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.

Let’s first start with Varthema’s account. He narrated thus - The King of Calicut is a Pagan, and worships the devil in the manner you shall hear. They acknowledge that there is a God who has created the heaven and the earth and all the world; and they say that if he wished to judge you and me, a third and a fourth, he would have no pleasure in being Lord; but that he has sent this his spirit, that is the devil, into this world to do justice: and to him who does good he does good, and to him who does evil he does evil. Which devil they call Deumo, and God they call Tamerani. And the King of Calicut keeps this Deumo in his chapel in his palace, in this wise: his chapel is two paces wide in each of the four sides, and three paces high, with a wooden door covered with devils carved in relief.

In the midst of this chapel there is a devil made of metal, placed in a seat also made of metal. The said devil has a crown made like that of the papal kingdom, with three crowns; and it also has four horns and four teeth, with a very large mouth, nose, and most terrible eyes. The hands are made like those of a flesh hook, and the feet like those of a cock; so that he is a fearful object to behold. All the pictures around the said chapel are those of devils, and on each side of it there is a Sathanas seated in a seat, which seat is placed in a flame of fire, wherein are a great number of souls, of the length of half a finger and a finger of the hand. And the said Sathanas holds a soul in his mouth with the right hand, and with the other seizes a soul under the waist.

Every morning the Brahmins, that is the priests, go to wash the said idol all over with scented water, and then they perfume it; l and when it is perfumed, they worship it; and sometime in the course of the week they offer sacrifice to it in this manner: They have a certain small table, made and ornamented like an altar, three spans high from the ground, four spans wide, and five long; which table is extremely well adorned with roses, flowers, and other ornaments. Upon this table, they have the blood of a cock and lighted coals in a vessel of silver, with many perfumes upon them. They also have a thurible, with which they scatter incense around the said altar.

They have a little bell of silver which rings very frequently, and they have a silver knife with which they have killed the cock, and which they tinge with the blood, and sometimes place it upon the fire, and sometimes they take it and make motions similar to those which one makes who is about to fence; and finally, all that blood is burnt, the waxen tapers being kept lighted during the whole time.

The priest who is about to perform this sacrifice puts upon his arms, hands, and feet some bracelets of silver, which make a very great noise like bells, and he wears on his neck an amulet (what it is I do not know); and when he has finished performing the sacrifice, he takes both his hands full of grain and retires from the said altar, walking backwards and always looking at the altar until he arrives at a certain tree. And when he has reached the tree, he throws the grain above his head as high as he can over the tree; he then returns and removes everything from the altar.

It was this description and a sketch produced by Breu based on Varthema’s narration that defined a devil to the Christian world, and that was the Devil of Calicut. And of course, it is presumed that Varthema visited the Vikramapuram palace, the one which was eventually destroyed in 1766 and which stood over SM street and neighboring areas of Calicut. Varthema’s description was used by the German Augsburg artist Breu in creating a woodcut of the famous Calicut Devil picture in 1515.

The author Joan Pau-Rubies states - It is obvious from the above description that the woodcuts made by Breu in Germany, so similar to traditional images of European devils, are basically faithful representations of Varthema's description, including the triple crown, the horns and fangs, and the little souls being eaten one after the other by a terrifying figure. The only important liberty taken by the artist has been to `humanize' the animal-like tiny figures of Varthema, and to conflate the image of the metal idol with the paintings on the wall. Other additions tending to create a traditional `goatish' figure of a devil seem legitimate, insofar as no more details were available to the artist. But this `filling in' was not entirely innocuous, because it created a figure that could not be an accurate representation of a Hindu statue, while Varthema's in many ways was. The said devil wears a crown made of three crowns as in the papal kingdom. It also has four horns and four teeth, with a huge mouth, and with terrifying nose and eyes. The hands are like a fleshhook and the feet like those of a cock, so that it is a fearsome sight . . . The said Satan has a soul in his mouth with his right hand, and with the other hand he is taking a soul from below.

Jarl Charpentier scoffed at Varthema (And I agree that Varthema can be quite ludicrous). Truthfulness was perhaps not the cardinal virtue of Lodovico de Varthema (also called Lodovico Romano), a Bolognese nobleman who visited India sometime between 1502 and 1507 and fought valiantly — if we may believe his own report — against the Moors at Cananore under the command of Lourenco d’Almeida. For, already the excellent Garcia da Orta’ suggested that he never went further than Calicut and Cochin and that the descriptions of his voyages in the Far East were pure fancy, and a very competent judge like the late Sir Henry Yule found that this could be easily proved out of his own writings.. Nor is the description of the ‘devils’ at Calicut and of the mode of worshipping them of any special value as the author did apparently know very little about this topic….

