The Konkani’s of Cochin

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A look at the community’s history (with particular reference to the GSB)

All of us have had some interaction with a GSB (Goud Saraswat Brahmin) Konkani, be it in college or at the workplace, and for people in Cochin, the community which lives there and their slightly different customs and their singsong intonation of the Malayalam language. You will remember a Pai, a Bhat, a Rao, a Kamath, a Prabhu, a Shenoy, etc. all recall the Shenoy’s theatre, and you may have seen Mammooty - Dileep’s movie on the community and the Dosa song from Kamath & Kamath. But this little article will take you back a bit and retrace their arrival in Cochin and see the ups and downs this community, which was persecuted, faced along the way.

By all accounts, the community left Goa (It is said that centuries ago they had left the valleys in Punjab after the Saraswati River dried up and settled in the Goa region – hence the name Saraswats) arrived in two or even three waves, following exigencies, then the Khilji, Malik Kafur attacks and finally the Portuguese inquisition. Following trading houses, the earliest lot arrived at Kerala in the 12th century, where they congregated at Cannanore, Calicut, and Cochin. The second and larger wave occurred after Muslim rulers plundered Goa in 1294. The 1560 period saw the exodus fleeing Portuguese persecution and heading South. There are frequent mentions of the Canarese as they were termed by the Portuguese, Dutch and English as traders and clerks, settled at Cannanore and Calicut. At Calicut, most arrivals are dated after the English supremacy in the 18th century, at the Das Naik Compound, Kamathi Madom and Swarga Madom. It should not be forgotten that the medieval trading ports of Calicut/Ponnani, Cochin, and Cannanore (as well as Travancore ports) were also home to many Konkan Muslim (e.g., Rogays, Zakarias) communities and Christian Goans (copper smiths, translators, scribes and clerks). The Tulu Embrans of Malabar should not be confused with the Konkani GSB. A vast majority of the GSB’s were provided asylum by the Raja of Cochin and settled there, and so that is where we will go to see how they fared. Today you will find them mainly and Cochin and scattered all around Kerala.

Portuguese epoch

During the period when the Portuguese established factories and trade links with Cochin and Cannanore, a number of Goans were involved with the spice trade out of Malabar, while at Cannanore, most worked for the Ali Raja’s trade networks. Being a well-knit community, the families in Calicut and Cannanore had close links with Cochin and records can be traced in trade documents. A mention can be seen that one of the groups had initially requested asylum in Calicut, but after receiving a cold reception from the Zamorin, moved on to Cochin. This must have been the last and largest wave that followed the Portuguese inquisition, at a time when the Zamorin was trying to establish a peace treaty with the Portuguese. Interestingly, during this period, they were termed Canarins which comprised Konkan Christians, the Brahmins, as well as the Kudumbi’s.

A later account (Moens) stated that they all came from Sasta Verdes – Bednore, Ikkeri. In Cochin many of them ran small shops and some were walking sellers or even money traders (Saraf or Shroff). However, the formal definition of Canarin in Portuguese Cochin is quite different, and the following may be noted - The early Portuguese gave the name of Canarin to the Konkani language and termed it Lingua Canarina. Goncalo Teixeira Pinto states- In Goa the Portuguese arriving from Europe are called Fringis (Franks). Their sons born in India, but of pure Portuguese blood called Castisos. The sons born of Portuguese fathers and Indian mothers are called Mesticos. The Christians born of Indian parents are called Canarins and the Gentiles are called Concanos. If this be the case and the Indian Christians were called at one time by the Portuguese as Canarins, it is no wonder that the language spoken of by these Canarins should be dubbed as Lingua Canarina. Eventually, all Goan Christians were termed Canarins, and many Canarin traders flourished in Bombay, Surat and Goa and were during the wars, fighting for the Portuguese. Like indigenous Hindu merchants, prominent Canarins received appointments in Portuguese outposts outside Goa and set up shop as traders in many places along the coasts of the Indian subcontinent.

