The decline of an entrepot - Calicut

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

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.

While geographers and cartographers can someday ascertain all this with more detailed underwater exploration, I can try and reconstruct the gradual events after reviewing anecdotal evidence provided by a number of travelers. If you were to ask a deeply religious and slightly pessimistic, grumpy grandpa about it, you would get an answer, yes! Indeed, that is of course the prophecy from our scriptures, that during the Kali yuga, all these chaotical events are bound to happen, so if parts of land (which had anyway been reclaimed by Parasurama) went under water, it is natural.

Going back, we saw that the great entrepot was busy conducting business with not only with European (Portuguese & Venetian) partners, but also Red Sea, Ottoman, and Gulf trading partners. As time passed by in the medieval, one or the other obtained higher quotas compared to the other, due to political and military pressures. We also saw the development of new transshipment ports controlled by Malabar kingpins, such as the Maldives and Malacca. Another major event was the departure of Chinese traders due to multiple reasons. As we come to the 17th century, Calicut which developed rapidly between the 12th and 15th centuries had grown into a city that was no longer very organized or symmetric, just 8 miles in circumference and probably bursting at its seams.

Perhaps it was around the late 16th century or the early 17th that things started to go wrong and water levels crept up, swallowing roughly 2-3 miles of the shoreline, especially parts of the city which had previously been allocated to the foreigners and the trading communities. We can find in following paragraphs how the Portuguese, French and British were affected, perhaps even the remaining Chinese, forcing them to move to better environs, up North in Goa, East to Madras, North west to the Konkan ports, Surat and eventually Bombay.

Interestingly it was the French who first observed and documented the pattern of events. The first mentions can be seen from the accounts of Souchou de Rennefort who stayed in Calicut in 1667. He explains that the Town of Calicut is in a plain, without order and symmetry. There are houses in the spread of sixteen leagues around, among the coconuts, like the bastides around Marseille in the vineyards and in the fig trees. Most of them had thatched roofs in the shape of very large pavilions & very clean inside, but lower than those of Cochin (I will cover this account in greater detail separately, but will be focusing mainly on the rising waters in this article). The market functioned every day from afternoon until seven. Covered shops lined up from one end to the other, & behind each there was a room where the goods were stored. Cotton fabrics, white & colored, Muslin, Pepper, Pulses, Coconut Oil, Sapan wood for dyes, coir ropes, etc. were all on offer. The Samorin is mostly at his home in Cranganore, sixteen leagues from Calicut, & five from Cochin. But Rennefort does not make any mention of rising water lines or a sunken Portuguese fort. Another Frenchman, Francois Martin who was in Calicut at the same time, makes it clear that the Portuguese fort was indeed submerging and nearly a mile into the sea, by then.

The last of the accounts about the rising waters can be seen from Dellon’s diary. We had covered very briefly Charles (Claude) Gabriel Dellon’s visit in a couple of articles, but I had not gone into the description of the city in greater detail. Dellon, a surgeon, is very specific in his description of the situation in Calicut, which he visited in 1678. Dellon mentions that the fort was 2 leagues or 7 miles into the sea just ten years later, which maybe an overestimation, since others state 2 miles, not 2 leagues.

He explains - All about Calicut there are very low grounds, subject to frequent inundations, there being scarce a year but some part or other of this Kingdom is laid under water, by the overflowing or the Rivers. The Fort which the Portuguese formerly had built at a good distance from the shore, may now be seen two leagues deep in the sea, above half under water, so that you may frequently see small vessels pass betwixt that and the shore. These inundations are caused by the strong South West winds, which blow on that coast continually, from May till September. Whilst I was there, I was an eyewitness of the disaster that befell the English whose habitations, which had not been built many years before, were entirely swallowed up by the waters.

He adds this important observation - The frequent mischiefs occasioned by these inundations, has been one of the main reasons why the Foreign Trade has in a great measure removed from Calicut to Goa, which City, has laid the foundation of its greatness upon the ruins of that of Calicut.

