“She could ride a horse, fight with a sword and was a seasoned diplomat. She also had bloody battles with the Portuguese and was the last person to use agnivanas or arrows tipped with fire”
Chowtas were the Jain Kings who had migrated from Gujarat in 12th Century to Tulu Nadu, a province consisting of present-day Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, portions of Udupi and Kasaragod district in Kerala. Ullal was the capital of the Chowta king Thirumala Raya III.
As the Chowtas were a matrilineal dynasty, the king’s heir was his young niece, Abbakka. The fiercely independent princess had been trained in sword fighting, archery, cavalry, military strategy, diplomacy and all other subjects of statecraft from a very young age.
Before his death, Thirumala Raya III had arranged a strategic marriage alliance for Abbakka with Lakshmappa Bangaraja, the ruler of Mangalore. As the ruler of Ullal, Rani Abbakka continued to live in her own home even after marriage and the couple’s three children stayed with her. However, the marriage broke down when Bangaraja compromised with the Portuguese.
Since the 7th century, maritime trade (in spices, textiles, war horses, etc.) had flourished between the communities of India’s western coast and the Arabian Peninsula. With an eye on this lucrative trade, several European powers had been trying to discover the sea route to India. The Portuguese finally became the first Europeans to find a sea route to India when Vasco Da Gama reached Calicut in 1498 after a long voyage.
Five years later, the Portuguese built their first fort at Cochin. This was followed by the establishment of a ring of forts in the Indian Ocean region – in India, Muscat, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, even as far as Macau in China. This, along with its superior naval technology, put the control of all the spice routes to India into the hands of the Portuguese within twenty years of Da Gama’s historic voyage. For the whole of the 16th century, Portuguese dominance in the region remains unchallenged by any other European power (the Dutch, the French and the British reached India only at the start of the 17th century).
Trading in the Indian Ocean, which had hitherto been a free trade zone for Indian, Arab, Persian and African ships, now required a paid permit from the Portuguese. The naval superiority of the Portuguese meant that they invariably won against local rulers who rebelled.
In 1526, the Portuguese captured the Mangalore port. Their next target was Ullal, a thriving port town that lay nestled between the verdant peaks of the Western Ghats and the cerulean blue waters of the Arabian Sea.
With an eye on Ullal’s trade (that had flourished under the Queen’s able leadership), the Portuguese had been trying to exact tributes and taxes from Rani Abbakka. Incensed and exasperated at the unfair demands, she refused to accede to the Portuguese demands. Her ships continued to trade with the Arabs despite attacks by the Portuguese. From Mogaveeras and Billava archers to Mappilah oars men, people of all castes and religions found a place in her army and navy.
Infuriated by her effrontery, the Portuguese began attacking Ullal repeatedly. The first battle took place in the year 1556, with the Portuguese fleet being commanded by Admiral Don Alvaro de Silveira, and ended in an uneasy truce.
Two years later, the Portuguese attacked with a larger force and were able to ransack the settlement at Ullal to some extent. However, Rani Abbakka’s masterful battle tactics and diplomatic strategy (she collaborated with Arab Moors and Zamorin of Kozhikode) pushed them back once again.
During the next battle, the Portuguese army under General Joao Peixoto attacked Ullal and managed to capture the royal palace. However, Rani Abbakka escaped before they could capture her.
Along with 200 loyal soldiers, she raided the Portuguese in the dead of night and killed the general along with 70 of his soldiers. Frightened by the ferocity of the attack, the remaining Portuguese troops fled to their ships
By this time, the Portuguese had become alarmed about Rani Abbakka’s growing reputation inspiring other rulers. When repeated frontal attacks didn’t work, they resorted to treachery. A series of edicts were passed to make any alliance with the defiant queen illegal. Her husband, Bangaraja of Mangalore, was also warned against sending any aid to Ullal under the threat of burning his capital.
Yet, Rani Abbakka continued to dismiss these rulings with contempt and scorn. The stunned Portuguese now decided to send Anthony D’ Noronha (the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa) to attack Ullal. In 1581, 3,000 Portuguese troops supported by an armada of battleships attacked Ullal in a surprise pre-dawn attack.
Rani Abbakka was returning from a visit to her family temple and was caught off guard but she immediately mounted her horse and rode into the battle, leading her troops in a fierce counter-offensive.
Her piercing battle cry – “Save the motherland. Fight them on land and the sea. Fight them on the streets and the beaches. Push them back to the waters”, echoed through winds as she and her soldiers fired flaming arrows at the Portuguese ships.
While many of the ships in the Portuguese armada burnt that night, Rani Abbakka was wounded in the crossfire and was captured by the enemy with the help of a few bribed chieftains. Rebellious till the very end, the fearless queen breathed her last in captivity. However, her legacy lived on through her equally fierce and brave daughters who continued to defend Tulu Nadu from the Portuguese.
She was an immensely popular queen and even today she is a part of folklore. Her story has been retold generation to generation through folk songs, folk theatres and local ritual dances.