What was Calicut like before the Zamorins established thier rule in the 12th century? We have only folklore masquerading as history to rely upon. Keralolpatti and Keralamahatmyam are thinly disguised attempts to portray Brahmin supremacy over the ruling classes founded on the adventures of the ubiquitous Parashurama.
Sifting history from folklore is a formidable task. Prof. MGS Narayanan is categorical that ‘There was no city of Calicut (Kalikooth of the Arabs, Kallikkottai of the Tamils and Kozhikkode of the Malayalees) before the 12th century of the Christian era. There was no harbour or trade centre.’ (page 58, Calicut: The City of Truth Revisited, 2006) If we accept this proposition, we have to assume that either Porlathiris, the rulers of these parts before Zamorin annexed Calicut, during their last days or Zamorins themselves after their conquest of Calicut must have developed Calicut as a port and trading centre.
When did Calicut develop as a major trading centre, visited by merchants from faraway places? From the above statement, it must have been during the 12th century. But, we find references to Malabar in general and Calicut in particular during the same period suggesting that it must have already been a developed port. For instance, Marco Polo visited Kerala in 1293-94 and refers to Calicut as the ‘Kingdom of Melibar’, second only to the Kingdom of Eli (Ezhimala). ‘There is in this Kingdom a great quantity of pepper and ginger and cinnamon and turbit (the pigeon rearing of Kundungal and Kuttichira must have been quite an ancient hobby!) and nuts of India. They also manufacture very delicate and beautiful buckrams. (Buckram during Polo’s days was not the stiff cloth known today but fine cotton cloth – what was Calico called before Calicut was founded??) The ships that come from the east bring copper as ballast. They also have cloves and spikenard and other fine spices, for which there is a demand here for the products of these countries.’ There is no mention of Zamorin yet. The first such recorded mention is in the travel accounts of the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Batuta (1342-45) who stated unequivocally: ‘The Sultan of Calicut is an idolator known as the Samuri’.
We know that the last Perumal was Rama Kulashekhara (1089-1102). Therefore, the partition or dismemberment of the country must have happened after 1102. But, did the Eradis of Nediyiruppu re-invent themselves as Zamorin soon after becoming independent? Evidence does not support this contention. For, in the stone inscription dated 1102 discovered in Quilon (deciphered by MGS) there is a reference to Manavikrama, the Governor of Eranad. Again, in the grant of the Veera Raghava Chakravarti ( 1225 AD), the Chief of Eranad is referred to as Eranad Udayavar. We may, therefore, presume that the movement of the Eranad
Prince north to Calicut and his conquest (by deceit?) of the Porlathiri must have taken place much later, perhaps in the second half of the 13th century.
How do we reconcile this with the tradition that before Manichan and Vikkiran inherited the land, the present day Calicut was a marshy patch with possibly some salt pans? And the statement quoted above that there was no Calicut before the 12th century? Although Marco Polo did not refer to the buckram cloth as Calico, it is known that the 11th Century Jain scholar from Gujarat, Hemchandra had referred to Calico in his writings. Could there be Calico without Calicut? If Calicut was unknown before the 12th century, why did all the Arab travellers make a bee-line for this place, if all it had was some salt pans and thorny bushes. How did the 9th Century Persian geographer Ibn Khordadbeh (820-912 AD) who was working as the Director of Posts and Police, know of this place and why did he write about it? What about the Arab traders who had settled here and had fathered children by local women?
We are yet to find out answers to these and many more questions. Recently a new window was opened to Malabar’s history during this period by the erudite presentation before a select audience of Calicut Heritage Forum (full report and the presentation may be seen at the CHF site http://calicutheritageforum.googlepages.com/meeting923 ) by Ullattil Manmadhan, known to history buffs as Maddy (http://historicalleys.blogspot.com) . In short, Maddy spoke of the story of a Jewish entrepreneur, Abraham Yiju who had not only set up an industry in the Malabar coast in 1120 AD but had even married a local girl. The new findings came from deciphering the Geniza fragments(http://www.genizah.org) are still being studied by historians in Cambridge and Princeton. The industry was utensil manufacture and the market was Egypt and from there to Rome. Calicut and surrounding areas must have been a vibrant manufacturing and trading centre even much earlier than now thought of. The testimony of Marco Polo that copper was being used as ballast in the ships arriving from the east corroborates the fact that metal forging and smithy must have been a major industrial activity in and around Calicut.
There is urgent need for the academic community to take the lead opened up by the Geniza documents and research on the antiquity of Calicut and its status as an industrial and trading centre before the 12th Century. It is time we moved on beyond pseudo history like Keralolppaththi!