The Tale of a Warrior Queen
Abbakka, who? Most Indians would be at a loss even to recognize the name, let alone know the significance it carries. Our Ghazni-and-Ghori obsessed historians for whom no India exists beyond the Vindhyas or our modern filmmakers who revel in lionising India’s invaders have no reason to know Rani Abbakka Chowta, the fiery South Indian queen, whose valiant fight against the European colonialists has absolutely no parallels in Indian history. Abbakka was born a princess in the Chowta Dynasty that ruled parts of coastal Karnataka that formed Tulu Nadu during the Sixteenth Century. In keeping with the matrilineal inheritance Digambara Jain Bunt community the dynasty belonged to followed, she was crowned the Queen of Ullal in 1525. She was married to Lakhamappa Arasa, the King of the principality of Banga in neighbouring Mangalore; a relationship that soon split up leaving the couple estranged for the rest of their lives. Abbakka had been trained well in the art of warfare and administration as a princess and she devoted herself to her role as the ruler of Ullal with absolute zeal. She ran an efficient and popular administration with adequate representations for all sections of her subjects, the Jains, Hindus and Muslims.
While Puttige was the capital of her kingdom, the prosperous port town of Ullal, from which the kingdom derived its name, served as the commercial capital. The Portuguese, after their conquest of Goa in 1510 began eying the coast southward, but could not make much of headway because of stiff resistance from the native rulers who formed alliances cutting across caste and religious considerations to stem the foreign advances. Nevertheless, they attacked South Canara Coast in 1525 and destroyed the port of Mangalore, which was merely eighteen kilometres from Ullal. Ullal, being a major trading hub, every European nation vied to get a foothold there. Abbakka robustly thwarted any move on her territory by forging an alliance with the Zamorin of Calicut whose navy had been constantly battling the Portuguese ever since Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut at the turn of the century. As the first two decades of her reign passed the Portuguese were increasingly getting frustrated with the defiance of this fiery queen, Abhaya Rani – the Fearless Queen – as her staunchly loyal subjects eulogized her. Finally, in 1555 they sent a force under Admiral Dom Alvaro da Silveira, who presented her an ultimatum to pay tribute to the Portuguese State of India, Estado Portugues da India, headquartered at Goa or perish. Refusing to be intimidated, Abbakka trounced the Portuguese force in a pitched battle, forcing the admiral to scurry back cutting his losses. The drubbing they received was so bad that they did not dare to take her on for another thirteen years.
Two years after their defeat at the hands of Abbakka, the Portuguese targeted the port of Mangalore next door to her a second time and ransacked it, eventually occupying it and building a fort there. In 1568, their Viceroy, Antonio Noronha, found his nerve to move against Abbakka and dispatched a mighty expeditionary force under General Poao Peixoto to capture Ullal at all costs. The force staged a successful assault and managed to take possession of Ullal; but it turned out to be a temporary victory because Abbakka, who had escaped, mounted a fierce counterattack the same night with 200 of her soldiers and took the town back, virtually annihilating the Portuguese. Their commander, Peixoto, was killed in the encounter and so were a number of his soldiers, while seventy of them were taken prisoner and the rest of the survivors fled. Abbakka was not one to let the matter rest at that; instead she took up a hot pursuit of the enemy entering their Mangalore fort in the fray. Her troops slayed another Portuguese general, Mascarenhas, and took hold of the fort.
The enraged Portuguese gave vent to their wrath by wresting the fort back from her and mounting repeated attacks on her kingdom. A determined Abbakka reinforced herself forging alliances with the Sultan of Bijapur and the Zamorin of Calicut and continued to keep the enemy at bay. One of the Zamorin’s admirals of the gallant Marakkar clan, fighting for her, even destroyed the Mangalore fort, though he was killed in action. The Portuguese meanwhile found a trusted ally in Abbakka’s estranged husband, Lakshmappa, who had all along nursed a grudge towards her. With one of her own native allies in their camp, they eventually succeeded in defeating her by treachery. Taken prisoner, Abbakka was jailed in Mangalore. Never one to give up, she met her end trying to escape.
A bronze statue of the valiant queen in the town of Ullal and another one in Bangalore City honour her memory. The town of Ullal celebrates her memory with an annual festival, the “ Veera Rani Abbakka Utsav” and they have instituted an award named after her for distinguished women. The Indian Postal Department honoured her with a special cover in 2003, there have been calls to name the Queen’s Road in Bangalore as ‘Rani Abbakka Devi Road’ and to name the Mangalore Airport after her, the Indian Coast Guard Patrol Vessel, ICGS Rani Abbakka, commissioned in 2012, rides the waves proudly carrying the name of the warrior queen; but for all that, such an outstanding patriot, who stemmed the colonial onslaught for more than four decades, remains largely unknown in the country.