Little is written about the valiant Queen of Ullal in the history books. In her infallible bravery and indefatigability she is in par with legendary Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi and Rani Chennamma of Kittur, who fought the British in the 19th century. Like them she fought imperial foreigners gallantly and roused her forces to do the same. People of all faiths responded to her call, with the common goal of preserving motherland and defeating the invaders. Rani Abbakka Devi was the only woman in history to confront and fight the Portuguese, handing them defeat repeatedly, thus foiling their designs for supremacy of the Western Indian coast. When the Portuguese tried to exact the tax (known as ‘kappa’), the Queen, incensed and exasperated, refused to pay. Thus began her heroic battles for freedom and honor. Yet, she is rarely mentioned in history, and her accounts of her encounters with the Portuguese are mired in ambiguity.
Nestled in the strip of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea is the small coastal town of Ullal. The confluence of River Netravati and River Gurupura pouring its water into the sea on its northern border makes the little settlement a unique port. It is about 8 km from the city of Mangalore, a major settlement even in the sixteenth century, the period of this story. Ullal and the nearby Someshwar (where the Somanatheshwara temple is located) played a major role in the sixteenth century India when the Portuguese were vying for control on the West coast of India.
The Tulu Nadu, as region is referred to, along the western coastline of the State of Karnataka, is a fertile land that gets plenty of rain from the Southwestern monsoons. The Western Ghats are thick with rain forests and the villages and towns along its shoreline are natural harbors and ports. Fishermen and traders sailed from their ports taking their wares across the Arabian Sea to the Arab peninsula, well before recorded history. Trade routes with the Arabs had been established as early as the seventh century and the Maplah (Muslims of Malabar) communities of Kerala and Biary (Muslims of Tulu nadu) communities of Tulu nadu were also thriving in maritime trade of pepper and ginger.
In the year 1498, Vasco da Gama from Portugal landed his vessel in the town of Kozhikode (Kerala), to the south of Tulu nadu. In the ensuing years, the Portuguese consolidated their power and Goa became their colony. The Portuguese were interested in all the harbors and ports along the western coastline of India so that they could monopolize the spice trade. In their competition for supremacy of the high seas with the British and the Dutch, the Portuguese had an upper hand. They had full control over the Arabian Sea and thus all the vessels attempting to come to the Indian shores had to navigate through the blockade of the Portuguese naval armada. The Portuguese intended to control all trade between Europe and the Western Indian coast. To this extent they were largely successful in the sixteenth century.
However, smaller settlements along the coast like the port of Ullal, ably led by their rulers, did not obey the Portuguese laws and refused to pay the taxes imposed by the imperialists. In this effort they were also joined by the Maplah communities of Malabar and the Zamorin of Kozhikode. The effrontery of the Queen of Ullal, Rani Abbakka Devi infuriated and frustrated the Portuguese government headquartered in Goa.
Rani Abbakka Devi’s Reign
Rani Abbakka Devi II had been crowned as the Queen of Ullal by her uncle Thirumala Raya. They belonged to the Jain royal dynasty of the Chautas,** ruling their tiny kingdom but the family deity was from the Hindu temple at Somanatheshwara. Chauta rulers were one of the many small feudatory states in Tulu nadu that paid their allegiance to the rulers of Vijayanagara. The Chauta dynasty followed the matrilineal system, and the ruler Thirumala Raya had carefully prepared his niece both in art of diplomacy and the martial arts, in anticipation of her taking the reign of the kingdom. By the time she came to rule, she was well versed in fencing and cavalry combats. She had been taught the strategies and the nuances of warfare.
The peaceful kingdom was caught in the wave of the Portuguese colonization and commercial exploitation through hegemony in the region. The Portuguese ploy was to bargain for trade links as the initial step. Once control of trade is accomplished, conquest of land followed suit.
The Rani was fiercely independent and was a symbol of the patriotic fervor of her subjects. She refused to bargain with the Portuguese and prevented them from having any foothold in the region. Rani Abbakka Devi became a major thorn in the side of the Portuguese imperialistic design. She, in turn rallied her people in stubbornly opposing any Portuguese advances. She deservedly earned the sobriquet Rani Abhaya – the fearless queen.
The Chauta king Thirumala Raya astutely arranged an alliance of marriage between Abbakka Devi and Lakshmappa Banga-raja of the powerful Banga dynasty of Mangalore. This strengthening of the position of Queen Abbakka Devi foiled the calculations of the government at Goa. The export trade from the port of Ullal was revamped and expanded by the queen to such an extent that the Portuguese desire of control of the maritime trade was rattled.
