Rani Abbakka Chowta: The Tulu queen of Karnataka who took on the Portuguese
During Rani Abbakka’s era, the region in Karnataka’s Mangalore, which is now marked by communal divisions, was famous for its communal harmony.

Rani Abbakka Chowta: The Tulu queen of Karnataka who took on the Portuguese

The extraordinary story of Rani Abbakka Chowta, the fearless queen from Karnataka’s Tuluva region, who defied the Portuguese and united Muslims and women to protect her kingdom

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Rani Abbakka Chowta (Queen Abbakka), a Jain queen, was the first Tuluva belonging to the Ullal province, the Tulu-speaking area of the Karnataka coast, Mangalore. She represented the Chowta dynasty which ruled Tulu Nadu, a region characterised by matrilineal dynasty.

During Rani Abbakka’s era, the region, which is now marked by communal divisions, was famous for its communal harmony. Muslims and fishermen were her soldiers, who fought against the Portuguese in the 16th century when they seized control of the Mangalore port. Amidst a backdrop of communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims, she rallied both religious groups under her leadership to resist the Portuguese.

The Tulu queen is regarded as the first female freedom fighter (1525-1570), alongside other notable southern queens like Queen Chennabhairadevi of Gerusoppa, who ruled her province from 1552 to 1606, and Kitturu Chennamma (1778-1829). Abbakka not only thwarted the Portuguese army, but also demonstrated her ability to unite people of diverse faiths against the Portuguese armed forces.

Mounting the attack from mosque

The queen belonged to the Chauta clan from the region of Mudbidri, the city of temples in between the coast and the Western Ghat area. Although Puttige was the capital, the port city of Ullal was the sub-capital. Ullal was a prosperous port that was part of the Mangalore port during that era, serving as a centre for the spice trade with Arabia, and other countries to the west.

As it was a lucrative trading centre, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British vied with each other for the control of the region’s trade routes. However, the resistance of the local chiefs was so strong that they could not advance further. Abbakka’s rule was well-represented by local leaders, including Jains, Hindus and Muslims in alliance across all caste and religious lines.

In 1503, five years after Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route from Europe to India in 1498, the Portuguese first established a settlement port at Cochin, Kerala. After Goa, he had an eye on Ullal (Mangalore region) for business supplies. The Portuguese commander Admiral Don Alvaro de Silvia came via Goa in 1525 and captured Mangalore port. Later, they attacked the South Canara coast and destroyed the port of Mangalore.

In 1557, the Portuguese managed to capture the city of Ullal and also entered the royal court. Abbakka Rani escaped and took refuge in a mosque. The same night, she gathered around 200 of her Muslim soldiers and mounted an attack on the Portuguese. In the battle that ensued, General Peixoto was killed, 70 Portuguese soldiers were taken prisoners and many of the Portuguese retreated. In further attacks, Abbakka Rani and her supporters killed Admiral Mascarenhas and forced the Portuguese to vacate the Mangalore fort.

How Abbakka was isolated

Rani Abbakka Chauta ruled a kingdom consisting mainly of Hindus and Muslims. Although she was a Jain, her cadre of administrators included both Muslims and Hindus and her army was unique in its diversity. Mogaveeras (fishermen) and Muslims — locally they are called Byaris, with their language of mixed Tulu and Malayali — were her most powerful asset as they helped her in her naval battles with the Portuguese. “During her rule, people of all castes and religions lived in harmony in the Ullal state and became a model for harmony,” said Mahendra Nath, a researcher in Mangalore University.

The Portuguese were plotting to conquer the coast which was rich in spices, valuable gold and silver. Abbakka, who refused to pay trade tax to the Portuguese every time, became a big headache for the Portuguese and they were determined to defeat Rani Abaakka somehow. They used Abbakka’s husband as a weapon. When her husband allied with the Portuguese in an attempt to betray her, Abbakka resolutely held onto her convictions.

“Rani Abbakkaa noticed that the Portuguese army, comprising 2,000 soldiers, was encamped near the Mangalore Sea. Immediately, she gathered the natives of Ullal, including Muslims, Mogaveeras, Bunts, Billavas and Kulals, etc., and marched in teams of boats with coconut feather torches under the hood. In the middle of the night, a fleet of six Portuguese ships found themselves suddenly engulfed in a rain of blazing fire torches, accompanied by the resounding chant of ‘Jai Somnath’. (Ullal is famous for Somnath Temple, and Abbakka would worship there),” said Professor Na Da Shetty of Mangalore.

According to some historians, Abbakka won the wars with the Portuguese in 1555, 1557, and 1567. In 1568, she was defeated, but in 1570, she won the battle with the help of Poker Marakkar of Kerala and the Sultan of Bijapur. The sultan quickly returned after winning. Marakkar was killed while he was returning to Kerala and after a few days, efforts were made to isolate Abbakka and withhold assistance from her.

Her women battalion

Abbakka knew the strength of the Portuguese army. After she noticed the women of the Coastal region, which is known for agriculture, carrying a bent sword, used for cutting the paddy grass, in their hands, the queen instructed all the women in her kingdom to practise war with swords to fight enemies. By tying a rope to that sword and twisting it violently, the army was trained to make the enemy go away. That team was named her “Ponnule pade” (Women Battalion). She won a few battles with the help of the women’s team.

Towards the end of 1581, the Portuguese attacked Ullal with about 2,000 soldiers, cut down the forest there and burnt it down. In the next battle at Ullal, Abbakka and her army were outmatched by the Portuguese. But the Portuguese army, which had come with heavy preparations, wreaked a lot of damage on Ullal. Finally, she had to give up. Abbakka Devi, who was wounded in the battlefield, died in 1582 AD. A tall statue of Abbakka has been erected in Ullal so that her struggle can inspire people.

Bronze statues of Rani Abbakka Chowta have been installed in both Ullal and Bangalore and she now lives on as a wonderful memory and legend in South Karnataka in the form of folk songs, and “Yakshagana” performances of local theatre. In Ullal, there is an annual celebration in which the brave and distinguished women of the past year are given an award in her name. The Indian Navy has also named a coastal patrol vessel in her honour.

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