The Palghat Umbrella

The ubiquitous Olakkuda of Malabar

Though I knew a bit about the palm leaf umbrella, the olakkuda of Malabar, I never knew until recently that it was more popularly known as the Palghat umbrella.  I saw it mentioned so in the pioneering book Saraswati vijayam by Potheri Kunhambu, for the first time. The entire book (its English translation by Dilip Menon for the Book literary trust series) had that umbrella as a motif at the start of each chapter and on its cover (the laborer is chained to his umbrella). That it was used by the nobility as well as the lowly serf was quite clear, so I still do not understand its significance in the book, but let’s leave that discussion for now and concentrate on the umbrella. Some years ago, my departed friend, the late Abraham Tharakan had written an article on this very same subject, but I thought I should revisit the topic with more detail, also because a researcher requested some dope on the subject, for her continuing work.

And so we go to those days when there was hardly any traffic on the road. People walked long distances, sometimes for many days, stopping only for food and ablutions. The noble accompanied by a retinue of servants legged it out on finished and unfinished roads, stopping to sleep at satrams or choultries. One should also remember that only very high ranking nobles or ladies were carried in a pallaku or palanquin by bearers, the rest walked. Let’s see how Kunhambu described one such walker…

“Kuberan Nambudirpad was of average height with a fair complexion tinged with red. He was wearing a fine mundu tied rather high to make walking easier. There was a freshly laundered cloth on his shoulder with which he occasionally wiped his perspiration. To ward off the heat, he held above his head a long-handled Palghat umbrella, which he would hand over to the servants whenever they paused in the shade”.

Why would it be called a Palghat Umbrella? I can only surmise that the reason was that makers of such umbrellas, so also the raw material - the Palmyra leaf, were both native to Palghat. The latter is quite apparent, for you will see a number of the tall Palmyra trees only in Palghat. While the Palmyra is the official tree of Tamil Nadu, Palghat being a border district is naturally home to a number of them. Today you may not see many, but I can assure you the fruit of the palm, the panam nongu (edible jelly) is something to slurp, eat and enjoy. If you have not had it, you have truly missed something. Palghat has always been known as land of Palmyra or black palm trees (കരിമ്പനകളുടെ നാട്) and are mentioned in many a book set in Palghat. Then again, you may recall that these palms were also associated with bewitching yakshi stories (see my article).

Now let’s get to the makers/weavers. The Panan community were at some time the sole supplier of the Palghat umbrella. Later they diversified to become iterant bards, arriving at a tharavad and singing about their greatness or even for communities such as Christians where they would arrive to sing about their origins. But before all that they monopolized umbrella making and in Palghat, and it was the privilege of Panan headman to present umbrella to Palakkad Rajah by custom. This Palghat umbrella was also known as Malabar umbrella. There were many versions, the long handled olakkuda, the hat version – the toppikuda, the version meant mainly for Nambudiri woman, the marakuda.

One could go on to make studies on how it is also popular in the whole of SE Asia and even China, 
for you can still see similar contraptions all over South Asia, SE Asia and mainland China, and I will only skim through it a little later. There could also be questions as to whether the concept came from those places, but I will leave that subject for others to pursue when they have the time and inclination.

Strange is the story of this umbrella - The palm-leaf umbrella which a Nambudiri (Kerala Brahmin) women invariably used as a shield and cover themselves from prying eyes, during their rare outings and escorted by Nair (Sudra) maids called Vrashalis, was the craftwork of untouchables from the Panan community. See how the caste play worked!

The Panans, according to early ethnographies, were traditionally parasol-umbrella makers and are believed to be resident throughout Palghat, Cochin and Trichur and in parts of Tamil Nadu. They are described by E. Thurston as "exorcists" and "devildancers" and their womenfolk were known to be midwives and had good knowledge of plants and herbs used as medicines. Some mention that the term Panan comes from the word pan meaning music and as you will see they did moonlight as bards of a sort. Another business they associated with was magic and sorcery and they were known to engage on request in performing voodoo and black magic (Odi). It was also believed that they have the power to transform themselves into wild animals. But for generations and all practical purposes, these families had provided umbrellas to everyone in their village. While this was their official occupation, it appears that they were unofficially, called upon to perform rituals that included exorcisms.

Now there is a bit of curiosity in this whole business, though I have not been able to figure out why. While the making of umbrellas with Palmyra (incidentally they are dried palm leaves – Cadjun leaves) leaves is a Panan’s occupation, he cannot make the whole of the umbrella. While he makes the leg and the cane framework, the palm leaf weaving and attachment has to be carried out by women in his family. If he has no female relatives of his own, capable of finishing of his umbrellas, he must secure the services of other females in the neighborhood. They are also experts in making umbrella made of palm leaves for the use of farm laborers (Toppikuda – slightly smaller). These communities are attached to the land owning families and are obliged to supply the required number of palm leaf umbrellas to their patrons at the onset of monsoon, so also leaf plates to Ezhava’s on ceremonial occasions. Another curiosity is that basket- makers, called Kavaras will never hold an umbrella, as they have a motto “Do not take hold of Panan's leg." There is so much more connected with the workings of this community, but this is not the place to talk about devils, exorcisms, voodoos and the such. We will stick to their umbrella making skills.

There are subtle differences, for example the length of the handle determines the prestige of the holder. The fringes are sometimes adorned with tender coconut leaf arrangements. The correct way to carry a Palghat or Malabar umbrella is to ensure that the end of the handle rests on the palm carrying the umbrella with the arm straight by the side in an L formation. The diameter is usually 36 inches.

As umbrella demand dwindled, the Panan and his wife Patti, armed with a Maddalam and cymbals, and the small Pana veena visited each Nayar and Nambudiri households between midnight and dawn during festival seasons, singing sweetly of the history of the land and the emergence of Nambudiri supremacy. Or in the case of Christian households, the advent of Christianity. They also sang the Tuyil unarattu (awakening) song with the patti keeping the beat striking a bell metal vessel with a knife.