The author adds - That is, much of Varthema's description could be applied without excessive violence to representations of Narasimha, the lion-like incarnation of Vishnu Narasimha represented in many temples in Kerala and Vijayanagara, often with fangs and a tiara-like crown.

Partha Mitter provided a detailed analysis, and I give below some excerpts - For Varthema it was not so difficult to translate the Hindu monistic concept of Godhead into the Christian one. Yet when he confronted actual Hindu gods he did not hesitate to follow the medieval tradition in calling them devils. After all, had not the Church Fathers taught that all pagan gods were demons and devils?.....

On the other hand, it becomes increasingly clear from a close look at Varthema's Indian god that its ancestry is European. His description of Sathanas surrounded by the devils of hell owed a great deal more to medieval European hell imagery than to an Indian tradition. The account was simply lifted from popular pictures of hell, where the towering figure of Satan was often shown sitting in the middle and devouring sinners while his attendant creatures tortured the damned….For his illustration of the idol of Calicut, the Augsburg artist Jorg Breu turned to a stereotype that closely corresponded to the description in Varthema, since he did not have access to an actual Indian image. His task was made very simple by Varthema's substitution of a European devil for an Indian god. Dutifully he produced a woodcut which was no different from the popular woodcuts of the devil…

The problems are twosome, and reading Varthema’s account shows you that he had a tendency to exaggerate based on his perceptions and secondly, he had a very limited understanding of the practices in Malabar, despite his so-called interactions with the public and lack of language proficiency. Secondly, Mitter’s conclusions are also quite flawed as the Zamorins did not worship Narasimha as such, but were Bhagavathy (and Krishna-Guruvayurappan) worshippers, a practice which continues to this today. Finally, it is quite possible that the palace had murals (like in the Guruvayur temple – also see Calicut’s Padinjare kovilakom walls) which showed the various avatars and their acts. Narasimha may have impacted Varthema who of course does not know anything about the devas and rakshasas and the concept of Vishnu’s avatars. The idol in the temple, simply put, is not Narasimha but Bhagavathy. 

The biggest likelihood is the presumption that the Zamorin had a Bhadrakali temple within the palace grounds. The Valayanad Bhagavathi was already established at a separate temple in the 14th century, but the intense belief in the Bhagavati could have been the reason for another idol to be consecrated in the palace area. The picture of the Bhagavathi idol as installed in Valayanad or other places like Tirumandhamkunnu in Angadipuarm exhibit almost all characteristics as described by Varthema except for the ‘holding a soul in his mouth with the right hand, and with the other seizing a soul under the waist’.

Most researchers had previously concluded that the idol may have resembled Narasimha. Though there is a mention of the Zamorin forcing the Saiva Nambuthiris to worship Narasimha, it is unlikely that the Narasimha was worshipped as an idol within the palace, since the Zamorin family always worshipped the Bhagavathy (Bhadrakali). That they prayed at a specific temple at Valayanad is clear, but did the Zamorin possess one within the palace precincts, i.e., the one which Varthema saw?

Recent discoveries of a temple rafter and a couple of dwarapalaks in Muthalakkulam (the edge of the palace ground) reported in the news, confirm it. The report details that there was a Bhadrakali temple in the location and explains -  Throwing light on the medieval history of Kozhikode, two stone sculptures of Dwarapalakas dating back to the 14th Century, snake idols, even a rare Shivlinga snake idol, and Tamil stone inscriptions belonging to the 17th Century have been found at the Bhadrakali temple at Muthalakulam here. Samuthiri granthavari (palace manuscripts) from 600 years ago mentioned about a Bhadrakali temple in the northeastern corner of Muthalakkulam.

Now looking at a brass statue of a Bhadrakali idol from Kerala dating to the 17th century, we can see that many aspects match the Varthema description, such as the crown, the four teeth, large mouth, flaring nose, and terrible eyes. The four horns were obviously an exaggeration, it was four arms. Feet are like the cock is also wrong. That the hands are made like those of a fleshhook relates to the hooked sword on her right hand. The fire at the base is actually the flames from the many pedestal lamps lit in such temples. The wording related to - a great number of souls, of the length of half a finger and a finger of the hand, (unless it is a confusion wrought by the images on the circular structure around the idol) and the said Sathan holding a soul in his mouth with the right hand, and with the other seizing a soul under the waist, seems to be a flight of imagination unless that specific idol also had the body of Siva on the floor and many skulls strewn around – depicting the Bhadrakali myth).  The description of the Oracle – the Velichappad is also a character in any Kerala Bhagavathi temple, with the chilambu ornaments, etc.

