Chapter X. Calicut.

Can those three or four bungalows, with that stick-like light-house between them and the half-dozen tiled and thatched roofs peeping from amongst the trees, compose Calicut--the city of world-wide celebrity, which immortalised herself by giving a name to calico?

Yes; but when we land we shall find a huge mass of huts and hovels, each built in its own yard of cocoas with bazaars, vast and peculiar-looking mosques, a chapel or two, courts and cutcherries, a hospital, jail, barracks, and a variety of bungalows. Seen from the sea, all the towns on this coast look like straggling villages, with a background of distant blue hill, (58) and a middle space of trees, divided by a strip of sand from the watery plain.

Calicut is no longer the

      Cidade--nobre e rica (59)

described by Camoens' tuneful muse. Some, indeed, declare that the present city is not the one alluded to in the Lusiad. There is a tradition amongst the natives of the country, that the ancient Calicut was merged beneath the waves; but in the East, tradition is always a terrible romancer. so we will still continue to believe that here old De Gama first cast anchor and stepped forth from his weather-beaten ship, at the head of his mail-clad warriors, upon the land of promise.

D'Anville assigns two dates to the foundation of Calicut, the earlier one (60)--A.D. 805--will suit historical purposes sufficiently well. There is nothing to recommend the position selected. During the monsoon, no vessel can approach the anchorage-ground with safety, and even in the fine season many have been wrecked upon the reefs of rocks which line the coast. Very little wind suffices to raise the surf: Nature has made no attempt at a harbour, and the ships lying in an open roadstead, are constantly liable to be driven on the sand and mud-banks around them. Tippoo Sultan--a very long-headed individual, by the bye--saw the defects of the situation, and determining to remove the town about six miles southward to the mouth of the Beypoor, or Arricode river, where a natural port exists, adopted the energetic measure of almost destroying the old city, that the inhabitants might experience less regret in leaving their homes. The Moslem emperor regarded Calicut with no peculiar good-will. He and his subjects were perpetually engaged in little squabbles, which by no means tended to promote kindly feeling between them. (61) On one occasion, offended by the fanaticism of the Nair and Tiyar Hindoos, their ruler pulled down almost every pagoda in the place, and with the stones erected a splendid tank in the middle of a large open space where the travellers bungalow now stands. Tippoo unfortunately failed in this project of removal, and when the British became supreme in Malabar, the natives all returned to their ancient haunts. Calicut, for many reasons, is not likely to be deserted under the present rule; it is the point to which all the lines of road which intersect the country converge; besides it would now scarcely be worth our while to bring about so violent a change for the purpose of eventual improvement.

When old Nelkunda began to decline, Calicut rose to importance, probably in consequence of its being in very early times the metropolis of the Samiry Rajah (the Zamorin of camoens), lord paramount of Malabar. Shortly after the origin of Islam, it was visited and colonised by thousands of Arabs, (62) who diffused energy and activity throughout the land. As trade increased, Calicut throve because of its centrical position between the countries east and west off Cape Comorin. Even in the present day, although Goa, and subsequently Bombay, have left the ancient emporium of Western India but little of its former consequence, commerce (63) still continues to flourish there. The export is brisker than the import trade; the latter consists principally of European piece goods and metals, the former comprises a vast variety of spices, drugs, valuable timber and cotton cloths.

We will not take a walk through the town and remark its several novelties. Monuments of antiquity abound not here: the fort erected by the Portuguese has long since been level with the ground, and private bungalows occupy the sites of the old Dutch, French, and Danish factories. We shall meet few Europeans in the streets: there are scarcely twenty in this place, including all the varieties of civilians, merchants, missionaries and the officers belonging to the two seapoy companies detached from the neighbouring station--Cananore. Most of the residents inhabit houses built upon an eminence about three miles to the north of the town; others live as close as possible to the sea. A dreary life they must lead, one would suppose, especially during the monsoon, when the unhappy expatriated's ears are regaled by no other sounds but the pelting of the rain, the roaring of the blast, and the creaking of the cocoa trees, whilst a curtain of raging sea, black sky, and watery air, is all that meets his weary ken.

The first thing we observe during our perambulation, is the want of the quadruped creation: there are no horses, (64) sheep, or goats, and the cows are scarcely as large as English donkeys. Secondly, the abundance of sore eyes, produced, it is supposed by the offensive glare and the peculiar effect of the sun's rays, which in these regions are insufferable even to the natives of other Indian provinces. The population apparently regards us with no friendly feeling, Moslem and Hindoo, all have scowls upon their faces, and every man, moreover, carries a knife conveniently slung to his waistband. Those dark-faced gentlemen, in imitation European dressed, are familiar to our eyes; they are Portuguese, not, however, from Goa, but born, bred, and likely to be buried at Calicut. A little colony, of fifty or sixty families of the race is settled here; they employ themselves either in commerce, or as writers in the different government offices.

