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Monday, January 30, 2023

Zamorin’s old Palace – Tangible evidence of the French testimony

Last fortnight, a team of amateur archaeologists led by CHF Vice President and veteran archaeologist, Sri K K Muhammed stumbled on a valuable piece of evidence which may be one more piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is Calicut’s history. It was a huge granite piece of the gate of a structure presumed to be of the Zamorin’s fort.

It was recovered from the premises of a restaurant (1980s: A Nostalgic Restaurant) on the Dawood Bhai Kapasi Road, close to the beach. We are grateful to them for preserving the most nostalgic item – the stone structure of the Fort which goes back more than 500 years before 1980!

 According to Sri. Muhammed, this could be a part of the western gate of the Zamorin’s fort during the period 1400-1500 AD. If so, this was probably the gate through which Vasco da Gama and his entourage entered the palace. This could well have been the palace which his successors Cabral and Albuquerque had blasted with cannons from the sea. 

CHF member and intrepid blogger Maddy had speculated about the ruins of Zamorin’s fort in his post on the decline of Calicut as an entrepot. He concluded by saying: ‘What of these Calicut ruins now? Not much would have been left since there were very few buildings built of stone, and any mud housing would have been washed away, or covered by mud banks.’ 

We are sure Maddy must be happy to have been proved wrong. This is the second structure of what could be reasonably presumed to be part of Zamorin’s fort. Earlier, another bigger piece was found while excavating for a subway. This has been shifted to the local museum. 

This leads us to wonder that the present Calicut is literally sitting on its predecessor city, the actual City of Truth, the fabled metropolitan entrepot where goods from the far west and the far east were traded, and where traders from Venice, Genoa, Lisbon, Malacca and Zaiton (present-day Quanzhou) converged.

Zamorin’s Fort

Traditionally, the Zamorin (or, Poonthurakkon, to be more precise) was believed to have had his first palace in Velapuram. It was presumed to be somewhere on the beach. M N Namboodiri, in his Malabar Padhanangal: Samoothirinad (page 154) mentions that Velapuram was in Moonnalingal, according to property documents which he had examined. Moonnalingal is the junction in front of the east gate of Government Beach Hospital. The latest find corresponds to this location.

As mentioned by Maddy in his post quoted above, we get valuable clues about the old fort from the writings of French private merchants who had been visiting Calicut to scout for opportunities for profitable trade.

The French were the last to set up a company for trading with the East.  Although they had made earlier efforts to set up a company, it was only when Colbert, who came to power in 1661, that the need for competing with the English and the Dutch became compulsive. For, the French were then paying 12 per cent more for Indian goods obtained through the Dutch than if they had procured the same goods directly. 

By the 1630s, a regular route for Indian textiles (called palempores, akin to kalamkari craft) was open from India to France via the Levant and Persia. However, after the founding of the French Company, these goods started flowing directly, and that too much cheaper. Not only women but men also were robed in the ’banyan’, an Indian printed robe. 

France had to ban the import of Indian cottons in 1686 to protect the interests of French silk weavers. In 1691, import of even white cotton cloth from India was banned.

The French Company was established in 1664 and had founded its first settlement at Surat in 1666. However, it was only towards the early eighteenth century that the French Company got interested in Calicut and its pepper. It soon abandoned its Calicut location and shifted to the more congenial Mahe.

Thus the official French did not consider Calicut an attractive destination for trade. But what is of greater interest is how the ordinary French traveller -cum-trader looked at Calicut. 

 Calicut had its share of curious French visitors who came for various purposes, including procuring spices. Soon after setting up the establishment at Surat in 1666, the Director, Francois Caron started sending out envoys to different parts of the country. 

Caron himself was an interesting character. He was a French Huguenot refugee in the Netherlands and had served the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for over three decades. Starting off as a cook’s mate, he rose to be the Director General of VOC at Batavia (Jakarta), a position that was only one grade below that of the Governor General. When he retired from VOC, he was lapped up by the French East India Company in 1665 and was posted as its Director General in Surat where he served until he died in 1673. 

It seems this was a period of a scramble for dominating the ports of western India. In 1663, the Dutch had driven out the English from Cochin which they had grabbed. In the next year (1664), the English East India Company concluded its first extant agreement with the Zamorin. The English perception of the Zamorin, as quoted by Logan, is a little less than flattering. His palace was built of stone and he kept up “some faint resemblance of grandeur” about it. His supremacy over the Malayali chiefs was ‘little more than formal, and his position among the country powers appears to have deteriorated greatly from what it was in 1498 when the Portuguese appeared upon the scene’. (p388, Malabar Manual)

The first set of French merchants to visit Calicut for the purchase of pepper was Fees and Bourreau. Interestingly, they met two French dignitaries who were already in Calicut -  Souchou de Rennefort, the Secretary of the French East India Company and Francois Martin, a French merchant. The two groups met one another in Calicut on the 16th of December 1644. 