Early British administrators were not very happy when these local parasols were replaced by imported British umbrellas. In fact the local manufacture of ugly European black umbrellas started at Calicut. Innes stated that these (Cadjun) umbrellas were more serviceable than those of European manufacture and provides more details -

No turban is worn; it is in fact wrong for the higher castes to cover the head; but it is their universal practice to carry an umbrella. The lower castes often twist a small cloth loosely round the head in the form of an embryo turban; but this should be removed in the presence of superiors, before whom custom demands that inferiors should always appear bare above the waist. Characteristic of the West coast is the umbrella or mushroom-shaped hat made of palmyra leaves, which is invariably worn by fishermen and agricultural coolies, and serves as an admirable protection against sun and rain; such a hat with a crown too small for the head is often carried by Nayar women in their hands instead of an umbrella.The umbrella of the country is made of leaves of the umbrella palm or the palmyra with a long bamboo handle, of which the length increases according to the dignity of person carrying it. It should be carried with the end of the handle in the palm of the hand and the arm stretched down at full length. But the ugly European black umbrella is becoming more and more common.

The editor of the Asiatic journal also expounds on its qualities while comparing it to a smaller Javanese toppikuda or umbrella hat, but the Javanese umbrella is varnished on the outer surface - An excellent hat of this description is worn by the fishermen of Malabar, and others much exposed to rain, of the western shores of India. It is usually composed of a palm leaf, perhaps that of the cocoanut tree, and is not varnished. It is in size generally between an umbrella and a lady's parasol; about the shape of the latter, but not so deep in the concavity. In the center is a receptacle for the head, like the crown of a hat, or like that part of our university caps. The article is very light, and very efficient in resisting rain as well as sun; covering, indeed, with a little address in the position and movements of the head, nearly the whole person. Nor is it liable to fall, nor, unless in very high wind, to be blown off. Altogether it is, we think, the most sensible and useful protector of the head against weather that we have ever seen….

Anthropologist Thurston is more detailed in his thoughts, he attributes the color of the Nair to carrying an umbrella. He goes on to state - It should have been noticed before that the colour of the face of the ordinary Malayali is invariably lighter than that of the body; possibly from the prevailing custom of using the umbrella. Malabar is for the most part shaded by trees and palms, and its peoples have not that disregard for the sun’s javelins which we see in the country to the eastward. No one starts on a journey, and rarely leaves his house, without his umbrella-the thing of cadjan now being by degrees replaced by the cheap umbrella of European manufacture. The labourer working in the field, the fisherman in his boat on the sea, the boatman on the backwater, all wear a large umbrella-like hat. Women always carry an umbrella out of doors; or, as in North Malabar, an umbrella hat-like thing which seems to be a curious survival of the custom of wearing an umbrella hat, is carried. This is, apparently, an ordinary umbrella hat, but the central part which appears to be made to fit the head, as in the ordinary umbrella hat, is too small by half to fit any head, and this hat-like umbrella is carried in the hand to shield the head from the sun and the face from the inquisitive passerby. The fact remains that the Nayar, of whom we are now speaking, who never or very rarely wears any covering on the head, cannot withstand the effect of the direct rays of the sun without an umbrella. A few hours’ walk in the midday sun where there is little or no shade, is sufficient to bring on fever to the ordinarily strong man.

If one were to compare these with early oriental hats of China and SE Asia, you will see that (The Atlantic, Volume 40) - The Oriental hat is of basket-work. Shade and ventilation are the great needs, not warmth. The Chinese hat, for instance is of bamboo splints, inside and out, inclosing leaves of the bamboo, the diameter of the brim is 18”. The Siamese hat of Gnaup is 18” in diameter, and is of plantain or bamboo leaf on a frame of rattan. The skeleton head-piece is lashed by rattan to the inside of the crown, and does not allow the head to touch the surface of the hat, thus securing perfect ventilation all round.

In fact some olakkuda versions had decorations, for the above source explains – The Indian umbrella is made of palm leaves laid upon a rattan frame. The hat is ornamented beneath with white paper, red cloth, mica, and green beetle-wing covers; also with pendants of mica and beads. The head-band is cylindrical, and is also of palm leaf with cloth binding. The brim is thirty six inches in diameter, and bears the palm for size among Asiatic hats.

That it has been in vogue in Malabar for many centuries is clear. Ibn Batuta recalls meeting a Zamorin (1342) wearing a dhoti and strolling along a Calicut street, towards the beach to inspect a wreck- “his clothing consisted of a great piece of white stuff rolled about him from the navel to the knees, and a little scrap of a turban on his head; his feet were bare, and a young slave carried an umbrella over him." So you can see that these were used in Malabar for many centuries until the 20th.

As public transportation became popular, the carriage of these umbrellas was a problem since they could not be folded. In fact Devaki Nilayangode mentions this in her memoirs. She says that Anterjenams could not easily board any bus with their clumsy marakkudas. So you can imagine how modernity, locomotion and development killed the ancient Palghat parasol.

By the 20th century, the Seemakuda took over in Malabar and the ugly black umbrella became commonplace. This changed over time, with different fabrics, handles, push button opening, sizes and nowadays UV proof. In fact there are mosquito repellent versions too. The first manufacturers in Kerala were Ebrahim Currim & Sons in Calicut, who established a unit there, after thriving at Bombay (first started in 1860) and Madras. The official record states - Prior to the opening of the Calicut branch the majority of the people on the Malabar coast used palm-leaves as protection against sun and rain, but Messrs. E. Currim & Sons have taught them to adopt umbrellas, and purdah ladies have even been converted to the use of them. A large wholesale business, giving the firm a practical monopoly in India in the umbrella trade, has been built up, and the partners attribute this success in a very large measure to the strictly honourable manner in which they conduct business.  The gazetteer states - By 1933 there were three manufacturers in Calicut. The biggest of them was owned by Nagji Purushotham (a football tournament was named after him!) and is run by power. In those days, the iron ribs of the umbrella and the cloth are imported from Germany or England! In those versions, the factories made the sticks and handles from thin bamboos obtained from the local forests, and the ribs and cloths were fitted to them. Calicut supplied umbrellas to several other districts in the Madras presidency.

The extensive use of cloth umbrellas hit the Panan and the Parayan communities owing to the lesser demand for their products. With that the old fashioned but practical olakkuda and its variants died a death and the Palghat umbrella gave way to the Calicut Umbrella!!