The bazaars appear to be well stocked with everything but vegetables and butcher's meat, these two articles being as scarce and bad as the poultry; fish and fruit are plentiful and good. The shops are poor; there is not a single Parsee or European store in the town, so that all supplies must be procured from the neighbouring stations. Everywhere the houses are much more comfortable and substantially built than in the Bombay presidency: the nature of the climate requires a good roof, and as much shade on and around it as possible: the streets and roads, also, look civilised compared with the narrow and filthy alleys of our native towns in general. But we shall find little amusement in inspecting the mass of huts and hovels, mosques and schools, gardens and tanks, so we might as well prolong our stroll beyond the town, and visit the venerable pagoda of Varkool.

It is, you see, a building by no means admirable in point of outward appearance; the roof is tiled, and there is little to excite your curiosity in the woodwork. Its position is remarkable--perched upon the summit of a pile of laterite rock rising abruptly from a level expanse of sand. But it is great, very great, in its historical importance. That edifice was one of the hundred and eight Maha Chaitrum, or temples of the first order, built by the demigod Parasu Rama, upon this coast, and dedicated to the Hindoo Triad. Equally notable it is for sanctity. Early in the month of October, water appears bubbling from a fissure of the rock, and this, learned Brahmans, by what test we know not, have determined to be the veritable fluid of the Ganges, which, passing under ground, (65) via Central India, displays itself regularly once a year to the devotees of Rama. Kindly observe that there is a crowd of Nairs gathered round the temple, and that some petty prince, as we may know by his retinue of armed followers, is visiting the shrine. We will not venture in, as the Hindoos generally in this part of the world, and the Nairs particularly, are accustomed to use their knives with scant ceremony. Besides, just at present, they are somewhat in a state of excitement: they expect a partial eclipse of the moon, and are prepared to make all the noise they can, with a view of frightening away the wicked monster, Rahu, who is bent upon satisfying his cannibal appetites with the lucid form of poor Luna.

The present Samiry Rajah is a proud man, who shuns Europeans, and discourages their visiting him on principle. Wishing, however, to see some sample of the regal family, we called upon a cadet of the house of Yelliah, an individual of little wealth or influence, but more sociable than the high and mighty Mana Vikramm. (66) After a ride of about three miles, through lanes lined with banks of laterite, and over dykes stretching like rude causeways along paddy fields invested with a six-foot deep coating of mud, we arrived at the village of Mangaon. The Rajah was apparently resolved to receive us with all the honours: a caparisoned elephant stood at the gate of the "palace," and a troop of half-naked Nairs, armed as usual, crowded around to receive us. We were ushered through a succession of courts and gateways--the former full of diminutive, but seemingly most pugnacious cows--and at last, ascending a long flight of dark and narrow steps, suddenly found ourselves in the "presence." Our Rajah was a little dark man, injudiciously attired in a magnificent coat of gold cloth, a strangely-shaped cap of the same material, and red silk tights. The room was small, and choked with furniture; chairs, tables, clocks, drawers, washing-stands, boxes, book-shelves, and stools, were arranged, or rather piled up around it, with all the effect of an old curiosity-shop. The walls exhibited a collection of the cheapest and worst of coloured prints--our late gracious queen dangling in dangerous proximity to the ferocious-looking Beau Sabreur, and La Belle Americaine occupied in attentively scrutinising certain diminutive sketches of Richmond Hill, and other localities, probably torn out of some antiquated Annual. Our host met us à l'Anglaise--that is to say, with a warm, moist, and friendly squeeze of the hand: he was profuse in compliments, and insisted upon our sitting on the sofa opposite his chair. With the assistance of an interpreter--for the Rajah understands little Hindostani, and we less Malayalim--some twenty minutes were spent in conversation, or rather in the usual exchange of questions and answers which composes the small-talk of an Oriental visit. Presently we arose and took polite leave of our host, who accompanied us as far as the door of his little den: the regal rank and dignity forbidding him to pass the threshold. Not a little shuffling and shrieking was caused by our turning a corner suddenly and meeting in the gateway a crowd of dames belonging to the palace. They and their attendants appeared as much annoyed as we were gratified to catch a sight of Nair female beauty. The ladies were very young and pretty--their long jetty tresses, small soft features, clear dark olive-coloured skins, and delicate limbs, reminded us exactly of the old prints and descriptions of the South Sea Islanders. Their toilette, in all save the ornamental part of rings and necklaces, was decidedly scanty. It was the same described by old Capt. Hamilton, who, when introduced at the Court of the Samorin, observed that the queen and her daughters were "all naked above the waist, and barefooted."

People are fond of asserting that native prejudices are being rapidly subjugated by the strong arm of English civilization. We could instance numerous proofs of the contrary being the case. Two hundred years ago the white man was allowed to look upon a black princess in the presence of her husband. How long will it be before such privilege will ever be extended to him again in India?

