In 2009, the Indian Coast Guard launched ICGS Rani Abbakka, a first in a series of five Inshore Patrol Vessels (IPVs) at Vishakapatnam . The launch was historic, because it commemorated the bravery of a queen, about whom few across India had even heard of. Queen Abbakka, a Jain by birth built a reputation for herself as the ‘Warrior Queen of Ullal. From her seat of power on the coast of Karnataka, she valiantly fought and resisted Portuguese attacks in the 16th century. She is still a hero in Ullal, a small town just 14 kms from Mangalore (Mangaluru) city.
Sadly the lack of historic records makes the story of Queen Abbakka very difficult to trace. In fact, there were four different queens by the name of Abbakka who ruled Ullal and resisted Portuguese advances. However, it is Queen Abbakka II (1544 CE – 1582 CE) who is immortalized as the great warrior queen.
The maritime history of Malabar, Goa, Konkan and Gujarat is well known and well researched. However, one region that gets overlooked is the coastal region of Karnataka with its important ports such as Karwar, Mangalore and Udipi among others. In the 15th and 16th centuries CE, the ports on the Western coast of India attracted merchants and sailors from around the world. The most dominant among them were the Portuguese, who had started using military power to monopolize the Indian Ocean trade. In 1510 CE, the Portuguese captured Goa from the Adilshah of Bijapur and established a seat of power there. In 1534, they took control of Vasai, near Mumbai, from the Sultan of Gujarat and followed this up with the takeover of the island of Diu the following year. Thus by the middle of the 16th century, the Portuguese control over the North Western coastline from Goa to Vasai to Diu, was almost complete.
From the 15th century onwards, the coastal regions of Karnataka were under the rule of local Jain chieftains who were vassals of the Vijaynagara Empire. After the battle of Talikota in 1565 CE, when the Vijayanagara Empire was defeated by the combined armies of the Deccan Sultanates, these chiefs became semi-independent rulers. These kingdoms fiercely resisted the Portuguese attempt to control the lucrative spice trade.
Ullal was a strategic trading port that the Portuguese were eyeing. It was seen as an important way to cement their hold on Goa. It was a prosperous port and a hub of the spice trade to Arabia and other countries of the East and West. Sadly, we do not know much about the early history of the Chowta chiefs of Ullal . What we do know is that Vikru Chowta was the founder of the dynasty and he ruled as a Vijaynagara vassal from 1390 CE. Even, the dates of when Queen Abbaka II ruled Ullal are not very clear. The only clue is from a book Dakshina Kannada Jilleya Prachina Itihasa, by noted historian Ganapathi Rao Aigal (1881–1944) , published in 1928. It tells us that Chowta king Thirumala Raya ruled from 1510 to 1544 CE and his successor Abbakka Devi II, from 1544 to 1582.
Different sources and travellers accounts point to the fact that the Chowtas, though a Jain dynasty, followed the system of matrilineal inheritance similar to that which was followed by the Travancore and Nair chieftains of Kerala. While the inheritance was from the female line, the ruler was always a male. However, in Rani Abbakka’s case, since her uncle Thirumala Raya did not have children, he passed on the crown to his niece. For political reasons Rani Abbakka II was married to King Lakshmappa Bangaraja II of the neighbouring and rival kingdom of Mangalore, but it was not a successful match and they remained estranged throughout their lives.
What we do know, from mostly Portuguese sources is that Queen Abbakka was a good administrator. Though a Jain, she patronised the Hindu temple of Somnatheshwara and encouraged the arts and literature. But, peace was shattered when in 1555 CE, the Portuguese started flexing their military muscle and demanding tributes from coastal kingdoms like Calicut, Ullal, Mangalore and others. The Zamorin of Calicut, the Moplah chiefs and Rani of Ullal , all joined hands to resist the Portuguese advances.
The Portuguese retaliated with ruthless force. In 1556 CE, a Portuguese fleet under Admiral Dom Álvaro da Silveira attacked Ullal but it was repulsed successfully. So stunned were the Portuguese by their defeat, that they temporarily gave up demands for tribute. Ullal thrived as a port due to trade with Malabar Coast, Persia and Arabia and a period of relative peace continued for 12 years. However, the growing wealth of Ullal soon attracted the Portuguese once again. In 1567, they demanded that Ullal accept Portuguese suzerainty and stop trading directly with Persia or the Zamorin. They wanted all trade to be done through them.
The Queen outrightly refused to accept any of the Portuguese demands. Thus, in January 1568, the Portuguese under General João Peixoto launched another massive attack on Ullal. Helping them was the Mangalore army. The Rani’s estranged husband King Lakshmappa Bangaraja II had been deposed by his nephew Kamaraya III in 1556. Kamaraya accepted Portuguese suzerainty and aided them in their invasion of Ullal. They captured Ullal and plundered the Rani’s palace. Meanwhile, the Rani had retreated into the surrounding forests to regroup and counter the attack. The following night, the Rani along with her soldiers launched a surprise attack on the Portuguese garrison at Ullal. In the bitter battle that followed, General Peixoto was killed and 70 Portuguese soldiers were taken prisoners.
Sadly, we know very little of Queen Abbakka history after this period and sources give different dates of her death from 1580 to 1598. The Dakshina Kannada Jilleya Prachina Itihasa gives the date as 1582. She was succeeded by her only daughter Tirumaladevi.
Today, centuries after her death, Queen Abbakka II remains popular in local folklore. Her stories are told in ‘Yakshagana’ the folk theatre of Coastal Karnataka.
There is also an annual festival known as ‘Veera Rani Abbakka Utsava' held in her memory in Ullal.
It is only fitting that the Indian Coast Guard chose to recognize the efforts of this brave queen, four hundred years on. We should celebrate her far more!
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