A flourishing period – Dutch Cochin

The Saraswat Konkani’s seem to have arrived at Cochin sometime after the 1560 CE Goa inquisition, and roughly a century before the Dutch attained supremacy. Records testify that they established themselves in Cochin, with the Raja’s formal permission to associate themselves with the spice trade, and were quickly aligned with a new lot of Pardesi “white’ Jewish traders who arrived from Syria and Constantinople. As the Dutch came to the fore, the Raja permitted the establishment of a Konkani Sanketam, around their Damodara temple in Sastiparamba, called Gosripuram (These days it is the Tirumala Devaswom or Mukkalvattom) around 1567. The Portuguese destroyed the temple in 1662, but it was rebuilt during the Dutch reign.

As the Dutch attained supremacy, the Konkani’s were aligned with the VOC, and worked hand in hand over matters of trade, keeping themselves separated as Pardesi’s and drawing protection rights previously accorded by the Portuguese to the Canarains. They worked as traders and tax collectors for the Dutch, and as chief intermediaries between the locals and the Dutch. The Dutch referred to them as Canarjins and Concanees.

The Paliyam plates from 1663 document a treaty with the Dutch while clarifying that the special succession waiver accorded to the Canarins brought in previously by the Portuguese (7 classes), also go on to state that the Konkani’s would be provided the same waiver, from the time they approached the Raja for protection and requested permission to build a temple. It also states that land for a temple was provided, so also protection and that in return, the Konkani’s would abide by the rules (Raksha and Shikhsa) binding the other brahman subjects of the Raja.

While the community grew and established itself in trade and collaboration with the VOC, their frequent complaints to the VOC whom they considered to be their real masters, thereby slighting the ego of a particular Cochin Raja, landed them in a veritable pickle.

Consummate traders

The trading Konkanis are frequently mentioned in VOC dispatches, and while some Governors had

high praise for their skills and contacts, others place them very low in esteem, stating their distinct lack of honesty. Ashin Das Gupta and Hugo K.s’ Jacob have provided a detailed study of one such trader, the affluent Babba or Bhavan Prabu (who came to the limelight in the second half of the 17th century) and I will just provide some highlights from their extensive studies. Interestingly, Babba Prabhu was not really a full-time Cochin resident, most of his working life was spent elsewhere. He was born in Cannanore, and some of his family continued to live there. He worked initially for the Kayamkulam Raja, as a trade liaison with the Dutch as well as all other interested parties. He was particularly close with the Zamorin, the Attingal Rani, and the Madurai Kings as well as other prominent Pardesi Arab & Moplah traders. At various times, he operated out of Ponnani, lived there, and even had a garden and house in Calicut. Adding prestige and power to his position, he walked around with an entourage of 12 soldiers, headed by a Dutch sergeant. Trading mainly in cloth, tobacco, arecanut, dyes, opium, and pepper, Babba played the trade game with panache and used rivalries to price his goods at a profit. He also used the credit line provided by the Dutch to great effect drawing from it to the maximum and keeping it overextended, to the intense irritation of his Dutch masters. During the last decades of the 17th century, he found a patron, the famous Van Rheede, whom we have thus far associated with the Hortus Malabaricus.

While most of the other Dutch chiefs at Cochin found Babba to be a scheming trickster, overtly dishonest, Van Rheede continued to support him, so much so that his colleagues reported Rheede to be in league with Babba and tried to edge him out. Wammena (Vaman?) Prabhu, another Konkani trader is listed as Babba’s associate in Kayamkulam, and between them, they supplied pepper and spices grown in the hills south of Cochin, not only to the Dutch but also to the Zamorin. To strengthen their positions, they even had the Moplah’s attack and kill some Dutch in an expedition to Karthikapalli and to escape detention, fled to Ponnani , under the Zamorin’s protection. He single-handedly foiled Dutch efforts at creating or maintaining a pepper monopoly, with the support of the Zamorin and other nations..

