Legends of the Sacrifice Rock

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , ,

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 myths of this rock in the ocean start with the Ramayana. Hanuman, the son of wind had been called to assist in finding the Mritasanjeevani. As you will recall, Rama was battling Ravana in Lanka, in order to rescue Sita, and in one of the battles involving Lakshmana and Indrajit (Ravana’s son), Lakshmana is grievously injured. Sushena, Rama’s physician (or in some accounts Jambavan) suggested that Hanuman be deputed urgently to bring some Sanjeevani herbs, in order to bring Lakshmana back to life. Hanuman takes a giant leap through the air, from Lanka to Mahodaya (Dronagiri) - near Dharmasala, in the Himalayas to get the herbs, but upon reaching there is not able to identify the herbs.

 Not wasting any time pondering over it, he picks up a whole hillock and flies back. As he flies through, a bit of that rock, falls in the sea near Malabar and that is supposedly how the Velliyan Kallu came about. A second piece, a larger one, fell some 8 or so miles off Cape Comorin, to be called Marutha malai or maruvul malai. A third piece landed at the present-day Unawatuna in Lanka (the name of the village comes from “Una-watuna” meaning “fell down”), but well, he puts the hill to rest in Lanka and some say that is the origin of the Adam’s peak in Lanka. To conclude the story, Lakshmana recovers after the administration of the miracle herb. But the villagers of Dronagiri or Dunagiri in Uttarakhand, have still not forgiven Hanuman for taking away their revered mountain and the Mritasanjeevani herbs.

It appears that some locals also feel the place has some connection to the Dasavathara, or ten incarnations of Vishnu, observing the shapes of rocks found here bear a resemblance to tortoises and fishes (Koorma and Malsya avatars). While seafarers have often complained about the danger posed by the rock, in the middle of a sea lane, local fishermen have always found the rocks a sanctuary to park their boats while waiting for storms to pass.

For some reason, another legend states it has Adam’s footprint on it, it being the place where he stepped enroute to the Adams peak in Lanka. According to Malabar’s chronicler William Logan continuing on from a description of Pantalayanai Kollam - Close to this Pantalayani mosque, into the sea is a rock on which one can find a footprint chiseled in the rock. This is supposedly Adam’s footprint, a place where he stopped before going to Adam’s peak in Ceylon. He concludes by saying that both the temple and the footprint are of Jain origin, but the presence of a footprint is not clear for nobody else talks about it. So much for myths and legends, let us look at the significance of the rock during the medieval periods.

The island was frequently noticed by ancient voyagers, and the general belief is that Greek sailors were the first to document it in the Periplus, and that they called it the White Island. The Periplus gives a clearer indication of the boundary of the Tamil country, as it states that Limurike (Dimirike) or Tamilakam commenced immediately south of the Island Leuke or " the White", which native termed the Thoovakkal or Vellaikkal "the white rock." Not every historian agreed with this, for Murray (British India), placed Leuke or Anjediva, near Attingal, Travancore, where Greek ships apparently met before entering the fertile shores of Limerike.

A very recent book titled The Indo-Roman Pepper Trade and the Muziris Papyrus - By Federico De Romanis, page 79, also debates this point and provides a justification that the Location of Leuke (12°N – now assumed to be longitude 118° and not latitude, since Ptolemy had turned the coastline 90° anticlockwise) was south of Muziris. But then again, as you all know there is still considerable debate on the exact location of Muziris (Longitude 117°).

However, the explanation in the Periplus that the Keprobotas (Cheraputra) or Chera kingdom is to the south of this white island signifies that it is perhaps the little island West of Calicut, as we know it.  

The Mariner’s guide circa 1801 explains that the white color is due to an abundance of bird’s excreta – To quote it - Sacrifice Rock, is called by the natives ‘Kunjali Island’. This rock stands about 6 miles from the shore, and Cotta Point is bearing from it South 770 E. it bears from Tellichery Flagstaff about South 6° E. It is as high as a large ship's hull out of the water, steep to on all sides, and very white, being covered all over with bird’s dung. The passage between Sacrifice Rock and the main is very good, having no less than 8 fathoms, clear ground, in mid-channel, and by going within the rock you make a shorter cut to Calicut. From Tellichery to Sacrifice Rock the course is S. ¼ E distant above 6 leagues; being in 17 fathoms; 1 ½ or 2 miles without the rock, you will have very regular soundings from this depth to 5 ½ fathoms, oozy ground. From the Sacrifice Rock to Calicut the course is S. E. by E. about 6 leagues.