Though it was still used in the fields by the ladies working there until the 80’s, we were in for a shock. When we joined NIT Calicut in the late 70’s, I was amazed to see that the Toppikuda had been resurrected. During the rainy or monsoon seasons, many a student had the toppikuda on his head, it was more like a practical fashion statement, and I too purchased an inexpensive one for myself! This was eventually gifted to a new student when I passed out. Perhaps this entirely recyclable umbrella must have become manure or something else, as days went by. These days you see them only during Onam seasons, with plays and Faux Mahabali’s sporting them.

By the way how many of you know about an umbrella riot in the Laccadives? It is somewhat connected to the topic of Malabar caste customs. The koyas of Calicut established a similar caste hierarchy in the islands where they were masters and looked down on the Malumis (sailors) and the Melacheris (coconut pluckers). These lower classes were not allowed to carry or use any kind of umbrellas. One day in Oct 1930, a shipment of western umbrellas arrived. Eleven Melacheris and nine Malumis decided to defy the age old edict by marching with unfolded umbrellas and this resulted in the Koyas calling out their spearmen, and a riot of sorts occurred. But that is a story I guess, for another day.

And so my friends, I have perhaps managed to waste a good one hour of your time reading this seemingly useless bit of umbrella history which I spent many hours to research and compile. Maybe I didn’t waste everybody’s time, for there was one lady who desired more information for her film project and who once asked me for this information, perhaps it will be of some use to her, at least. And thanks to Mini Krishnan for getting me started on these trains of thoughts and peruse Saraswati Vijayam, yet again…..

Malabar gazetteer – CA Innes
Malabar manual William Logan
Nayars of Malabar – F Fawcett
The Atlantic, Volume 40

The Bombay Presidency, the United Provinces, the Punjab, Etc - Arnold Wright
Ebrahim Currim history Papers 1 & 2

The marakkuda and olakkuda features in many a Malayalam song (Olakkuda choodunnoru, Manakkele thatte marakkuda thatte, Marakkudayal mukham marakkum manalla…)

See how it is made 1 & 2


Eustace Benedict De Lannoy

And the Udayagiri Kotta in Travancore

The other day, we were listening to an old song – Udayagiri kottayile Chitralekhe, from the film Aromalunni and watching the ever beautiful actress Sheela's sensuous dance to the lines. As I listened, my grey cells got into an overdrive, how did Aromalunni get to Udayagiri in South Travancore and thought, that can’t be possible, perhaps it was about the fort with the same name in Orissa and some famous courtesan? After a while, I gave up on that thought and drifted away to the real Udayagiri fort near the Padmanabhapuram palace and Nagercoil, at Puliyoorkurichi in the Kanyakumari district.

It has an interesting story behind it, very much intertwined with the life and times of one Capt De Lannoy, otherwise known as Valia Kappittan. Bernard my friend had given me some information on Lannoy years ago and I thought it a good idea to give you all a little introduction on that interesting person. The legendary Captain has been studied by many a research student already and academician Mark de Lannoy has brought him to life in his book and various papers, so this is just a re-presentation of all their original work, with many thanks. My intention is to continue afterwards in a second part with another event that took place around those times, the invasions of Nanjilnaad by Chanda Saheb. So without much ado, let us get to the tale of the Flemish Captain…

Born on 30th Dec 1715 at Arras, destiny took the man far away to the kingdom of Travancore where as fate would decree, this Flemish soldier in the Dutch VOC became a soldier of fortune of the Rajas of Travancore, in whose services he remained for a very long time, close to 36 years and spent his life at Udayagiri fort with his Eurasian wife Margaret.  Many a European soldier had been in service with native Rajas, but only a few like De Lannoy and M Lally rose to the lead in their patron’s armies.

The 1730’s were testing times for Marthanda Varma. Various intrigues and skirmishes involving the Quilon, Kottarakkara, Kayamkulam and the Karunagapally chieftains were keeping him busy, but there was only so much he could do. With the treasury nearly empty, Marthanda Varma’s desire of increasing the size and power of his kingdom was in relative check. In addition to all that, the annual forays of the Madura kings had to be contended with and his defenses were well stretched even after the employment of many a marava mercenary in his ranks. The Dutch VOC on the other hand were not able to get enough pepper to export at a time when the prices were at an all-time high, with MV insisting on better prices. The English were snooping around, offering sweeter deals to MV, trying to lure him away from the Dutch who were the regular clients. MV was a clever negotiator and Governor Van Imhoff would record the following in his diary ‘when threatened, his highness uses every trick, every pretension to avoid making concessions. He bestows on us a rain of politeness and compliments which are all but a disguise of his own plans’.

Marthanda Varma had one need now, that was to perform his Hiranyagarbha (this was in 1739), and for that he needed 10,000 Kalanjus of gold, which he requested Van Imhoff to deliver in return for a good pepper contract. Van Imhoff scoffed at it (something he would rue later) and sent MV a mere 8 kalanjus, not having understood the importance of the ceremony. And so the ceremony could not be performed and MV was offended. Imhoff decided to support the neighboring principalities (Nedumangad & Desinganad -Quilon) and Cochin so as to keep a check on MV. Later that year MV occupied parts of Quilon claiming them to be the property of Sri Padmanabha which invited the ire of the VOC, who then sent 300 soldiers to their fort in Quilon. As armies were being lined up on the defense lines at Desinganadu, MV wrote to the French at Mahe and the English for help. The VOC reinforced their attacking forces with two companies from Ceylon, led by Joannes Hackert. The Paliayth Achan also provided support with his Nair’s to the Dutch VOC. During the fracas, the Quilon forces overran Nedumangad, which was their original objective. As a result, the VOC had no choice but to withdraw to Paravur. There was also another reason why MV‘s retaliation against the VOC in Dec 1739 was lackluster, his southern flanks were being attacked by Chanda Saheb of Madurai, and he had to rush to Kanyakumari to stave that off. In Jan 1940 the VOC coalition reconvened and attacks were restarted at Ayrur.

The VOC led coalition next planned to take Attingal and attacked Edava where the British EIC were stationed, plundering them too. A fierce fight took place at Karamana, and the Travancore Marava army was routed. The EIC were worried that their Anjengo factory at Attingal might now get affected. So they provided guns and ammunition to MV, so also the money to pay as ransom (Rs 6 lakhs and 6 elephants) to Chanda Saheb. Chanda Saheb wanted four times that and as MV could not pay, Chanda plundered the wealthy Suchindram temple in retaliation. The remaining Ettuveetil pillamar were also at work in exile, trying to get back to power in Travancore. MV it seems, had no choice at this juncture but to finish them off and their families once and for all.

