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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In Memoriam - Premnath

We deeply regret to inform about the sad demise of one of the pillars of Calicut Heritage Forum, Mr. Premnath T Murkoth. He passed away quietly in the night of 6th-7th July in his residence at Calicut. He was 79.
Calicut Heritage Forum owes a great deal to the support and encouragement of Mr. Premnath. Our website, the digital library and our efforts to stop vandalism against heritage monuments by land sharks through successive court cases - all these and more would not have been accomplished but for his solid support. When we were short of resources, it was he who persuaded us to approach many corporates with whom he was familiar due to his long stint as a senior executive with Unilever and other companies. He placed our case before Mr. R.K Krishna Kumar which led to a grant from Tata Coffee. This financed most of our initial expenses.
Mr. Premnath was a gentleman to the core, uncompromising on his values, but endowed with a natural flair for putting across his views in an amiable manner. He did not project himself, always choosing to be in the background. 
His knowledge of Malabar's heritage, particularly that of Tellicherry was unrivalled. It is a pity that much of it could not be documented. He wanted to create a similar forum for Tellicherry, but our approach to the local administration was not very fruitful.  
Despite the brief illness which restricted his movements during his last days, he was active and alert till the end. In fact, we received his last Whatsapp forward just a day before his passing - it was a joke on the Kerala political scene! That was quintessential Premnath - looking out for humour in everyday life and sharing it with people around him. 
Thank you and good bye, Mr. Premnath ... and Rest in Peace!

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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

An interesting talk on Tharisappally Copper Plates

Professor M R Raghava Varier gave an interesting talk on Tharisappally Copper Plates and its re-reading by him and Professor Kesavan Veluthat. The video of the speech can be accessed here:

Those interested in more details of the recent research being conducted by De Montfort University U K ( referred to by Professor Varier in his speech) may please see the web site :
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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Maritime history of Calicut - the Annual Dilli Conference


It was a proud moment for Calicut Heritage Forum when our member Dr. Oliver Noone - our resident expert on the history warfare and weaponry - was invited to present a paper at the annual 'Dilli' series INA Seminar on Naval Weaponry through the Ages held at the Indian Naval Academy, Ezhimala on 16-17 October 2015.. (The INA christened the Annual Seminar as the "Dilli" series in tune with the Mt Dilli Lighthouse at Ezhimala which has been a witness to the developments of maritime history of the region.)

Dr. Noone's paper dealt with the historic Battle of Calicut 1503 which, according to him, was the first battle where ships were used to target the rivals, rather than as a means of transporting warriors.  In naval history it is  the first recorded sea battle fought to a prearranged pattern as a stand-off artillery action by squadrons sailing in close-hauled line ahead. It was fought between Vasco da Gama and an Indo-Arab fleet of Zamorin of Calicut.
Historians are yet to recognise the significance of the Battle of Calicut, 1503. Vasco da Gama's first voyage was one of pure exploration, seeking to find pepper and the mythical Prestor John and his fleet. In many ways it ws part of

'The Last Crusade', as described by Nigel Cliff in his book of that title. The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 had given Portugal the rights to all lands to the east of the line passing roughly between the Cape Verde Islands and West Indies which Columbus had already discovered. This had the blessings of the Papal envoy who was present at the signing. Thus, the world had been divided between Spain and Portugal and it was the religious duty of Portugal to`usher in a new global age of Christianity'. 
Thus, the first voyage of da Gama was more of a religious expedition in the tradition of the Crusades. This is reflected even in such minor details as the naming of the two new ships built for the expedition - Sao Gabriel and Sao Rafael - after saints. Before embarking, the sailors assembled at the small chapel in the village of Belem from where the great armada had once sailed for Ceuta. The 'priest received a general confession and absolved the departing Crusaders of penance for their sins, and the full company rowed out to the ships'. The anonymous chronicler on board Paulo da Gama made his first entry on July 8, 1497 : 'May God our Lord permit us to accomplish this voyage in his service.Amen!'
In contrast, the second voyage of da Gama which sailed out of Lisbon on February 10, 1502 was designed to instil terror with a fleet of twenty ships, financed and manned by English, French, German, Genoese, Venetian, Spanish, Flemish and Florentine crew. The instructions were very clear : apart from shoring up Portuguese factories, force more African and Indian cities to agree to trade monopolies, it was 'deal with the truculent Zamorin of Calicut'. The strongly armed sub fleet of Vincente Sodre was to stay behind and escalate the war against Islam.
Thus, the battle of Calicut was the first battle which displayed the superior strategy and fire power of the European for which the Indo-Arab defence was no match.

