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Rubrics of Power and Trade in Calicut

By Pius Malekandathil

Calicut, with a highly vibrant international port-city, is often known for its long and continuous resistance against European occupation and hegemony in early modern India.  The  Zamorin and the co-sharers of power channelized a major share of their resources for countering the multi-layered and overarching challenges from Europeans, particularly the Portuguese and later other European commercial companies, for a considerable span of time. The Zamorin managed to mobilize human and material resources for it by a complex and nuanced networking of power-relations with the various power groups and institutions in his kingdom. These alliances were constituted essentially along politico-economic lines for forging and maintaining ritual-political and economic ties with the major social segments of commodity hinterlands and the maritime zones. In course of time, the Zamorins developed a three-tier capital system for consolidating their power and position as well as for mobilizing resources, with the primary capital city complex in Calicut, the secondary capital city complex in Ponnani, and  the ritual-cum-cultural-cum festal capital in Thirunavayi, which was also the seat of the pan-Kerala cultural festival of Mamankam.

The primary capital complex in Calicut had two components: 1) The mercantile town and 2) the royal quarters. The mercantile city of Calicut was then located on the sea side, where the sea-waters washed the walls of the houses, as was observed by Ludovico di Varthema in the first decade of sixteenth century.[1] It was only the urban component of the merchants in Calicut that very often came to the notice of many of the European travellers. By 1606 the mercantile city of Calicut had attained a length of about 4 kilometers, as Pyrard of Laval writes.[2] In fact the Porlathiris were the actual owners of the city of Calicut since the fall of Kulasekharas of Mahodayapuram in the twelfth century. However by thirteenth century, the Porlathiris were ousted by the chief of the Nediyiruppu swarupam, who initially had his base in the land-locked agrarian enclave of Eranadu.[3] On the occupation of Calicut the chief of Nediyiruppu swarupam took the title of Kunnalakon, king of the Hills (kunnu) and waves (ala) and its Sanskrit equivalent is Samoothiri raja.[4] The chief of Nediyiruppu swarupam preferred to set up his palace not in the mercantile city but about half a league or two kilometers away from it,[5] which evolved as the royal quarters of the city. The royal quarters stood in the hinterland of the mercantile city and distinctly away from it, as the Chinese traveller Ma Huan testifies in the beginning of the fifteenth century.[6] Adjacent to the palace was the Tali temple dedicated to Siva, which according to Ma Huan had a big copper statue and copper tiles. [7] The polished copper tiles of this temple was an attraction even in 1606, almost two centuries later, when Francois Pyrard of Laval refers to them in his account on Calicut.[8] K.V Krishna Iyer argues that the town got the name Kozhikode (Calicut in European languages) from Koyilkodu or Koyilkotta, meaning the fortified palace of the Zamorin.[9] Though there was considerable religious overtone in the segment of the town having royal quarters, the mercantile component of the same city was made to evolve as a cosmopolitan space. However Zamorin’s notion of secularism and cosmopolitanism seems to have included the freedom that he extended to all traders to follow their own belief systems, allowing them to worship in their own prayer houses. Thus the Jewish traders had their own quarter and synagogue and the bania merchants their own temple in the mercantile city of Calicut.[10] Both the mercantile town in the vicinity of the port and the royal quarters collectively formed the primary capital city complex of the Zamorin.

The primary capital city complex of Calicut got its vibrancy from the returns stemming from its maritime trade. In fact the port of Calicut was connected with its vast pepper hinterland through a network of rivers of which Chaliyar and Kallayi are the most important. The Kallayi river that washes the shores of Calicut originates from the Cherukkulathur elevation and flows south-west connecting the distribution centers or bazaars called ‘chanthas’ at Velliparamaba, Palazhi, Puthur, Iringallur, Kailamattom, and Pantheerakavu, where it is joined by a tributary of Chaliyar river bifurcated from Mukkathukadavu. In the Olvanna region, south-east of Calicut, this tributary of Chaliyar which joins Kallayi river is of vital importance for the trade of Calicut. It is through this passage that the extensive cultivable space, located on the banks of river Chaliyar such as Nilambur, Chungathara, Edavvanna, Edavannappara and Mavur, was linked with Calicut port.[11]