The usages of ‘Sacrifice Rock’ and white rock to signify this island, led to much confusion, in identifying its location. Is this the sacrifice rock mentioned by Chinese mariners? Chinese annals mention the sacrifice rock as Pai Chiao or Chia-Chia-Lu. While the latter is one of the Laccadive islands (since Pai Chiao is 5 watches away from Kuli – Calicut = 14 hours - A watch is two hours and twenty-four minutes, when used as a measure of distance in voyages at sea and Chia-Chia-Lu is 16 watches or 40 hours from Androth island in the Laccadives), the former is also far to be the Velliyan Kallu, which is perhaps less than 1 watch away from Kuli.

The Portuguese also called it the sacrifice rock where Kunhali marakkar and his cruisers ‘slaughtered’ (these words are used in history books only when the aborigine kills the colonial – When the reverse occurs, it is written off as ‘natives lost in battle’) the crew of a Portuguese vessel.  Seemingly, his war-paroes were concealed in the island and launched in droves at opportune movements to take on a slow-moving Portuguese vessel. The many pockmarks are the impressions left by cannonballs fired at the Kunjali’s forces, in retaliation. Pyrard a Laval tells us - More than fifty years later a rock off the shore, perhaps that called in English times “Sacrifice Rock”, was still known as “Kunhali's Rock”,” and the Kotta River long continued to be the principal nest of the corsairs, who, friendly to the Dutch and English, continued to work havoc upon the waning commerce of Goa.

Hamilton mentions that a nephew (Dom Pedro – Ali Marakkar) of Kunjali took his revenge at this island – He states After Kunjali Marakkar was executed by the Portuguese, a nephew of his recruited some local youths to capture hundreds of Portuguese soldiers and brought them to these rocks and slaughtered them.

But the English sowed more confusion when they mentioned - A grey Rock extols its hoary head eight fathoms above water, navigable on all sides, justly called by us the Sacrifice Island; in remembrance of a bloody butchery on some English by the pirate Malabars, the chief of whom lives at Durmafatan. This supposed pirate is confused with the Maratha Angria (James Morier accounts). We also note that in 1772 a manchua of Comben Allupy was captured by the pirates, off the Sacrifice Rock. The English Ensign William Prosser followed them and captured them near Mount Deli. Nearly fifty members of Angrias were taken as prisoners and more than twenty were killed in the skirmish.

But it could also be the sailors Roberts and Haines of the privateer Worcester, who were involved in the chopping of many heads at the rock. William Kidd in 1697 also hung around the rock, often.

Local historians, notably MGS Narayanan believe the name Vellayam Kallu, the Kunjali Para, signifies the ‘rock of the white man’ after Portuguese cruelty, where they captured dhows with Moplah’s going for the Haj ritual, and ignoring all offers of money and gold, take them to this rock for mass execution, thus earning it the name ‘sacrifice rock’. Yet another story states that Haider Ali during his Malabar sojourn, left state prisoners on the rock, to die of hunger & thirst.

As we can see, all the villains of Malabar seem to have a connection to this rock, and with many killed or murdered on it, it is an island full of ghosts and tormented souls, floating around. Even to this day the local people consider this rock as a haunted place and tell stories about strange apparitions and voices there.

The little island is, however, home to the Indian Edible-nest Swiftlet and TC Jerdon explains. What a vast distance these birds must have come from, to have taken full three hours after sunset to reach their homes, and what powers of sustained flight are here shown! It is known to have other breeding places on the Malabar coast, viz., the Vingorla rocks, where one hundredweight of nests is said to be produced annually; if so, this must be the largest breeding spot on the coast: also, the Sacrifice Rock, twenty miles south of Tellicherry; besides, I dare say, others. I visited Sacrifice Rock in March, 1849. (It is so called because Hyder Ali was said to have left state prisoners, and others occasionally, on this perfectly bare rock to die of hunger and thirst). There is one cave here which had perhaps fifty to a hundred nests, and a few had eggs in them.

