The Rise and Fall of the Zamorins of Calicut

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    For a man who discovered the sea route from Europe to India, being treated like a common trader was an insult he couldn't take lightly. The year was 1498 CE and Vasco da Gama had just landed in Calicut on the west coast of India, a land he was determined to exploit for all the pepper, or ‘black gold’, it could yield. After decades spent by so many trying to sail to the ‘land of spices’, and the many lives lost and ships wrecked in this pursuit, to be asked to pay for goods in gold and silver plus applicable customs duties? Really!

    But the man calling the shots in Calicut was not to be trifled with either. He was the Zamorin of Calicut. The Zamorin controlled much of the international sea trade in spices, as they were shipped from the great port of Calicut to the Middle East, via trade routes in the Indian Ocean. The Zamorin, who had built Calicut from a minor port into a great entrepot, lorded over a large part of present-day Kerala.

    This famous encounter between the Zamorin and Vasco da Gama took place during the ‘Age of Discovery’, when European explorers and navigators were discovering new lands to colonise and plunder for their wealth. Cargo ships had been crisscrossing the Arabian Sea as part of an age-old Indian Ocean trade network, and the Portuguese were determined to muscle in on the spice trade that had been thriving in these parts. The idea was to eventually control the ‘spice route’ and this hinged on reaching the Malabar coast in India.

    It wasn’t going to be easy, and although the Portuguese did succeed, it took them a century to gain control over the spice trade. Their greatest obstacle always were the powerful rulers of Calicut, the Zamorins, who controlled many ports on the Malabar coast and who would not give up the land they had nurtured and developed, without a fierce fight.

    The 14th to 16th century CE period was the ‘Golden Age of Calicut’, a city built by the Zamorins and the seat of a dynasty that eventually ruled the region for close to 500 hundred years. It was a city envied by visitors and traders from both the East and the West, and it flourished due to a smart economic strategy and liberal social policies adopted by the Zamorins, who also commanded a nimble naval fleet headed by seamen famed for their hit and run guerrilla tactics.

    But with the advent of British rule in India, these suzerains of Malabar faded from public memory, leaving nothing but a few palmyra scrolls and mentions in a few travelogues extolling them and their reign. Today, except for history buffs, few in modern India even remember this dynasty, but the saga of the rise and fall of the Zamorins of Calicut is a story that deserves to be told.

    The House of the Zamorins

    The Zamorin’s ruling dynasty which was titled the Nediyirippu Swaroopam hailed from a place called Nediyirippu in Eranad, a locale which is part of the present-day district of Malappuram, in Kerala.

    Their origin story is narrated in a 17th CE text called Keralolpathi, the earliest known account of the history of the Malabar region. The text, largely a collection of myths and legends mixed with historical events, mentions the advent of two brothers Manichan and Vikraman from Eranadu, who were the most trusted generals in the army of the Chera dynasty that then ruled the region. When the Chera Perumal decided to abdicate, the brothers were not around and so did not originally bequeath any land to them. These young men upon their return reminded the Perumal that they had been forgotten in the process. With little left, the Perumal gifted a small area of land, then no more than a thicket of shrubs to the brothers, which would later be known as Koilkode (Kallikut or Calicut). He also gave them his sword, his broken prayer conch and an edict that they could conquer more territory if they wanted to.

    Beyond the Keralolpathi, the historical origins of the House of Zamorins can be traced to the concept of larger independent dynasties or political houses called ‘Swaroopams’, which were in vogue following the fall of the Chera dynasty in the 12th CE. The Zamorins as aforementioned, emerged from the ‘Nediyiruppu Swaroopam’, named after Nediyiruppu in present-day Malappuram district. Some of the other major swaroopams were Kolathunad (general area between Calicut and Payyanur), Perumbadappu (Cochin, now Kochi) and Thripappur (Travancore, the general area between Kochi and Cape Comorin).

    The Nediyiruppu Swaroopam was ensconced in a hilly region and the ruling family realized that without a port, expansion would be impossible. It is believed that around 1100 CE, the ruler of the Nediyiruppu Swaroopam and his Nair troops attacked Porlanad (the small principality around today’s Calicut and ruled by the Porlathiri) to the north of the Kallayi River and after a protracted battle took control of the area around today’s Calicut.

    In time, the ruler of the Nediyiruppu Swaroopam, later termed the Zamorin, found willing allies among the Muslim trading community and their progeny the Moplahs, who had settled near the ports. Together with his expanding Nair army, the Moplahs and Muslim traders, he decided to increase his territory and might.