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Mugaseths of Calicut

The year 1938-39. Calicut was in the grip of fever. My sister who was all of 5 years was also down with fever. The usual home remedies and ayurvedic treatment did not have any effect. Meanwhile, adults and children all around were dying of fever. My father then took the ultimate step of bringing home Dr. Mugaseth, the civil surgeon of Calicut and the last word on modern medicine in Calicut. The good Parsi doctor also could not save my sister. But according to the Medical History of British India, Dr. K D Mugaseth had effected a cure of Bronchitis and fever with pneumococcus vaccine in Calicut. Dr. Mugaseth's visit to our house was part of the family folklore. That was my first encounter with the name of Mugaseth.
 Our website page on Parsees of Calicut ( contributed by friend Maddy gives a detailed account of their chequered history, including that of Dr. Kobad Mugaseth. But this post, inspired by the publication of an extract from Raghu Karnad's book in yesterday's (20th June 2015) LiveMint: :( is more about Kobad's brother and his progeny.
The extract takes us through the story of how Dhanjibhoy Mugaseth arrived in Malabar in the 1850s  to set up business. 'On the broad Beypore he had built Malabar’s first steam-powered sawmill, turning its estuary into one of the busiest timber yards in the world, and himself into the patron of Calicut’s industrial and civic life.'
He was an entrepreneur if ever there was  one. He realised that the rich coffee planters of Wynad  had difficulty of transport between the plantation and the coast.  'Dhanjibhoy had an inspired solution: a camel caravan. He purchased a herd from the Rann of Kutch, had it transported by boat and equipped in Calicut. But there his animals perished, unable to tolerate the tropical climate'.Dhanjibhoy had two sons - Kobad Mugaseth, the successful doctor who had a large practice among the European families and was also President of the Cosmopolitan Club (Incidentally, the Cosmopolitan Club is located in Valappukadavu paramba which was then in the possession of another scion of the Mugaseth family, Mr. Maneck D Mugaseth who agreed to sell it to the club. The design of the club was got prepared by Rarichan Mooppan, another leading public figure of Calicut)Dhanjibhoy's other son, Khodadad, was less illustrious and ran his father's business empire. He had three daughters and a son. The son Bobby (Godrej Khodadad Mugaseth), third in the line, joined the defence forces and fought the Japanese. But it is the daughters who concern us here. At least the elder two who distinguished themselves in ways not fully approved by father Khodadad. We have no information of the youngest  Khorshed, yet.
Subur the eldest child was a regular bluestocking and went on to join Oxford University in 1932. She returned four years later with not only a Masters and B. Litt, but a brilliant young Iyengar boy who studied with her at Oxford. The Mugaseth family and the Parsi community of Calicut were scandalised. A Parsi woman who married a non-Parsi lost her religion and her community. There was no way the pious Khodadad could accept an Iyengar boy into their fold, forget his credentials. This was no ordinary Iyengar - Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, the son of N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, who had served with distinction in the Provincial Civil Service in the Madras Presidency and later as Dewan of Kashmir, as a member of the Constituent Assembly and then as a Minister in the first Cabinet of Jawaharlal Nehru. G Parthasarathy distinguished himself as a diplomat, India's ambassador to Indonesia, China, Pakistan and as the Permanent Representative to UN. He was best known as the quintessential trouble shooter, responsible
G.Parthasarathy  coutesy: The Hindu
for brokering peace in Kashmir where his father had once served as Dewan to the Maharaja, and in interceding in the Sri Lanka talks where his sane advice was rejected and India went on to intervene, leading to Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. 
GP was also the first Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Chairman of ICSSR. He passed away in 1995.Subur Mugaseth taught in colleges in Tamil Nadu till she was elected to the Rajya Sabha between 1960 and 1966. The illustrious daughter of Calicut passed away in 1966, leaving behind GP and a son.The second daughter Nargis Mugaseth studied to become a doctor. She too fell in love and married a class mate, Kodandera Ganapathy, a Kodava. Dr. Ganapathy joined the army in 1942 and died in action. The young Nargis was in the family way and gave birth to a daughter, Saraswathi Ganapathy. 

