The Devil of Calicut - A Misconception

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Varthema in Calicut

In Christian evangelical discussions concerning the advent of the devil, there is frequent mention of the so-called ‘Calicut Devil’, and when I recently came across it, I decided to check a little deeper into what the discussion was all about. As one could imagine, it was something that came out due to a complete lack of understanding of the alien culture which the Portuguese chanced on after Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut and opened the floodgates to an era of discovery and inventions, as the Europeans called it. The research led me to a lot of things I did not know and helped me put to rest the confusion created by Varthema, the Italian who was led by the Zamorin into a little temple within the precincts of the old palace at Calicut, in 1505.

Ibn Battuta, the Tangerine

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Ibn Battuta’s Rihala – A product of oral history

I have realized along the way, after some 35 years of global travel that – you can never understand an Arab sitting and studying books and power points in Stuttgart, nor can you understand an Afghan by sitting in Zurich. Ibn Battuta’s accomplishments can never be surpassed by any other, for such was the period and the difficulties he faced, going out into the yonder which little to guide him, be it detailed maps, dependable transportation, or finance. How he managed it is a wonder, and like many researchers, one has to admire his sheer grit and personality, for he managed the 70,000-odd miles of travel (by boat, on foot, horse, camel, donkeys, and palanquins), always deploying a charming personality and guile, layered with a thick coat of diplomacy and faith. Easily getting into and out of problems, and facing the adversities of weather, this wonderful person spent 30 years on the road.

Hiranyagarbha – Elevation of the Royal caste

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When royals were reborn from the golden womb

The sacrifices like Hiranyagarbha which had lost relevance in Northern India, remained in vogue for a longer time in the South, if only to Brahmaṇize the political powers of the area. Some royal families of the south are known to have continued with the Hiranyagarbha sacrifice to claim origin from the Hiranya Yoni. It was quite common in Venad and one can see mentions of it being practiced by the rulers of the kingdom of Travancore. It allowed them to sit and eat with Brahmins and chant the Gayatri, and rub shoulders with the exalted top tier. Manu Pillai had some time ago, penned a couple of humorous articles on this subject, one related to the Nayaks and another connected to Marthanda Varma.

The Panniyur Sukapuram conflict– The Kurmatsaram

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 A backdrop to the Zamorin’s Tirunavaya conquest 

The Zamorin annexed Tirunavaya, followed by the Valluvanad and Vettam territories, and with this the chasm between the two feuding dynasties of Perumbadappu and Nediyirippu, widened, fracturing the peaceful life in medieval Central and South Malabar, as well as the territories between Cochin and S Malabar. The catalyst to the move by the Zamorin was the precipitation of the age-old conflict between the two Namboothiri village communities near Tirunavaya, namely Panniyur and Chokiram (Chovur, Chowaram, etc symbolizing Sivapuram i.e., today’s Sukapuram) located to the south of the Nila River or the Bharatapuzha.

The Pamban Channel at Rameswaram

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 The Portuguese at Pamban and connections to Malabar

Some years ago, I mentioned the Pamban bridge, while writing about the Ceylon boat mail, a bridge that was an engineering marvel when it was constructed in 1914, over 108 years ago. The Pamban bridge was planned as the first phase of the linkage between India and Ceylon. However, the second part of the link, connecting Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar, i.e., the Palk straits, never reached fruition and what we still see, are the remnants of the ancient Adam’s bridge, the Rama Setu bridge constructed by Hanuman and his troops. Now comes the clincher. Did you know that the original Pamban channel was man-made, and that too not so long ago? In fact, the isthmus at Pamban which had been breached in a violent storm in 1480, was dug up and converted into a channel by workers, under Portuguese direction in 1549!

The purpose and the effects of this work in the vicinity of the holy town of Rameswaram had a number of violent consequences involving even the powers in Malabar, and their connections interestingly continued during the Pamban bridge construction in 1904 and more recently in 1964!

Whither goeth the Porlathiri?