De Lannoy's tomb
MV wanted more support to keep Chanda Saheb at bay and this he achieved by befriending the French and by ceding Colachel to them. Moreau the French envoy would assist by negotiating with Banda Saheb, Chanda’s brother.  The VOC then decided to attack and destroy the Travancore pepper gardens, to decapitate MV and his revenues. While the plan had its merits, the two years spent in the difficult terrains and fighting incessantly had affected the Dutch troops. They had not been fed properly, many had been sick and they had not been paid.  Hackert was not a great leader and it appears had been promoted only because of seniority. The VOC master plan was to attack Colachel near Kanya Kumari with all their might and this they did with good effect. The Travancore army fled at the onslaught and the naval bombardment. The weavers of French fortified Tengapatanam also fled. The Dutch laid waste the routes they traversed, and rounded up any young people they could find, as slaves. They now planned to build a solid fort at Coalchel and hold their ground there, but it was slow going.

It is 1741. Somehow MV had managed to pay off Chanda Saheb and he next counterattacked Quilon, since the VOC was now busy further down south in Colachel. Following that MV organized a large Marava force, dressed them up in European fatigues and sent them off on a suicide mission to Coalchel. The VOC were stuck in the seaport for want of supplies and drinking water. Van Gollennese who was leading affairs at Colachel decided to go to Quilon leaving a nervous Hackert in command. At the same time, a number of Quilon chieftains changed side to Travancore and the Quilon king refused to attack Travancore saying that he had no desire to invade his neighbor. Meanwhile a mud fort being built at Coalchel started to collapse under the weight of the armaments. Firewood, food and water suppliers were perilously low. To top their misfortunes a heavy storm lashed the coast in April and anchors were lost.

Hackert was now ordered by Van Gollennese to rush to Quilon with a large number of troops and supplies to launch a counterattack at MV from there. Hackert left Colachel in the care of Lt Rijtel and some 250 European soldiers and a few hundred Indian lascars, but instead of going to Quilon (he had enough of all this) he fled to Tuticorin. MV in the meantime continued to receive supplies and arms from the crafty British.

Many deserted the VOC by then and joined up as mercenaries in the Travancore army. A large Travancore force now attacked Colachel. Rijtel and his men had no chance. Hackert was ordered to march down to Colachel from Tuticorin and relieve the siege from their encampment at Kanyakumari. But there were large issues as smallpox had laid waste a large number of troops in that camp and many started to die.

The Dutch are by now a demoralized lot, they had not been paid for two years, the army and naval personnel had no respect for their immoral captains and in general had no stomach to fight. The person who first deserted the VOC and joined Marthanda Varma was actually a German named Carl August Duijvenschot who deserted in Feb 1741. Carl August then gave Travancore chieftains instructions on retaking Colachel. Many others defected in stages and at the height of the conflict Commander Van Gollenesse felt that close to three or four hundred VOC men had entered the service of Travancore

The skirmishes at Colachel continued and Rijtel was killed in an encounter. This was the endgame for the Dutch soldiers who virtually lost their head and stopped all the fighting. They then clambered the walls of their fort, pitch drunk and started singing or so it seems. Some 31 of them surrendered and were allowed safe passage to Kanyakumari by MV. In the meantime another 22 VOC soldiers had deserted and joined up with the Travancore forces led by Ramayyan Dalawa. They managed to blow up the gunpowder storage at Colachel which resulted in a huge explosion and killed many of the remaining Dutchmen in the fort. Shortly thereafter, on Aug 12th the fort was surrendered.

Meanwhile Chanda Saheb had been defeated and the Marathas were now in charge at Madurai. Appa Nayak offered to join the VOC side, but Hackert at Kanyakumari, faced with intolerable conditions, lack of finances, beset with sickness and food shortages had no stomach to continue and withdrew to Quilon. In an investigation which followed, the VOC laid all blame on Hackert who was despatched to Batavia for life imprisonment. By October, the Cochin king also withdrew from the VOC coalition. Fighting continued into the next year, and MV was victorious on all fronts, and came close to taking Cochin, but finally decided to sue for peace based on English advice. Now let us get back to the man we started out with, De lannoy.

De Lannoy was never the captain who headed the VOC fleet at Colachel, nor did he surrender at that battle as is oft mentioned. In fact he had joined the VOC at Colombo in 1738, where Vam Imhoff it seems, took a liking for him. He did visit Cochin in 1739 and was later deputed to Cochin under Hackert when problems started.

Captain de Lannoy was fighting alongside the Dutchman at the Colachel fort, and joined the group which had deserted earlier from Kanyakumari in August. In addition to the miserable situation at Colachel, and sheer hunger, Lannoy did not perhaps like the perennially drunk (shortage of water made them drink drams of arrack, instead) and boisterous soldiers he had to live with and secondly, as a Roman Catholic, he was distrusted by the Dutch (many of his German & French comrades faced the same situation). As the gun magazine at Colachel blew up, Lannoy was the one who approached the fort on behalf of Ramayyan Dalawa and asked the remaining Dutch to surrender. Carl August convinced Marthanda Varma to let them and some 40-50 European prisoners join the Travancore Nair brigade.

Now comes one of those strange twists of fate. Lannoy was just a soldier in the Travancore army. The ailing German captain (he was also becoming deranged) was to be succeeded by a Sgt Hartman (who escaped from Travancore). But one fine day as the legend goes, Marthanda Varma sees the smart and affable Lannoy, takes a good look at his face (most you may not know this, the king was also a face reader, a physiognomist). He foresaw that ( I think this is just a fable) Lannoy had a great future and chose him over Hartman to succeed Carl August as the Venadu kappitan, and as history tells us, Lannoy would prove him right many times over.

By 1744, Lannoy had trained and created an able army for the raja and had built many forts for him. He was also entrusted with making a cannon foundry and a gunpowder making factory. His training of the Nair forces enabled MV to send back the Madura mercenaries and save a lot of money. By 1747 Travancore had wrested control over large areas upto the Cochin borders. The Zamorin attacked Cochin and was about to annex it in 1757 when the Cochin raja in desperation signed a treaty with Marthanda Varma. But well, as luck or the lack of it would have it, by 1758 both the warring Zamorin and Marthanda Varma died. Rama Varma took over in Travancore and charged Lannoy to build fortifications to prevent any further incursions into Travancore. It was soon 1763, The Mysore sultans were eyeing Travancore and the story of Tipu’s waterloo had already been recounted by me earlier.