Nargis followed her sister and join
Girish Karnad  courtesy Google
ed the Madras government medical service. Saraswati met and fell in love with Girish Karnad who was then an editor of Oxford University Press, Chennai. They have  a daughter Shalmalee Radha and a son Raghu Amay. Raghu Karnad is the author of the book 'Farthest Field : An Indian Story of the Second World War' , the excerpts from which we quoted above.

Quite an illustrious family, the Mugaseths of Calicut!

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Subaltern Reminiscences of Calicut's recent history - as told by Sri C Rairu Nair

Sri Rairu Nair, aged 92, has been a witness to history at the local and national level. He has been associated with Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas Bose and other stalwarts at the national level and with AKG, EMS, Pinarayi Vijayan, Nayanar, CH Kanaran and others at the local level. His reminiscences, titled 'Aa Pazhayakaalam' (Those Olden Days) makes interesting reading about the history of freedom struggle in a provincial town like Calicut.
Born in a well-to-do family in Pinarayi, Kannur district, Sri Rairu Nair was inspired by the freedom struggle and abandoned his studies at the age of 15. He left home and landed up in Allahabad at the Anand Bhavan to meet Nehru. He was directed from there to Wardha where he met Gandhi at the Sevagram. Gandhi enrolled him at the Maganwadi vocational centre for boys being run by J C Kumarappa. He continued there and even attended as a volunteer the Tripuri Congress and witnessed the election and subsequent humiliation of Subhash Bose.
Returning home in 1939, he resumed his studies at Tellicherry and later at the Malabar Christian College, Calicut. He got appointed as the Secretary of the Nallalam P C C Society which was responsible for procurement of rice and other controlled commodities.
The rest of the book is occupied by narration of his friendship with several Communist leaders of Kerala and his reflections on life. Mr. Nair comes out as a brilliant raconteur, particularly while recording minute changes in the day-to-day life of ordinary persons. Some examples from the book:
- He observes that the caste system was more rigid in his native Kannur district and this extended to attire and even the provision of services. For instance, both upper caste and lower caste persons would normally use mundu, woven by Chaliyars;but there is a distinction between them in the length of the mundu. Those who belonged to lower castes wore what was called aararakkaal mundu while the upper caste wore ezharakkaal mundu. Upper caste women would wear a mundu called iratta which had a red border woven into the centre of the cloth. Lower caste women wore what was known as kaachi.
- Laundry of upper castes was done by the veluthedan community, while that of lower castes was attended to by the vannaan community.  There were three different community of barbers: the naasiyans who served the upper castes, the kaavuthiyans who catered to the lower castes and ossans for the Muslims. It is difficult to imagine the severity of the obnoxious social hierarchy which existed less than a hundred years ago!
- Similarly, he speaks of the humble tender coconut shell which used to be a multi-purpose vessel during his childhood: it used to be a receptacle for neighbours who borrow buttermilk from his mother; it was used to carry sand by students who used to  study in schools in the pre-slate era; it was even used to carry toddy by the local tipplers.
