The Zamorin and the Betel Leaf ceremony

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 Taking charge at Kallayi…

It has been said that in the distant past, a new Zamorin taking charge of his kingdom would make a ceremonial procession from one of his residential kovilakoms (usually at Ponnani) to Calicut, stooping at Kallayi. At Kallayi, he would receive a betel nut wrapped in a betel leaf from a Moplah woman or a Moplah boy dressed as a woman, as part of an elaborate reception ceremony. Many writers who alluded to this as well as the ceremonial presence of Moplah chiefs at the Mamankam in Tirunavaya, cited these as an example of the religious harmony which existed in Calicut at that time.

Nevertheless, the story and the ceremony seem to be quite difficult to corroborate. Some writers are emphatic that this never existed, whereas others mention that this may have been something from the distant past. I thought it a good idea to investigate.

Let us first check where and how this is explained in some detail.

Fawcett - Nayars

It is mentioned in the description of the Nayars of Malabar by F Fawcett (dated 1900), an account which then got oft repeated in many Malabar related British accounts. In all fairness, Fawcett mentions that his manuscript was peer reviewed by many Nairs for accuracy, (He confirms - The proofs have been through the hands of several Nayars, and every precaution has been taken to ensure accuracy of facts) so what he said seems to have been extant at that time. He says -

Before ending this very incomplete account of customs of the Nayars, mention must be made of two more of these, both odd. Ever since Cheraman Perumal departed from the West Coast of India in A.D. 825, setting sail for Arabia and Mecca, having divided up his kingdom, His Highness the Maharajah of Travancore when ascending his throne says: "I ascend the musnud, and will rule until my uncle returns." The "uncle" is Cheraman Perumal, the last sovereign of the west coast, who, having embraced the Muhammadan religion, which was brought to his shores by Arab traders, proceeded to carry out a wild idea-so goes the legend-of receiving instruction from the Prophet himself! He never returned. To one princeling was given the territory now known as Travancore, and his surviving successor (through the female line of course) is the present Maharajah of Travancore. To another he gave Cochin, the ruler of which State also inherits through the female line. To the ancestor of the Zamorin of Calicut the Perumal gave no territory, as to the others, but he gave him his sword (it is still in existence) with the advice "to die and kill and annex. That he annexed is quite clear, as he was the sovereign not only of Calicut but of the country round about when modern Europeans first visited the west coast of India.

Like the Maharajah of Travancore, the Zamorin repeats the formula that he rules until his uncle returns, but in his elaborate and costly ceremony. The fort, which was the official residence of the Zamorin was in Calicut, and it has always been necessary for the new Zamorin to come to this fort in Calicut in a very formal manner. The residences, the kovilagams of the various branches of the family, lie far to the eastward. The heir to the Zamorinship must make his formal entry into Calicut, for until he does so he is not, strictly speaking, the Zamorin. There is much obscurity as to details of the ceremonial, and I have not been able to note these satisfactorily, so will state merely so much as is undoubtedly correct. The new Zamorin comes to the bank of the Kallai river adjoining Calicut. There he is asked some questions, and he crosses this river in a boat — not over the bridge. Arrived on the Calicut side he must partake of some betel leaf from a Mappila man dressed as a (Mappila) woman, or, as some say, from a Mappila woman and he says that he assumes the title of Zamorin and rules until his uncle returns. The betel leaf, received from a (Muhammadan) Mappila, which he chews, defiles him. He has lost his status in the caste, and he is supposed to be henceforth celibate. It would seem that this old-world ceremony is likely to follow the track along which so much of what is interesting in India is disappearing.

The late Zamorin never went through it, and he was therefore never, properly speaking, the Zamorin. He held the title perfunctorily, and he was the karnavan of the immense property of the family; but he could not go in procession as Zamorin.  There are three unpleasant concomitants to the ceremony. It costs much money. It involves degradation in caste. It compels chastity.

Those who say that a woman gives the betel leaf say, very reasonably, that a Mappila man would never for any consideration or purpose wear a woman’s garb. But, on the other hand, it is said the person is and must be a man, and that he dresses for this occasion only, as a woman.