Wammena seems to have split up with Babba and worked for the Dutch, while Babba schemed with the Zamorin (it could also have been a clever ploy, unknown to the Dutch). Babba took to trading with the French, the Portuguese, and the English, positioning himself as an independent trader. The Attingal Rani too held him in high esteem, presenting him with a horse, a turban, and other gifts. It is said that some of the Travancore handloom weaving enterprises were started with his direction and to meet export demands. When Van Rheede finally arrived in Cochin, it was Babba who with the Zamorin’s support, helped Van Rheede and the Vettathu faction take over the throne from the reigning branch of Cochin Rajas. To a certain extent, he was the VOC’s ambassador when dealing with all the local Rajas. When Nana Prabhu, his son, got married at Cochin, Van Rheede provided them the VOC coach and horses for the pompous festivities as well as a cask of gunpowder! He was allowed to sit on a chair and deal with the VOC officers, could ride up to the VOC doors on his palanquin, and had a silver handle for his parasol (see my article on the Palghat umbrella, to understand its importance). It was also said that Babba could influence the Zamorin to start a war with the Dutch if he so wished it!

But after Van Rheede died when he headed back to Surat, Babba lost his patron and his favored place in the hierarchy. His debts increased; trade links declined; and business suffered with many reverses. In 1695, he was formally notified that his monopolistic position in the VOC trade was no longer tenable and was delegated to a merchant. Babba passed away in Ponnani in 1696, and eventually, his business was shut down, while his son Nanna used his securities to wipe off the family debt.

Many other Konkani merchants can be found in the diaries left by the VOC. Rama Prabhu, Baboeca & Abuga (Babba’s brother or brothers), Pinna Pai, Santa Pai, Naga Prabhu, Callagha Prabhu, Krishna Pandit, etc. are frequent mentions. Govinda Pai was another trader who appeared on the scene later at Puracad (Porcca) and later joined Hyder. During the 1766 period, he was deputed by Hyder to locate the Zamorin’s treasures, after the family fled south to Travancore.

However, there is another interesting aspect to Babba’s prominent role, it was his relationship with the Jews of Cochin, specifically, a new entrant to the scene, who became even more famous, namely Ezekiel Rahabi who migrated in 1647, from Haleb in Syria. Both he and his son David worked hand in hand with the Prabhus and it was David who represented them 1695 to settle the Konkani traders’ debts with the VOC at Cochin. With Babba’s demise and Nanna’s departure from the scene, Ezekiel took over the trade links as a principal trader for the VOC. Many of the Prabhu traders seem to have been associated with this Jewish family’s enterprise. However, Callagha Prabhu got into trouble with the Rahabi’s and when he failed to pay them for a sugar import, Ezekiel seized and locked his warehouse. This resulted in an uproar in Cochin and required mediation by the Jewish leader Daniel Cohen. A compromise was reached whereby Callaga would clear the debt in installments, but then the VOC chief Senff opposed it. Many Konkani’s actually supported Ezekiel in the court case that followed, and we can see from the records that Baba and Alo Saraf, Biko Kini, Rama Sinaj etc. provided evidence against Senff. Callaga Prabhu had to plead his own case, ineffectually and finally approached Hyder, everybody’s common enemy, for support. Moen’s the VOC head, caught this in the nick of time and deported both Callagha and Chandra Prabhu to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and it is mentioned (not necessarily true) that they were the first free Malabari’s to settle in South Africa.

During the Mysorean assaults, we can see the travel report by Narayana Prabhu who witnessed Tipu Sultan’s troops destroying Sandalwood trees and pepper vines when faced with the Nair rebellion in Malabar.

Van Rheede’s physician scribes

We had previously studied the involvement of Van Rheede and local physicians from Malabar in creating the magnificent treatise named Hortus Malabaricus. Three Konkani’s namely, Ranga Bhat, Vinayaka Pandit and Appu Bhat were involved in the momentous effort. While there is much dispute about their exact involvement and its extent, let us leave it to others to figure it out. I am only happy to report the amicable relationship between the Dutch, Itty Achutan and the Konkani stalwarts in completing the great project and all of them deserve overdue honors, not just Van Rheede who got most of the credit.