So much so for Lannoy and his work with the army, but what about Udayagiri? The 40 or so European instructors trained the Travancore army (the Kunju Kudi soldiers wearing red cloth purchased from the English) in flintlocks and in laying sieges. The main training locations as well as arms factories were at Udayagiri and Mavelikkara. Lannoy decided to stay at Udayagiri and manage the southern brigade as well as the state prison. In fact the Udayagiri fort became a defacto home for the Europeans serving the Raja and it appears that the pious De Lannoy built a Chapel at the fort.

The Udayagiri fort situated some 35 miles south of Trivandrum, was not originally built by De Lannoy as some are led to believe, but he rebuilt the old mud structures and fortified them with brick and granite. The original construction of the Udayagiri Fort was early as 1601 under the command of His Highness Veera Ravi Varma who ruled over Travancore 1592-1609. Sharat Sundar Rajeev states- The early purpose of the fort, it seems, was to defend expansive paddy fields and scattered settlements against marauding enemy forces. The strategic location of the fort is further enhanced by the fact that the earliest known palace of the Venad royals, which predates Padmanabhapuram, was located in Veerakeralaeswaram (also known as Muttalakurichi), not far from Udayagiri.

So, as you see, it had strategic importance as it overlooked the Padmanabhapuram area nearby, where the Travancore kings of yesteryears lived and then there was the Colachel port. The formidable fort had strong granite walls, fifteen feet thick and eighteen feet high and were lined within and outside with huge granite slabs. The parapets in the fort are 4 feet high and 3 feet thick. It was also used as a prison for dangerous criminals.

So many legends abound at Udayagiri, and the stories of Champakavalli the widow mingle with the diaries of British officers Leger and Munroe. It was also home to many a Yakshi who terrorized soldiers and habitants of the fort. And there was a large brass gun about which Major Welsh wrote – “But, the greatest curiosities were a gun and a mortar, both of exquisite workmanship mounted on the parade in Udayagiri and cast in the place by some European artist. They were made of brass; the gun sixteen feet long and bored as a twenty-two pounder, was so extremely massive that twelve hundred men assisted by fifteen elephants could not move it, even a few yards. The mortar was equally heavy and I think had an eighteen inch bore."

It was not that these European defectors wanted to stay and die in Travancore, it was simply not worthwhile going back to their previous employers who were in a bad shape. Also they could get persecuted (death penalty) and this was the clause of the treaty that MV used to retain them. A French traveler Anquetil du Perron who visited the Malabar Coast in 1758 A. D., in his book Zendavesta refers to the Dutch gossip that D' Lannoy was virtually a prisoner in the hands of the Maharaja of Travancore, but this is of course a Dutch point of view.

What we also note from his records is that De Lannoy wanted to marry one Margaret Rodriguez, daughter of a Syrian Christian (Perron mentions he was a Portuguese Topas, so he can’t be Syrian Catholic, I suppose), who was an interpreter at the British factory at Anjengo. His proposal was rejected on the strange grounds that he was a Frenchman and a deserter, 'training half-naked natives'. The disappointed general reported this to MV. A furious Marthanda Varma threatened the Anjengo Factory of dire consequences if Margaret was not given in marriage to his general. His wrath made Margaret's parents’ consent to the marriage and like they tell in stories, they lived happily ever after.

De Lannoy is credited with a lot of activities such as strengthening the Aramboly lines, the Travancore lines, the setting up of armament factories, training of the guards, and reorganizing the Nair brigade in Travancore. He is also mentioned as the catalyst behind the famous conversion of Neelakandan Pillay to Deva Sahayam Pillai. He held a succession of important commands and was involved in every major conquest between 1741 and 1777 A.D. But as time went by and after a treaty as signed with the Dutch, we read that Marthanda Varma began to disregard De Lannoy, who until then played a key role in his military designs.

Marthanda Varma passed away in 1758, a while after his able minister Ramayyan Dalawa had left this world. Lannoy then served the next Raja Rama Varma for another 19 years. Apprehending an invasion from Hyder Ali, De Lannoy strengthened the Northern fortifications and was ready to face the Muslim invader.  But that was not to be, for De Lannoy passed away after a short illness in his own fort at Udayagiri in 1777. Dewan Keshava Das then took the lead, himself.

De Lannoy's son, Johannes De Lannoy, a youth of 19 who was a Battalion Commander, died of a fatal wound in a battle at Kalakkad while fighting for Travancore. Johannes was called "Cheriya Kappittan" or Small Captain and was married to a Calicut lady. Margaret De Lannoy, wife of the Valia Kappithan, died in 1782 A.D. after surviving her husband for 5 years. She was probably the first European woman who received in India the honorific title "Mother of the Poor” for her services to the downtrodden. Her daughter (from her first marriage) was wedded to an Eurasian named Wattai from Calicut.

Many credit De Lannoy with the building of Nedumkotta the Northern Travancore lines. Is that entirely true? We will take this subject up in a forthcoming article.

Now the inquisitive may ask – what about Chitralekha of the Udayagiri fort? Well that could be related to the story of Anirudhan, grandson of Lord Krishna and the son of Prathyumnan (the reborn Manmadhan). Banasura’s daughter Usha was besotted with him (she dreamt him up) and so with the help of Chitralekha (of the Udayagiri fort??) her friend (Usha’s father’s minister’s daughter) and an expert painter, locates Anirudhan. She then abducts Anirudhan with Narada’s help has him taken to Usha. Banasura next jails Anirudhan, but Lord Krishna fights Banasura, has Anirudhan released and all is well after he marries Anirudhan off to Usha.