The Zamorin was in Calicut but once since he became Zamorin on the occasion of his visit to His Excellency the Governor of Madras in 1896, and then infringed custom by coming to Calicut without previously undergoing the ceremony. Owing to a death in the family he was under pollution and therefore unable to undertake the ceremony at that time, so he came by train. These old-fashioned customs, written or unwritten, take no count of trains. For example, the modern pilgrims from Northern India find the train very convenient when they wish to visit Rameshwaram. The penance of a life is reduced to a few days in a train. What would the old sages say! So, the Zamorin came by train. But he could not go in procession along the road as Zamorin and was obliged to make his visit as an ordinary grandee.

Padmanabha Menon’s History of Kerala (Vol 1), consolidated in 1929, from Visscher’s letters on Malabar, mentions …

The Mahomedans were, from an early period, very powerful on the coast of Malabar, and the greatness of Calicut and its ruler was more or less due to the Arab and Moorish trade. A trace of their influence at the Court of the Zamorin may be found in the ceremony, which successive Zamorins have still to observe on the occasion of their coronation, when they have to receive Pan and Supari (betel and nut) from the hands of a man dressed as a Mopla woman or a woman herself, as some accounts say. After this ceremony, the Zamorins are supposed to be kept at arm's length by the members of his family and are said, by some, to be actually put out of caste by the ceremony, “and have to live separately thereafter to their manifold discomfort.”

It may not be too farfetched to suggest that the ceremony and the supposed degradation are a relic of the apostacy of one of the Zamorins and of his pilgrimage to Mecca, the change of religion being, perhaps, the result of a liaison which the then Zamorin had with a Mopla woman. However that be, it is significant that every new Zamorin has, it is said, to declare that he assumes the title and rules only until his uncle returns. It is probable that the apostate Zamorin died at Zafhar and was buried on the Arabian coast; and the tombstone referred to by the author of the Tohfut-ul- Mujahideen may, for aught we know, be that of a real Zamorin… The Mahomedan, the Christian, the Buddhist, the Jain — each of these religions, claims the Perumal to have embraced its tenets, and yet the Hindus tenaciously hold that he lived and died a devout follower of Siva. In this context, read the linked article about the Zamorin in Dhofar.

CS Srinivasachari reviewing the Padmanabha Menion account adds - Possibly the story of the conversion of the Perumal is based on the great influence wielded by the Moorish traders on the Zamorin of Calicut whose prosperity rested largely on their co-operation; and a ceremony which was performed at each Zamorin's coronation is suggested by our author as being very likely a relic of the apostasy of one of the Zamorins and of his pilgrimage to Mecca, the change of religion being perhaps the result of a liaison which the then Zamorin had with a Moplah woman.

V Kunhali – Calicut in History however states - The accession function of the king involved crossing the Kallai River. He was welcomed by the Koya, qasi marakkar and musaliyar, this was to commemorate the victory once Polanadu by the first Zamorin.

 Logan’s Malabar, repeats the Fawcett story in Voi. I, p. 245 and a note is added - Mr. Logan thinks that the ceremony is the relic of the time when the Perumal turned Mahomedan and left the country to its own devices. Would it not be more natural to attribute it to the incident of a real Zamorin' s conversion and pilgrimage to Mecca? But the conversion to Mahomedanism, whether of Cheraman Perumal or of one of the Zamorins, rests, at present, only on tradition and conjecture unsupported by contemporary records.

It should also be noted that these are inputs from Menon, Visscher’s letters themselves mention no such ceremony. Almost every account point to a circa 1900 input which got repeated over and over again. C. Gopalan Nair writing in 1917 on Malayalathinte Mappilamar also alludes to this ceremony in the past.

KV Krishna Ayyar

KVK is emphatic that such an event is not part of the ceremony, though he admits that sometime in the distant past it may have been a possibility. Let’ see how he puts it in his seminal book – The Zamorins of Calicut – Note this is not excerpted in full, only relevant parts of the extensive ceremony are quoted.