The book is a fabulous collection of his reminiscences about great leaders of the Communist Party and every incident is peppered with his comments on the contrast between the simple style of those leaders and the ostentation of the present generation of politicians. Some examples:
- He had known A K Gopalan since 1936. AKG was once admitted to a Calicut hospital and the author visited him there in the company of a friend. While leaving, the friend offered some money to AKG for his treatment. An angry AKG told him to take it back and said to Rairu Nair: I gladly accept hospitality of anyone without distinction of caste or political affiliation. But I accept money only for the Party. Illness is my personal affair and I cannot accept any financial help for this.
- C H Kanaran was a stalwart of the Communist Party in Malabar who served the party with dedication and without any expectation of position or power. Rairu Nair had been invited for the wedding of Kanaran's daughter and while visiting the house offered a gold sovereign (8 grams) to the bride. Kanaran  got angry and told Rairu Nair to take back the present, have a cup of tea and clear out. He sternly said: I had not invited you for such mischief.
- He paints a picture of KPR Gopalan as a bold and sincere loyalist of the party (unfortunately, he had to leave the party later due to ideological differences). He recalls how KPR and some others including Rairu Nair himself, stormed into the office of Deshabhimani, drove away the CPI workers there and forcibly occupied the press. When the editor Induchoodan, P R Nambiar and K Kanaran ( who belonged to the CPI after the split) returned from their lunch break, they saw KPR Gopalan in the editor's seat and had no option but to scoot. Thus, Deshabhimani became the mouthpiece of CPM.
- Capt. Krishnan Nair was facing some labour problems in his textile unit in Kannur. N E Balaram, the CPI leader help to resolve the issue. Later, when Capt. Krishnan Nair met Balaram at the Kannur Guest House, he thought of presenting Balaram with a costly Montblanc pen. Balaram politely refused to accept the luxury gift.
- The most interesting observation is about Jenab M. Abdurahman Saheb, the charismatic leader of the Congress Party. Rairu Nair narrates how the Chalappuram Congressmen ( Kozhippurath Madhava Menon, U Gopala Menon, K A Damodara Menon, Ambalakkat Karunakara Menon and A V Kuttimalu Amma) were jealous of Mohammed Abdurahman's charismatic leadership and his oratory. They conspired to keep him away from the limelight.  Like Abdurahman, his protege P P Ummar Koya was also a straight forward and honest leader, and like his mentor he also faded away from public life into oblivion!

One hopes others like Rairu Nair who have watched public life of Calicut from the grandstand come forward and record their reminiscences which will be a great contribution to the history and culture of our city.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Exciting new find of Chinese coins in Kollam - Numismatic Study by Beena Sarasan

The city of Kollam ( Quilon,'Ku-lin' in Chinese history) witnessed history being made on its shore recently. Now a minor cargo port, efforts were being made to deepen the waters to allow ships with larger draught to berth in the Kollam port. The suction dredger was bringing up muck from the bottom of the channel and depositing it on shore, to be removed to some landfill. Then, suddenly, someone noticed in January 2014 that the muddy slurry contained priceless artefacts including Chinese potsherds and coins. There was a virtual 'gold rush' on the Kollam coast for several days, until the district administration intervened and brought some order. The suction dredger did not disappoint; it continued to disgorge hoards of Chinese coins.

