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Kozhikode, the coastal town in Malabar. The city means different things to different people. Some know it as the land where Vasco da Gama set foot, finding sea routes that changed the dynamics of 15th century trade. Some know it for the authentic Malabar food it boasts of. And for some people, it is the warmth of home. In an age where pluralism and diversity holds prime importance, it is only fair if we look back into the history of Kozhikode where the ruling Hindu kings and the Arab traders had a rapport, unmatched by any.
Moreover, the city held massive power, being a port with bustling trade from merchants all over the world. It was known as the “City of Spices” during the middle ages due to the monopoly it held over the trade of spices, particularly pepper.
Once the capital of the mighty Zamorin kingdom, it is now a district, located on the South-West coast of India. Surrounding Kozhikode are the districts of Kannur, Wayanad and Malappuram in the north, east and south respectively. On its west lies the Arabian Sea. With a literacy rate of 94.08%, it has a population of around 3 billion. Rich in culture and heritage, the city is famous for being the hometown of legendary artists like MS Baburaj and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer.
Ghazals and Hindustani music are favourites of the people, apart from the traditional folk songs. The city has significantly contributed to the literature and intellect of the nation. The name “Kozhikode” originates from the palace of the Zamorins. The palace was both a koyil and a kotta . The town grew under the wings of this palace and its protection, and came to be known as Koyilkotta, which eventually corrupted into Kozhikode. The British referred to the anglicized version of it, which is Calicut. However, since traders came from various parts of the world, they referred to the city with slightly varying names. The Arab traders called it Qualiqut, the Tamils called it Kallikottai and the Chinese called it Kalifo.
In the course of this paper, we will attempt to understand the growth of Kozhikode as an emporium of trade. The major focus will be on the Zamorin rulers or the Samoothiris , who ruled the city roughly between the fifteenth and the eighteenth century. The establishment of the Zamorin rule, the rise of Kozhikode as a worldwide trade center and the arrival and role of Portuguese and will be covered. A key element present in the paper is the cultural acceptance that the city and its rulers held, which led to a diverse array of merchants and people settling in the city.
During the third and fourth century B.C. which was known as the ‘Sangam Period’ , the present day Kozhikode was under the larger Chera Empire of Mahodayapuram . The Chera dynasty had dominance over the centralized kingdom of Kerala, and had control over all ports of Kerala. Throughout the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, the Cheruman Perumals of the Chera lineage ruled. The last Cheruman Perumal was Rama Varma Kulasekhara, whose disappearance led to the disintegration of the Chera Empire. There still exists a level of uncertanity over this. According to Keralopathi , Cheruman Perumal had divided all his territories among his kindred and sailed for Mecca to spend the rest of his life there.
This partition resulted in the emergence of the governors of this land as independent rulers. Most records correspond with this course of events. K.V. Krishna Ayyar agrees to this version and says in his book, “Legends and traditions constitute the main, if not the sole, source of our information of the origin and early history of Zamorins.” However, there have been contradicting accounts such as that of Prof. A. Sreedhara Menon, who believes that soon after the fall of the Cheruman Perumal, Kozhikode had become a part of Polanad, which was eventually conquered by the Eradis of Eranad, after a long war.
As soon as the news of the Perumal’s partition reached them, two Eradis (rulers of Ernad), who were known as the Punturakkon visited the Perumal, asking him for land. The Perumal had given away all the land and was left only with a small plot of landz and it was agreed that this land would be given to the Eradis as a gift. He blessed them to rule as ‘Nediyiruppu Svarupam’ . Ernad by itself, did not have enough potential for growth and expansion. However, early on in its path as an independent territory, they got an opportunity to conquer Polanad, and they succeeded. Under this conquest, the budding port town of Kozhikode also came in their control. These Eradis eventually came to be known as Samutiri, Samuri, Tamuri, etc. which was further anglicized into Zamorin. They also had titles such as Punturakkon and Kunnalakkon .
The landlocked territory of Eranad thus, expanded to become the kingdom of the Zamorins, Kozhikode being its capital. Having Kozhikode under their realm gave them immense power due to the possibilities of trade that it had to offer. Moreover, it also brought the Tali temple under their territory, which gave the rulers much more legitimacy. To mark the victory of Polanad, the dynasty moved its residency to a newly founded Vikramapuram. This place later came to be known as Kozhikode, as explained in the introduction.
As K.V. Krishna Ayyar put it, “The rise of Calicut is at once, a cause and consequence of the Zamorins. Its trade filled his coffers and enabled him to extend his authority. And the expansion of his empire in turn increased its commerce.” Kozhikode was a land of marshy nature, which gave it the name of Chullikad . It took efforts from the side of the rulers to make it a hustling port town. By the thirteenth century, it had established itself as a trade center, especially of spices. It was said that the traders and the rulers of Kozhikode had great faith with each other. Being the capital of a growing empire, it was a natural attraction to foreign merchants. This, added on to the fact that it had complete autonomy over the waterway that gave access to the trade of pepper, resulted in the rapid rise of Kozhikode.
Another key reason for the prosperity of this city was that most foreign traders chose to come here due to the freedom and security provided by the rulers. The Zamorin kings treated their guests with impeccable courtesy. Both friends and foes bear ample testimony to this fact. The Arab traders preferred Kozhikode to any other west coast port to take their cargoes. This was because of the religious and cultural acceptance that the city gave them. The Zamorins followed a policy of religious freedom. The foreigners were allowed to practice the religion of their choice, and the Kings would ensure that they do not face any kind of prejudice or intolerance on this ground. The Keralopatti narrates several stories of foreign merchants settling in Kozhikode due to the justice and honesty held by the Zamorins.
