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Monday, November 23, 2009

Zamorin's Wars Abroad

Historians of Calicut have dwelt at length on the internecine wars which the Zamorin had fought with other rulers in Kerala, leading in many cases to mutually assured destruction. Some of these stories may be apocryphal such as the 48 year-war which the Nediyiruppu Eradi (who later on became the Zamorin) fought against the Porlathiri - a narrative replete more with details of marital infidelity than with martial valour!

We also have detailed accounts of the Zamorin's annexation of much of Valluvanad by propitiating the Thirumandhamkunnu Bhagawati. The wars with Cochin which occurred regularly have been well-documented. The occasional forays into Kolathiri and Palakkad territories - the last one proving fatal - are also described in considerable detail.

However, we do not find mention of the wars that the Zamorin's forces waged beyond the Indian shores or of the battles fought in territories not contiguous with the Zamorin borders.

We discuss briefly one episode of the Zamorin fighting a war abroad.

Sri Lanka was unified as one island kingdom by King Parakramabahu VI of the Kotte Kingdom in the early 15th century. But this did not last long, as the Jaffna kingdom had revolted in 1467 leading up to a break up. The threat from the Portuguese ( who had landed in the island in 1501) increased with a large fleet landing at Colombo in 1518 and their attempt to build a fort there named Santa Barbara.

Finally, a palace coup by the King's sons led to his deposition in 1521 and the break up of the kingdom into three independent units of Kotte, Sitawaka and Raigama. The powerful Kandy kingdom remained outside as an independent kingdom, as it did during most of Parakramabahu's reign.

Vijayabahu VII (1509-21) who had deposed Parakramabahu perceived that the growing power of the Portuguese would be a threat to his kingdom and, instigated by the Mappilas who shared the same threat perception, appealed to the Zamorin for help in driving away the foreign power.

But the sagacious ruler of Calicut (1513-1522) had signed a treaty in December 1513 with the Portuguese and would not like to upset the understanding which recognised the new reality of a declining influence of the Moors and the need to accept the reality of the European traders. The Zamorin refused to intervene.

Bhuvanekabahu VII who inherited the truncated Kotte kingdom was apprehensive too, this time of his brother Mayadunne who was ruling the neighbouring kingdom of Sitawaka. There is little that remains of the kingdom of Sitawaka today except the ruins of a fort and a 'kovila' in modern day Avissawella town. But when it was founded by Mayadunne, it was a land-locked territory with no access to the port of Colombo for its rich agricultural produce.

Although the Potuguese could not complete the construction of Santa Barbara fort due to local resistance, they had been permitted to station an agent at Kotte under royal protection to watch their trading interest and to counter the Mappila domination of the cinnamon trade.

In 1526, the war between the brothers broke out again and now it was the turn of Mayadunne, the ruler of Sitawaka to seek the help of the Zamorin. The wise ruler who had brought peace and prosperity to Calicut by signing the treaty with the Portuguese in 1513 had passed away in 1522. (It was a different matter that the Portuguese had reneged on the clauses of the treaty as soon as they had completed the construction of their fort at Kallayi.)

The new Zamorin was not too friendly towards the Portuguese who had annoyed everyone by their treacherous acts. The period between 1524 and 1540 (when a new treaty was signed with the Portuguese at Ponnani) was an era of turbulence in the history of Calicut - an era which witnessed the brief reappearance of Vasco da Gama only to die in Cochin and the barbarities of Viceroys like Menezes and Sampayo.

Silawaka's first foray against Kotte was in 1528 when the Zamorin's forces also fought alongside. But this and the next attack in 1537 were repulsed by the Kotte forces aided by the Portuguese. The Mahavamsa (expanded with the inclusion of the Culavamsa) which is the recorded chronicle of Sri Lankan history, describes the second war thus:

It was in 1537 AD. This time the Zamorin sent help to King Mayadunne. He sent 51 warships, 500 guns and 200 soldiers....Zamorin's armies were stationed in Vedalayi close to Rameshwaram. When Souza (the Portuguese admiral from Goa) discovered this, he began to attack them. This developed into a great sea battle. In the battle, the Zamorin armies were defeated....Whatever gifts the Zamorin had sent to King Mayadunne were also seized by the Portuguese'.

Third and final assault on Kotte took place in 1539 in which the Zamorin's force supported the Sitawaka army. The attack was yet again repulsed by the Portuguese Captain-General Miguel Ferreira who dealt a body blow to the Zamorin forces by capturing his two generals - Kulhena Marikkar and Pachi Marikkar.

The Zamorin's forays beyond the shores of Calicut were confined to the brief period between 1524 and 1540 which represented a difficult period in the relationship with the Portuguese - an era which covered the expulsion of the Portuguese from Calicut in 1525, building of the Chaliyam fort in 1531 and continuous war on land and sea between 1531 and 1540 culminating the Ponnani Treaty which was signed in 1540.

(Zamorin's army had participated in other wars outside its territory - details in the forthcoming post.)

Wikipedia article on Sitawaka
Zamorins of Calicut by KV Krishna Ayyar
Logan's Manual
http://the dated 12 July 2009


  1. Exploits of Zamorins overseas are not popular as that of Cholas. Probably Zamorins never reaped any benefits out of it. Your blog can prompt more research into the migration of people from these two areas and explain some of the similarities that they share in their physical features and language. Thank you for enlightening us.

  2. Could somebody enlight all about the success of the Zamorin's army.We are yet to hear about the real and brave stories of thier exploits and heroic deeds.Kunhali Marikkars victories on the high seas were rewarded by unpardonable act of betrayal??.

  3. At times I have wondered if this was really carried out at the behest of the Zamorin or if the Marakkars took matters into their own hands. And then it could have been that the Zamorin got furious hearing about the unilateral actions and decided to punish Kunjali..Nevertheless,it provides a window into those events, otherwise not well recorded.

  4. Thank you, Madhu, Premnath and Maddy. Zamorin did not have a standing land army but was drawing on the local chieftains (Naduvazhis) to provide help during offensive or defensive wars. Battle at sea was first introduced by the Portuguese, as the sea was till then a calm place for quiet trade (there are not many references to pirates before the Portuguese came on the scene!)
    It was natural that the Moplahs who managed most of the maritime trade would take up arms to defend their economic interests. The success of the Zamorins was in legitimising this use of naval force by organising the Marakkars into a navy. Without a ruling power to back them, the Moplah sailors would have been decimated by the Portuguese. When war broke out, the Zamorin's Nair forces worked in tandem with the naval forces in attacking Portuguese forts and factories. You may be right, Maddy, in assuming that Marakkars might have acted autonomously in some of these battles without express orders from the Zamorin, but the facts appear to be much more complicated. In analysing Calicut history, we sometimes treat Zamorin as one ruler, but individual approaches, their inheritance system and even the age at which the rulers ascend have all affected the course of history.

  5. yes, CKR, that is right & I agree. many of the problems rose from the rules in selection of the thampuran and if at all he was able in body & mind to rule..

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