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The Shahbandar Koya – or the Kozhikottu Koya

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

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.

The trading community in Calicut was comprised of many nationalities, religions, castes and creeds, living harmoniously near the waterfront. It is still difficult to point out where exactly the port was once situated and with the waterline moving inland, one can’t be too sure. Was it near the river mouth at Kallayi or further North? Moreland was the first to make a paper out of the subject of the titled Koya (Khoja, Khawaja – important person, a title of that time), and a few others followed, but they were mostly trying to find out what exactly the term meant. The reason being that while it was more of a harbormaster or Consul in medieval Calicut, it was a much bigger position in Melacca and other easterly ports, sometimes even leaning towards a Presidential status. Moreland however concludes thus after studying Barros, Castanheda, Barbosa and Correa - there was a division of interest between the local Moslems (headed by Coje Bequim – Koya Pakki), and the men from Cairo and the Red Sea, whose chief (Coje Camecerim) controlled maritime affairs. He concludes about Calicut- From these accounts, it appears reasonable to conclude that the merchants from the Red Sea lived in Calicut extra-territorially under a chief or headman of their own, who would, in fact, come under the contemporary definition of the word Consul. None of the authorities call this chief a Shahbandar; I suggest that this was his actual position, but that the Portuguese did not learn the use of the word at Calicut, and that consequently it was not employed by the writers.

What we also gather is that many of the titled Muslims including the Shabandar koya and the chief Qazi lived in the Kuttichira (home to the Shahbandar, the chief Quadi and many noble Muslim merchants) area. It appears that the Shahbandar had a deciding hand in fixing the spot price for goods, which made him a very powerful person indeed. Obviously, he or his team were skilled in the languages of the many nationals who landed up in the boats with goods, be they be Turks, Arabs, Chinese or others. As the port trade officer in charge, he ensured the steady flow of business and was an integral part of any strategy promulgated by the Zamorin.

What we also know from accounts such as Ibn Battuta’s visiting Calicut circa 1341, is that the port trade was mostly controlled by the Pardesi Arab Muslims and at that point of time, the Shabandar was a dignitary from Bahrain. However, a century later, we see that power had been split between the Pardesi and the Desi, with a Moplah heading the coastal trade and Moplah affairs, while the overseas trade was controlled by the Shahbandar. It is mentioned that the Shahbandar enjoyed all the privileges and dignities of a Nair chief, jurisdiction over all the Muslims residing in the bazaar, and the right to receive presents from the lower castes. These officers could wear turbans, ride in palanquins, could be ushered with trumpets made of gold or of less precious metal according to their rank and wear an ornate turban. In other words, they had privileges equivalent to Nair chiefs. However, there were strict conditions attached, that they protect Brahmins and abstain from eating beef.

The Keralolpathi mentions a legend behind the appointment of the first Calicut Koya from Muscat - In the island of Maskiyat (Muscat), two sons were born to father; when they came of age and started quarreling, he told the elder son: "If you quarrel like this, the other one will murder you; therefore, in the name of my corpse, both of you should not remain here. You go to some other island and fend for yourself that will be to your good. I shall give you sufficient gold to enable you to do so". Accordingly, he sent him off with a lot of gold in a ship. He traveled in many lands, saw the kings ruling there, and made presents to them'. What were the things he so made offerings of? In a box daubed with pickles, he would fill some gold and label it as pickles - the reasons for doing so were to test their trustworthiness. He had decided that he would settle down only in a place where the king was truthful. No king passed the test of this truth. Finally, he made these presents to Poonthurakkon (Tamutiri); after receiving the gift, he exclaimed: "Look! You have made a mistake; this is not pickle, but gold"! This convinced him that here was a king whom he could trust. Thus, were established the Koyas of Kozhikode.

