Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The queen whom the Portuguese feared

You must have read or heard about Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, Chandbibi and Rani Kittur Chennamma, but most of you must not have even heard about the brave queen Rani Abbakka, who ruled Ullal, close to Mangalore in Karnataka. She was a young and daring queen who fought the Portuguese for decades. Her story is full of valor and courage to stay independent. Though the Portuguese captured Daman, Goa and other areas, but she was one of the main reasons they couldn’t get Mangalore.

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Rani Abbakka Chowta was the first Tuluva Queen of Ullal who fought the Portuguese in the latter half of the 16th century. She belonged to the Chowta dynasty who ruled over parts of coastal Karnataka in South India. Their capital was Puttige. The port town of Ullal served as their subsidiary capital. Rani Abbakka Chowta’s  reign was around 1525 – 1570s. Abbakka Chowta was a Jain who fought against the Portuguese for four decades, with an army comprising of both Hindus and Muslims, a full 300 years before the First War of Indian Independence in 1857.

The Portuguese made several attempts to capture Ullal as it was strategically placed. But Abbakka repulsed each of their attacks for over four decades. For her bravery, she came to be known as Abhaya Rani (The fearless queen). She was also one of the earliest Indians to fight the colonial powers and is sometimes regarded as the 'first woman freedom fighter of India'.  In the state of Karnataka, she is celebrated along with Rani Kittur Chennamma, Keladi Chennamma and Onake Obavva, as the foremost women warriors and patriots.

The Chowtas followed the system of matrilineal inheritance of Digambara Jain Bunt community by which Tirumala Raya, Abbakka's uncle, crowned her the queen of Ullal. Later he also forged a matrimonial alliance for Abbakka with Lakshmappa Arasa Bangaraja II, king of Banga principality in Mangalore. This alliance was to later prove a source of worry for the Portuguese. Tirumala Raya also trained Abbakka in the different aspects of warfare and military strategy. The marriage, however, was short-lived and Abbakka returned to Ullal. Her husband thus longed for revenge against Abbakka and was to later join the Portuguese in their fight against Abbakka.

After conquering  Goa and taking control of  the territory, the Portuguese turned their attention southwards and along the coast. They first attacked the South Kanara coast in 1525 and destroyed the Mangalore port. Across the Netravati river, Ullal was a prosperous port and a hub of the spice trade to Arabia and other countries in the west. Being the profitable trading center, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British vied with one another for control of the region as well as the trade routes. They, however, had not been able to make much headway as the resistance from the local chieftains was very strong. The local rulers even forged alliances cutting across caste and religious lines to keep the foreigners at bay.

Rani Abbakka's administration was well represented by Jains, Hindus as well as Muslims. Historical research also reveals that during her rule in the 16th century, Beary (muslims) men had served as seamen in the naval force. Rani Abbakka had personally supervised the construction of dam at Malali; she had appointed Bearys for boulder work. Her army too consisted of people of all sects and castes. She even forged alliances with the Zamorin of Calicut. Together, they kept the Portuguese at bay. The marital ties with the neighbouring Banga dynasty added further strength to the alliance of the local rulers. She also gained support from powerful king Venkatappanayaka of Bidnur and ignored the threats of Portuguese forces.

The year was 1555. Portuguese colonial power was at its peak in the 1500’s. They destroyed Zamorins of Calicut. Defeated the Sultan of Bijapur. Took away Daman from the Sultan of Gujarat, Established a colony in Mylapore, Captured Bombay and made Goa as their headquarters. And while they were at it, pretty much unchallenged, they even ruined the ancient Kapaleeswarar Temple. Their next target was the busy port of Mangalore. Their one big problem,  just 14 kilometers south of Mangalore was the small settlement of Ullal - ruled then by a feisty 30 year old woman – Rani Abbakka Chowta. Initially, they took her lightly and sent a few boats and soldiers to capture and bring her back to Goa - Those boats never came back.