Since the Kings of Samorin have removed their Court to another place, there resides here a Governor (whom they call Bajador – Eralpad?) in the Royal Palace, where there is as yet to be seen a very large Bell, and some Brass Cannon, which were brought thither, after they had chased the Portuguese out of their fort.

It is a considerable time since the English have been settled at Calicut; but their habitations having been ruined (as we said before) by the over flowing of the waters; they built another house in a rising (high ground) and consequently less dangerous piece of ground.

We went the next day from Chali, and arrived the day following early at Calicut, where we found the English busy in removing after the late inundation; we travelled a league beyond it the same day, where we lodged that night, and the next following at Bargara (Badagara), from whence we returned the next day to Calicut.

According to Aniruddha Ray - This must have been the first English factory which was engulfed by the advancing sea sometime between 1672 (Carre's arrival) and 1678 (Dellon's arrival). According to Dellon, the English then constructed a new one at an elevated place, where he, along with other French merchants, had dinner. It seems that flooding had begun after 1645 and continued upto the end of the seventeenth century. The submersion of a part of the city by flooding may explain why Freyer's estimate of the circumference of the city was less than of Conti, a century and half earlier. However, we can also note later from the English factory records, that the rapid inundation seems to have started with a violent storm in 1670 and continued for some time. Ray also believed that the Zamorin’s palace observed and detailed by Delle valle, Rennefort, Martin and Dellon is of a palace different from the one detailed by Barbosa which indicates a move inward from the palace detailed and visited by the Portuguese.

Let’s look at two English sources to nail the dates – that from Charles Fawcett and a recent thesis by John Mason. We find from the letters of the factors, that the situation had deteriorated, the Zamorin’s powers had weakened, the Eralpad and Munalpad were wielding power and that the Zamorin was away in other palaces much of the time. We also find that the Moplah and Marakkar pirates were on the prowl on their own, with the Zamorin not able to control their actions, all of which resulted in frequent Moplah outbreaks. We can also observe some friction between the Zamorin and the 5th prince. During the period between 1670 and 1677 AD, Calicut also witnessed an epidemic of smallpox which frightened tradesmen. We can read that most of the domestic servants of the English factories had contacted the disease and ultimately three of them died.

Dr John Fryer visiting in 1680 provides a terrible review - On the back-side lay two great Guns, dismounted, of Brass, all that is extant of the Portugal Town and Castle (which ran out as far into the Sea as our Ships now ride, near four Miles) overflowed by Water; nothing remaining of it but only what is taken upon Chronicle. What is also left of Calicut, is not equivalent to what might be expected from the gleaning of so many Ages of Traffic; unless, as Antiquaries esteem, most of those things are Moth-eaten by Time, which Vermin has been plaguy pernicious here: For the City that stood upon Stilts, is tripped up, for down it is gone; and the Temple, whose Marble Pillars durst compare with those of Agrippa's in the Roman Pantheon, is Topsy-turvy. And if any one that comes after me, make you believe it to be not above Four Miles in length, and in that not a House befitting a Christian; here and there a Mosque, and Burying Places with Tanks: A good long Bazzar with Trash, and Ripe Fruit; another with Opium, and Spices of this Coast; Changers and Jewelers, unfenced and rude in Building; he tells you but the truth. Indeed, it is pleasantly situated under Trees, and it is the Holy See of their Zamorin or Pope.

Coote Reef where the sunken ruins were sighted
Visscher adds - Between the visits of the Roman noble and the English Doctor, Calicut must have had a rather serious fall. In the meanwhile, the Dutch had arrived, and the Portuguese, who contributed in no small degree towards the commercial prosperity of the city, had quitted the scenes of their glories. The Zamorin, proud of his position as assumed sovereign lord of Malabar and conscious of the help of the Moors, had always quarreled with the Portuguese, mainly because the Portuguese were befriending his longstanding enemy, the Cochin Raja. The Zamorin must have by this time fallen considerably in estate, for we find him described about 1664 as ruling “From Ticori (»örkkodi) to Chettwa," a distance of about 22 leagues, and keeping up "some faint resemblance of grandeur.