    By the 13th CE, the Zamorin had established control over the mouth of the Nila River (today’s Bharatapuzha) and the port of Ponnani (80 km south of Calicut), which later became his political headquarters. Next, he assumed control over the Mamankham, a medieval trade fair (somewhat analogous to the Kumbha Mela in North India) by usurping the authority of the neighbouring chiefs. This event confirmed the suzerainty of the Zamorin over the region between Calicut and Palghat and gave him control of lands and agricultural riches on either side of the Nila River, as well as complete authority along the route to Palghat (present-day Palakkad).

    Calicut quickly grew to house a large merchant population of Arab origin, who cast their lot with the new and powerful Calicut chief. Aiding him in his military endeavors, they established themselves in Calicut and Ponnani and expanded their trade with Arabia and beyond. The benevolent ruler rebuilt Calicut as his commercial capital, and split his time between the Thrikkavil Kovilakom in Ponnani, and his many kovilakoms or palaces in Calicut, when not on the road, fighting wars.

    The Making of Calicut

    The city of Calicut, built to a concentric square plan, was developed according to the principles of traditional Vastu Sastra. The big bazaar or palayam and the surrounding area comprised the early city, and the plan resembled that of the ancient Chola capital Kaveripumpattinam. It was built on a twin foci principle, to accommodate foreigners away from the main city. The foreign enclaves were situated to the south-west of the main fort, an area which was home to not only Arabs, Jews and Turks, but also Chinese traders.

    The city was probably built between the 13th and 14th CE, as the Zamorin’s riches grew and his army fanned South and East, wresting control over Valluvanad, Nedunganad, Trichur and even parts of Palakkad. By this time, the Zamorins had established suzerainty over the vast regions between Calicut and Cochin of present-day Kerala.

    The ancient port of Muziris, once a paramount port of overseas trade located 140 km south of Calicut, had become unusable, presumably due to silting of the mouth of the Periyar River in 1340 CE. Seeking better avenues and facilities and as the power and reputation of the Zamorin grew, traders moved to his domains, which promoted free trade and security. They flocked to the fast-growing port of Calicut, which soon became one of the principal ports on the west coast of India.

    Calicut further grew from a great port to a trans-shipment point for goods from the Far East as well as other spices from the East such as cloves, cinnamon etc. Thus, Arabs who serviced European markets, had only to sail to Calicut to procure pepper and ginger from Malabar, beads, jewellery, cotton and linen from the Tamilakam, cinnamon and cloves from the East, silks and porcelain from China, etc. to name a few of the trade commodities.

    Trade also flourished with the East. Large Chinese markets were serviced out of Calicut and trade links with locales in today’s Cambodia and Indonesia increased, which is clear from the writings of Arab scribes and Chinese records. Regular visits by large Chinese treasure ships to Calicut were commonplace as witnessed by the great Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta, who was in Calicut around 1341 CE. There was also a formal exchange of emissaries between Ming China and Calicut.

    After the Zamorin assumed authority over the Mamankham fair at Tirunavaya and established himself as the principal suzerain of the region, he became known as the ‘Swami Thirumalpad’, which was shortened to ‘Samoothiripad’ or ‘Samuthiri’. This was presumably Anglicised to the popular usage, ‘Zamorin’.

    The Tide Begins to Turn

    The Zamorins led relatively austere lives and followed a clear-cut hierarchy through a matrilineal system. The eldest member of the Zamorin kovilakom (large family residence akin to a palace) assumed the position when the previous Zamorin passed away. Positions under him such as the Eralpad (second in line), Munalpad (third in line) and so on, followed a standard arrangement, and there have never been any reported instances of deceit or attempts to topple the order.

    The greatest rivals of the Zamorins of Calicut were the Rajas of Cochin. Old enemies of the Zamorins who had ousted them from their original lands, this family had established itself in a new place called Cochin, which now possessed a large natural harbour. This new port too gained popularity, and with an increased demand for spices, the city of Cochin grew in power during the same time that Calicut was prospering. The Cochin Raja’s feud with the Zamorin was protracted, and battles erupted every now and then, destroying the peace in the region.

    This perpetual feud between the Calicut and Cochin royals not only drained their respective treasuries, but they also failed to notice that eyes were being cast on their resources and wealth by nations beyond the seas. By the 15th CE, profit margins were shrinking rapidly at the Venetian markets, and European traders considered dispensing with middlemen, in this case, the Arab trader sponsored by the Egyptian Mamluk sultanate. Not only was the Arab hated for his price policy but also because he was the ‘enemy’, what with the crusades underway in Europe, where Christians were pitted against Muslims.

    The Arabs, who controlled the seas and the sea routes as well as many trading ports, had been partnering with Venetian traders. Historically, the produce and exports from Calicut found their way to the ports in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf on dhows sailing across the Arabian Sea. From these ports, the goods were transported overland to the port of Alexandria, using tedious camel caravans. From Alexandria, they travelled to Venetian ports and eventually to consumers in Europe.