Interestingly the fort where Usha was said to be locked up was Ukhakot (Ushakot?) a little distance away from Banasur fort (Some 3 miles west of Lohaghat town in Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand). There is no Udayagiri fort there, so how Udayagiri came to be linked with Anirudhan and Usha, is not clear (Also Arolmalunni belongs to Malabar, not Travancore). So my guess is that only the late lyricist Vayalar Rama Varma knew the guttans behind this, or that probably one of you, readers, know it…

Kulashekara Perumals of Travancore – Mark De Lannoy
A Dutchman in the service of the Raja of Travancore - Mark De Lannoy
European soldiers in the service of Travancore in the eighteenth century - Mark De Lannoy
Udayagiri Fort and the Valia Kappittan – KP Padmanabhan Tampy
The old Travancore Army – Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer
The Dutch in Kerala – M O Koshy
Travancore Dutch relations- Dr S Krishna Iyer
Malabar and the Dutch – KM Panikkar
Travancore and Eustachines Benedictus De-Lannoy - a study - N. Subha Nanthini
The Udayagiri fort – A video 


Saradindu, the Meri and Raktha Sandhya

Many years ago, I wrote about the fate of the ship Meri, its plunder and the massacre of its occupants by Vasco Da Gama. I had also mentioned briefly about a short story written by the late Saradindu Bandhopadhyay, on the very same subject. Anyway, of recent, I have been in the process of devouring a number of Saradindu’s works, notably his stories featuring the Byomkesh Bakshi (as well as some others). I read Rakhtha Sandhya again, in fact I read both the translations on print, which Malobika Chaudhuri calls The Scarlet Dusk and Monimala Dhar, The Blood Stained Sunset. After I finished reading these versions, I got lost in thought and decided to revisit the topic of Meri for a few reasons which will become clear as you read on….

First I need to provide a little background on Saradindu for those who have not heard of this great writer of yesteryears. Saradindu Bandhopadhay is more famous for his Byomkesh Bakshi stories and the book Tungabhadrar Teere. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes aficionados will note a close parallel between the characters of Bakshi and Holmes as well as Ajith and Watson (and there is Holmes’s neighbor, sometime housekeeper and landlady Mrs Hudson who cooks for him versus Byomkesh’s servant Puntiram). But here the comparison stops since the stories and situations narrated by Saradindu and the methods used are completely Indian. Another notable exception is that Holmes remained a bachelor whereas Byomkesh gets married to Satyaboti, whereas in Doyle’s stories Watson is the one who gets married.

Saradindu who had graduated in law lived in a mess/boarding house on Harrison road for a while and did have a close friend Ajith and in 1926 started to work for his father, a lawyer. Not liking his job, he took to writing and publishing his stories in magazines for a while, and it was in 1938 that he moved on to Bombay to work as a script writer (Bombay Talkies) for films. By 1952, he left the film world and moved to Pune where he passed away in 1970 after authoring several works. People of course remember him for his Byomkesh Bakshi stories and many Bengalis simple revere him for his lucid Bangla prose. Saradindu’s favorite method in some of his non Byomkesh works was to introduce the past into the present, he considered himself a history enthusiast and stated that he always wrote historic fiction (Saradindu himself emphasized – ‘my stories are not fictionalized history, they are historical fiction.’).

And that led me to write this topic. Was Saradindu’s Rakhtha Sandhya fictionalized history or historic fiction? Now the former (Fictionalized history) is usually a story that happens against a historical backdrop, where the main story remains completely fictional while the latter - Fictionalized history can be based on facts (to a certain extent) or be completely made up. Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past and where the author has to balance his/her material between history and fiction, with accuracy remaining a primary obligation. Fictionalized history on the other hand is history (made up) using the technique of fiction, i.e. the feeling and meaning of events are concretely realized using the technical resources of prose fiction (David Norton). In fictionalized history, the story itself purports to be history due to the use of adept prose, so much so that some people could feel them to be serious historic nuggets. On deeper analysis one can surmise that Rakhtha Sandhya was indeed a work historic fiction where the overall story frame is somewhat accurate though the characterization of Calicut and the key characters is not (I doubt if Saradindu ever visited Calicut).

Let us get back to Saradindu. His first published work dating back to 1930, interestingly is Rakhtha Sandya, which was serialized in a magazine. So deeply etched was the event in his mind, that Saradindu became a writer starting with this story of the massacre and plunder of the Dhow Meri, near Calicut. That got me thinking. How on earth did he get a hold of this story? Portuguese works were not easy to come by, and it was just in 1929 that KM Panikkar published his Malabar and the Portuguese but in that book he neither mentions the characters of the incident, nor the ships name. Portuguese (translated) resources would have been available in the Calcutta libraries, and they may have been Saradindu’s primary resource. Castaneda’s account as witnessed by Thome Lopes, translated into English by Nicholas Litchfield and printed in 1582 is the oft quoted and detailed version. Then there was Varthema’s travels translated by Winter Jones in 1863 and of course Kerr’s Voyages. But to get to that singular (of the many) event in distant Malabar, Saradindu must have been prodded along by somebody, especially somebody from Malabar. There was K Ramunni Nair’s account of the Portuguese in Malabar (CR 115 1902) and I am tempted to think that somebody like Ramunni would have collaborated with Saradindu on his first short story. But with due credit Saradindu did venture courageously beyond Bengal in later years, in the locales he chose and his masterpiece Tungabhadrar Teere covers intrigues at the distant kingdom of Vijayanagara. Now let’s get to the story itself. I had covered the account of the misfortunes which befell the passengers on Meri, some years ago. 

The Scarlet Dusk or the Bloody twilight or Blood stained dusk, tells the story of a butcher in Kolkata, named Ghulam Kader, who brutally murders a foreigner he met for the first time in his shop. The court sentences him for death, and the man wants to meet the author (Saradindu – who he was acquainted with) before his death to disclose the greater tale. And then he narrates the story of Mirza Daud, who lived in Calicut during the time Vasco da Gama landed there in the fifteenth century. The author is amazed since the butcher is an illiterate and uninformed person otherwise, and there was no chance that he would have gleaned historical details such Vasco da Gama's arrival, the Meri incident and its aftermath.

