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Monday, December 1, 2008

Chronicling Calicut - Some Challenges

Fran├žois Pyrard was a man with a strange mission. Born in the Breton town of Laval in France in 1570c., he was fired by a mission to make sure that his country also got its due share of the trade from the east which was being monopolised by the Portuguese and the Spaniards. He observed that the French were 'neglecting countless fair opportunities' in profitting from the trade of 'gold, spices, and the curious things of the East'.

He therefore joined in 1601 as a purser in an expedition consisting of two vessels, Croissant and Corbin. Unfortunately the voyage ended up in a shipwreck off the coast of Madagascar. He, along with the Captain of Corbin and a few others, were rescued but were taken prisoners by the King of Maldives. After serving five years in captivity in Maldives, he was rescued by a fleet from Bengal and brought to Chittagong. From Bengal, he visited various Indian ports and spent about eight months in Calicut.

He found that the Calicut of 1607 was 'a very powerful state, and of great extent: it is the state which has given the greatest trouble and caused most of their reverses to the Portuguese'. Coming from a fairly disinterested observer and that too after peace had been brokered by the Zamorin with the Portuguese by handing over Kunhali Marakkar to them, this is high praise.

After witnessing the disorder and lawlessness in Maldives, Pyrard was impressed by Calicut which was not only a well-administered state, but had an advanced system of keeping and preserving its official records. He observes: Hard by (the palace) is a block of buildings allotted to the secretary and clerk to the King, for keeping all the registers. The order and system is most admirable herein; and I have oftentimes wondered to see the great number of men with no other duty or work all day but writing and registering. These posts are much honour; the clerks all reside in the palace, but in different apartments, and they have different duties. Some make entry of all goods arriving for the King; others the dues and taxes paid day by day; others the expenditure of the King's household; others the most notable incidents of each day, both what happens at court and in the rest of the kingdom; in short, all news, for he has everything registered; and each clerk has his separate room. They also keep a record of all strangers who come there, taking their names and nationalities, the time of their arrival and the business that has brought them, and so they did with us. It is a wonderous thing to observe their number and the perfect order that exists among them, and how fast they write on their palm leaves.

Pyrard was not alone in admiring the perfection in keeping official records in Calicut. Almost a hundred years before him, Duarte Barbosa (1512) found that :The King of Calicut continually keeps a multitude of writers in his palace, who sit in a corner far from him; they write upon a raised platform, everything connected with the King's Exchequer and with the justice and governance of the realm. They write on long and stiff palm leaves, with an iron style without ink ...And there are seven or eight more,

(courtesy Kerla State Archives)

the King's private writers, men held in great esteem, who stand always before the King, with their stylesin their hands and a bundle of leaves under their arms. Each one of them has a number of these leaves in blank, sealed by the King at the top. And when the King desires to give or to do anything as to which he has to provide he tells his wishes to each of these men and they write it down from the royal seal to the bottom, and thus the order is given to whomsoever it concerns.

With such wealth of written records, one would think that interpreting the history of Calicut would be easy. But, sadly it was not to be. Zamorins belonged to different branches of families (thavazhis) and they had a custom of shifting the entire records to the location of the new Zamorin during each change of guard. This was done with the noble purpose of strictly following 'precedents' but many records would be lost during transit. Then there was the destruction caused by invasions. The Central Record Office was burnt down in part by Albuquerque in 1513. Subsequently, in 1766 when the Zamorin committed suicide by setting fire to the magazine in the Palace, much of whatever records remaining was destroyed.

Despite all this, several valuable documents and books were indeed available for the serious researchers. Prof. K.V.Krishna Ayyar, the doyen of Calicut studies did manage to put together whatever records were available and produce his monumental work, 'The Zamorins of Calicut (1938) He owed a lot to the painstaking effort made by J.A. Thorne ICS who, as Court of Wards, took charge of the affairs of the Palace (1925-1937) and entrusted the task of copying out all old records on to paper to a temporary clerk, C.R.Kuttikrishnan. The new Thiruvachira Palace in Meenchanda had been completed in 1924 and afforded a safe place for the new record room.

Thorne, like many of his compatriots, was extremely sympathetic to the history and culture of Calicut. He wrote: We foreigners who have lived and worked in Kerala hold ourselves to be singularly fortunate:whatever else India may come to mean to us, we remember with gratitude and affection the country and people whose civilisation is bound up with the dynasty of the Zamorins.

There was no effort, however, to preserve the records after Prof. Krishna Ayyar had done with these. Although the practice initiated by Thorne of copying down all the records on paper was reported to have continued till 1958, the entire records were left to languish in a terrible state of neglect from the time a civil suit for partition was instituted and the Court appointed a Receiver to look after the administration. (What a fall from Thorne's days to our own times!) Over the next decade, the records were allowed to decay through benign neglect and an argument was made out that in order to prevent further decay, these precious records may be sold as scrap! It is being mentioned that two truck loads of these records were indeed sold as raw material to the Gwalior Rayons Pulp Factory at Mavoor!!

It goes to the credit of Prof. N.M.Namboodiri, a Malayalam scholar who incidentally got interested in the history of Calicut as part of his research into place names, that whatever records which had not fallen into the hands of the local philistines were rescued. His determination led to the remaining records being retrieved, documented and preserved safely at the Vallathol Vidya Peethom, Edappal.(Read about his efforts here) The available records provide information on the administrative and political milieu of Calicut from the 16th Century. The earliest record retrieved is dated 1538 – a mere 40 years after the arrival of Vasco da Gama. According to historians, these records would suggest a re-interpretation of the Mysore interlude in Calicut history, among other historical events.


  1. Indeed, you did right in bringing this matter to light. The Granthavaris are valuable for recreation of a correct version of Malabar history - for the versions passed on by the Portuguese and the English are somewhat biased in one way or the other. However, when read with outouts from Granthavaris a certain amount of correction can be done.

    Questions - Were the oldest of the granthavaris written in 'vattezhuthu' or sanskrit?

    Is the volume 3 published now??

    The only problem would be that these are court records, so obtaining information on the life and thoughts of that period would still be difficult!!

  2. Thanks, Maddy for the valuable comments. Granthavaris are all written in Malayalam. I agree that these deal mostly with lives of the rulers and give out scanty information on the subaltern lives. But as you say, it will do a lot to correct the distortions brought about by Eurocentric versions. Unfortunately, many of our professional historians tend to repeat these versions as they seem to have limited knowledge of historiography.


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