    Meanwhile, in Calicut, the Arabs were finding it increasingly difficult to share space with the Chinese. It was the early 15th CE and Admiral Zheng He, the great Chinese naval explorer, had commanded seven expeditions for China’s Ming Dynasty, to expand China’s maritime and commercial influence in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. The Chinese Admiral, who died in Calicut in 1433 CE, ventured as far as Arabia and beyond and was perhaps considered a threat to take over the sea routes in the region. This posed a direct challenge to the Arabs, who had ruled these waters for centuries.

    Out in Calicut, the Arabs were finding the sharing of space with the Chinese, difficult. Whether it was because Admiral Zheng He ventured out directly to Arabia and beyond, threatening to take over their sea routes or if it was something else is not clear, but it appears (as mentioned by Joseph the Indian circa 1500 during his sojourn to Europe) the Chinese traders and community at Calicut were ousted violently in the late 15th century CE by the Arabs and they left Calicut, destined to the Eastern Tamil shores.

    Vasco da Gama Arrives in Calicut

    This was the lay of the land when the King of Portugal asked Vasco da Gama to sail to Calicut and make contact with the Zamorin. Stranded at Malindi in Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, after circumnavigating the Cape of Good Hope, da Gama was in a quandary till he chanced upon a Gujarati seafarer called Malemo Cana, who agreed to pilot him to Calicut. And thus, Vasco da Gama arrived at Kappad or Pantalayani near Calicut, in May 1498, laying bare the sea route from Europe to Calicut.

    Da Gama went on to meet the Zamorin, who he realized was not one to be swayed by trinkets and other gifts. Although he made no headway in his quest for a monopoly over the pepper trade, he alarmed the Arab traders of Calicut, who sensed big trouble in store. Da Gama returned to Lisbon and, over the years, the Portuguese King sent him and other explorers such as Pedro Alvares Cabral on more voyages to take over the spice trade from the Arabs of Calicut. These journeys resulted only in needless violence, the bombarding of Calicut, the chance discovery of Brazil, and a complete alienation of the Portuguese with the Zamorins of Calicut.

    The Portuguese did gain one advantage, though. They had established a good rapport with the enemies of the Zamorin, i.e. the Kolathunad King and the Cochin King. Forts and factories were built in Cochin and Cannanore (present-day Kannur) to acquire spices, but this was not enough – the Portuguese wanted total monopoly over trade and the seas.

    The Zamorin, for his part, strengthened his naval resources and it led to the entry of the Marakkar Muslims into the Calicut tapestry. Historically, rice imports for Calicut came from the Eastern Tamil and Kalinga areas, as well as countries in the Far East. The seamen who ventured to bring in the produce and rice from these areas were the Marakkars. Many of the more prosperous Marakkar families had initially settled in Cochin as traders, but continuous tussles with the Portuguese made them move to Calicut. Here, with Arab and Turk support, they further built and consolidated the Zamorin’s naval forces.

    Then, in 1510 CE, the Portuguese attempted to attack and subdue Calicut while the Zamorin was away. The attack was led by admiral Afonso de Albuquerque, the second Viceroy and first Governor of Goa (1509-15 CE). The attempt ended in disaster and an injured Albuquerque retreated, just barely.

    Since these battles were draining their coffers, the Portuguese decided to avoid Calicut and move north to take over and settle in today’s Goa. The Portuguese ruled over their ‘Estado da India’ from Goa, blockading the seas to create a monopoly and disallow Arab traders from shipping goods directly to Arabia. The Zamorin’s Marakkars built a fleet of small boats in cooperation with the Arab traders and engaged in many sea battles, supported often by their sponsors in Egypt and, in a couple of instances, the Ottoman Turkish Sultan.

    These boats frequently attacked Portuguese ships and were a worry for the Portuguese. Friction continued and there were sea battles galore, with the Marakkars remaining a thorn in the Portuguese flesh. Matters were getting complex at Calicut as well when the reigning Zamorin was apparently influenced by a couple of Portuguese friars. In 1597 the Zamorin met a Portuguese Padre named Francis Acosta purely by chance. As the story goes, a Father who had been administering to the soldiers in a Portuguese ship which had been captured by the Kunjali’s paros (small ships), was made prisoner and turned over to the Zamorin.

    He obviously made a good impression on the Zamorin and influenced him not only in seeking peace with the Portuguese, but also allowed the Portuguese to erect churches. It is also said that the Marakkar Kunjali IV was getting a bit arrogant after many sea victories. Whether it was the influence of the Padres or a growing disaffection between the Marakkars and the Zamorin which led to their falling out is not clear, but the Zamorin supported the Portuguese in capturing Kunhali at the latter’s fort after which the valiant admiral was put to death by the Portuguese in Goa.