Very few of the nests were of the first make, these being annually taken away by some moplahs from the mainland. The birds were at this time flying about, feeding on the flies which abounded at the edge of the rock. About twenty couples, perhaps, were present, not more. I doubt if all the places I have enumerated on the western coast would contain the nests of a quarter of the number of these swiftlets which I have seen at once in one locality. If so, where do the others breed? It has been suggested that they may nestle in inland caves, but all my inquiries have failed to discover any in India. In the imperial gazetteer, it appears to have been named 'Pigeon Island'.

Curiously a very exaggerated note by Mrs Colin Mackenzie (Circa 1853) states - Passed the Sacrifice Rock, about three miles from shore, on which, till within the last few years, human sacrifices used to take place, especially of young infants. This is quite unheard of in my opinion as narabali was uncommon in Malabar.

It is also believed that the term Velliyan kallu (or Vellayam Kallu) is evolved from the Malayalam version of the above term, balikkallu, but perhaps it is more correct to associate it with white or silver rocks or white man’s rock.

As the British settled down to rule Malabar, one administrator was hellbent on building a lighthouse at the Sacrifice rock, in fact, it became an obsession with him as the rock was bang on the route from Bombay to Calicut and a threat to many a sailing ship as the traffic increased. Many ships were wrecked at that location, and numerous sailors lost their lives. Francis William Ashpitel an executive engineer at the PWD made it his life’s objective to set up a lighthouse there. His story comes to life in the lovely account completed by ICR Prasad Asst Engr, owner of the Dipanjali museum and once a Lighthouse keeper at Minicoy.

Ashpitel deputed to scout out locations for lighthouses on the Malabar shore, promptly reported “This rock is 4 1/2 miles from Cotta point and is on the direct track of steamers from Bombay. An 18-mile flashing light, on the rock would guard this danger and be useful as a landfall light for the Ports of Telicherry and Calicut, the existing lights at these stations being relegated to the property as Portlights”. The Port officer at Madras however disagreed and wanted the lighthouse at Cotta point, stating that locating one on the rock meant higher expenses to maintain the keepers as well as requiring hired steamer transport, to and fro from the rock. His main objection was that the rock would be inaccessible for 4 months during the monsoon and stormy seas.

Ashpitel who hoped for everlasting fame in constructing a ‘sea-washed lighthouse’ at Malabar, was not swayed, he resubmitted the file, stating that it was still possible to send a keeper once in two weeks even during the monsoons. Anyway, Governor Wenlock agreed that a stronger construction onshore was better and recommended Cotta point in the file. The file was either not submitted or got lost. Five years passed by and Ashpitel again submitted a detailed estimate. HA Street who had succeeded Powell as Port officer at Madras, not aware of the Governor’s ruling, forwarded the file in 1901 for approval. It was cold-shouldered and as ICR Prasad mentions, the ruling stated ‘Lighthouses can wait’.

In 1904, Ashpitel’s proposal of a lighthouse, complete with a kitchen, list of cutlery, water supply systems and whatnot (but silent on the steamer service) was finally approved and Capt Smith started work, only to realize that the requirement of a launch to get machinery and equipment and personnel was nowhere mentioned. When the estimate was reworked and the budget raised, the decision to build at the rock was reversed and the Lighthouse was relocated at Cotta Point, instead.

The Thikkodi, Kadalur, or Cotta point lighthouse was completed in 1909 and Commander Mitchell the Port office reported – I myself went out on the beach at Calicut about midnight and it was then showing beautifully (all of the 200K candle power), a distance of about 20 miles.” Ganapathi Kandy Koran, who supervised the construction was appointed as a Lascar at the lighthouse (His legacy of maintaining this lighthouse was continued by someone from his family, ever after!), and post 1909, no ships were wrecked at Sacrifice point.

