The Lakshadweep islands, off the coast Kerala in India, have always been a stopping point for seafarers, explorers and pirates. Rich in fine coir, which was extremely valuable for its use on ships and galleons back in the day, the islands were extremely vulnerable to plunder.
But one incident stands out for its savage nature, a massacre of the defenceless islanders by the colonial Portuguese in the 16th century. This mass killing and the local heroes who put up a courageous fight in this losing battle live on in the islanders’ folklore. It is also enshrined in a mosque on one of the islands, called Pambu Palli or the ‘Serpent Mosque’.
The Lakshadweep archipelago, located off the west coast of India in the Arabian Sea, is made up of 39 islands and islets, of which only ten are inhabited. It is the island of Amindivi or Amini Island that is home to the legend of Pambu Palli, a tale that dates back to the 16th century CE.
This was a time when the Portuguese were busy capturing territory in the Malabar, Cochin and Goa, to monopolize the lucrative pepper trade and safeguard it with powerful ships and artillery.
Of particular interest to them was the coir produced on the islands as it was ideal for rigging and repairing Portuguese caravels or ships. Cowries, small shells used as currency, were also of interest.
Trouble started when the Portuguese declared that the Laccadive Islands (they were renamed Lakshadweep in the 1970s) were part of the dominions of the Portuguese King and ordered the administrators (the Mammalis) at Cannanore in the Malabar, who were under the Cannanore royals, to stop trading and hand them over. The islanders could continue to use the islands to trade only if they paid large tributes to the colonial power.
After some years, the royals ceded the islands to the Portuguese, who then built a fort on the west coast of Amini, brought in a few soldiers to administer the islands of Amini, Chetlat and Kavaratti, and levied huge duties on all rice imported from Malabar, with which they procured all the coir they needed.
A Saviour Is Found
The legend of the ‘serpent mosque’ owes its origin to this oppressive period and it is at this point that the boundaries between fact and legend begin to blur.
When the islanders repeatedly pressed the Cannanore (Kolathiri) Raja to help then, he deputed an emissary of sorts who hailed from Purakkad (near Alleppey in Kerala). He was a wily strategist, nicknamed ‘Kadanthavanjiraka’ or ‘Kathiltanjakkaran’ (man with holes in his ears) to go to Amini and find a solution.
After obtaining a large retainer from the king, he purchased large amounts of cloth, food, country liquor and what not, all meant to appease the Portuguese. He loaded the goods onto a ship or odam, and sailed to Amini Island.
As the boat approached the shore, he ordered his men to empty all their fresh water tanks, then steered to the east coast of Amini, and cast anchor. The Portuguese guards rushed to the odam and demanded to know why the Cannanore ship had arrived without permission. The Purakkad captain explained that they had been cast away by unfavorable winds, and after floundering for days, had drifted towards these shores, with water supplies running perilously low.
The Portuguese boarding party, seeing that the ship was loaded with stuff they were craving for, took the captain to their station chief. Ever so polite, the Purakkad man with the holes in his ears asked the hot and sweaty Portuguese chief if he could allow them to fill their water tanks so they could leave the islands, pronto.
The Portuguese chief slyly suggested that the man with the holes in his ears could get his water but that he should sell a large portion of the supplies to replenish the Portuguese camp. That was precisely the response our man had hoped for! He grumbled and said he could do that, but that his original customers would be unhappy. After making a show of it, he agreed and the Portuguese cordoned off an area where the cargo could be unloaded and stored.
A Devilish Plot
In a celebratory mood, our man from Purakkad then threw a lavish party for the Portuguese, who had been so kind to him. Everyone was invited, a large spread was laid out, and glasses were filled with copious amounts of arrack or country liquor. The Portuguese were thrilled. They had not seen this kind of lavishness for ages!
Unbeknownst to them, the wily schemer had mixed poison in the arrack. Hours later, the entire Portuguese garrison was dead. It is said that the poison was snake venom. The Purakkad captain jubilantly sailed back to Cannanore and the king, who was very pleased, gave him a large reward. He was awarded land on the island and was made the king’s agent there.
Naturally, this invited quick and violent retribution from the Portuguese in the nearby islands, who arrived and massacred over 400-600 Amini and Chetlat Islanders including the Qazi, Abu-Bakr, and a pious woman named Omanapoo, who led the islanders’ resistance with just sticks and stones. The mass killing is believed to have taken place in 1549 CE.
The retaliation is corroborated by the medieval cleric from Malabar, Zaynuddin Makhdum, who penned the famed Tuhfat ul Mujahideen, the first historical work on the Malabar authored by someone from the region. William Logan and R H Ellis, British collectors at Malabar, who visited the islands during the caste riots and on other occasions, also mention the legend in their accounts.
This legend was commemorated by the islanders who built the Pambu Palli (‘Serpent Mosque’ in Malayalam) at the pambu parambu (snake fields), where the poison is said to have been prepared hours before the banquet.
Some accounts state that the islanders eventually struck a compromise with the Portuguese, with each principal family paying them 750 quintals of coir annually, delivered to their Cochin factory. Eventually, the Portuguese interest in these islands diminished. Folk songs mentioning the massacre and honouring the Qazi continue to be sung in the islands, to this day.
The islands, now under the control of the Adi Raja of Cannanore, continued to be attacked and looted, with the powerless Adi Rajas offering no protection. During the 17th and 18th centuries, English, French and Irish corsairs and pirates, including the infamous William Kidd, descended on the Laccadives, where they treated the islands with extreme savagery. Stories of the bravery of kidnapped women such as Poova and Sanam Kadiya are still narrated in folk songs.
The islands were traded again, becoming the property of Mysore ruler, Tipu Sultan (r. 1782-1799) and later the East India Company, after which they passed to the British Crown. After India’s independence in 1947, the islands became a part of the Indian Union. In 1956, when the states were reorganized, the islets and atolls of Laccadives and Minicoy collectively formed the Union Territory of Lakshadweep.
The Pambu Palli at Pambu Parambu thus remains a silent symbol of that defiant moment in the islanders’ history, when their abject retaliation resulted in the martyrdom of many. Even today, dignitaries make it a point to visit Amini, where a defenceless lot led by a crafty strategist, a defiant Qazi and a brave woman fought a losing battle against Portuguese colonists.
Ullattil Manmadhan, or just Maddy, is a history enthusiast who writes about the history of Malabar and Kerala on his blogs, Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys.
Cover Photo: Amini Island, courtesy Lakshadweep Identity
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