    The Portuguese established a church in Calicut around 1605 after signing a peace treaty with the new Zamorin. They had finally achieved what they had set out to do – find a foothold in Calicut – but it was an uneasy alliance, at best.

    Moreover, things soon changed for the Portuguese, when the Cochin Raja extended a hand of friendship to the Dutch East India Company in 1662. The Dutch also established a base in Cochin and larger factories in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and Indonesia. Just as he was with the Portuguese, the Zamorin was at loggerheads with the Dutch as well, since the Dutch supported the Cochin Rajas at times, in their wars with the Zamorin.

    Travancore too became a wary Dutch trading partner and the Zamorin was slowly finding himself alienated, what with distrust building between him and his one-time allies, the Moplahs (Kerala’s Arab descendants), as well as a depleting treasury. But the Dutch remained aloof and kept to trade deals and agreements with the Zamorin, staying at arm’s length.

    The Fall of the Zamorins

    Time was running out for the house of the Zamorins as the 18th CE dawned. The Zamorin was left without a male heir through the maternal line, and a new line was created through adoptions from a Zamorin family connection at Neeleswaram (about 150 KM North of Calicut, in Kasargode). It was at this juncture that a Zamorin conquest of Naduvattom (an area in Palakkad) forced the Palakkad Raja to seek military help from Hyder Ali of Mysore. Hyder Ali, with his cavalry and arsenal, subdued the Malabar armies in 1764 CE, and the Zamorin offered to withdraw and pay the Mysore Raja a ransom. When he did not deliver on his promise, Hyder Ali’s forces attacked again in 1766 CE and the vanquished Zamorin set himself and his Calicut palace on fire. The House of Calicut, over 400 years old by now, thus met a fiery end in 1766 CE.

    The younger princes of the Zamorin family fought Hyder Ali and later his son Tipu Sultan but they too were defeated by the Mysore armies. The princes had no choice but to negotiate small pensions from the Mysore rulers, who had usurped the Zamorin’s territory after his defeat.

    The British East India Company (EIC), which had remained as traders in the Malabar and Tellichery, supported the Zamorin princes on the sly. Hyder Ali passed on and Tipu took over, and he was pitted against the Travancore rulers and later the English. The Zamorin’s families, especially the older men and almost all women, fled to Travancore, allegedly with their treasures. With his eye on their treasure, apparently exchanged for their asylum, Tipu attempted to conquer Travancore but failed.

    Tipu eventually lost his war against the British and conceded all his territories to them in 1792 CE, including Malabar. Under the East India Company, Malabar first became a part of the Bombay EIC administration and later Madras. The Zamorin families in exile returned and resettled in British-administered Calicut around 1800 CE, with lowly pensions and some tax collection responsibilities. But the House of the Zamorins had already been reduced to a travesty. All the old power and authority was gone as was their ownership of vast swathes of land. The British, however, continued to support the institution of a Zamorin, albeit a titular one.

    Monsoon winds and sailing ships gave way to large, ocean-going steamers, and as the modern Cochin port was built, the fortunes of Calicut declined rapidly. The Zamorin families settled down to a lifestyle not very different from ordinary folk, and they became administrators and mid-level officers in the British government. The pomp and the fame of Calicut were forgotten.

    And so, the fortunes of Calicut ebbed and flowed, with the Zamorins taking it to dizzying heights and down to what British travellers in the 19th century called “a sleepy little town, a shadow of the great entrepot it once was”.

    But the Zamorins were not just warring chiefs, they were great patrons of art, promoting art forms such as the Krishnattam (a temple dance-drama based on the life of Lord Krishna), literature, Vedic learning and Sanskrit as well as scholarly events such as the Revathi Pattathanam – an annual assembly of scholars where literary competitions took place and selected scholars received titles and prize money. The Temple of Guruvayur, in the Thrissur district of Kerala, is perhaps the last major institution which is still connected to the Zamorin and his patronage.

    Calicut still has a Zamorin, and when a Zamorin moves on, a new one takes his place, under the same old rules. When you visit Calicut today, you will find no palaces but you may chance upon on an old-timer who still remembers its history, the Marakkars and the Chinese. You will also notice the communal amity in this multicultural city. That was always its foundation, a city for people of all religions and communities, who could live without fear of persecution, where one could thrive and prosper.

    Cover Image: Vasco da Gama before the Zamorin of Calicut by Veloso Salgado


    Ullattil Manmadhan or ‘Maddy’ is a history enthusiast who writes articles on the history of Malabar and Kerala, on his blog sites – Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys. The writer’s great-grandfather, Vidwan Ettan Thampuran, was one of the Zamorins of Calicut, 1912-1915.

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