But after all the old lore was forgotten and the invaders and colonials left, it was left to novelist M Mukundan to weave magic around the island with his lovely novel Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil, taking you through the history of Mayyazhi or Mahe. The people of Mayyazhi or Mahe believe that the dragonflies in Velliyankallu are the souls of the dead.

Mukuandan’s magnum opus mentions the rock often and below are some samples, borrowing from Swapna Gopinath’s study - The cluster of rocks called Velliyan Kallu lay far out to sea like a bright teardrop. The souls waiting to be born in Mayyazhi fluttered over the sun bright rocks as dragonflies. A little dragonfly flew into Mayyazhi from the Velliyan Kallu, the cluster of rocks in the sea where souls rest between births and which guards in its womb the secrets of the lives and births of the folk of Mayyazhi. All Mayyazhi' s children had come from there. He could see Velliyan Rock clearly when the sea was calm, like a silver streak in the distance. On such days, he would think of the souls hovering over it in the interval between death and rebirth and his thoughts then somehow seemed more profound.

He gazed at Velliyan Kallu. Glimmering in the distance. Sometimes, it disappeared from sight behind a rising wave and then took shape again. He saw souls hovering over it like dragonflies. Some of them, he knew would take on human form and return to Mayyazhi to live another life. He firmly believes that the souls live as dragonflies on Velliyan Kallu and he knows that his beloved is on the Velliyan rock waiting for him. Dasan, therefore, has no better option but to join her….

Interesting, right?  A rock which legends state, of having fallen from the sky, part of the hillock being carried on by Hanuman, ended up as a sacrifice point, where many souls perished or were lost, where birds nested and where dragonflies found meaning. 

That is the sacrifice rock heritage park at Malabar, a sanctuary for some, a graveyard for others…

Madras Presidency – Thurston
Birds of India – Thomas Claverhill Jerdon
A New Account of East-India and Persia, in Eight Letters. By John Fryer
Kadalur Point lighthouse- ICR Prasad
Kerala Calling – Velliyankallu – June 2006
The Dialectic of Historicity in Modernist Fiction: A Study Based on Select Works of O V Vijayan and M Mukundan: Swapna Gopinath
Malabar – William Logan

Pics – Wikimedia, Hanuman (courtesy: Ashok Jhongre), Velliyankallu (google images)


  1. Jayaprakash Mallay


    When Professor KV Krishna Iyer of Zamorin's Guruvayurappan College Calicut, in his book The Zamorins of Calicut published in 1938, addressed Porlatiries as the kings of Kuttichira shore region called Polanad Adikal and the Queen as Nalagath Amma, I am reminded of the fisher king Purakad Adigal of Ambalapuzha, the Moslem fisher dynasty called Adi Raja Regent of the Sea and Lord of the Maldives who were Sea Customs Agents to imperial Kolattiries and Ilanko Adigal the brother of Chera king Katalpirahu ottiya Senguttavan. who routed the cream of Imperial Persian fleet under Khosroe Nushirvan. So far about the word Adigal. Now coming to the word Nalagath Amma, it is an exclusive term applied to fishermen ancestral tarawad homes mostly in North Kerala. Also worth mention in this context is that Kadathnad Mootha Adiyodi known as Kurumbiatiri on ascending the gadi assumed the proud epithet Lord of the Arabian Sea. The very name Kurumba latent in his epithet Kurumbiatiri smacks of Kurumba the the family penate of Nalagath fishermen invariably of Nalillacaran fishermen inhabiting Thayyil beach in Cannanore., Chakkum Kadav in Zamorin Raja's port town Kallayi and elsewhere along the Malabar coast. The priests at Kodumgalore Kavu temple is called Adigal The defunct kingdom of the Porlatiries based at Kuttichira stretched presumably along the West coast from Kallayi in the South to Elayhur in the North. Notably the Atiyodi Chieftains at Varakkal, Iringal and Muttungal beach heads were called Porlatiri and their senior female members as Palliatiri Amma. The erstwhile old township of Calicut under the Porlatiri kings were known as Poontura and Velapuram, both synonymous with shore region. That's all for now.