And finally, what about the usages that Varthema picked up? Deumo, and Tamerani as he heard it. The latter is of course Thampuran or lord, as used in prayer. Deumo is Deivame or Devi, the former being a fashion of address for the lord, alternatively if was Devi, it is correctly the honorific usage for the Bhagavathy or Bhadrakali. My contention is therefore that Varthema saw the fearsome image of the Bhadrakali or the Devi being worshipped at Calicut.

For the sake of further clarity, let us look at Devi worship very specifically to Calicut. Interestingly, these tantric practices and the priests themselves came to Kerala all the way from Kashmir, way back in time. The Valayanad Bhagavati is a representation of the Tripura Sundarai of Kashmir, and the method of Kali and Sreechakra worship follows the Rurujitvidhana tantric system from Kashmir, which was behind the Bala Cult in Kerala that originated in Kashmir in the 12th and 13th centuries and afterward “migrated” to South India, where it remained in the mainstream form of Sakta Tantra. The immigrant priests of Calicut were called Mussads, who practiced this in some 13 Malabar and N Malabar temples. Their rites included offerings of meat, fish, and alcohol, and so the sight of cock’s blood (though I believe it could have been bright red vermillion paste) is not surprising (if you recall, this cock sacrifice was common at Kodungallur – a topic which we visited recently).

According to this concept, the warrior goddess is imagined wearing a garland made of the heads of demons; she holds in her hands a shield (kheda), a skull (kapala), a snake (pannaga), a bell (mahaghanta), the head of the demon, a staff with a skull at the top (khadvanga), a trident (trisikha), and a sword (khadga). The fierce goddess residing in the holy grove is also called Bhairavi and for some Srıvidya adepts, she is Tripurabhairavı, the frightening incarnation of the Tripura goddess.

Per the Varaha Purana, the goddess Roudri (incarnation of Mother Parvati) was meditating at the foot of the Neeli mountain. She came across devas who were fleeing, unable to bear the atrocities of the demon Ruru. Angered by the injustice she witnessed, Roudri created Bhadrakali from the embers of her rage and sent her to kill Ruru. Bhadrakali successfully did so and was awarded the epithet 'Rurujit'. Thus, Bhadrakali, a form of the goddess Parvati is worshipped in Kerala as Bhagavati, the slayer of the asura Darika, to liberate the world from evil and often worshipped during medieval times, for success in wars.

Interestingly Jennifer Spinks calls this description by Varthema, a moment of exceptional specificity, and she adds - Life-sized and worshipped as an enthroned king just as much as an object on an altar, these scenes demonstrate the ways in which the visual representation of figurative objects had the capacity to present them as in some senses frighteningly real to European viewers. Nevertheless, she explains that it was a powerful image, copied into many works throughout the century, and adds to explain the work of Munster (Cosmographei) and his adaptation - Here, even more than was the case in Varthema, the devil becomes one detail among many in lengthy sections on the peoples, customs, climate, and especially the flora and fauna of Calicut. A cut down version of the image—minus the attendant and the souls being eaten, but with a close adaptation of Varthema's text—was created for Münster and went on to circulate very widely in his Cosmographei. The image retains considerable graphic power, with the solitary devil's clawed hands viciously reaching out and the "papal" tiara—an undeniably polemical detail when used by a Protestant by this point of the century, though it was likely to have been used simply descriptively by Varthema at the opening of the century—thrown into even greater relief.

The Calicut devil then got modified, and Boaistuau introduced (1560) another startling new iconographical element: an open-mouthed, monstrous face at the devil's groin that diverged considerably from the limp, dangling piece of flesh in the Breu illustration.

However, Spinks, perhaps unaware of the Bhagavathy cult, tends to follow the Narasimha route taken by Mitter, though she makes an offhand mention of Kali without offering anything definitive – She says - Likewise, the often-terrifying form of Kali, the compassionate but frightening exacter of justice and punishment, with protruding teeth and flaming hair, would almost certainly have been encountered by Europeans due to the exceptional popularity of this goddess in the south.