The next account we see is from 1702 when an anonymous letter sent to French chief Pliavoine asks him not to forsake Calicut, as it has excellent possibilities despite the low beach, the need to anchor far away in the open roadsteads and the advancing seas encroaching on the landline. The Portuguese fort was two miles into the sea by now and mostly underwater, with just some tower tops above the water. By this time the Zamorin as well as richer merchants had moved their original places of residence.

British factory records provide some insight on the changes which happened. From the Fawcett records and Mason’s thesis, we can see that the first factory headed by Woolman, a gunner, three factors and a boy, operated out of a rented house in 1617, belonging apparently, to the Zamorin. Business was pretty poor, but it was restarted in 1659 only to close again in 1661. It was again started in 1664 and by 1665 a new custom-built two storied house became the factory premise. In 1666 a subsidiary unit was established in Tanore, when relations with the new Zamorin soured a bit. This Calicut factory was apparently destroyed in the 1670 storm which swept the coastal parts of Calicut and the factory again moved to a rented house, until 1675. Located apparently at Tekkepuram and facing the beach, it must have been part of the buildings depicted in the Barlow painting dating to 1670. Barlow’s sketch does show portions of a tower, perhaps this is the second Chalium Portuguese fort (It has to be, since the larger fort was submerged per Martin’s noting in 1667). In fact, the 1670 records also record a letter from Mansell Smith reporting exceptional stormy weather – the raging sea hath devoured great parte of Calicut towne and also halfe the English factory soe that they must be forced to looke for a new house or build another…

Hamilton stated that around mid Feb 1703, when he visited Calicut, as he stood and looked, he chanced to see some of the ruins of the sunken town (on Coote’s reef, off Calicut) and the remains of a fort built by the Portuguese in former times. He is not sure if the town was undermined by the sea or swallowed by an earthquake.

He states - " In anno 1703, about the middle of February, I called at Calecut on my way to Surat, and, standing into the road, I chanced to strike on some of the ruins of the sunken town built by the Portuguese in former times. Whether that town was swallowed up by an earthquake, as some affirm, or whether it was undermined by the sea, I will not determine but so it was, that in 6 Fathoms at the main Mast, my Ship, which drew 21 Foot water, sat fast afore the Chess-tree. The sea was smooth, and, in a short time, we got off without damage..."

The second dynasty of Zamorin’s takes over

As we know from KVK Ayyar’s studies, the second dynasty of Zamorins started with an adoption from Neeleswaram in 1706. We note that only the old Zamorin and the Eralpad (2nd prince) remained, so also some old women, but none of childbearing age. The decision to adopt from the Neeleswaram palace up north was made due to the fact that they had strong blood links to Calicut (if you recall a princess had eloped with a Kolathiri prince some centuries ago (circa 13th century) and started a new line). Three princes and two princesses were thus adopted and brought to Calicut. The three princes were instated as the 3rd, 4th and 5th in line to the top, and provided arms training, befitting their position. The two girls were adopted to the Kizhakke and Puthan Kovilakom. The 3rd prince finally became the Zamorin in 1742. We can conclude that there was some strife between these adoptees in the interim, but the third prince prevailed and continued on to become a strong and powerful leader, later spearheading a number of battles to subjugate Valluvanad, Nedungannad, Palghat - Naduvattom, Trichur etc.

One reason for the spurt in warring activity would have been to potentially re-establish control and ensure that trade and power rested with Calicut, where nervousness had been setting in due to the inundation issues, Moplah revolts and perceived weakness in the ranks. We can clearly note from British records that the relations between the Zamorins and the Moplahs of Calicut had been deteriorating and frequent revolting and skirmishes were recorded.

Barlow's Calicut
Stanhope confirms in 1785 that he had heard about an event in 1585 where there was a sudden uprising of the sea that killed all the local inhabitants. He claims to have anchored at the spot where the old city stood and saw the foundations of the old city with naked eyes!! Stanhope (1785, p.109) details the rising water levels: Calicut, which is now an inconsiderable village, was formerly a magnificent city, and the residence of powerful Prince. According to the tradition of the natives, it was overwhelmed near 200 years ago by a sudden rising of the sea, and all its inhabitants perished. We anchored on the spot where the ancient city stood and as we went ashore at low water, the foundations of the buildings were discernible to the naked eye.