As soon as the date of the intended visit was fixed, circular letters were sent to Calicut…. And the Muhammadan Kazi or judge, Sabantra Koya or the farmer of the port-dues, Tura Marakkayar or the chief pilot, and the Palli Musaliar or the elder in charge of the mosque had to be at the jetty for Akampati. Leaving the Vairanallur or the Trkkavil Palace at Ponnani the Zamorin crossed the Bharatappuzha opposite Tirunavayi. And camping at Kalpakancheri, Trikkanliyur, Beypore and Tiruvacchira, he reached Calicut on the fourth or fifth day.

At Tiruvacchira the Munalpad, if he happened to be in the vicinity, the Edattralpad and the Mutta Eradi waited upon him and escorted him as far as the Kallayi river. Crossing the river in a boat or by a bridge of boats, he proceeded to the pandal erected by the Etakkulattavan, and look his seat, facing east, on the white-and-black, spread before four lighted lamps, beside which were placed Nirappara, beaten rice, cocoanuts, and fruits. As soon as the Zamorin was seated a conch was blown and Katinas or mortars and matchlocks were fired.

Then he clarifies - The bald official accounts, which do not omit a single detail, however insignificant or childish, do not allude to the reception of the Zamorin at Kallayi by a Moplah woman, mentioned by Logan as evidence of Cheraman Perumal’s conversion to Muhammadanism. “The Zamorins, too, at their coronation,” says he, “have still, when crossing the Kallayi ferry, to take betel from the hands of a man dressed as a Mappilla woman, and are actually put out of caste by the ceremony, and have to live separately thereafter to their manifold discomfort These are no doubt relics of the time when this Perurmal turned Muhammadan and left the country to its own devices. (Logan, Malabar Manual, Vol. 1, p. ‘245). Logan must have been misled by his informants who were ignorant of what look place at the pandal and who could not account for the presence of the Muhammadan dignitaries.

In another section he narrates another account, the base for the first - Still another version has it that the Zamorin even promised to marry the Calicut Koya’s daughter if the enterprise (Valluvanad conquest with the Koya’s involvement/assistance) ended in success but he began to repent his rash and hasty promise, as it involved the loss of caste. At last, a way was found out of the difficulty. It was arranged that when he came to Calicut for the first time after his accession he should receive, as soon as he crossed the river at Kallayi, betel and tobacco from the hands of a Moplah dressed as a woman — this being considered tantamount to a marriage…These are merely fanciful stories, devoid of any historical foundation. The Zamorin required no suggestions or promptings from others to turn his arm, against the Vellatiri (This is a story against the suggestions in the Keralolpatti that it was the Kozhikode Koya (the shabandra koya) who first put to the Zamorin the idea of wresting the control over the Mamamkam festival at Thirunavay from the Velattiri).

CA Innes said in his Malabar Gazetteer- It is also said that it is strictly necessary for each new Zamorin, on succeeding to the title, to make a formal entry into Calicut, in which he has to cross the Kallayi river by boat, receive some betel leaf from a Mappilla woman, and declare that he will only rule " until his uncle returns." But the custom is not now observed. A similar declaration has been said to be required of the Maharaja of Travancore on his coronation; but that is now denied (vide Madras Government Museum Bulletin III, 3, page 295; and Travancore State Manual I, p. 225).

Edgar Thurston also mentioned it in 1909 - At the installation of the Zamorin, some Mappilla families at Calicut have certain privileges; and a Mappilla woman, belonging to a certain family, presents the Zamorin with betel nuts near the Kallai bridge, on his return from a procession through the town.

Quadir Huseyn Khan

The Madras Christian College magazine Nov-1912 has an even more interesting entry by Quadir Huseyn Khan writing on the Mappilas - There is a story current in Malabar, that when the Arab settlers came the Zamorin allowed them to seize at random a few women at a tank adjoining a temple. The women so taken were from 12 illams and 8 agams. The Mappillas descended from these families and belonging to these ilams and agams are considered socially superior to others and treated with much respect.

At the installation of the Zamorin it is the practice to have him shaved and dressed like a Musalman, and crowned by a Mappilla who is paid Rs. 30 for it. After the coronation, the Zamorin supposed by others to have formally become a Musalman, is not allowed to sit and dine with even the members of his own household, and no Nayar would touch him. The fiction is that the Zamorin occupies the throne only as a viceroy till the return of Cheruman Perumal from Arabia.