The secondary capital city complex of the Zamorin was located in Ponnani, a place where river Bharatapuzha merges into the Arabian Sea. Francois Pyrard of Laval says in 1606 that the Zamorin resided sometimes at Calicut and sometimes at Ponnani[12] and he refers to Ponnani as the ‘war town ‘of the Zamorin.[13] K.V.Krishna Iyer calls Ponnani the military capital of the Zamorins.  It was in Ponnani that the leading Marakkar Muslim merchants like Kunjali Marakkar, his brother Ahmad Marakkar, their uncle Muhammadali Marakkar and their dependents settled in 1524 following their decision to migrate from Cochin and fight against the Portuguese highhandedness.[14] Their abrupt move to Ponnani happened when they lost trust in the Portuguese following the capture of Marakkar ships and cargo destined to Red Sea ports by the Portuguese under the guise of checking cartaz, even though the cargo was sent with Portuguese partnerships.[15] It was probably with their eventual conversion as a fighting squad for the Zamorin’s navy and army that Ponnani seems to have gained importance as the military capital of the Zamorin.  Moreover, Ponnani provided a door to access the rich pepper-producing hinterland located along the banks of Bharatapuzha and control the processes of spice production and distribution in the hinterland. It was at the mouth of Bharatapuzha in Ponnani that the Thrikkavil kovilakam, where Zamorin used to reside, and the Vairanelloor kovilakom where the Eralpad, the heir-apparent used to live, were located.[16] N.M. Namboothiri, who has analyzed and studied most of the documents of Kozhikodan Grandhavari of Zamorin, says that Ponnani was the ritual capital of Zamorin, while Calicut was the commercial capital. According to him several of the rituals connected with Zamorin’s power exercise used to begin at Ponnani and it was from Ponnani that the sacred ornaments for Mamankam were taken in procession to Thirunavayi.[17]

The third set of capital complex of the Zamorin was located at Thirunavayi on the banks of river Bharatapuzha, where Mamankam, the ritual-cum- political festival of a pan-Kerala nature used to be held once in every twelve years. This festival was almost like that of Prayag, though its celebrational contents were different. In the vicinity of Thirunavayi, almost half a mile west of its temple, the Zamorin had his Vakayur palace.[18]  The Navamukunda temple, the Vakayur palace, and ‘Manittara’ (upper platform on the banks of river Bharatapuzha) in Thirunavayi formed the core of the Mamankam venue, which stands at the apex of a chain of kavus (sacred shrines belonging to non-Brahminical segments) on either sides of river Bharatapuzha. The long chain of non-Brahminical kavus along with the Brahminical temples, with their cyclical festal celebrations on monthly and annual basis by way of stellar-reckonings, used to stimulate the processes of agrarian production and artisanal activities, besides accelerating the various endeavours of culture oriented towards the “markets” of festal celebrations.[19] The Zamorin himself used to patronize the festal celebrations in at least 150 kavus in Calicut, Kottakkal, Koduvayur, Ponnani and Ottapalam areas and meet the various expenses of these shrines including the expenditure of the priests. There were about 130 kavus on either sides of Bhratapuzha itself. The Zamorin used to spend about Rs. 25947 and 52808 para rice for the maintenance of these kavus, reflecting their importance in sustaining his programmes of power-inscription in the hinterland and mobilizing resources for his trading activities.[20] The cyclical festal celebrations used to activate the nodal market-mechanisms evolving around the kavus, which over a period of time, set the regional economy prepared and ready for the grand festivity of Mamankam, where the forces of mega-market were finally unleashed once in every twelve years. Mamankam was basically a “river festival”, which was conveniently developed by the Zamorin to consolidate his power and position in the rich agrarian belt located on the banks of river Bharatapuzha and also to assert his superiority over other power houses of Kerala through ritual-cum-festal enactments.  Concomitantly it also helped to mobilize various resources of the region and facilitate them to flow to the ports of Zamorin through the market-dynamics stimulated by festal celebrations. The vast sand-banks of Bharatapuzha served as platform for ritual performance, political displays, and market transactions during the days of Mamankam. There was a happy blending of temple-palace-market mechanisms in Tirunavayi, getting the process of power and trade intrinsically linked with religion. N.M Namboothiri views that Zamorin who resided in the Vakayoor palace of Thirunavayi during Mamankam represented ‘political authority’ and the deity of Navamukunda temple of Thirunavayi represented the centrality of bhakti (religious devotion). The happy merging of political authority with the divine at the Mamankam site was perceived to sanctify the market processes linked with domestic and maritime trade and in that sense the festal celebration of Mamankam evolved as a devotional-cum-commercial dynamic force. [21]