Prelude to the Meri incident

Vasco Da gama
But before we get to Meri, let’s go to Calicut of 1500, during Cabral’s times and get to know of another massacre which took place on the shores of Calicut. Cabral had reached an agreement with the Zamorin and after he had established a trading post, things were looking up for the franks. Ayres Correia was deputed ashore to set up a factoria and arrange for the sourcing of spices from the hinterland with his team of some 50-70 Portuguese. He did not do well in convincing the suppliers to provide enough goods and complained to Cabral that the Pardesi Arab Muslims at the port were hindering his efforts (of course they wanted to limit competition). Perhaps there were other factors at play, but what happened was that Cabral formally complained to the Zamorin, who did nothing about it, but naturally. Goaded by Correia, Cabral decided to use force and captured a fully loaded Arab vessel, bound for Jeddah. Furious at this, the Pardesi Muslim traders of Calicut ganged up and sacked the Portuguese outpost. During this attack, the factor Ayres Correia, his secretary Pêro Vaz de Caminha, three to five Franciscan friars were slaughtered amongst the other Portuguese (Gonçalo Peixoto was sheltered by Koya Pakki) and some of them managed to swim towards the anchored Portuguese ships to tell Cabral the sorry tale. The survivors also reported that the Zamorin's guards did not intervene. The furious Cabral not getting a redress from the Zamroin, sails off to Cochin where he finds a friendly ally in the Perumbadappu Swaroopam king and sets up what turns out to become a long and mutually beneficial relationship with the kingdom of Cochin.

Gama is deputed next to Malabar in 1500 and revenge against the Pardesi Muslims is prime on his mind. Perhaps he was tasked to put the fear of Franks into the hearts of the people of Malabar by Manuel, perhaps it was his own idea. AR Disney in his paper, argues more generally that selective violence against Muslims of Middle Eastern origin was part of the messianic dream of King Manuel who seems to have believed he had been chosen by God to free Jerusalem from Muslim control and become the new emperor of the Holy Land. Anyway, most of the finer details of the event concerning Meri had been discussed earlier. A sorry tale indeed.

Rakhtha Sandhya

Let us see now see how Saradindu recounted it, circa 1929, bereft of all the search tools and books we now use as resources in our own studies. He starts with a murder at a butcher’s shop on Durgacharan St, Calcutta. Ghulam Kader the butcher is well known and is a quiet Bengali Muslim. On the ill-fated day, at 930AM, an Anglo Indian (actually a Portuguese East Indian from Goa named Gabriel De Rosa) man came to buy meat. Before anybody could understand what was going on, the quiet butcher flies into a rage, calling the newcomer Vasco Da Gama and proceeded to stab him to death, 57 times. As he stabbed the poor man, the butcher cried out that it was revenge exacted for the death of his wife and daughter by Vasco da Gama.

Saradindu, who knew Kader and was a regular customer of his, wonders how this illiterate butcher knew about Vasco Da Gama. The trial starts and consensus is that this quiet simple butcher Kader was seized by a bout of insanity which led to the unfortunate event. The defense establishes that Kader had no clue who Gabriel was, before the event. But Kader inexplicably stands up and states that he had indeed seen Vasco da Gama many times, at the port of Calicut and knew him. Saradindu is surprised, this illiterate butcher was now mentioning the distant port of Calicut! The case goes to the high court where Kader despite advice to the contrary from his lawyer, freely admits that he murdered the man and that he was not in the least repentant about it and that he would do the same if another chance came up. The judge sentences Kader to death. Kader has just one final request - that he be allowed to talk to Saradindu. After this discussion, Kader is hanged to death on the courts orders.

During their meeting which takes place in the prison, Kader tells Saradindu the story of the Meri and that he was in his previous life (incarnation) a well-respected Moroccan trader named Mirza Daud Bin Ghulam Siddique living and trading at Calicut. Kader while retelling the tale admits that he has no idea how he knows all this, but he goes on to recount his final days of a previous lifetime at Calicut.

I still wonder, how did Saradindu choose this tale? He could have zeroed in on similar sordid accounts at Surat or even Konkan ports, but why Calicut? Anyway let’s leave it there, perhaps we will never know how Saradindu got tangled with the Meri incident. As we read through Mirza Daud’s life we can start to separate fiction from history, and romance from fact, but in 1930, it would have been impossible. Calicut according to Saradindu is the jewel of the Malabar Coast, a port accessible only from the sea, with hills behind it and teeming with traders and travelers from all over the world. Calicut, Saradindu narrates, was like the musaferkhana (traveler’s inn) for the shipping community in the entire world! Chinese, Bengalis, Persians, Moors (Arab Muslims), they were all there to profit from trade and take wares to faraway buyers and places both in the east and in the west. The Samorin took a small profit, and the kingdom as well as his coffers were rich, his subjects were happy and contended. Mirza Daud a rich trader, owned 21 ships which plied the South Asian as well as western seas (Arab ships did not ply South Asian seas those days, the Chinese used flat bottomed junks). He had a marble palace in Calicut (in those days everybody had thatched huts and only centuries later did the Zamorin start sanctioning tiled roofs, but that too only for preferred families). Saradindu terms the king as Raja Samari, a little off from the Samuthiri and he mentions sweet smelling breeze wafting in from the Lakshdweep (nothing other than coconut palms grew there, no flowering trees).

The beach port of Calicut (was it Pantalayani?) was stone paved (interesting) with iron rings in order to moor ships, but he was right that the port was the nerve center of Calicut, where everything took place and people hung out. True even today!

It is soon 1498 - Mirza Daud spots three Portuguese ships from the beach and that heralds the arrival of Vasco Da Gama for the very first time (no mention of the monsoon season and heavy rains). Vasco is tall, has long golden hair, a thin moustache and a short beard (Saradindu was off on the color of Vasco’s hair, it was black, I believe). He had a hat and a feather on the cap (hmmm!! Certainly fanciful) and spoke to Mirza in Portuguese (In reality, Gama did not come ashore and sent a degrado Joao Nunes to the shore, and personally alighted only days later). Mirza escorts Gama to meet the Raja Samari and the Gama presents Samari with rich gifts (which he actually did not!). Mirza is suspicious, he distrusts the Gama, rightly, assuming that Gama is there to wrest away their livelihood. Gama and team settle down in Calicut for a few weeks, and the next untoward event happens after another trader from Bengal named Prabhakar Shreshti comes ashore with bales of superfine muslin cloth for trade. Mirza buys it promptly, but Gama steps in and tries to outbid Mirza. Prabhakar refuses to supply the muslin to Gama stating that he had already agreed on a deal with Mirza but Gama loses his temper and abuses Mirza, who does the same in return. Soon they are fighting a duel, swords drawn, both expert swordsmen, only issue being the fact that Gama has a straight blade, whereas Mirza has a curved one, not conducive to this kind of a duel.

