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Calicut Heritage

“Kalikooth is a perfectly secure harbour which brings together merchants from every country. In it are to be found abundance of precious articles brought from all countries”
Abdu Razzak, Persian Ambassador, 1442 AD.


Rooted in the myth that Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth got stranded here for good,and reputed as the city of truth, Kozhikode was once a prosperous port. Black pepper and other produces came from the surrounding hills and hinterlands, endowed with fertile soil and frequent monsoon showers. Aided by monsoon winds and attracted by these precious produces, ships came here from China, Africa and Arabia to carry black pepper, timber, ivory and spices that finally reached places as far away as Venice and Greece.Mariners and merchants were welcomed with open arms by the Porlathiris and Samuthiris who ruled Kozhikode. Ibn Batuta(1342), Ma Huan(1403), Abdu Razzak (1442) and other travellers, traders and emissaries have recorded the name and fame of Kozhikode as a port.

The Port City was called ‘Kalikooth’ by the Arabs who reached here even before the Prophet and ‘Kalifo’ by the Chinese whose presence here dates back to 7th Century AD. Arabs and Chinese had designated trading areas, gifted by contemporary rulers, who appointed Arab merchants as harbour masters, called Shahbundar Koyas. Many Arab merchants stayed on here to marry local women, create an entire settlement and contribute to the multi ethnic culture, history and heritage of the city.

Intrigued by riches and rewards reaped by Arabs and Chinese, the Portuguese crossed Cape of Good Hope after numerous attempts, to finally reach Kozhikodein May 1498. Arrival of Vasco da Gama, and the events thereafter, changed the course of history. The Portuguese were followed by the British, Dutch, French, Germans and even Italians to pursue commercial and colonial interests at Calicut, a name they coined for the port city. Samuthiri welcomed all of them as traders, but found their interests to be more than that, leading to skirmishes and conflicts in the waters off Kozhikode, spearheaded by the brave Marakkars. Though they stood up to the Portuguese and Dutch for many years, the Samuthiris succumbed to Tipu Sultan in 1761. Calicut finally came under British control after the valiant Sultan’s death in the Battle of Seringapatnam in 1799. They developed a modern port, and continued with seaborne trade, mainly for European companies like Aspinwall, Volkart Brothers, Pierce and Leslie, and others. British administration and European traders have contributed to the city’s metropolitan heritage and infrastructure, leaving behind notable landmarks like the Conolly Canal, English Church, Railway Station, Anglo-Indian School and Com trust.

Numerous trading communities came to Kozhikode from other parts of India, lured by the flourishing port. Sindhis, Memons, Parsis, Jains, Vishnavites, Marwaris and Boras came from Kutch, Bharuch, Gujarat, Rajasthan and other far flung areas. Then there were Anglo Indians, Bhatkalis, Goans, Tamils, Telugus and even local Malayali migrants who came here to harvest the many opportunities thrown up by maritime trade. Most of them have stayed on, offering a multicultural bouquet to anyone who visits Kozhikode. Porters, head loaders, cart pullers, boatmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, tea vendors, fish mongers, washer men and thousands of such foot soldiers who toiled to build the city have added a proletarian perspective to the culture and heritage of Koyikkode, as they called the city.

Kozhikode has a history of kings, traders, mariners, merchants, common folks and myriad others who have left behind tales that date back to the 7th Century. The rapid rise of a marsh land, full of thorny shrubs, to a world renowned port makes an exciting story, supported with standing monuments like Miskal Mosque, Mother of God Church, Silk Street, French Villa , Valiyangadi, Warehouses, Lighthouse and dilapidated piers.

Trade transactions by wealthy merchants at the port were supported by tiny businesses that thrived in the numerous lanes, by-lanes and alleys of the city. Many of those like Gunny Street, Vattakkoli Lane and Halwa Bazar are still around, though not in limelight anymore. A few of them, like Sweet Meat Street have however attained iconic stature, thanks to the patronage of reputed literary figures like SK Pottakkad, who have woven wonderful tales around them.

The Port City flourished under the unhindered reign of Samuthiris for centuries. Many stories have been written about the greatness of these kings and the grandeur of their fort. The Samuthiris ruled from a large, self-contained fort with an armoury, cantonment, mint, moat, temples, garden and royal residences. Practically nothing remains of the fort, as it was destroyed in a self-inflicted tragedy and encroached upon by city infrastructure of later years. However, evidences of Samuthiri’s fort still exist, offering the heritage buff a unique challenge to explore the ‘Royal Trail’, mapping the mega fortification and its adjuncts through the busy city centre, recalling romantic tales of the ruling elite . In doing so, you walk through stories and fortunes of the royalty that fluctuated from absolute power and abundant wealth to abject poverty and powerless titles.

The Royals of Calicut sought divine intervention to sustain their rule and even invoked Gods and Goddesses to dispense justice. They patronised many temples, which were institutions in their own right. The Shiva temple at Taliwas already an epicentre of divinity, when Samuthiris took control of the city. Though the city itself succumbed to them meekly, the temple resisted, leading to some bloodshed. In penance, the Samuthiris instituted Revati Pattattanam, a contest for Sanskrit scholars that threw up some legendary linguists. Spotted with Kovilakoms, the sprawling residences for royals and nobility of Samuthiri era, Taliretainsits temple culture and Tamilian traits. A walk around the area could transport you into a unique world, very different from the hustle and bustle of a modern city.

Such uniqueness of culture and heritage is also available in the Mapla settlement at Thekkeppuram and the Gujarati Street near the beach. But what is universal to the entire city is its heart-warming hospitality, spiced up with excellent food. Add music, literature, laughter, care, compassion and local slang to this; and you have a complete Koyikkodan experience. An endearing experience for you to indulge in; during the literature festival, and even thereafter.

Script: Capt. Ramesh Babu