the infamous acts of transportation and British incarceration of Indian convicts at those remote penal colonies. It was after toying with Australia, Penang and a few other remote isles that the British finally established the cellular jail in the A&N Islands. Convicts accused of various crimes were sent out there, including scores of Moplahs from Malabar after 1921, and the British operated the jail as a profit center. During the second world war, the Japanese captured and ruled the isles until it was handed over to NSC Bose and the INA. After the war, when deliberations started on Indian independence as well as the partition of Pakistan, the ownership of territories such as the Laccadive and Minicoy islands as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were hotly debated. It hides many stories and mysteries, and is also home to a Moplah community who were displaced from Ernad and resettled there. These were the people who elected to remain in the islands, people who still talk in that old Moplah dialect of Malayalam, living somewhat frozen in time. In a previous article, we studied the discussions as related to the Laccadives, now we can get to the tale of the contested A&N islands.

Thiruvalayam

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The legend of the Zamorin’s sacred anklet, a mystery

A popular legend stated that the powers of the Zamorin were attributed to the blessing he received from the goddess of Thiruvalayanad and specifically the bangle/anklet or anklet he obtained from the Devi, which the family treasured and worshipped since that event dating back to the 13th or 14th century. Since then, the Valayanad Devi has been the family deity of the Zamorin (the only female among the 12 family deities). And of course, the loss of that ornament when it happened, was considered to be the worst of omens, of terrible times ahead, and as prophesied, spelled disaster and the decline of the dynasty. The legend is the tale of a betrayal, quite an enthralling story.

The decline of an entrepot - Calicut

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As water levels rose 1585-1700

Many years ago, I wrote about the sunken ruins of Calicut, as observed by Forbes and some others, and tried to discount the myth of a sunken city. But after Nikhil’s comment, the topic did not leave my mind and I continued to search for information, mainly because more than a couple of eyewitnesses had recorded seeing underwater structures. While change could have happened gradually, it is obvious that a cataclysmic event did not swallow large tracts of the Calicut shoreline. At that time, we checked out major events and found that there were some minor earthquakes and tsunamis, but nothing of great importance. Nevertheless, it is now clear that there was a gradual rise in the coastal water levels and that major structures went underwater, affecting not only the geography of one of the most active ports of medieval times, but also its allure and popularity, resulting in alarmed traders leaving the port city. There is no doubt that there were other overriding political and economic reasons as we discussed on previous occasions, but the infrastructure issues were also an underlying reason. Let’s take a look.

The many mysteries behind a Tamil Bell

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The Marakkar Bell in New Zealand

Around 1836 or perhaps closer to 1840, a missionary Rev Colenso in New Zealand saw and acquired a broken bronze bell while touring a Maori village in Whangarei - New Zealand. The relatively small bell was being used for cooking as Colenso put it. The bell itself was damaged, with its top portion intact, while the lower portion and clapper tongue had been lost, over time. Colenso was told that the bell had been found among the roots of a large tree brought down by a heavy gale. Its owners believed that the bell had been in the possession of their iwi (tribe) for several generations. Colenso then went on to swap the bell for an iron pot, more eminently suited for cooking. After his death, he bequeathed the bell to the Colonial Museum, now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. The bell produced a lot of interest when it was exhibited, and discussions and theories abounded about its origins.

Rev Jacob Rama Varma

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The converted prince

Today it may not look curious or alien, for many a person has moved across religions to find peace and solace in life, treading different paths to those they were used to or born into, some successful, whereas others reverted after a period of confusion. But in the 19th century, it was a rarity and when a person from the Cochin royal family did just that, it was much talked about. We get to read the details of Rama Varma’s life and times from the diaries of his contemporary Herman Gundert as well as some other musty sources, available at the Tubingen library.

The Shahbandar Koya – or the Kozhikottu Koya

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And his importance in Medieval Calicut

As we peruse the many accounts of foreigners trading at or visiting Calicut, we come across the mention of a Kozhikottu Koya who became a very close ally of the ruling Zamorins. In fact, he had a very special relationship with the ruling elite of Calicut over time. But the accounts, like they did on many an occasion, tend to conflict with each other. In early accounts, the title was held by an Arab and some later accounts place the title on a Moplah of non-Arabic extract. Perhaps it would be a good idea to do a little digging to see what this bloke and title was all about. Was it just one person or one of many, was it a harbormaster, a port officer, or a consul? Let’s find out.

Hydaru Charitra – Yet another source

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Additional insights - 1766 attacks, Malabar

There are many books, passages, and secondary sources covering the life and times of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, and there are many books compiled by their detractors as well as supporters. While the supporters paint them as freedom fighters of enviable moral character and secular outlook, their detractors emphasize on the violent methods wrought by these individuals, driven by their Arab background and upbringing, their fighting spirit, treachery and cruel proselytization of subjugated masses. Added to all that, there was a large amount of misinformation and tainted writing by English writers who wanted to slant the Mysore rulers as the vilest of all, in order to obtain support for wars fought against them. As you can all imagine, the truth lies somewhere in between and I had been struggling for years to reconstruct the Hyder-Tipu Padayaottam in Malabar, a venture which I guess will continue for more time.

The Silent Valley Movement

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Eons ago, the slopes and plains adjoining the Sahyadri mountains separating Malayalam from Tamilakam, were home to many dense forests. Most of it is gone now, but some remain in Wynad and Nilambur as well as a region between Nilambur and Mannarghat in Palghat, near the northern rim of the Palghat Gap, the so-called Attapadi, and Silent Valley areas. That is where we are headed.

The Eminent Gundert Sayip

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Hermann Gundert (1814-1893) - His life in Malabar

I am getting back to this topic after 13 years, and without doubt, the persona of Hermann Gundert deserves that and more. My previous article covering Gundert & Logan only served to provide a brief introduction to these two great men and though there are a couple of books that provide Gundert’s life history in some detail, they are not easy to get a hold of, so I thought that I could cover Gundert’s profile here. Gundert for those who do not know, was a German national, a tutor and a missionary who came to Madras in 1836, moved to North Malabar, and left back home in 1859. In those 23 years, he achieved a lot, most notably in the field of Malayalam literature. His pioneering works helped develop and formalize the language and his transcriptions of the Keralolpathi and Keralapazhama have withstood the passage of time providing a fascinating look into the history of the land.