That most of the Shahbandars were of Arab ancestry, can be affirmed for example, by looking at the inscriptions on the minibar at the Mitqual mosque in Calicut dated circa the 17th century. The first records its renovation ordered by “Tāj al-muslimīn shah-bandar khwajah Jamalal-Dī n ‘Antābī ” The second inscription refers to another renovation of this minbar later by “Raīs al- muslimīn al- shah- bandar alkhwajah ‘Umar al- ‘Antabī ”.  The ‘Antabī may refer to Entebbe in modern Uganda according to historian Mherdad Shokoohy. Sebastian Prange, in his work- Monsoon Islam goes deeper into the study of these individuals and the position itself, concluding - the evidence for the conduct of trade on the Malabar Coast suggests that shahbandar’s represented the commercial interests of their community in negotiating large wholesale transactions and that they also played a role in facilitating trade and travel by providing storage and lodging.

But looking at the Mackenzie manuscripts, we come across the interesting testimony of a Shahbandar Koya (Sahavantra koya) of Chinese ancestry, which I will quote verbatim as I have not come across this account in any currently published book or paper thus far. His ancestors came in a ship - with honors from the country called Sini Kupala (China) and landed and settled at Calicut with the permission of the Zamorin. Then there was a fight between the Zamorin and Arangotta Svarüpam in which his ancestors helped the Zamorin who defeated his enemy. The Zamorin was pleased with his ancestors and appointed them Captains of the Mämänka boat " when he went to attend the mämānka festival and held the place of "Nilavadu". The Zamorin also conferred on his ancestor the title of Sahavanta Koya, flags, umbrellas, and other royal insignia. When a succession takes place in the royal line of the Zamorin, the Koya has the right of protection, punishment, detaining, and handcuffing of culprits making conversions (?) and settling disputes in a court of law in certain parts of the town.

When Ilavas, artisans, and fishermen receive honors from the zamorin, they inform the fact to the Koya who gives his formal approval thereto. The Koya levies a tax of Rs. 3/- on each vessel other than Kappal (Ship) and pala touching the port of Calicut. He collects an annual tax of 16 paņams per head (talaippaņam) from Kadakkodi Pandārakkadava; and 12 papams from fisherman (Valaippanam) at Vaippür Kadakkodi. When a marriage or Kaļiyānam takes place at Tattakam, the party concerned pays its respects to the Koya presenting him with a bundle of betel leaves etc. When the Zamorin wishes to deport a householder or a cultivator who has incurred his displeasure, he intimates his intention to the Koya who arranges his men to take away one of the Thatchat leaves from the roof of the victim and vacate his house; and then the Zamorin's men take action against the victim. The Koya family used to enjoy these privileges when the Zamorins were the rulers of the land.

We note from other sources that during the important Mamankam event, the Shahbandar Koya held a prominent position, the Koya used to provide Muslim gunners and specialists in fireworks for the event, who were collectively given about 234 ¾ panams for the conduct of the same. The last four days of the festival not only had fireworks as above arranged by the Koya but also mock fights between ships which had docked at the riverside.

V Kunhali in his Calicut history chronicle explains how the Shahbandar came to be called the Kozhikottu Koya and how he got involved with the Mamankham as well as the Zamorin’s exploits in Valluvanad. When the Zamorin said that he cannot wage a war to take over the conduct of the Mamankham, the Koya said "if you want this stanam, then I will capture and give it you". Then punthurakon said "if you do this, I will make you stand by the right side". Then Koya led the army by the sea and other by land to the south, captured nadu, nagaram, villages, and temples and before the twelve-year duration ended, reached Thirunavaya and captured the stanam. Because of his exploits Koya was given the privileges of kampavedi and kalpalaka, wealth was provided so that he will not suffer any losses and was named Kozhikottu Koya. Several stanams were given to him and he was made to stand on the right side.