The Portuguese, clearly upset by Abbakka's tactics, demanded that she pay tribute to them but Abbakka refused to yield. Shocked and enraged, in 1555, the Portuguese sent a huge fleet under the command of much celebrated Admiral Dom Álvaro da Silveira . In the battle that followed, Rani Abbakka once again managed to hold her own and repulsed the attack successfully. The admiral soon returned, badly injured and empty handed. Thereafter, another Portuguese fleet was sent - only a few injured from the crew managed to make it back.

Then in 1557,  the Portuguese went on to capture the Mangalore port and the fort, perhaps planning to tackle Rani Abbakka Chowta from the convenient distance of the Mangalore fort. After the successful capture of Mangalore, a huge army under João Peixoto, an experienced Portuguese General was sent to Ullal by the Portuguese Viceroy António Noronha.  The brief was simple: Subjugate Ullal and capture Abbakka Chowta. The plan was foolproof- there was no way a 30 year old lady with a few men could withstand the might of an army of thousands with advanced weapons.

They managed to capture the city of Ullal and also entered the royal court. Abbakka Rani, however, escaped and took refuge in a mosque. The same night, she gathered around 200 of her soldiers and mounted an attack on the Portuguese. In the battle that ensued, General Peixoto was killed, seventy Portuguese soldiers were taken prisoners and many of the Portuguese retreated. She proceeded towards Mangalore and laid siege of the Mangalore fort. In the attacks that followed, Abbakka Rani and her supporters killed Admiral Mascarenhas the Chief of the Portuguese power there,  and the Portuguese were forced to vacate the Mangalore fort too. She didn’t just stop at this but went on to even capture the Portuguese settlement at Kundapura, a full 100 kms, north of Mangalore.

The Portuguese finally managed to get back at Abbakka Chowta by convincing her estranged husband, to betray her for money. With the help of the queen's estranged husband, they mounted attacks on Ullal. Furious battles followed but Abbakka Rani held her own. In 1570, she formed an alliance with the Bijapur Sultan of Ahmednagar and the Zamorine of Calicut, who were also opposing the Portuguese. Kutty Pokar Markar, the Zamorine's general fought on behalf of Abbakka and destroyed the Portuguese fort at Mangalore but while returning he was killed by the Portuguese. She was arrested and put in the prison where she revolted again and was killed while trying to escape

As per local legends, she was an immensely popular queen and this is also attested by the fact that she is even today a part of folklore. The queen's story has been retold from generation to generation through folk songs and Yakshagana, a popular folk theatre in coastal Karnataka. In Daiva Kola, a local ritual dance, the persona in trance recounts the great deeds of Abbakka Mahadevi. Abbakka is portrayed as dark and good looking, always dressed in simple clothes like a commoner. She is portrayed as a caring queen who worked late into the night dispensing justice. Legends also claim that Abbakka was the last known person to have used the Agnivana (fire-arrow) in her fight against the Portuguese. Some accounts also claim that she had two equally valiant daughters who fought alongside her in her wars against the Portuguese. But there is no documentented evidence to prove all this.

Abbakka's memory is much cherished in her home town of Ullal. The "Veera Rani Abbakka Utsava" is an annual celebration held in her memory. The Veera Rani Abbakka Prashasti award is given to distinguished women on the occasion. On January 15, 2003, the Indian postal department issued a special cover on Rani Abbakka. There have been calls to name the Mangalore Bajpe airport in her memory. A bronze statue of the queen has been erected in Ullal and another in Bangalore. The Karnataka Itihasa Academy has called for renaming the Queen's road in the state capital as 'Rani Abbakka Devi road'. A special police force  is also launched in South Kanara in the name of "Rani Abbakka Pade" to deal with the issues related to women in the district.

The Indian Coast Guard ship ICGS Rani Abbakka, the first of a series of five inshore patrol vessels (IPV) built at Hindustan Shipyard Ltd is named after Abbakka Mahadevi was commissioned in Vishakapatnam on January 20, 2012, and is based in Chennai, as a tribute to this brave queen.

Also read: Koti Chennaya - legendary heroes-of-tululand
                Koti Chennaya - legendary heroes of tululand

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Ullal beach, Ullal, Mangalore, Karnataka, India

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting information. I had not heard of Rani Abbakka nor learnt in history. Thank you for sharing this info. Worth cherishing.