Martin and Rennefort stayed in Calicut for a couple of months. They have left behind interesting vignettes of what they saw in Calicut. 

They found that Calicut had very few houses made of bricks and stone. Most houses were made of straw and mud. But, even the smallest house had a garden surrounding it. In fact, they were impressed by these unbroken gardens which extended from one end of the city to the other.

They could easily spot the palace of the Zamorin. Surprisingly, they found the entrance to the palace adorned with forty to fifty pieces of cannon along with three arms of Portugal with three globes, the motto of King Emanuel. It is possible that they mistook the Portuguese fort for the Palace of Zamorin. But, they mention elsewhere that the Portuguese fort was a mile inside the sea, as the sea had advanced and swallowed huge parts of the shore.

Martin noticed that the city was inhabited by both Hindus and Muslims, both carrying out spices trade. There were some Jews also who engaged in the trading of pearls.

His companion, Rennefort gives us a more detailed account. He too found the city to be nestled inside coconut gardens, much like the suburbs of Marseille where the houses were hidden among vineyards and fig trees. The Zamorin was not living in his palace, as he spent most of his time in Cranganore. 

Town planning and architecture

 Both the Frenchmen found fault with the order or symmetry of the city’s layout. They lamented that there were no regular streets. And most of the houses were made of branches of coconut trees in the form of big pavilions but very low. Nevertheless, these were clean inside. 

There was a big complex of stone buildings and next to these, there was a big well in which one could descend slowly. (stepwell in Calicut?) Around the complex, galleries were built in Portuguese style. The nature of this building is not indicated. However, it might just be possible that the recently excavated part belonged to this building complex.

They then crossed a field to come to the King’s house within the complex, far more beautiful than that of the earlier one. They witnessed the King and the courtiers worshipping a golden elephant (Ganesa idol?) Another idol of a black woman breast-feeding two infants (Kali?) was also in the room. Rennefort found the temples and mosques of Calicut built beautifully. 


The markets started at two in the afternoon and continued till seven in the evening.  Shops were lined up on both sides of the street. Behind the row of shops were rooms to keep the goods. The main items of trade included cotton in large quantities, and of different types including white, painted and muslin; pepper; coco oil; sapan wood for colouring (large quantities of sappan wood were being exported in the 17th-18th Centuries  to Japan via South East Asia; the wood is still used in Kerala for colouring boiled drinking water; its local name is chappangam or pathimugham); ropes of coco trees, and all sorts of provisions. Gold and silver jewellery was also a major item of trade, particularly gold earrings.

Social life

 There were a large number of merchants and banias in Calicut. The people were scantily dressed but were wearing gold and silver earrings. The Nairs carried knives in the gold belt with scabbard sculptured in silver and sapan wood. Pirates roamed around the west coast in their galleys, collecting slaves, an important trade commodity during the time.

Flooding of Calicut

The French visitors had observed that the beach of Calicut was not fit for landing, as it was very low and receding. The sea was advancing each year. Already the Portuguese factory had gone two miles into the sea. Only the top of the towers could be seen, although at one time it was not far from the port. According to a letter from that period, the continuing inundation of Calicut port has caused a decline in its commerce. This has caused foreign merchants to shift their residence from the port area to the interior.

One of the casualties of the sea erosion was the English factory which was right on the beach when Abbe Carre visited Calicut and had dinner with the English factors in 1672. When Dellon visited Calicut six years later in 1678, the English factory had been engulfed by the advancing sea and they had constructed a new factory at a high place. 

The flooding of Calicut started around 1645 and continued till the end of the 17th Century. As a result of this flooding, many rich merchants abandoned Calicut and shifted to Goa, according to Dellon. This had virtually ruined the trade of Calicut.

Description of the Zamorin

The reputation of Calicut as a friendly port was well-founded. The rulers invited any foreign visitor to set up trade in this free port. When Captain William Keeling was sailing on Calicut roads, the Zamorin had sent an envoy inviting the English captain to come ashore. He promptly landed in Calicut and signed a treaty of trade. 

Similarly, when the itinerant French visitors wanted to meet the ruler, they were promptly invited into the palace. We have two descriptions of two different Zamorins who had met the French visitors. 

The French physician, C Dellon had stayed in and around Calicut in 1677. He stated that the Zamorin had welcomed the French merchants, Flacourt and Coche at Calicut. He even offered them a port called Alicote (Azhikode, near Kodungalloor) ‘with its dependencies and even ceded its sovereignty to them’. 

L’Espinay who visited Calicut in 1672 also had a meeting with the Zamorin. Before their audience, two princes from the palace came on board their ship and confirmed to the French the cession of Alicode. The designation of the princes is recorded as Herampatte (Eralpad) and Mevanxonre ( Moonnalpad?). It was made clear to the French that the Eralpad was scheduled to succeed his maternal uncle.