The festival was called Mamakam in Malayalam, which was a derivation of Mahamagham, as it was held in the year called Mahamagha of saka calendar.[22] It was celebrated for 28 days in the Malayalam months of Makaram (which corresponds to January-February) and Kumbham (February-March) [23] a time-span noted for celebrations in Kerala. Rulers from all over Kerala, including the rulers of distant places like that of Venadu, Kayamkulam, Porcad (Chembakasserry), Vadakkenkur, Thekkenkur, Alengadu (Mangattachan), Manjallor (near Vazhakulam, Muvattupzha), were invited for Mamankam, as Mamankam kilipattu testifies.[24] Though Mamankam, was a festal celebration, it was an ordeal for the Zamorin, whose position as president and protector of Mamankam was often challenged by the chavers (suicidal squad) sent by the Valluvanadu rulers. It was an occasion that tested his competence, the vigilance and alertness of his fighting force and their ability to identify the chavers of Valluvanadu in time and counter them. The chavers from Valluvanadu used to reach Thirunavayi with the avowed objective to kill Zamorin, and thus to avenge the death of their princes in Tirunavayi while Zamorin had occupied it from Valluvanadu ruler, and to reinstate Valluvanadu ruler as the president and protector (Rakshapurushan) of Mamankam. For the purpose of presiding over Mamankam festival, the Zamorin used to reach Vakayur palace in Thirunavayi from Ponnani on Punartham, 9th day of Makaram (tentatively corresponding to 23rd January) and performed a set of rituals and prayers on the next day, with which the festival began. From that day on daily royal processions, accompanied by his body guards and various co-sharers of power and manifesting the grandeur and pomp of his wealth and position, to the upper platform (Manittara) on the banks of Bharatapuzha and from river to the temple and then to the palace happened to be the major components of power displays for the festival. On the last day the Muslim Koya of Calicut, who was the chief port-officer of Calicut and the right-hand of Zamorin in his endeavours of power and commerce, stood on the left side of Zamorin on Manittara.[25] The Koya of Calicut was granted various honours and titles and was given the title of Shabantra( Shah Bandar). [26] Koya used to provide Muslim gunners and specialists in fire-works for Mamankam, who were collectively given about 234 ¾ panams for the same..[27] It was in the midst of such a huge gathering that the chavers from Valluvanadu used to try to kill Zamorin to avenge the death of their princes and recover the long-lost right and territory of Thirunavayi for Valluvanadu ruler.[28] As the Zamorin could expect threat to his life at any moment during these celebrations lasting 28 days, for him every moment was an ordeal. While he showed off his valour and kingliness his soldiers were to be extra-alert and cautious. In 1683 a chaver even entered Manittara, where Zamorin was standing, and tried to kill him, though before the tragedy the chaver was killed. [29]