On the way homewards our guide pointed out what he considered the great lion of Calicut. It is a square field, overgrown with grass and weeds and surrounded by a dense grove of trees. Fronting the road stands a simple gateway, composed of one stone laid horizontally across two of the same shape, planted perpendicularly in the ground. Not detecting instantly any great marvel about the place we looked our curiosity for further information.

"In days of old a strong fort, and a splendid palace adorned that spot--their only remains now those two mounds"--said the guide, pointing at what appeared to be the ruins of bastions--"and that raised platform of earth at the other end. Upon the latter a temporary festive building is erected whenever a Rajah is invested with the turban of regal dignity, in memory of the ancient dwelling-place of his ancestors, and the city which is now no more."

We had half an hour to waste, and were not unwilling to hear a detailed account of old Calicut's apocryphal destruction. So we asked the man to point out its former site. He led us towards the shore, and called our attention to a reef of rocks lying close off the mouth of the little Kullia River; they were clearly discernible as it was then low water. (67)

"There," said the guide,--a good Hindoo, of course--"there lies the accursed city of Cherooman Rajah!"

Our escort did not require much pressing to east himself of a little legendary lore. After preparing his mouth for conversation by disposing of as much betel juice as was convenient, he sat down upon the ground near the log of wood occupied by ourselves, and commenced.

"When Cherooman Rajah, the last and most powerful of our foreign governors, apostatizing from the holy faith of his forefathers, received the religion of the stranger, he went forth as a pilgrim to the land of the Arab, and dwelt there for several years. (68)

"Our ruler's return was signalized by a determination to propagate the new belief throughout Maloabar, and unusual success attended upon the well-planned system of persuasion and force adopted by him. Thousands of the slaves, the cultivators and the fishermen, became Moslems, many of the Nairs, some of them men of high rank, and even a few of the Brahmans did not disdain to follow their prince's example. But the Numboory (69) stood firm in his refusal to turn from the law of Brahma; he not only toiled to counteract the monarch's influence, but on more than one occasion in solemn procession visited the palace, and denounced a curse upon the Rajah and people of Calicut if the proselytising continued.

"At length the chieftain, irritated by the determined opposition of the priesthood, and urged on by his Arab advisers, swore a mighty oath that he would forcibly convert his arch enemies. The person selected to eat impure meat as a warning to his brethern was the holy Sankaracharya, the high Brahman of the Varkool pagoda.

"Slowly the old man's tottering frame bowed, and trembling with age, moved down the double line of bearded warriors that crowed the audience-hall. At the further end of the room, upon the cushion of royalty, and surrounded by a throng of foreign counsellors, sat Cherooman, looking like a Rakshasa or Spirit of Evil.

"Few words passed between the Brahman and the ruler. The treats of the latter, and the scoffs of his myrmidons, fell unheeded upon the old priest's ears.

"'It is said that a Rajah is a sword in the hand of the Almighty--but thou, Cherooman, art like the assassin's knife. Since thou art thus determined upon thine own destruction accompany me to the beach, and there, unless before sunset the dread Deity I adore vouchsafe to show thee a sign of his power, I will obey thine unhallowed orders.'

"The Rajah mounted his elephant, and followed by his mufties, his wuzeers, and guardsmen, moved slowly towards the brink of the briny wave. On foot and unattended, propping his faltering footsteps with a sandal wand, the Brahman accompanied the retinue. And all the people of Calicut, whose leaning towards the new faith made them exult in the prospect of conversion being forced upon so revered a personage as the old priest, informed of the event, hurried down in thousands to the shore, and stood there in groups conversing earnestly, and sparing neither jest nor jibe at the contrast between the champions of the two rival faiths.

"Sankaracharya sat down upon the sand where the small waves swelled and burst at his feet. Muffling his head in a cotton sheet removed from his shoulders, he drew the rosary bag over his right hand, and after enumerating the Diety's names upon his beads, proceeded to recite the charm of destruction.

"Presently, a cloud no bigger than a man's hand rose like a sea-bird above the margin of the western main. It increased with preternatural growth, and before half an hour had elapsed it veiled the midday light of heaven, and spread over the sky like the glooms of night. A low moaning sound as of a rising hurricane then began to break the drear stillness of the scene, and fierce blasts to careen wildy over the heaving bosom of the waves.

"Still the Brahman continued his prayer.

"Now huge billowy waves burst like thunder upon the yellow sands, the zig-zag lightning streaking the murky sky blinded the eyes, whilst the roar of the elements deafened the ears of the trembling crowd. Yet they stood rooted to the spot by a mightier power than they could control. The Rajah, on his elephant, and the beggar crawling upon his knees, all had prepared for themselves one common doom.

"Before the bright ear of Surya, (70) the Lord of Day, borne by its flaming steeds with agate hoofs, had entered upon their starry way, the wavelet was rippling, and the sea-gull flapping his snowy wing over the city of Cherooman the Apostate."