The next day, L’Espinay went to call on the Zamorin, accompanied by Caron and La Haye. They were taken to Ponnani where the Zamorin was staying. La Haye, a French aristocrat, thought poorly of the palace. The carpet on which the king sat looked shabby. The French were asked to sit on another carpet. Caron found it difficult to sit on the ground. A box was brought for him to sit on. 

According to La Haye, the king was sixty years of age. He was short in stature. The two nephews who had met them earlier were de facto rulers. The ceding of Azhikode was indeed ratified at the meeting. But the French had difficulty in dislodging the Dutch who were already in possession of the port, having built a fort there. 

L’Estra who had also accompanied La Haye, however, found the Zamorin an old man of nearly seventy years with a white beard. He was only three and a half feet tall. He was wearing diamond rings on all his fingers, set with precious stones and even gifted a pearl necklace to Caron.

The French continued to trade with Calicut, despite civil unrest during the early decades of the 18th Century and financial difficulties which the French company faced frequently. In the meanwhile, they were scouting for a more convenient and lucrative spot. They zeroed in on Mahe at the mouth of a river. Ultimately, in 1727, the Council of Mahe was created and Calicut was abandoned as a trade centre.

Next Steps


It is more or less certain that floods brought ruin to Calicut during the second half of the 17th Century, a fact not fully factored in while discussing the fortunes of the Zamorin history. As suggested by Maddy, floods leading to the shifting of the centre of power and governance could have impacted the reputation of Calicut port during this period. This was probably aggravated by the foolish decision of the rulers to annoy neighbouring rulers like that of Palakkad, inviting the attention of Mysore powers. Such self-destructive steps culminated in the suicide of a desperate ruler and the virtual end of the Zamorin dynasty.

CHF had earlier tried to enlist the ISRO to conduct a satellite mapping of the Calicut coast. We had also requested the National Institute of Oceanography to explore the coast for the sunken city. However, we have not been able to arouse their interest. Now that no less a person than the former Regional Director of ASI is involved in the ‘accidental excavation’ of tangible evidence of the Zamorin’s legacy, let us hope Sri Muhammed will use his influence with the ASI to take up some investigation of the Calicut coast like he had done in the case of Tipu’s fort in Feroke.


1. B Krishnamurthy: Some Aspects of the French Trade with India (1664-1771), Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol.40 (1979) pp.962-972

2. Aniruddha Ray: The French Presence at Calicut from the mid-Seventeenth century to the early decades of the Eighteenth Century; Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol.60, Diamond Jubilee (1999), pp. 372-384

3. The decline of an entrepot -Calicut (26 May 2021)

4. Samoothirinad – Malabar Pathanangal, M N Namboodiri, (2008), State Institute of Languages, Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram


  1. How exciting. I hope some analysis and dating work is done on the stone slab which somebody had preserved, fortunately. And without a doubt I am happy to be proved wrong, no doubts about that!!

    That the palace had stone gates and the fort had stone walls are clear from many historic accounts. The Gama accounts mention four rows of massive stone walls. British travelers mention the ruins of the gates and another traveler saw two pillars of the old palace and added that the old palace stones and other material were carried to build the Feroke fort, by Tipu. Coincidentally, I have just managed to collect a fairly interesting description of the 19th century ruins and will post an article on it, soon.

    Thank you CHF for the continued work in rebuilding the city's character!

  2. Thank you Maddy for bringing up ever so many new facts about Calicut's history. We try to follow your trail. My only surprise (and frustration) is that mainstream academics and research students are not inspired by all these new exciting finds. Going by many of the dissertations, they seem to be contended repeating the cliches of a bygone era like colonialism, imperialism, post-colonial and post-modern. Where they are short of facts, they invent events and manufacture heroes to create an 'illusion of truth'.

    We look forward to your post on further tangible evidence of the city's past.

  3. An excellent article with a lot of information for me . Of course it will need much much more information before it could be properly done, but with the current evidence will it be possible to construct an image of the building? Oliver

  4. An excellent article with a lot of new information for me. Of course it will need much much more information before it could be properly done, but with the current evidence will it be possible to construct an image of the building?

  5. I forgot completely, some years ago an architecture student Akshay Rajeev did a wonderful dissertation 'ANCIENT CALICUT PORT CITY AND ITS INFLUENCE ON THE MODERN CITY' . He put in a lot of effort and produced a great bit of work. On page 72, he provided a picture of a Door Lintel which had been unearthed during some drainage construction. This has some similarity in design to the one pictured above ( but has a Valampiri-Ganesa idol in the middle) and was dug up near the palace gate in 2017.

  6. Could be the same frame. Do we have the original dissertation or the contacts of Akshay Rajeev? Could you try to get in touch with him?


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