The fighting is intense and in the end the canny Gama is backed off to the edge of the pier and loses his balance and sword. Mirza has the Gama at his mercy and demands a promise from Gama that he will never set foot in Calicut again (Yes, Gama never set foot in Calicut on his two subsequent voyages)! Mirza tries to convince the Samari to throw out the Portuguese then and there, but the Samari (whose reign according to Saradindu started only since the 15th century – actually it was 13th or earlier) wants to give all traders an open field. Vasco sails back to Lisbon and Alvarez Keblar (actually Cabral) sails in to and bombards Calicut, then strikes a deal with the Zamorin (as explained previously to set up a factory with Ayres Correia). A relative calm descends on Calicut after that and Mirza visits Morocco with his wife Saleha and daughter Haruna (usually these traders took Muta wives in Calicut, their own family almost always remained in Arabia) and travels thence to Mecca with his father. Convincing his old father to join him to the golden shores of Calicut, which he considers his real home, they set off on his ship the Meri (the leader of the traders in the ship was one Jauhar al-Faquih and the ship was owned perhaps by the Mamluk sultan), to Calicut, wife and daughter in tow, so also many other traders and pilgrims from Mecca, returning to Malabar.

An uneventful voyage ensued until they came close to the shores of North Malabar, near Ezhimala. On a Friday, unannounced and suddenly; they were accosted by five armed Portuguese ships.  Mirza knew that his ship was doomed, and as the Portuguese caravels came closer, he found that the captain was none other than the accursed Vasco Da Gama (When Mirza asks Gama why he had come back, Gama states that they are technically not at Calicut!). Mirza begs Gama to spare the women and children and offers him all the wealth they had onboard. Vasco collects all of it and after harassing the pilgrims for 2-3 days, proceeds to set fire to the ship. In the meanwhile, Haruna, Mirza’s daughter is shot to death by Gama. Many hundreds die as the ship sinks and their frantic wails can be heard one last time (only one person was spared by Gama, the hunchback pilot of the Meri, together with 17 children who were later converted and made apprentice friars of Nossa Senhora de Belem).

The setting sun in the west bathed the horizon in a reddish hue, testament to the blood bathed massacre of the Meri. That same sun, the author concludes, would rise in the east another day to ensure the return of Mirza’s soul to take revenge. And that was how Kader, the reborn soul of Mirza from Westerly Calicut exacts revenge on Gabriel the reborn soul of Vasco Da Gama, in Easterly Calcutta. The sky color became the title of the story - Rakhtha Sandhya (Saradindu C), Scarlet Dusk (M Chadhuri), Bloodstained Sunset (M Dhar), Bloody twilight (Sanjay S) or Bloody Sunset (Lakshmi Subramanian).

Even if you filter out some of the liberties taken by both translators, the two versions are seemingly close to an original. Saradindu in my opinion was true to fact for a very large extent, but using new and fictional characters. It was a stellar maiden effort from the author, sitting in Calcutta and having only a few dry Portuguese accounts translated by Englishmen.

Gama had incidentally explained to the Zamorin in a letter, that the attack on the Meri and his murder of 250 souls was in revenge for the Moorish attack on the Portuguese factory at Calicut culminating in the murder of Aryes Correia and 40 other Portuguese. He added that the conversion of those 20 Muslim boys was to revenge the conversion of a Portuguese boy who had been taken to Mecca and converted to Islam, by the Moors.

Two historians referenced this story in their books, Lakshmi S and Sanjay S. Let’s see how they reverently referred to it. Sanjay mentions that the 20th century finally brought retrospective condemnations in the form of Panikkar’s book in 1929 and Saradindu’s short story Rakhtha Sandhya. He avers that though Saradindu turned out to be against Islamic invaders in later books, this first work targets the Harmads (Portuguese pirates). Perhaps Saradindu recognized fully that the Muslims of Calicut never belonged to such an invader category. He also puts forth an interesting aside, that in true reincarnation style, the Muslim remained a Muslim and the Christian, a Christian (though a contemptible half caste at that, a Parangi) in Saradindu’s story which in classic fashion depicted the opposition between an honorable East and the evil West. Lakshmi lauds the story’s identification of the military dimensions of the Portuguese entry into the trading world of the Indian Ocean. She explains how Saradindu transports the reader to a trading world with a number of time honored conventions that the invader proceeds to flout and dismantle. Their eventual deployment of force brought about tragedy after bloody tragedy, leaving only a scarlet sunset, as its mute witness. Lakshmi also explains that Saradindu continued the tradition of writers such as Khafi Khan who had previously written about the bloody image of the accursed Harmads and how Saradindu could situate the Meri encounter in a material context that was historically more accurate and in consonance with popular perception.

All in all, it was a stimulating study. My perusal of the rest of his books continue as I have finished only about 6-7 Byomkesh mysteries so far, with another 25 to complete the lot. Perhaps I will watch Rajith Kapoor’s Byomkesh tele-drama next!

When the earth was young – Reincarnation stories – Saradindu Bandhopadhyay, Trans- Monimala Dhar
The Scarlet Dusk - Saradindu Bandhopadhyay, Trans- Malobika Chaudhuri
The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama – Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Medieval Seafarers of India - Lakshmi Subramanian
Vasco Da Gama’s reputation for violence – the alleged atrocities at Calicut in 1502 (from The Portuguese in India and other studies 1500-1700) – A R Disney

Was Santosh Sivan’s Prithviraj starrer ‘Urumi’ close to Saradindu’s Rakhtha Sandhya? Perhaps it is, more so in concept, but regionalized. It starts with the dilemma of the present constituted by a threat from a multinational company, eventually getting dictated by the Meri events of the past. Urumi was an attempt to portray or rather discuss the many realities that could have affected the course of our history, according to its script writer Shankar Ramakrishnan.

Those interested may also peruse the work of a young and promising historian Mahmood Kooriadathodi. His article “Killed the Pilgrims and Persecuted Them”: Portuguese Estado da India’s Encounters with the Hajj in the Sixteenth Century” in the collection ‘The Hajj and Europe in the Age of Empire’ Ed Umar Ryad provides a very good understanding of the trading and religious transport network in the medieval times as well as a discussion on the Meri depiction in Urumi.

Pic Dhow - Courtesy the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies Winterton Collection, Northwestern University