Both the Zamorin and the chavers used to reach Thirunavayi, after due ritual preparations, though their movements were through two different routes. The chavers used to perform rituals before the Thirumanthamkunnu Bhagavati of Angadipuram (Walluvappally), which was the capital of Valluvanadu  and move towards Thirunavayi through a route parallel to that of the Zamorin,[30] while the latter started his move with the ritual of carrying sacred ornaments from Thrikkavil palace of Ponnani.[31] The festal celebrations were condensed with a complex set of rituals, on whose termination the Zamorin goes back to his capital in Calicut as the invincible ruler. The 28 days of ritual performances and processions connected with Mamankam provided the chavers from Valluvanadu chances to contest the authority of Zamorin and make efforts to re-occupy the land for their patron. It was not a war nor an organized attack; but a voluntary dispersed move by militaristically trained individuals from Valluvanadu at times three or five in number per Mamankam year (12th year). There were occasions when even fifty five chavers came and died at Mamankam site in their efforts to challenge Zamorin’s authority.[32] On completion of every cycle of twelve years the Zamorin used to project himself to be challenged and his authority to be contested through the spaces provided in the midst of complex rituals and ceremonial processions. The attacks by chavers on the Zamorin and the eventual killing of these chavers by Zamorin’s soldiers had, over a period of time, evolved into a ritual-cum-live performance of a political theatre in Mamankam. The microscopic minority of enemies (chavers) facing death brutally by the swords of Zamorin’s soldiers and the overwhelming majority of the ruling force cheering victoriously over the few dead chavers dramatically gave the appearance and impression of a major victory for Zamorin, as if in a war. The thread of this nuanced development is visible in the historical narratives formulated by Zamorin’s interpretation of the chaver’s attacks and their eventual killings by his soldiers as being something that used to happen because of the divine call from the goddess of Angadipuram (of Valluvanadu) to go to Thirunavayi to fight and die and thus to attain salvation.[33]  The euphoria and jubilation over the “rescuing of the life of Zamorin” by his soldiers gave more reasons for the hundreds and thousands in the  audience (including various rulers from afar) to get affiliated to the invincible and ever-powerful Zamorin and be part and partners of his political and commercial programmes, cementing loyalties, and upholding his supremacy.

Though Calicut and Ponnani were the primary and secondary capitals of the Zamorin, Thirunavayi, which was the ritual centre of festal celebrations and power consolidation, functioned as his tertiary base. True that Mamankam was held only once in every twelve years; but it only meant completion of one cycle of twelve years, for which long preparations of larger scales were going on in the preceding eleven years, activating production ,both primary and secondary, generating and pumping more wealth into the exchequer for the conduct of Mamankam and making available more commodities needed for exchange on the festal days, stimulating different types of cultural activities for the festivity. The monthly and annual festal celebrations held in kavus and temples along Bharatapuzha and in Zamorin’s kingdom increased the need for more production, constant flow of commodities for trade for feasts, and thus kept the region economically activated, whose culmination finally happened with the pan-Kerala feast of Mamankam, which as an economic motor facilitated the flow of cargo concentratedly towards the market of Thirunavayi and finally to the ports of the Zamorin for maritime trade. This material flow was followed by Zamorin’s assertion of authority in Thirunavayi in the epicenter of pan-Kerala assembly through a set of ritual-cum-theatrical-cum-live performances, in which he projected himself to be invincible and ever-powerful.

[1] John Winter Jones ( ed.), The Itinerary of Ludovico di Varthema of Bologna, from 1501 to 1508, New Delhi, 1997, p. 55

[2] Albert Gray (ed.), The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, vol. I, New Delhi, 2000, p.361

[3] The chief of the Nediyiruppu swarupam made several attacks on the Porlathiris with a view to occupying Calicut, and finally, says Keralolpathi, the Eradis were able to bribe the Porlathiri’s wife, Nalakattoottu Amma and his secretary, Menokki and get the doors of the fort secretly opened from inside to let in the Ernadu warriors. After the eviction of Porlathiri, the elder Eradi moved into Panniyankara, the headquarters of Porlathiris, accepted the lady of the palace as his consort, and built a fort called Velapuram. M.G.S.Narayanan,Kerala Charithrathinte Adisthana Silakal,Calicut,2000, p.112

[4] Albert Gray (ed.), The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives , the Moluccas and Brazil, vol. I, New Delhi, 2000, p.369

[5] Albert Gray (ed.), The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, vol. I, p.362.