Newbold confirms in 1846 that he saw the ruins of the Portuguese factory underwater as well. He states that local people mentioned of other underwater ruins some 12km north, towards Kappad.

Logan adds - The Portuguese fort was abandoned during the hostilities in 1525 (Logan, 1887, p. 326), but its subsequent history remains unknown. If the fort had been constructed on an estuarine sand bar it could easily have collapsed during an erosional phase of the river or the sea, and its ruins might now be covered by subsequent accretion. If these were the submerged ruins that Hamilton and Stanhope encountered, the anchorage they would have used would have been much different from that use today.

There is one other aspect to be noted, that the Chinese fort was located close to where the Portuguese fort once stood. So, if that were indeed the case, the Chinese fort would have also been submerged, so also their settlement and this must have been good reason for them to leave for better environs.

Forbes in 1772 confirms having seen underwater temples & minarets and explains all these in greater detail in his accounts. Forbes (A.D. 1772; Oriental Memoirs) on the coastal changes at Calicut:

“Calicut road where the ships anchor is deemed unsafe for those not well acquainted with the navigation, several vessels have been wrecked upon the ruins of the old city, now under water; as the mean town, just described, formed no part of the emporium where Vasco de Gama landed. Calicut is said to have been then a large city, where the Zamorin, the sovereign of the country, held a splendid court, and merchants resorted from Persia, Arabia, Africa and different parts of India to purchase pearls, diamonds, spices, ivory and other costly articles”

An article in the Calcutta review Vol 9 provides some corroborating evidence, but relates to other parts of the West coast shorelines- The level of the Malabar Coast appears also to have suffered disturbance. The town of Barcoor, north of Mangalore, supposed by Rennell and Robertson to have been the Barace of ancient Geographers, and the emporium of Indian commerce; now stands two or three miles from the sea. Some of the cliffs running parallel with the present coast, at some distance inland, have every appearance of having been formerly washed by the sea and the Brahmans assert that the whole of the Malabar Coast was elevated for their special use. The island Vaypin near Cochin was thrown up from the sea in the fourteenth century, an event which “had so strong an effect on the minds of the Hindus that they marked the geological phenomenon by commencing from it the new era termed Puduvepa (new introduction)."

Changes of a still more recent date seem to have occurred on the Coromandel coast. The site of the old city of Calicut is now buried beneath the sea, and it is said that the remains of an old factory are to be seen in the surf off Purkaad, and those of Pagodas in the surf at Tricanapully on the coast of Travancore. Cases of this sort however require to be better established than they are at present, and we hope someone will adopt Captain Newbold's suggestion for instituting observations on the faces of the cliffs washed by the sea, after the example set by Celsius.

In a 1900 Report on the mud bank at Alleppy in Travancore, Mr. Rhode, a former Commercial Agent of the State, observed: “I cannot give dates as I have no records, but it is certain that the coast from about north of Calicut to south of Quilon was once well above the level of the sea, and was after a long period totally submerged and then again was thrown up by volcanic action and has again been partially covered by sea. I state this because in cutting the Warkalai Tunnel, trees were found, and also shells have been found on the coast which are known to belong to a class of shellfish that only live in the deep waters. Remnants of a fort at Poracaud were visible 30 years ago, and at Calicut and Vypeen massive buildings are now in the sea.”

It is curious, says Dr. Day, “that this law of encroachments of the sea is now the rule on the western coast, because tradition and an examination of the geology of the country both lead to the conclusion that the sea formerly washed up to the Western Ghats; thus, Malabar has been literally raised from the sea.”

Forbes Calicut

Barendse made this comment in his ‘Arabian Seas’ – The cities straddling the coast appeared almost as rural dwellings along the wide tracks lined with palms. Calicut – seat of the powerful Zamorin, was a quiet rural town that differed so markedly from the image conjured by its famous name that legend spread that the historic metropolis had disappeared into the sea. At low tide, it is said, one could discern the shapes of stately edifices at the bottom of the sea.