A demand of payment of tribute by the Portuguese was promptly rejected by the Rani. She knew that any such payment would be construed as her succumbing to the Portuguese authority. The first battle at Ullal took place in the year 1556, under the command of Don Alvaro de Silveyra. When there was no clear winner, an uneasy truce was declared. The second battle took place two years later under the command of Louis De’ Mellow. The Portuguese had attacked with a larger force this time, and were able to ransack the settlement at Ullal. However, stiff resistance by the people with the aid of the Maplahs, the Arab Moors and the Zamorin of Kozhikode was too much for the Portuguese force. The battle plans were personally drawn by the queen, and her masterly diplomatic skills as well as the expertise in the warfare became the subject of folklore for centuries to come.
After a period of lull, the Portuguese were alarmed at the pace of expanded trade at the port of Ullal under the Rani, and resorted to harassing tactics again. First they passed a series of edicts against Ullal calling her alliance with the Zamorin of Kozhikode illegal, and her trade with Persia an unfriendly act. All commercial transactions could only be conducted solely through Portuguese intermediaries, who must be permitted to set up trade posts in the port of Ullal. Rani Abbakka Devi dismissed these rulings with contempt and with scorn.
The stunned Portuguese decided to bide for time. What could not be won on the battlefield, they knew could be won by treachery and larceny. Lakshmappa Arasa, the Banga king of Mangalore, Abbakka’s husband, was warned not to send any reinforcement to Ullal under the threat of burning his capital of Mangalore. His nephew, Kamaraya was secretly recruited to plot against his uncle, and usurp the throne at Mangalore. The conspiracy by his own nephew and the threat of a Portuguese invasion left Lakshmappa Banga-raja helpless and unable to aid his wife during the next offensive by the Portuguese. In 1567, when Abbakka Devi stopped paying tribute, there was another encounter with the rani, in which she was defeated and sued for peace. Yet, Abbakka remained a non-conformist and a rebel, which irritated the Portuguese to no end.
Viceroy of Goa, Anthony D’Noronha led 3000 strong troops and several battleships against Ullal with designs of overthrowing the queen and annexing the port. The surprise pre-dawn attack, in the year 1581, caught Abbakka Devi off guard. She was returning from a trip to the family temple at Somanatheshwara but wasted no time in donning her battle garments and mounting her horse to fight the aggressors. Her clarion call was to defeat the invaders and push them back to sea. “Let us fight them on land and the sea, on the streets and the beaches” was her battle cry, as she faced the enemy in fierce counter offensive. Unfortunately, she was wounded in a barrage of gunfire and was whisked away by her loyal soldiers to a secluded place. The Portuguese searched in vain for the wounded Queen. Until the end, she was encouraging her soldiers and asking them never to give up the fight for their motherland.
The Portuguese records are the primary source of our information, which certainly could be biased in an attempt to glorify the battles fought by their own commanders.
The dates of the above battles have become a matter of speculation. In the true Indian tradition, history was not written down contemporaneously or if written it has been lost. When history is passed down as oral tradition, much is lost. Even the dates of the battles are uncertain. The rani was said to have ruled for fifty-four years, according to one account, which makes her the ruler of Ullal from 1544 to 1598. This certainly puts the last battle with the Portuguese not in 1581 but much later.
Ganapati Rao Aigal in his account of the local history (Dakshina Kannada Jilleya Prachina Itihasa, published in 1928) was able to reconstruct in some detail the genealogy of Chauta rulers. Thirumala Raya III ruled from 1510 to 1544 and Abbakka Devi II from 1544 to 1582. She was followed by a Thirumala Devi from 1582 to 1606. There was also one queen Abbakka Devi preceding the Rani and one followed her later. The genealogy of the Banga kings of Mangalore shows that Lakshmappa Banga-raja II was ruled from 1545 to 1556. His nephew, Kamaraya III, was in power from 1556 to 1612.
Similarity in some of the names of the rulers and the fact that they followed a matrilineal system might have contributed to the confusion. It is not clear from the historical accounts whether Rani Abbakka Devi died in 1582 or in 1598. It is possible that two rulers of similar names followed each other and this has led to the historical quandary.