Sreedhara Menon – Kerala History and its makers retells the story thus - One version is that the Calicut Koya who paid a visit to the venue of a Mamamkam festival was so much impressed by the majesty and pomp of the Valluvakonatiri and his allies that he placed before the Zamorin his own plan for the capture of Tirunavai and the right to preside over the Mamamkam. The story goes that the Zamorin approved the plan and gave the green signal to the Koya to go ahead with its execution. The Koya marched at the head of a large army, stormed Tirunavai and annexed all the privileges connected with the temple and the festival. On his triumphant return to Calicut the Koya was handsomely rewarded by the Zamorin. Not only was he rewarded with fabulous wealth but the prestigious title of Calicut Koya was also conferred on him along with many honors.

According to another version, the Koya secured Tirunavai and the right for the Zamorin to preside over the Mamamkam by having recourse to a clever stratagem. He established a rapport with the Valluvakonatiri and persuaded him to agree to a suggestion that the right to preside over the Mamamkam would pass over to any other ruler who might succeed in killing him when he took his stand on the Vakayur platform during the festival. On the occasion of the next festival the followers of the Zamorin, so goes the story, suddenly appeared on the spot, overpowered the Valluvakonathiri’s bodyguard and killed the chief. The right of presiding over the Manakham thus devolved on the victor.

Comparing the Shahbandar’s position in the Gulf ports, we see better definition and the post became more powerful – Quoting from Theocharis N. Grigoriadisstudy of the Bureaucracy and Class in Safavid Iran- Shahbandar (sähbandar) was the customs officer, and this position was observed in other Persian ports as well, such as Bandar-e Kong and Bandar-e Rig. In the case of Bandar Abbas, the office of shahbandar was an institution, crucial in the accumulation of customs from foreign trade transactions. Because the maintenance of a principal-agent relationship between the shahbandar and the royal court was not always certain, the central government pursued three types of policy interventions in order to make up for its imperfect oversight over customs accumulation: 1. A divide-and-rule strategy between the governor (sultán) and the shahbandar. 2.The role of kinship and family politics in the financial administration of Bandar Abbas; and 3. The manipulation of customs levels across Safavid ports of the Persian Gulf in order to constrain the influence of the Bandar Abbas shahbandar on the financial sustainability of the Safavid state.

Checking the accounts of Shabandars of Malacca, we see additional responsibilities. They presented arriving dignitaries, as well as important trading personalities, to the local chief or King. The Shabandar also presided over the collection of anchorage fees and customs duties, which were "paid" in the form of dues and presents. We see from Malacca that the system of presents to the officer obviously fostered corruption among port officials and provided for the vast patronage and wealth enhancing the Shahbandar's position and power.

We can now understand how important the office was and remember that when Cabral visited Calicut, it was due to an apparent misunderstanding with the Shabandar of that time that the animosity between the traders and the Portuguese, got exacerbated. Another important which existed at the port was the Tura Marakkar, an influential officer placed in charge of the safe anchorage of the ships which arrived at each port managed by the Zamorins of Calicut. Land records studied by NM Nampoothiri show numerous mentions of tracts owned by the Shabandar Koya. We can also note that the position provided for burial within the graveyards attached to the mosque premises.

Robert Sewell studying the Keralolpathi even goes on to say - Afterwards, while the Puntura Kon was Zamorin, one Koya, a foreigner, settled at the town, which was named after him Koyikkotu (Calicut). It is perhaps conjecture and I am not at all sure about that, nor could I see any such mention in the Keralolpathi or other records. Needless to state though that these port officers were powerful dignitaries representing the Pardesi Arab trading community settled in Calicut, capable of marshaling sizeable, dependable and timely armed support for the powerful Zamorin for his military ventures. In that way they also provided leadership to the Moplah community, and not just the ex-pat trading community, a conclusion somewhat different from that provided by Moreland.


The Shahbandar in the Eastern Seas - W. H. Moreland

Calicut in History – V Kunhali

Gundert, Keralolpathi – T Madhava Menon

Samoothirinadu – NM Nampoothiri

Compromising Islam with Empire: Bureaucracy and Class in Safavid Iran - Theocharis N. Grigoriadis

Mackenzie Manuscripts; Summaries of the Historical Manuscripts in the Mackenzie Collection: Tamil and Malayalam – T V Mahalingam