The general pattern was that Jews dominated Kochi, Christians in Kollam and in Kozhikode, traded the Arabs. All these cities had sites of worship built by their rulers that was not only meant for devotion, but also stood tall as ideals for cultural and religious plurality. One of the earliest accounts that mention Kozhikode is that of Ibn Battuta. He was a Moroccan scholar who had visited many countries in Asia and Africa throughout the first half of the fourteenth century. He describes it to be “one of the chief ports in Malabar” which hosted “merchants from all quarters”. It was only in Kozhikode where materials from a wrecked ship were retained by its owners, as opposed to the other ports in Malabar where they were added to the treasury. Ma Huan, the Chinese Muslim sailor and Abdur Razzak, the ambassador of the Persian Empire are among others who have mentioned Kozhikode in their accounts.
For a long time, the Portuguese have been trying to find sea routes to India in order to trade spices, among other commodities between Asia and Europe. Dom Manuel I, the King of Portugal, had sent Vasco da Gama for the same mission. It was on 20th May 1498 that Vasco da Gama and a group of sailors landed in the coast of Kozhikode. It took some until a Moor of Tunis, Bontaybo recognized him as a Portugal native. With the help of Bontaybo, he set up a meeting with the Zamorin. At this event, he was received with every demonstration of respect.
However, the ambitious Portuguese wanted dominance in trade, which the Arabs saw as a threat. Disputes broke out between the two sections, as a result of which the Portuguese went to Kochi for trade. When they arrived, what the rulers of Kochi saw was an opportunity to take over the Zamorins. This led to a war between the Portuguese and the Zamorins. After a series of long and bloody wars, the Zamorins signed a treaty, allowing the Portuguese to have dominance in the trade in Kozhikode and they built the Chaliyam fort in Beypore.
However, this peace didn’t last long as another war broke out in which the Zamorins destroyed the Chaliyam fort. Once again, the Zamorins had to give in and the Portuguese remained in Kozhikode. This was famously known as the ‘Fall of Calicut’.
In 1752, the Dutch arrived in Kozhikode. The Zamorins promised them a smooth and easy trade in Kozhikode and warehouses in Kochi in return for jointly battling the Portuguese. Finally, it was in this war that the Portuguese were defeated. The Dutch was given trade monopoly in Kochi, and they eventually withdrew from war altogether.
The Mishkal Mosque was built by Nakhuda Mishkal in the present day Kuttichira . The mosque does not have any structural similarities to traditional mosques, like the minarets or cupolas. Its architecture displays the workmanship of the same hands that constructed the Zamorin palaces. This monument becomes important in the history of Kozhikode as it once again, emphasizes the secularist and just nature of the Zamorin kings.
It is known that Portuguese wanted to displace the Arabs from control of the port town. They had requested the Zamorins to disallow the Arabs from trading in Kozhikode, but the king did not succumb to these unreasonable demands. In response to this, the Portuguese found an opportunity when the Zamorin king was engaged elsewhere to strike back. Therefore in 1510, they came in with a horde of men to sack the capital and set fire to the Mishkal mosque. Another troop came to the city’s defense but the mosque sustained several burns. The Zamorin was furious upon his return to see the state of the kingdom.
It was only several years later that the Zamorin hit back. In 1526, the Zamorins demolished the Portuguese fort in Chaliyam . Even though they surrendered in the war, the stones and wood from Chaliyam were carried to Kozhikode and placed with honor in the Mishkal Mosque. Even today, the mosque stands tall, bearing marks of the Portuguese firing. It also displays several doors made from the material seized from the Chaliyam fort. This will forever stand as a monument symbolizing the point in history when a Hindu king reconstructed a Muslim place of worship and avenged his people, regardless of the different religion they follow.
Kozhikode continued to prosper under the Zamorins until 1766, when Haider Ali of Mysore invaded the city. As much as they were known for being fair rulers, the Zamorins were also very proud kings. When Haider Ali surrounded the palace, the Zamorin had set fire to it, preferring honorable suicide over cowardly surrender. Under the Mysore regime, Kozhikode saw several destruction of temples and forced conversion to Islam.
The city which was once known as the epitome of cross cultural pollination was losing its status of religious freedom. In the initial part of the war between Mysore and Kozhikode, the British had remained neutral. Once the city was conquered by Mysore, they helped the Nairs to win it back. However, they captured by force the whole of Malabar, including Kozhikode and brought it under their domination by 1793.
Kozhikode also had a significant role in the Independence movement. From breaking the ‘Salt Laws’ at the Kozhikode beach to being the nucleus of the ‘Quit India Movement’ in Malabar, the city has played its part to pave way for Independent India. The city was also a major point where Communism spread and grew in Malabar. After Independence, the Malabar district, together with Cochin and Travancore provinces were made into the state Kerala. Further, the Malabar was divided into the districts of Kannur, Palakkad and Kozhikode, as we know today.
Historically, Kozhikode’s role in trade and commerce has been of grave importance. Not only did it provide authentic commodities such as the Calico cloth and quality spices, but it also kept the traders coming from all parts of the world with its gestures of respect and hospitality. Especially under the Zamorin dynasty, the city was known to be fair and just. Time and again, the merchants chose Kozhikode for trade due to this very feeling of acceptance and freedom that they enjoyed under the rulers and people of the city.
The city of Kozhikode has been fortunate to have had some landmark events in history such as the arrival of Vasco da Gama. This city has prospered with booming trade and a diverse crowd. At the same time, the city has seen invasions and bloodshed in the name of power and trade autonomy. Today, Kozhikode is an important district in Northern Kerala and it continues to be known for its warmth, proudly carrying on the culture of the Zamorin rulers.