The kingdom of Chowta had been blessed with an heir. They were trained, from birth, to be proficient in battle with the sword, and equipped with the strategic knowledge to commandeer fleets of cavalry and infantrymen. This was apart from their knowledge in statecraft, an understanding of how the politics of monarchy in sixteenth century India worked, as well as the ability to orchestrate attacks on other regions with unparalleled brilliance. Before their father’s death, a marital tie was set up with a nearby kingdom, with the intention of forging a strategic alliance, because the heir of the Chowta kingdom anticipated the threat the Portuguese were to the Indian region, and was positioned to resist this force with all the knowledge they had amassed.
I will come back to this story.
Our history books, I seem to recall with graceful ease, speak of the super ambitious merchant Vasco Da Gama, who arrived at the Indian peninsula in the year 1498, to engage in trade with one of the world’s wealthiest regions. This statement has been driven into us so many times that I did not even have to google it to fact-check. But what our history books do not speak of as lucidly and as repetitively as the previous statement, is the woman whose portrait this article is trying to paint.
Yes, you heard that right. The story from the first paragraph is about a woman, a name among the many others found littered across our textbooks, names that appear in chapters discussing India’s resistance to imperial rule. Unfortunately, these stories are not well known enough to be common knowledge, and this issue of Eyra, we spotlight some incredibly powerful warriors, standing at the pinnacle of greatness, one of whom is the subject of this article, Rani Abbakka.
The marital alliance was with Lakshmappa Bangaraja, who was then the ruler of Mangalore, a cowardly prince who was coerced by imperial forces to side against his own wife, which inevitably resulted in the breakdown of the marriage. This difference in opinion, hers to fight, and his to secede, was what sowed discord in their relationship, and it is said that the Rani sent her marital jewellery back to the Prince, which could be interpreted as an act of divorce, coming from a region where the concept did not exist. Nevertheless, Rani Abbakka had always been staying in her own kingdom, where she was queen (the Chowtas being a matrilineal dynasty – which was not exactly matriarchal, but the laws of inheritance pass down property from woman to woman instead of man to man), along with her three children who lived in the capital city of Ullal.
The queen is said to have dressed as a commoner, and coexisted with her people just as any other citizen. Furthermore, the Chowta kingdom was communally diverse, composed of people from different religions and social backgrounds, who all coexisted in the region. While the Rani herself, and her clan, were Jains, her army was made up of myriad communities and sects.
The Portuguese arrived, announcing trade in spices, which the Rani said no to; she refused to pay the royalties the imperialists asked of her – this resulted in the Portuguese attacking her ships, but nothing they did would make her bend her knee. Ullal was attacked in 1556 where she managed to hold them off, and then in 1558, when the Portuguese took control of the palace, forcing the Rani to escape to a mosque where she rallied her soldiers. The invaders were besieged in the dead of the night by 200 soldiers, who took out the man in charge, and later went after the invaders as they scurried back to their ships, where she was quick to follow and kill the admiral, Mascarenhas.
Lakshmappa Bangaraja was in a position to predict her strategies, and after a long period of the colonialists being unsuccessful in getting her to succumb, had to soon deal with other nations being inspired by her fierce independence. This was not done, and they signed a treaty with the cowardly ex-husband to curb her, and in 1581, Rani Abbakka was caught off guard by a surprise attack by 3000 men of the Portuguese naval fleet, early in the morning, before dawn. Various historical sources pinpoint that the Rani was returning from a temple visit, and almost immediately found her steed and rode into battle. Her rallying cry has seeped into legend:
‘Save the Motherland. Fight them on land and the sea. Fight them on the streets and the beaches. Push them back to the waters.‘
Rani Abbakka was to meet her end during this battle, the battle also being one of the more historical moments when the agnivana weapon, the fire arrow, was used against an enemy. She was captured by the Portuguese and then died in captivity when she refused to submit to her captors.
But this was not the end of the kingdom. Her daughters took it upon themselves to continue fighting their mother’s battle, and soon enough, her name found its way into folklore. Historical accounts refer to her daughters by their mother’s own name, and this has put folklore and history in a position where the Rani is seen as having lived on for over two centuries. The queen’s name has only been recently honoured in the form of a postal stamp, a statue in Bangalore, as well as in the form of a documentary by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.
Rani Abbakka Mahadevi Chowta, rest in power.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*