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The Bayanor of Cartinaad, or the Ballanore Burgarie…

In a previous article, we covered the highlights of the Zamorin’s tussle with the Porlathiri and the annexation of Polanad, which locale by the way, is more or less today’s Calicut. We also mentioned that the Porlathiri fled to the Kadathanad region. Many questions continue to be asked about the Kadathanad raja, and so I thought it best to add a bit more about him. I did touch upon it while penning the Tatcholi Othenan article, for Othenan from that area. And so, we go to Kadathanad, searching for answers on the later life of the Porlathiri, who had once been the lord of the seas.

Battle of Calicut - 1502 -1503

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A Turning Point

The people who sailed and commanded the battleships for the Zamorin, used for fighting the Portuguese were a misunderstood lot. While the Portuguese and other Western scribes collectively grouped them under the heading Moors, current writers tended to group them under the Moplahs or Mappila community. The reality is far from the truth. The original seamen who commanded the small fighting craft were Pardesi Arabs and as time went by, the rice trading Marakkayars from the Tamil regions of Kayal, with their own customs and traditions, those who had moved from Kayal near Tuticorin first at Cochin and later Ponnani and Badagara, took command after the Pardesi Arabs had either been driven away or drifted. While we can discuss the change in command and the control structure of the Zamorin’s naval forces in more detail another day, we will spend some time now covering the very important sea battle of 1502/3, one that proved detrimental in ensuring Portuguese ascendancy of the seas.

Diego Garcia – Indian connections

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Diego Garcia - A remote island, in the middle of nowhere

South of the Maldives, some 1,000 miles below Trivandrum, located at the center of the Indian Ocean, lies the small archipelago comprising the Chagos islands, and among it, the Island cloaked in mystery, Diego Garcia. It is of strategic importance these days and occasionally there is talk about its displaced islanders and the island’s relationship between the US and the British, the US military base there as well as the US long-term lease of the islands. But this is a little article uncovering its medieval history and its relation to India.

Mangat Achan – The Zamorin’s Commander in Chief

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An important dignitary in the Zamorin’s court

Even though most people familiar with the Zamorins know of the Manghatachan, very few know of any details other than some hazy mentions and a few myths. It is still not clear, but drawing from various sources, we can get a general picture. Recall also that while the Zamorin was a titular position provided to the senior-most Thamburan in the various Zamorin lines, the governance was quite decentralized through the council of ministers, as well as the heir apparent, the Eralpad, and others. Though some Zamorins directly led military attacks in the ancient past, the Eralpad and the Munalpad were usually the ones who were at the front lines. Though the Zamorin gave any strategic event his final stamp of approval, he was, during such times, physically based at the Ponnani Kovilakom, another fact which many overlook, assuming that his primary seat was always at Calicut.

Othenan – The Supreme Warrior of Kadathanad

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Tatcholi Othenan – As narrated in the Ballads of the North

The Northern ballads (Vadakkan pattukal) are a series of folk songs sung by working women in the paddy fields, to fend away boredom and drudgery, composed mainly in colloquial North Malabar Malayalam dialects, without complex Sanskrit infusions. Typically, these are songs about the heroes of the Kadathanad region, especially their armed exploits, and the skill shown using the 18 plus combat techniques learned from their Kalaris. In general, it is believed that the Tatcholi ballads were composed during the 16th and 17th centuries (the Puthuram Aromal ballads are believed to date to an earlier, period, perhaps closer to the 12th century). Over time, many of the ballads were lost, with changes in social structure, lifestyles, and cultivational methods. Tatcholi ballads as they were called, remained in the popular sphere, and close to a hundred of them are still extant, so also a few on the Aromal Chekavar.

The Moothan Community in Kerala

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The Moothan, Guptan, Mannadiar and Tharakan communities

The Moothans are a trading or Vaishya community, migrants from the Tamilakam of yore, comprising broadly, the Moothan, Mannadiyars, Guptans, and the Tharakan subgroups. A decade ago, a classmate of mine, Mr Aravindakshan, provided me the gist of a legend connected to the arrival of the Moothans at Cheranadu, after having to depart Cholamandalam, in a huff. It was quite an interesting story, but after I found more details in the copy of an old book, I decided to narrate the details here, for there could be broader interest in this community and their links to the Tamil trading world.