So, all in all, we can conclude that the sea erosion started around 1585 and continued on, with marked regularity. Post 1645, we see written records of rising water levels in Calicut and the flight of traders and of rapid rise and inundation in 1670. This perhaps explains another reason why the Zamorin himself moved off around 1645 to spend long durations at the Ponnani or Cranganore kovilakom’s. While most researchers have mentioned that Ponnani was the political or war capital of the Zamorin, Ray feels that his long absence from the city of Calicut resulted in a loss of faith by traders due to this absence as well as the sinking city’s decline to ‘just another market place’.

In the 18th century, the Mysore Sultans invaded and by the turn of the century, ceded the entire region to the British. The change in fortunes is amazing, the British operated off a rented house serving as a factory at Calicut in 1670, with just three staff. In fact, they could not even offer a decent dinner to a visiting pastor then, due to a lack of space and resources. 200 years later, they were masters of the entire region.

One can thus conclude that approximately 8-12 square miles of the old city was lost to sea, considering that the fort which had been built on the shore had receded 2 miles into the sea, in 1670 when visitors chanced on it. What of these Calicut ruins now? Not much would have been left since there were every few buildings built of stone, and any mud housing would have been washed away, or covered by mud banks.


The English Factories in India – Charles Fawcett

Histoire des Indes orientales, par M. Souchu de Rennefort- Urbain Souchu de Rennefort

A Voyage to the East-Indies: Gabriel Dellon

A new account of East-India and Persia, in eight letters being nine years travels begun 1672 and finished 1681 - Fryer, John

The English factories of South West India – P M Mason

A History of Kerala: Written in the Form of Notes on Visscher's letters from Malabar – KP Padmanabha Menon

The French presence at Calicut from mid-17th to the early decades of the 18th century – Aniruddha ray

The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century: Rene J. Barendse

Travels in India in the 17th CenturDr John Fryer

Historic alleys – Sunken ruins of Calicut

Pics – Barlow’s Calicut – Royal Museum, Greenwich



  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Thank you for focusing on an issue that has not received sufficient attention. It is a fact that the Kerala coast is fairly 'young' according to geologists. They have reported that out of the 600 km of the shoreline, almost 320 km are affected by accretion and erosion. It is very likely that the old Calicut city is lying below the salty waters. In fact, our Forum tried to enlist the ISRO to do a satellite mapping of the Calicut coast and the National Institute of Oceanography to explore the coast, as Rao and company have done splendidly in the case of Bet Dwarka. But we admit, we did not succeed. Coincidentally, just last week a laterite structure which was sunken so far has surfaced in Fort Cochin as the sea receded. It is believed to be part of the Portuguese Fort, the first fortification by a European power in India. I hope your post will lead to serious exploration by the experts to unravel the lost city of Calicut.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF,
    I recall a brief survey of the coastline was done by the British over a century ago, and recall some mud bank articles by some students, but a proper survey and exploratory survey should be done and I hope it gets done someday.

  1. Tom

    Very interesting.Let me add my lay comment here pl !

    I hail from near Kayangulam, to be precise exactly 6 km due East of this town. My own home stands on whitish soft soil,the soil almost like beach sand. But right from this point,the soil changes to red ABRUPTLY,almost like the soil in high ranges ! It is as if an irregular line is drawn parallel to the present coastline and this line would represent the old coastline ! The distance to this line from the present coastline in Kayangulam could be upto 10 km.

    Even as a child,I was baffled & convinced that the old coastline extended eastward by about 10 Km till some geographicl upheavel took place 1000s of years back !

    Thks and Keep up your good work,Maddie !

  1. Soorya Narayan

    Purakad and Trikkunapuzha mentioned here are my ancestral villages. Elders frequently say that many temples were submerged under the sea. I hope Kerala Government invest heavily in Underwater archaeology for bringing out the past glories of the state.