The local legend also says that Rani Abbakka Devi was estranged from her husband, Lakshmappa Banga, who was said to have colluded with the Portuguese and fought against his wife. It is more probable that it was the nephew of her husband, Kamaraya III, who had fought against the queen. The sedition of Kamaraya III against his uncle had been supported by the Portuguese. Consequently he was able to supplant the king and rule Mangalore during the period when Abbakka Devi was opposing the Portuguese advances.
The Portuguese account (where the queen is referred to as Buca Devi Chauta) also supplies us with details about a surprise attack by Abbakka Devi on the Portuguese garrison at night in Mangalore. The Portuguese suffered many casualties in this bold attack by the Rani’s forces. She fled the next day when the city was set on fire by the Portuguese.
There is little doubt that Queen Abbakka Devi was a hindrance to the grand designs of the Portuguese. The fact that she survived so many years and maintained her power despite the superior military and naval power of the Portuguese speaks volumes. Sadly, there are no fitting eulogies written for this obscure Queen of history. There are no effulgent, splendid stories about the bold and courageous actions of Rani Abbakka Devi in defense of her freedom and motherland. In the eyes of history Rani Abbakka Devi is largely forgotten.
Pietro Delavale’s account
An Italian tourist Pietro Delavale, who visited Mangalore towards the end of the 16th century, has provided comprehensive details about Rani Abbakka Devi, after a chance rendezvous with her.
Pietro Delavale was impressed by the authority imposed by the queen, though he did not have kind words as to her countenance or stature. He was perplexed how a simple, somewhat obese, yet attractive woman, walking barefoot had been the talk of all Europe, where she was a cult figure. He wrote:
“Alighting from the canoe, I was walking along the bazaar in search of a house where I could spend the night, whereupon I virtually stumbled upon the queen quite inadvertently, so to speak. I saw her coming in my direction from the opposite side. Barring a couple of soldiers, perhaps as escorts, there were no women accompanying her. The soldiers were marching in front of her. They had put on clothes sparingly as was customary here. A piece of cloth round the waist and another over the shoulder running across the body and knotted at the other end. They had sword and armour in their hands. A few were marching behind the queen as well. One of them was holding an umbrella (called thrathra in Tulu), made of pinnate fronds of palm tree, over the queen.
She was dark complexioned. She was obese yet agile. Her steps were measured and quick. She must have been around forty. She had worn a dull white sari. She had no sandals on because Indian women of gentile birth usually remain bare footed, be it indoors or outdoors. And men follow suit. Only some wealthy people use footwear. Save for a piece of garment worn round the head and one hanging down her arms and breast, above the waist, the queen did not have any other embellishments on her person.
I wondered if this was the woman who was eulogised and made a cult figure all over Europe overnight for having made Portugal bite the dust by decimating its troops with a vengeance. Whatever her appearance, she was all dignity and aplomb in her bearing. Her words were soft and balmy. It looked as though she had a clear-cut vision and a well-defined purpose. And I feel the way she covered her face at times during interlocution represented the politeness and geniality of the Orientals. It would be wrong if I do not add that though a bit fat, she never looked ugly. She must have been beautiful in her youth. Her sober and nonchalant elegance has earned her the nick name `tough woman”.
Bhatt, Prof. P Gururaja. Studies in Tuluva History and Culture: Manipal Power Press, 1975
Dharma Raja M. K. Abbakka Devi: Warrior Queen of Karnataka. India Perspectives, October 2004.
Udayavani: First Look at Karnataka.
* Ullal is well known for its beaches. The Somanatheswara temple still stands and the ruins of the fort of Rani Abbakka Devi are seen near by. On the 15th of January, 2003, the Government of India issued a special first day cover honoring the queen.
** Several small feudatory states ruled portions of Tulu nadu (in the wake of demise of the Alupa dynasty that had ruled it for more than one thousand years), when the region became part of Vijayanagara Empire. Governors appointed by the Vijayanagara kings had overall authority. There were two governors appointed usually for a period of three to five years, one each in Mangalore and Barkur. Chautas of Ullal, Bangas of Bangavadi, Tolahs of Suralu, Bhairarasa Odyeyas of Karkala, Ajilas of Venuru, and Savantas of Mulki were some of the more prominent ruling dynasties of Tulu nadu. After the fall of Vijayanagara Empire, the feudatory states continued to serve under the Keladi Nayaks of Ikkeri, until the 18th century, when Haider Ali came to power in 1763.