Perimbala Shenai

The role of this Konkani merchant, who also became an advisor of the Cochin Raja during the period when Van Rheede was the VOC Chief, is a complete story by itself and will take many pages, to retell, so I will just provide some highlights. Seemingly, Perimbala was associated with the King through his favorite concubine (was she Konkani?). Van Rheede uses many superlatives to decry the acts of Perimbala who was, the royal treasurer or adviser as the occasion demanded. Envious of Babba Prabu’s position, this old hand seems to have conspired to get him out of VOC’s good books and did succeed.

Alexander states - The treasurer of the State was Perimbala Shenoi, a dependent of the Company. He had not been regular in keeping the accounts and he was never on good terms with the local officers. The Raja had desired the removal of Shenoi and the appointment of a new hand, but the Commander was not prepared to remove him, thus the Company had the command of both the treasury and the dewanship, and the Raja was reduced to the. position of a mere cipher…

Anyway, Perimbala conspired to spoil the efforts of Van Rheede from maintaining a balanced atmosphere, kept the Raja from joining the Chertala union, took neighboring chiefs to war by attacking the Maparnam fort, and drained the royal treasury. By supporting the Van Goens faction, which was against Van Rheede, he split the Dutch, and also brought down Babba Prabhu, all the while supporting the Vettath faction against the Mooton. I will write a detailed article about the machinations of Perimbala, shortly.

Saktan Thampuran – A tough ruler

The story of how the Saktan Tampuran, a firm-handed ruler of Cochin, meted out cruel treatment to the Konkani’s is reported differently in various sources. Aithihyamala which is on the side of the Raja explains that one Deavaresa Kini, the supplier of sugar to the palace, did not supply it in time before an important feast, thus delaying the serving of the ‘payasam’ which resulted in the host’s (Raja) loss of face. An infuriated Raja had his head loped off and followed it up with other atrocities.

Ashin Das Gupta Details it in the chapter “medieval merchant’ succinctly - When Rama Varma Saktan Tampuran took over as the Elaya Raja in 1769 and as Raja in 1790, the finances were in a precarious state and his decision was to marshal all resources. One of the acts was to raise taxes and make new demands in spite of having agreed not to  in 1772, to the VOC. While the K Sankunni legend states the delayed delivery of sugar for a feast, other reports mention a demand for an increased supply of jaggery. As the events transpired, the Raja decided to harass the Konkanies with armed Nairs and demanded higher duties. Individual merchants were arrested and detained, and then the community requested permission from the VOC to move into the Dutch enclave, seeking asylum. This infuriated the Raja even more, who were now questioning his legal authority over the Konkani’s, which had been clarified per the earlier Paliyath copper plates. Following this uproar, some merchants including Dewarsa Kini were massacred in the latter’s warehouse in 1791 and a survivor provided an eyewitness account. The Sambradi Menon pinned Dewersa down while two of the soldiers murdered him. The rest of the armed men who were in the mandoe [main hall?] of the pandaal murdered the Konkanis Kristnen, Goga Kamoettij, Manoeko Senai and the son of Ranga Poy. Of the remaining three Konkanis, Saasta Poy and Martia Patter were seriously wounded and are, at present, in hospital but the Konkani Baboden fortunately escaped.

The Dutch came to the Konkani’s rescue but could not subdue the Raja’s forces. The Konkani’s fled into the European enclave, while the Raja’s troops plundered their township and temple. An instance of a dharna or hartal occurred with the Konkani’s stopping work, and cutting off supplies to the palace. The Travancore Raja also took affront to the events since some of these traders were his agents, but before the issue flared up even further, the English intervened and a face-saving compromise was arrived at. Four years later the Dutch were driven out of Cochin and the Konkani’s were back under the rule of the Cochin royals.

The idol travels

I had mentioned this event briefly in my ‘Bell thieves’ article of 2009 and promised to get back to the Konkani’s involvement, sorry it took so much time.