Susanne Chadbourne concurs with Spinks - The hybrid creature also evoked contemporary representations of the Hindu god Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of Vishnu, who was represented with fangs, a mitre-like headdress and face, in temples in Kerala and Vijayanagara that Varthema visited…A temple dedicated to the Hindu god Narasimha in Alappuzha, in Kerala, has a wooden sculpture of the lion-faced deity dating from the fifteenth century. This image also has visual resemblances to Varthema’s description of a wooden door covered with carved devils, and a seated devil which ‘holds a soul in his mouth with the right hand, and with the other seizes a soul under the waist’

In conclusion, I believe that Varthema saw the Zamorin’s Bhagavathy idol, in all her fearsome glory. The vague discussions about the hanging protrusion to be the devil’s phallus is actually the hanging female dress ornamentation, typical of all Devi idols in South India, as could be gathered from the color pictures posted here. But then again, there are Bhadrakali idols showing a golden belt with a head in the groin area.

The travels of Ludvico de Varthema
Much Maligned Monsters A History of European Reactions to Indian Art - Partha Mitter
Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance South India through European Eyes, 1250 -Joan-Pau Rubies
Martin Waldseemüller’s Carta marina of 1516 Study and Transcription of the Long Legends - Chet Van Duzer
The Young Goddess Who Dances through the Ordinariness of Life—A Study on the Tantric Traditions of Kerala - Maciej Karasinski-Sroka and G. Sudev Krishna Sharman
The Southern Indian "Devil in Calicut" in Early Modem Northern Europe: Images, Texts and Objects in Motion – Jennifer Spinks
The Physical Embodiment of the ‘Devil in Calicut’ in Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires prodigieuses - Susanne Chadbourne

Hindu article – Riveting remains from a past space

 Wishing all readers a happy new year!!


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    A reminder of the description of Calicut by Vartema who is generally not taken at face value by historians because of his exaggerated stories of adventure and escapades. We are curious to know if he was influenced by earlier descriptions of Hindu temples in Calicut by Vasco da Gama's co-sailors like Alvaro Velho whose diary has been recovered. There is also the anonymous Roteiro which describes a visit by Gama and his team to the Calicut temple where they encounter 'saints painted with teeth protruding an inch from the mouth and four or five arms'.
    What makes some of Vartema's stories suspect is the timing of his visit. He claims to have visited Zamorin's palace in 1505. Recall that in the battle of 1500-01, the palace of the Zamorin was bombarded from the sea and almost totally destroyed. There is reason to believe that between 1502 and 1512 (when a new Zamorin took over and pleaded with Albuquerque in Goa to return to Calicut) commerce had declined in Calicut. Not an ideal time to play host to a foreign visitor who often pretended to be a Portuguese!
    The reference to Padinhare Kovilakam needs to be more accurate. The present Padinhare Kovilakam was built towards the closing decades of the 18th Century or the first decades of the 19th Century. There was probably an original Padinhare Kovilakam which was west of the old Ambadi Kovilakam in Tali. Incidentally, there is a Bhagavathy temple inside the present Padinhare kovilakam ( called Thrissala Bhagavati, believed to be the younger sister of Valayanad Bhagavathi).

  1. Maddy

    Thnaks CHF..
    yes, I had previously mentioned Ludvico's ludicrous tales and how tall they were, thus many of his stories were hearsay..but the issue here is that his description forms the basis for many Christian beliefs which are researched even today, so also the definition of 'devil'. See the reference papers for more details.

    The Padinjare kovilakom has no relevance as such in this article, I mentioned the present-day Padinjare kovilakom only to elucidate the wall murals which may have been there on the Vikramapuram palace wall as well.

    The issue at stake is the Calicut devil in Christian studies pertaining to the concept of 'devil' and hell.

    Varthema first visited Calicut in 1505, that was a short trip. He then came in 1506-07 and stayed on as a factor for Almeida, not just as a visitor. The situation in Calicut at that time needs further study and I feel that the Cabral cannonade would not have destroyed the Vikramapuram palace as it is too distant for cannons and stone cannonballs. But this needs to be checked in more detail

  1. Dr. Biju

    Interesting post! I live quite near the present Padinjare Kovilakam at Mankavu, and visit Thrissala Bhagavathy temple fairly frequently. However I must admit I am unaware of the historical associations of the place, except that the birthplace of Krishnanattom is right next to the temple. Thanks Maddy!

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Dr Baiju..
    Glad you chanced by