[6] Chinese travelers write that the seat of Government of Calicut was in the hills while the trade was carried out on the coastal shore. See WW.Rockhill (ed.), “Notes on the Relations and Trade of China with Eastern Archipelago and the Coast of Indian Ocean during the Fourteenth Century”, T’oung Pao, vol.XIV, 1915, p.454

[7] W.W. Rockhill, op. cit., p.456

[8] Albert Gray (ed.), The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, vol. I, p.414

[9] K,V Krishna Iyer, The Zamorins of Calicut, Calicut, 1938, p.83

[10] Albert Gray (ed.), The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil,  vol.I, p.407

[11] K Balakrishna Kurup, Kozhikodinte Charithram (11edition.), Calicut, 2006, pp.61,62; N.M.Nambuthiri, Samuthiri Charithrathile Kaanapurangal, Sukapuram, 1987, p.54

[12] Albert Gray(ed.), The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives , the Moluccas and Brazil, vol. I, p..409

[13] Ibid., p.413

[14] Faria y Souza, Asia Portuguesa: The History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese, John Stevens, vol.I, London, 1695,p.284; A.P.Ibrahim Kunju, Studies in Medieval Kerala, Trivandrum, 1975, p.60.

[15] Marakkar Muslim traders like Pate Marakkaar, who had been a great friend and collaborator of the Portuguese in the early days of their establishment turned out to be a corsair and went to Calicut to join his nephew, Kunjali Marakkar, when his two ships sent to Cambay were captured by the Portuguese. See As Gavetas de Torre do Tombo, vol.X, Lisboa, 1975,p.577; Genevieve Bouchon, “Les Musulmans du Kerala a L’Epoque de la Découverte Portugaise”,in Mare Luso-Indicum, II, Paris, 1973, pp.52-53; Diogo Couto, Da  Asia dos feitos que os Portuguezes fizeram na Conquista e Descobrimento das Terras e Mares do Oriente, Decada V, Lisboa, 1973,parte 2, p.4

[16] T.V.Abdul Rahman Kutty, Charithramurangunna Ponnani, Thiroorangadi, 2013, p.23; N.M.Namboothiri, Malabar Padanangal : Samoothiri Nadu, Trivandrum, 2008, p. 392; N.M.Namboothiri(ed.), Mamankam Rekhakal, Sukhapuram, 2005, pp.25, 27. Though Zamorin had his port, mercantile town and royal quarters in Calicut, the Grandhavaris of Calicut and the Mamankam records  refer  to Zamorin in their initial pages  as “one who resides in the Thrikkavil kovilakam of Ponnani”. N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal,  pp.25-6

[17] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal,  pp.35-6

[18] Kilimanoor Mathanda Varma, “ Mamankam”, in N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal p.218; See also N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p. 30

[19]  N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, pp. 30-1

[20] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p.45

[21] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p.36

[22] For a synoptic idea of the Mamankam  celebration  see N.M. Namboothiri, Samoothiri Charitrathile Kaanapurangal, Sukapuram, 1987,pp. 96-108

[23] K.V.Krishna Iyer, The Zamorins of Calicut, Calicut, 1938, pp.91-120

[24]  N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, pp.41; .55

[25] It is being said that Thirunavayi was captured from Valluvanadu ruler for Zamorin by Koya of Calicut and it was primarily because of this reason that Koya was given left position to Zamorin on Manittara. N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p.24; Koya also had the right to collect port-dues Ibid., p.23

[26] K.V.Krishna Iyer, The Zamorins of Calicut, pp. 112-115

[27] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p.81. The rate for each Muslim labourer , who did the fire works and  gun-blasting , was one panam per day. This was a time when the price of  one edangazhi( tentatively one kilogram)  of rice was about 0.1 panam and  the price of one kilogram of pepper was around 0.75 panam . M.R.Raghava Varrier(ed.), Sthanarohana Chadangukal, Sukapuram, 2004, p.26

[28] For details on the names of nobles  and  co-sharers of power, who used to accompany Zamorin during the days of Mamankam seen.N.M. Namboothri,Malabar Padanangal: Samoothirinadu, Trivandrum, 2008,  pp.398-400

[29] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p.40

[30] N.M.Namboothiri speaks of a route starting from Angadipuram and going to south via Thiruvegapuram, Kodikunnu, Kulamukku, Pattithara and Padinjarangadi. Ibid., p.14

[31] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p.33

[32] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal,p.76

[33] N.M.Namboothiri, Mamankam Rekhakal, p 52

Dr. Pius Malekandathil
, Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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