Many of the persecuted Konkani’s fled to Thuravoor between Cochin and Alleppey and settled down there with the help of Dewan Kesahava Das. They consecrated the Tirumala Devar idol in a new temple, named Ananta Narayanapuram and this was to re-start problems at Cochin. Both Saktan Tampuran and later,. the Raja who took over after his death, enjoined by the Konkani populace at Cochin, desired to get the idol back to Cochin, and a barrage of correspondence ensued with the resident Col Munroe at Travancore. The Travancoreans would not relinquish the idol which had brought newfound prosperity to Alleppey. As the story goes, the desperate Konkani’s headed by one Giri Kammathi spirited away the idol within a large basket containing Nivedyam Appams from Alleppey to Cochin in Feb 1853 earning them, the name ‘devan kallanmar’.

The matter did not end there, complaints were made and escalated all the way to Madras who authorized the use of force. As the army marched from Quilon, the Cochin Konkani’s sent back the idol to Alleppey, which was reinstalled at the Ananta Narayanapuram temple in Alleppey. Soon the Alleppey Konkani’s discovered that the idol sent back was a duplicate one, and again raised a hue and cry with the British overlords in Madras. But this time, the British looking back at the records found that the original idol had indeed been taken from Cochin to Alleppey in the first place for protection, and decreed that it rightfully belonged to the Cochin Konkani’s.

Konkanis – Various subdivisions

Among the GSB’s, exist a number of titular surnames. The Shenoys held administrative jobs, Kamaths were agricultural landholders, the Gauda’s or Kaudava’s the grain collectors, the Nayaks held military positions, the Bhandari worked in the mint or treasury, Mallaya’s held administrative posts, and Prabhu’s local chieftains or high born. The Kini’s cultivated herbs, Bhats were priests, Pai’s were usually ledger keepers, Vaidyas were medical providers, Hegde's were horse tenderers, Baligas were supervisors or foot soldiers. These are just general descriptions of a brief cross-section from Cochin in the past and are not representative of the surnames in use today. They also added trade suffixes like Irumbukkaran (iron traders), pinnaakku karan (fodder, oil cake business).

In addition to the Sonars (goldsmiths) or the Devajna (Daivadnya) Brahmins, the Konkani Vaisyas were also present in Cochin and prayed at their own Janardhan temple. Finally, there were the Kudumbis (due to their hair tuft)  who had in the past, served as domestic and agricultural help to the GSB’s but progressed far since then and fill all walks of life, today. The Moopans and the Ittiyans comprise the two divisions among them.

Not to forget were the Devadasis or the Saraswat non-Brahmins, as they were classified. It is said that both the Janardhana and the Tirumala temple promoted the Devadasi tradition, in the past. The Devadasi community thrived within the Sanketam, with the boys serving as drummers and the girls as dancers. During difficult times, many of these Devadasi girls led an ‘impure life’ according to some old records. This system was initially abolished in 1936, reintroduced in 1940, and finally outlawed in 1941.

I believe a reasonable amount of detail has been provided thus far, but there is so much more to the vibrant community, their customs, literary and cultural achievements, their differing cuisine and language, their other travails (such as John Anantham’s conversion), and whatnot. The lay reader may, after perusing this, venture out on his own and gather any missing pieces.

Saraswats in History with special reference to Kerala – Purushotam Mallaya
The Konkanis of Cochin – their history and contributions (JOKS V17) – K Sadasivan
Saraswats in Goa and beyond – Chandrakant Keni
India and the Indian Ocean world – Ashindas Gupta
The Rajas of Cochin 1663-1720 – Hugo K.s’. Jacob
Babba Prabhu: The Dutch and a Konkani merchant in Kerala - Hugo K.s’. Jacob
The Dutch in Kerala – P C Alexander
The Devadasis of Kerala – PRG Mathur
Aithihymala – K Sankunni
A tragic decade in Kerala history – TP Sankarankutty Nair

The bell thieves of Cochin


Pics – Wikimedia, British Library (noncommercial use), Madras railway company-pictorial guide