Mrs. Beena Sarasan, an authority on South Indian numismatics has studied the Chinese coins unearthed in Kollam and has produced an attractive monograph, entitled 'Chinese Cash in "Ku-lin" - Vestiges of Kollam's maritime history'. She has studied the particular features of each type of coin which extends from Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) through Southern Tang kingdom, Northern Song dynasty, Southern Song synasty, Jin dynasty and Yuan dynasty. She has also described in detail the significance of the indigenous Chola coins (kasu) found along with the Chinese hoard and analysed the details of the Chinese coins discovered  a year before from the nearby Sasthamcotta Lake, consisting again a mix of Tang and north and south Song era.
Viewed from the broader canvas of relations between India and China, we notice a break in the 11th Century, according to Buddhist traditions. It seems the last Indian monk ( named Che-ki-siang) went to China in 1053. The last Chinese monk to have arrived in Bodhgaya was recorded to be in 1033. However, relations between China and south India followed a different trajectory. Commercial relations which started during the Tang period continued uninterrupted throughout the Song period.
We find evidence of this in one of the largest hoards of Chinese coins discovered in Thalikettai village of Mannargudi taluk, Tanjavur district in Tamil Nadu, in 1944. It brought to light 1818 coins which represented an unbroken series of coins from Sui period (585 AD) to the end of Song period (1275 AD).
Much of the evidence relating to Chinese trade in the west coast of India is obtained from Chinese sources, like Mahuan's account and the transcription of Ming stelae. Researchers like Prof. Karashima have unearthed some evidence from extensive collection of potsherds gathered from the sandy coast. The importance of the present Kollam finding should be considered in the light of this. It is for the first time that a hoard similar to the 1944 Thalikettai hoard of the eastern coast has now been found in the western coast which was dominated by the Ku-lin port.
Chinese records of the 12th Century, like Zhou Qufei's Lingwai daida ( 'Information on What is Beyond the Passes') described how Chinese sea-faring traders who were planning to go to Dashi ( the Persian Gulf) had to change to smaller boats in Kollam.
Another interesting fact relates to the determination of Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty to conquer and subdue Ku-lin. His attempts present a contrast to the subsequent voyages of Zheng He under the Mings. Yang Tingbi, as the emissary of Kublai Khan visited Kollam in 1280 and sought its submission. Having failed in the mission, Kublai again sent Yang Tingbi to Kollam, this time accompanied by Hasaerhaiya (Qasar Qaya) who had been given the grandiose title of 'Commissioner of the Pacification Office (in charge of) Kollam'. Bad weather forced this second expedition to land in Kayalpattanam. The Chinese enquired there about the land route to Kollam, but the local officials refused to reveal it to the Yuan entourage. The disappointed emissaries returned to China, yet again.
Kublai Khan refused to give up. Yang Tingbi was himself appointed the Commissioner of the Pacification Office and sent on a third mission to Kollam which reached in 1285.( The monograph gives a slightly different version, quoting from Yuan shish).
The author of this monograph has described the features of each of the coins, beginning with the Kai Yuans which belonged to the inaugural series of Tang dynasty (618-907). The crescent shaped mark on the reverse of the Kai Yuan coins is attributed to the finger nail mark of Empress Wende who had inadvertently stuck one of her nails into the wax model of the coin which was first presented to her. As a mark of reverence, the crescent mark was reproduced in all the Kai Yuan coins!
Of all the dynasties, the Kollam collection has the least number of coins belonging to the Yuan period, represented only by one large 10 cash coin in Mongol script. This may look anomalous, as we saw above that there was hectic activity during Kublai Khan's regime. But, as explained by the author, paper money printed on cotton or mulberry bark was made popular during this period and this probably accounted for the scarcity of Yuan coins.

The author has catalogued all the available coins and  given a scholarly analysis of the significance of the coin hoard and the detail of each of the coins. As Prof. M.G.S. Narayanan has said in the foreword, 'Mrs. Beena Sarasan is to be congratulated for making such a detailed study of the excavated materials in such a short time in the light of available historical literature....I am sure that the present monograph will provide a solid foundation for other volumes to come.'
We are sure that the recent revival of interest in studies about Malabar- China relations among Indian and Chinese scholars will find the present volume of great interest in reconstructing the glorious era of cooperation for mutual interest which marked the maritime trade during the early medieval period.
In the end, we would request the author to  catalogue and study the collection of 15 Chinese coins (tentatively identified as belonging to the later Manchu Qing dynasty 1711-1850) which are with the manuscript library of Calicut University. These coins were discovered in 2007 by Dr. Liu Yinghua, a Chinese scholar of Sanskrit and Ayurveda who was then studying under Prof. C Rajendran of the Sanskrit Department of Calicut University. Dr. Liu noticed that the metal pieces used to tie the manuscripts were in fact Chinese coins. How these coins came to British Malabar and to the Namboodiri illam from where most of the palm leaf manuscripts were procured,  should make a fascinating study.