The native chieftains of Malabar, notably the Zamorins of Calicut and the Kolathiri Rajas of Chirakkal, extend to the Arabs their protection and patronage, in consideration of their commercial activity and the consequent prosperity of the country, as well as their excellence as sailors. They grew in number and importance and obtained special privileges. A Musalman could be seated by the side of a Nambudri Brahmin while a Nayar could not. The Thangal was allowed to ride in a palanquin alongside of the Zamorin. And even at the installation of the Zamorin immemorial custom assigns to Mappillas a certain share in the ceremonies connected with it. For instance, he is crowned by a Mappilla and a Mappilla woman belonging to a certain family presents him with betelnuts near the Kallai bridge on his return from a procession through the town.

A much later written account by Komattil Achyutha Menon, Ancient Kerala- states this was part of the Kottichezhunallathu ceremony. Quoting him, At the " Kottichezhunnallath ' ceremony, which forms part of the ' coronation ' of the Zamorin, a Mappila boy, dressed as a woman, has to present Pan Supari (betel and nut) to the Zamorin. The betel in Malabar has always been a symbol of eternal friendship and everlasting prosperity. There are governmental records to show that during the days of the early British residents, in the erstwhile state of Cochin, Pramanis or headmen of villages were conferred the status of leading men by the grant of Pan Supari. The offering of the betel or Pan Supari by the Muslims of the Zamorin, appears to be a sign of pledge of homage or friendship and good wishes for a long and prosperous reign.

MGS Narayanan had this to say about the event in his Calicut book - When the Zamorin went out in royal procession, he received Tamboolam (betel leaf) from a Muslim lady who offered it as a token of respect and obedience. The Mappila naval contingent was under the leadership of Kozhikkottu Koya.

The section on Kottichezhunellathu provided by VV Haridas dates to a 1740 manuscript - when planks were used to make a makeshift bridge for the Zamorin’s crossing, and the ceremony matches the description/transcript provided by Ayyar in his Zamorins of Calicut chapters. The detailed account of the Kottichezhunallathu by Ettan Thampuran covers the procession of the Eralpad, so it does not provide any confirmation in this regard, also the elaborate Ariyittu Vazhcha ceremony documented by Ettan Thampuran and provided as an annexure to the Barbosa account – ML Dames, annotated by JA Thorne, also fail to mention any such event.

Interestingly this resulted in a major rift between the Zamorin and the Kozhikode Koya in 1817, according to the late historian NM Nampoothiri. The Koya and the Qazi were to meet him at the Kallayi Northern shores and pay their obeisances with folded hands, together with other luminaries. In 1817, the Koya refused to pay his obeisance, but upon questioning mentioned that he was willing to accompany the procession but was unwilling to pay his respects with folded hands. The Zamorin decreed that he should either follow the established practice or not attend at all. With the collector’s concurrence, the Zamorin proceeded to Calicut, after mounting the ceremonial elephant.

This shows how the communities were drifting apart in the 19th century, only to be followed by the numerous hill Moplah outbreaks in Valluvanad and Eranad. Considering the above situation, one can infer that the tradition of a Moplah woman or a Moplah boy dressed in women’s clothes had vanished well before the 19th century, if at all practiced in the past.

So, while there could have been a grain of truth in the past when a Zamorin possibly converted and sailed off to Arabian lands, or during the Valluvanad conquests when he had a pact with the Calicut Koya, a ceremonial occasion may have taken place at that accession. This does not seem to have been repeated ever after,  for various caste reasons on either religious side and was as Ayyar mentions, picked up by European writers who may have embellished their accounts with such salacious tales.

But whatever said and done, it remains a fact that those periods had far more religious harmony than today, as the social fabric is being slowly ripped apart with divisive thoughts and needless actions.


History of Kerala (Vol 1), from Visscher’s letters on Malabar – Padmanabha Menon

Nayars of Malabar Padmanabha Menon’s - F Fawcett

Malabar – W Logan

MCC magazine 1912

Barbosa – ML Dames

Calicut: The City of Truth Revisited – MGS Narayanan

Samoothiri Peruma - VV Haridas

Malabar Padanangal – NM Nampoothiri