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Monday, May 18, 2009

A Hilarious History of Calicut

Around the time William Logan was writing Malabar Manual (1887), an American scholar, diplomat and lawyer was describing Calicut and its inhabitants to his young readers almost as if he were describing some little known tribe deep in the jungles of the 'dark continent'. His book, Adventures of Vasco da Gama (1878) was the first of a series called Young Folks' Heroes of History which included the biographies of other famous explorers like Francis Drake, Magellan and Marco Polo.

Towle, who did not have any experience of India, appears to have embellished his story in order, as he admits in his preface, to '...attract and hold the absorbing 
attention of the young reader from beginning to end'. How far he has permitted his imagination to run wild can be seen by his description of Calicut traders who, while trading with Vasco da Gama, ' ...were delighted to receive some silver coins (which they took care to test by biting them with their teeth) in exchange for their wares'. !

George Makepeace Towle (1841-1893) is best known for introducing Jules Verne to the English-speaking world by translating from French his book, Around the World in 80 Days. He followed this up by translating many other works of Verne into English. A prolific writer, he also wrote an outline history of America, The Nation in a Nutshell.

The first view of Calicut, as seen by Vasco da Gama, is itself a figment of Towle's imagination:

Its domes and minarets glittered in the sunlight; its broad quays seemed full of life; and in the bay (!) upon which Calicut was was situated floated many ships from all parts of the east.

de Gama did not approach Calicut from the sea; he had first anchored off Kappad and then was piloted to Panthalayani Kollam from where he travelled to Calicut overland in a palanquin!

Before de Gama came, according to Towle, Arabs had been trading with Calicut and 'while they traded with the natives, who were a race very inferior to them in energy and intelligence, they took advantage of their opportunities to make converts to the Mohammedan religion.

Calicut was then ruled by a prince named Permaloo who was 'worked upon by the Arabs until they converted him to the Mohammedan faith. This caused his nobles to revolt; and, Permaloo, tired of the cares of sovereignty, divided up his dominion among various kinsmen and chieftains. The city and the neighbourhood of Calicut he awarded to a low-born favourite, a cowherd, who had behaved very valiantly in the wars against the Rajah and who, assuming the government, was awarded the title of Zamorin.'

Permaloo retired for the rest of his days to Mecca.
The city, according to Towle, was large enough to occupy a space several miles square. Its trade was so prosperous that many of the Arab and Moorish merchants who resided there owned as many as fifty ships; and it was not rare for five or six hundred ships to visit its harbour in the course of a winter.

Some other gems from Towle:

  • ' was an ancient law of Calicut that the Zamorin must die in the pagoda or temple of the Hindoo gods'.
  • 'The Zamorin never married, but had a concubine, whom they could put away at pleasure, and take another. Their children did not succeed them, but brother succeeded brother; and there being none of these, the sons of the Zamorin's sister succeeded him'.
  • ' If a Zamorin was killed, on the third day after death his body was taken to a field and placed on a pyre of sandal and other precious wood, his relatives and nobles all standing by. The body was burned amid the lamentations of the multitude, and the ashes were gathered and buried. Then all the relatives, even the children, set to shaving every part of their bodies; this being a token of great mourning. (saving only their eyelashes and eyebrows, according to Castanehda who was presumably the source of this story, but Towle was not inclined to give this concession!)
    In the ensuing fortnight (after the cremation) they were forbidden to chew betel, a favourite practice in that region; and, if any of them broke this rule, his lips were cut with a sharp knife.
Evidently, most of Towle's sources are from accounts by Portuguese traders and travellers. Castanehda's fantastic tales of Malabar in his Historia appear to have been a primary source. One of Castanehda's stories is about the Zamorin, who after defeat by the Portuguese in 1504, was crestfallen and despairing and took up religious seclusion in a turcol (thrikkovil ?) after yielding up the government to his successor and courted death by propitiating the gods.

Interestingly, this myth of ritual suicide by the Zamorin was quite popular among Portuguese travellers of that period. Magalhaes (A Description of the Coast of Africa and Malabar) describes about a king of Malabar who would, after reigning for twelve years, offer a grand feast to the Brahmans and, in their presence, commit ritual suicide by cutting his own throat.

Instead of relying on the fantastic yarns of Portuguese travellers, the learned French translator could have followed the authentic travel experience of the Frenchman Pyrard de Laval who visited Calicut during 1608-09 and documented what he saw with the dispassionate approach of a historian. He observed that the Brahmins of Calicut put on brown slippers ' much pointed in front, the point raised high with the knot of the same leather in winter', and used wooden sandals in summer. Towle, on the other hand, describes the royal messenger sent by Zamorin to the Portuguese as 'naked, except that he wore a white cloth about his loins'!

Towle's series about the Young Folks' Heroes of History had a good audience, although the publisher ended up in bankruptcy. But the damage had been done – generations of Americans grew up with the stereotyped image of India as the land of snakes, elephants and naked fakirs. No wonder, another distinguished American, Katherine Mayo, who was a teenager when Towle's book was published (and might well have been fed on such 'heroes of history' stuff), wrote the scurrilous Mother India, which among other things described Ayurveda as 'voodoo doctoring of the West Indian negro'!!


  1. "Ignorance is bliss", this is the feeling I get after reading aboutMr.Trowel's statements.Katherine Mayo, Was this person who came down to preach hygine to Malayalis?.Any way one Madam Mayo asked all Malayali's to have a bath at least thrice a week!!When there was big laughter among the crowd who was hearing her talk.She felt it was some thing on the higher side and reduced it to at least twice a week. This created a bigger burst.When she wanted to find out the reason, she was told the people here have at least two baths a day!!!

    Posted by Calicut Heritage Forum at 4:17 AM
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  2. Yes, of course it is quite hilarious & superficial. Sadly many a writer did similar injustice to Malabar after 1500 and I really think that we are doing the right thing in pointing such matters to others.

    Such embellishments deserve no respect regardless of whether others found them a historic treasure trove or not in the past.

    Except for KM Panikkar, a brilliant man and a genius, i have come across very few writers who say what they feel (even when they know what they are talking about, for fear of getting involved in polemics) in an emphatic fashion.

    Refuting these distortions is definitely the right thing to do and as the people of Malabar, we should be doing it often.

  3. Towle's misrepresentations needs to be refuted. I fully subscribe to what Maddy has stated.
    (Can you remove the word verification for comments)

  4. Yes, Premnath. She was the very person who was called 'gutter inspector' by Gandhiji. But, I did not know that she had asked Malayalees to have an occasional bath!
    Thanks, Maddy for the comments. Those who came from the west with a 'civilising mission' had done permanent damage to our image which persists because such literature is still popular. Their successors are the cub reporters commissioned by BBC, CNN and Channel 4 who do their occasional solid waste survey. This is not to deny that there have been some very objective travelogue also during the middle ages.
    Many thanks, PNS for your kind comments. I wish I could remove the verification, as I am also a victim. Is it possible? Can anyone advise, pl?

  5. Hi, Great blog about Kerala.

    Do also visit my blog Keral Puran in which I am giving the Hindi translation of the famous Malayalam classic Aidihyamala by Kottarathil Sankunni.

    Here is the link:

    केरल पुराण

  6. This is NEWS to me.I always knew much of the history we read is distorted, but this one is way too much.
    It is a creative piece of writing.
    Fiction masquerading as history.


  7. Word verification can be removed.Kindly go to "Customize". under "Settings" find "Comments" i.e. the 4th item. Under this head you will find "Show word verification for comments" with an YES and NO. Choose NO. Click on SAVE SETTINGS at the bottom. You are done.


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