Less than 40 km off the coast of Kozhikode in Kerala is a small rocky island called ‘Velliyan Kallu’ or the ‘White Rock’. Popular mostly with leisure seekers and bird watchers, the island appears no different from so many others that dot the Arabian Sea. And yet it is.
Small and innocuous looking, this rocky protrusion has a dark and ominous history, with almost every notable villain in the Malabar’s maritime history connected to it. There are stories of people who were murdered here en masse and, it is said that the souls of the tormented are still floating around.
To this day, the local people consider this rock haunted and reel off stories about strange apparitions and voices there. No wonder Portuguese sailors called it ‘Rochedo do Sacrificio’ or ‘The Island of Sacrifice’.
From Hanuman to Adam
There are quite a few myths and legends associated with this rock, some dating back many centuries, which connect it not just to Lord Hanuman from the Ramayana but to even Adam in the Bible!
One legend says that during the war with Ravana in nearby Lanka, Lakshmana was grievously injured. The cure lay with a herb known as Mritasanjeevani, which grew only in the Himalayas. Hanuman took a giant leap, from Lanka to Mahodaya (Dronagiri) near Dharmasala in Himachal Pradesh, to procure this herb, but upon reaching there was not able to identify it. Not wasting any time, he picked up a whole hillock and flew back to Lanka. On his way, a small piece of rock broke from the mountain and fell into the sea. No prizes for guessing which island it is today.
Another legend states that the rock contains a footprint of Adam, the first man, according to Biblical tales. The 19th century British Civil Servant William Logan, in his book, Malabar Manual (1887), mentions: “Into the sea is a rock on which one can find a footprint chiseled in the rock. This is supposedly Adam’s footprint, a place where he stopped before going to Adam’s peak in Ceylon.”
The island was frequently noticed by ancient voyagers due to its stark white color, and it is believed that the ‘Leuke’, or the ‘white’ island off the coast of India, mentioned in the famous 1st century CE work Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, is this very island.
The Portuguese & The ‘Pirates of the Malabar’
Initially associated with epics and legends, the rock acquired a dark reputation with the arrival of the Portuguese in the early 16th century CE. As they tried to establish naval supremacy over the Malabar coast, the Portuguese clashed with the Marakkars, a seafaring mercantile community who traditionally controlled the coastal waters, off the Kerala coastline, for the Zamorin. The most notable among their leaders was Muhammad Kunjali Marakkar IV, who led the naval resistance against the Portuguese, between 1580 and 1600 CE.
Apparently, Kunjali Marakkar IV made this rock his hideout, giving the island a new moniker – ‘Pirates’ Lair’. It seems, his fast war-boats were usually concealed in the island’s coves and were launched in droves at opportune moments to take on slow-moving Portuguese vessels. The many pockmarks on the rock are said to be the impressions left by cannon balls fired at Kunjali’s forces, in retaliation.
The island went from being called White Rock and Pirate’s Lair, to ‘Sacrifice Rock’ (Rochedo do Sacrificio in Portuguese) or Santos Island, when Kunjali Marakkar and his Kottakal cruisers apparently ‘slaughtered’ the crew of a Portuguese vessel sometime in the 16th century.
British historians Albert Grey and Bell translated the travelogues of a French navigator, François Pyrard de Laval (1578-1623), who had sailed extensively off the coast of Malabar in 1602-03. In their chapter on Kunjali Marakkar, they mention: “More than fifty years later, a rock off the shore, perhaps that called in English times Sacrifice Rock, was still known as Kunjali's Rock, and the Kotta River long continued to be the principal nest of the corsairs, who, friendly to the Dutch and English, continued to work havoc upon the waning commerce of Goa.”
Kerala historian MGS Narayanan believes the name ‘Velliyan Kallu’, or ‘Vellayam Kallu’ doesn’t mean ‘white rock’, rather, ‘rock of the white man’, alluding to the cruelty of the Portuguese, who captured dhows with Moplahs sailing for the Haj ritual. Ignoring all offers of money and gold, they took the Moplahs to this rock for mass execution, thus giving it the name ‘sacrifice rock’. Another British account mentions that Mysore ruler Hyder Ali during his Malabar sojourn left state prisoners on the rock to die of hunger and thirst.
The Dutch followed the Portuguese and by the time the British were staking their claim, the island had become a pirates’ haven. British traveller John Fryer, who visited the west coast of India in 1673 CE, mentions the rock in his travelogue: “A grey rock extols its hoary head eight fathoms above water, navigable on all sides, justly called by us the Sacrifice Island; in remembrance of a bloody butchery on some English by the pirate Malabars, the chief of whom lives at Durmafatan.”
This supposed pirate is confused with the sailors, Roberts and Haines, of the privateer Worcester, who were involved in the chopping off of many heads at the rock. The notorious English pirate William Kidd (‘Captain Kidd’) also hung around the rock, around the 1697 CE time frame.
Why is the Rock White?
It is commonly believed that the term Velliyan Kallu evolved from the rock’s white or silver colour or even from the term ‘bali kallu’ (bali meaning sacrifice and kallu meaning rock), although the former seems more appropriate. The rock’s white colour is due to an abundance of bird excreta and is home to the Indian Edible-nest Swiftlet.
Ornithologist T C Jerdon in his book The Birds of India (1862) explains, “What a vast distance these birds must have come from, to have taken full three hours after sunset to reach their homes, and what powers of sustained flight are here shown! It is known to have other breeding places on the Malabar coast, viz, …the Sacrifice Rock, twenty miles south of Tellicherry; besides, I dare say, others. There is one cave here which had perhaps fifty to a hundred nests, and a few had eggs in them. Very few of the nests were of the first make, these being annually taken away by some Moplahs (Mappila Muslims of Malabar) from the mainland.”
British artist and writer James Forbes visited the area in the late 18th century and noted several uses for the island, the first being the production of “a few of those rare birds-nests, so highly esteemed by the Oriental epicure consumed by the wealthy in India, but, for the most part, exported to China." The second is the production of dried shark fins, again for export to China, which are stewed “down to a thick glutinous jelly, which I think richer than turtle, or any dish at the tables of Europeans”.
A Beacon for Ships
As the British settled down to rule the Malabar, a Public Works Department Engineer Francis William Ashpitel recommended building a lighthouse at Sacrifice Rock. In fact, it became an obsession with him as the rock was situated on the route between Bombay and Calicut, and was a threat to many a sailing ship as traffic increased.
Many ships were wrecked at that location, and numerous sailors lost their lives. The Madras authorities disagreed and suggested a lighthouse at Kadalur point, due to higher offshore operating expenses. Eventually, the lighthouse was built onshore at Kadalur Point in 1909.
After the old lore was forgotten and the invaders and colonials had left, it was left to Malayalam novelist M Mukundan to weave magic around the rocky island, with his enchanting 1974 novel Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil (On the Banks of the River Mayyazhi), a book which takes you through the history of Mayyazhi or Mahe. The ‘Sacrifice Rock appears often in Mukundan’s novel, believed to be one of the finest novels ever written in Malayalam. The people of Mayyazhi or Mahe, according to Mukundan, believe that the many dragonflies of Velliyan Kallu are the souls of those sacrificed on the island.
This small rocky island has played many a part in folklore and in history, a sanctuary for some, a graveyard for others. There was never a dull moment around Sacrifice Rock!
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maddy is a history enthusiast who writes about the history of the Malabar and Kerala on his blogs, Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org