MALABAR, AN INTRODUCTION:
Malabar lies along the southwest coast of the Indian peninsula and falls within the state of Kerala and. It lies between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. Its name is believed to an amalgamated derivation between the Malayalam word Mala meaning Hill and the Persian (or Arabic) words Barr (Kingdom/port/continent). The name Malabar also has connotations to mean the hill country, a name well suited to its physical characteristics. Malabar is also used by ecologists to refer to the tropical moist forests of southwestern India. It is one of the oldest inhabited areas of Asia and the ancestors of today’s population have inhabited the region for centuries. This region formed part of the ancient kingdom of the Cheras for centuries. It was absorbed as a part of the Great Hindu Empire, The Vijayanagara or the city of Victory in the 15th Century. The capital of the empire was located at Hampi. Under the combined onslaught of its rival Muslim armies, Vijayanagara fell after the battle of Talikota in 1565. The destruction of the kingdom resulted in the emergence of local, yet powerful rulers. Considering its historical importance and prosperous spice trade, the region was coveted by the local rulers as well as the colonialists. Earlier dominated by the Portuguese followed by the Dutch and subsequently the English, this was a region to die for! The region finally came under British rule in the 18th century, during and after the Anglo-Mysore Wars.
Today’s Malabar region predominantly comprises of the districts of Kannur, Kozhikode, Kasaragode, Wayanad etc. In keeping with its military past, the region comprises of many forts. There are mainly five standing forts in and around the Region-the St. Angelo’s Fort, Thalassery Fort, the Bekal Fort, Chandragiri Fort and the Hosdurg Fort. This article is the first of the series and will explore the St. Angelo’s Fort or the Kannur Kotta (Kotta in Malayalam means Fort).
St. Angelo’s Fort (also known as Kannur Fort or Kannur Kota), is a fort facing the Arabian Sea, situated 3 km from the town of Kannur. Kannur located in the green & beautiful state of Kerala in India. It has always been a political nerve centre. This characteristic of the place is maintained even today-it is still the hotbed of local politics. Considering its association with the lucrative spice trade, it was also the playground of colonialists like the Portuguese, Dutch & English. As is well known, architecture can convey many perceptions including that of strength. The forts were predominantly meant to store spices and other items for trade, offer safety to colonial officers and also at times a prison for political detainees. The forts primarily conveyed to the local populace a sense of its occupant’s invincibility. Their importance is such that they are imprinted in the psyche of the inhabitants.
St. Angelo’s Fort was built in 1505 by Dom Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese Viceroy of India and is on the Arabian Sea about 3 km west from Kannur town in Northern Kerala. It is a massive triangular laterite fort and characterized by flanking bastions and has a moat to protect it from aggressions. It has a sea wall projecting from the fort separating the rough sea and inland water. From the fort one can have a breathtaking and fascinating view of the Dharmadom Island and a natural fishing bay called the Mappila Bay Harbour. The Dharmadom Island is a small one occupying 5 acres in total area and is situated about 100 meters from the mainland in the Arabian Sea and the Mappila Bay is a natural fishing bay that is being turned into a modern fishing harbour. The only Muslim Dynasty of Kerala-The Arakkal family ruled from nearby location. As a reminder of its past, the Arakkal Mosque and its erstwhile palace are located nearby.
A seashore fort, it appears to be etched against the blue skylines and is a beautiful sight especially in the early mornings and sunset. Needless to say it’s a photographer’s delight. Its Imposing walls have remained an Icon of Portuguese power on the Malabar Coast. Surprisingly, despite the typical Indian disdain for history and its remnants, this fort has been well maintained. One of the dominant characteristics of this fort is its large field guns pointing out menacingly from the bastions. This fort symbolizes dominance and power. It is one of the most frequented politico-commercial structures.
Adding to its mysterious aura is its chequered history. It changed hands many times over. On August 1509 Almeida refused to accept the appointment of Afonso de Albuquerque’s as the new Portuguese governor. Desperate to continue as the boss of what he considered “the gains of his hard work”; he went to war with Albuquerque in what is today known as the naval Battle of Diu. After defeating his fleet Almeida arrested Albuquerque and imprisoned him in this fortress. He obtained his freedom only after three months of confinement, after the arrival of a larger fleet from Portugal in October 1509. After the mutiny was suppressed, Albuquerque went on to be the governor.
In 1663, the fort was captured by the Dutch from the Portuguese. They sold it to Ali Raja (Belonging to the Arakkal Dynasty) of Kannur. After the ascend of the British in Kerala, they aspired to control the fort that had by this time become the locus of power in the Malabar Coast. In 1790, the British seized control of the fort. Understanding its strategic importance as well as its place in the minds of the local populace, they renovated & strengthened it and transformed it as their most important military station in Malabar. According to lore, the British connected the St. Angelo’s fort to the Thalassery Fort through a secret underground tunnel. There could be some truth in it. Thalassery fort was the first place from where the British started their “trade”. Thalassery fort is also located at a distance from the St. Angelo’s fort and such a tunnel would have come in handy in case of an attack at either of these locations. As a reminder of its glorious past, the barracks, the magazine, and its cannons are still intact in the fort. A painting of this fort and the fishing harbour behind it can be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
After India’s independence from the British in 1947, Kannur continued to be considered strategically important. The fort continued to be a symbol of military power and falls within the Kannur cantonment where the Indian Military has a significant presence. The spirits of the past still echoes within the walls of this fort and continues to enthrall its visitors. One of them is a policeman called Sathyan Edakkad. He has spent most of his life in and around the fort and is a walking encyclopedia for the fort and its legends. He went on to write and publish a book in Malayalam language “Vasco da Gamayum, Charitrathile Kaanapurangalum” (loosely translated as Vasco da Gama and the unseen pages of history). Visit it to believe it. But before you go, read a bit about Kannur’s turbulent history. Only then would one be able to understand its importance.