Chinese Cash in "Ku-lin": Vestiges of Kollam's maritime history, Ms. Beena Sarasan, (2014) Published by the author. Price: Rs. 1000 (USD 30). Author can be contacted at

1. India and China - A Collection of Essays  by Prof. Prabodh Chandra Bagchi; compiled by Bangwei Wang and Tansen Sen (2011), Anthem Press, India
2. The Formation of Chinese Maritime networks to Southern Asia, 1200-1450, Prof. Tansen Sen

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Calicut Bank Limited

T.M. Appu Nedungadi (courtesy: wikipedia)
Calicut can take legitimate pride as the city that gave birth to the first private sector commercial bank to be set up in South India - the Nedungadi Bank. The versatile genius of Rao Bahadur T.M. Appu Nedungadi could recognise the future of Calicut as the commercial centre of Malabar at a time when its importance as an export hub had all but vanished. Thus Nedungadi Bank came to be established in 1899. However, the Bank came to be incorporated only in 1913.
The claim of being the first bank to be incorporated goes to the Calicut Bank Limited which was registered in Calicut in 1908. The Bank prospered and had at one time 13 branches in British India, one branch in Cranganore (which was in the Cochin State) and an overseas branch in Colombo. Its issued capital was Rs. 2,77,280 divided into 27,728 fully paid shares of Rs. 10 each. After 30 years of successful functioning as a commercial bank, disaster struck in the form of a run on the bank forcing it to draw its shutters on 16th August 1938. (It was around the same time that the Travancore National and Quilon Bank also suffered a run and had to be liquidated, although there were political reasons also for the failure of that bank.)
The Directors of the Bank filed before the court a scheme of voluntary liquidation on 19th August 1938. The proposal meant that depositors would get only two annas to the rupee of deposit at maturity; another eight annas to the rupees would be payable in the next 4 years; two annas would be converted to shares of the bank and the remaining four annas would be written off.
This was opposed by one Devani Ammal and others who filed a petition for compulsory winding up.  Mr (Justice) Gentle of the Madras High Court appointed M/s Fraser and Ross as  provisional liquidator. The picture brought out by the liquidator was alarming : the company's liabilities amounted to Rs. 15,58,830 and its realizable assets to Rs. 10,52,955 leaving a deficit of Rupees 5,05,874.
The report further revealed the culpability of certain directors, their friends and relations who had obtained advances from the bank to the extent of Rs. 5,19,372 of which Rs. 4,54,611 was considered to be irrecoverable.  The figures reported did not include the details of two branches at Cranganore and Colombo which did not send any statements. Inquiries by the liquidator brought out another shocking fact - a sum of Rs. 17,000 had been withdrawn by the manager of the bank from the funds at Cranganore and Colombo even after the liquidator had been appointed.
The Court also found that  the directors and their friends had received large advances from the company and most of these advances are considered to be irrecoverable. Another factor which weighed with the Court was that the management had not placed all the facts before the depositors and there was also a possible attempt by some directors to mislead the shareholders and other interested parties. Considering all these factors, the Court concluded that only a compulsory winding up would bring out the culpability of the directors and officers and protect the interest of the customers.

Note: The above details have been culled from various reported court cases published in the Indiakanoon website. There are several gaps in the story ( who were the promoters, directors etc.) which readers may be able to fill in.)

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