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The Multiple Beginnings of a City: Calicut (Kozhikode)

Susanne Rau | Max Weber Research Center, Erfurt

Cities have beginnings and sometimes endings. Usually, it is easier to talk about endings than the (often nebulous) beginnings. The reasons range from dramatic population decline, collective abandonment, to abrupt destruction by natural forces (earthquakes, storm tides) or by war. In some cases, we know from literature that cities are said to have perished, but not exactly when or where: Atlantis or Rungholt, both on an island, still capture people’s imagination today. However, it is more difficult with the beginning of a city if it does not follow a sovereign and usually documented founding act. In most cases, at least in global terms, it is rather a gradual social and spatial transformation of a small settlement, a market, a sanctuary, or a temple which cannot yet be called a city. In addition to explicit founding acts of new cities, as in the case of Augsburg, New York, Marseille or Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), in history, we also encounter the so-called elevation of a settlement or village to a city.

Using the example of the historical South Indian city of Calicut, today’s Kozhikode in Kerala, I would like to discuss how historians can proceed if they do not know exactly when the life of a city started. As historians, we always want to know how long a city has existed, how old it is exactly – and then we find out that there may have been different or even multiple beginnings. What we can know about the early days of a city always depends on remaining historical documents or material. If neither is there, all we can rely on are narratives: tales, chronicles, poetry. In tropical areas in particular, the climate and the way the houses were built in the past are often not very conducive to preserving the actual material of the buildings.

Why Calicut? If you’re not into South Asian history or interested in India, you may never have heard of Calicut. Many years ago, I myself was only familiar with the term “calico”, a cotton fabric which – as I learned later – was derived from the name of the city. Calicut, however, had been world-famous since the Middle Ages for its connection to the global spice trade. Chinese fleets loaded their ships with bags of pepper in Calicut, and the Portuguese, in the shape of Vasco da Gama, landed there on their search for a sea route to India in 1498. Already around 1510, an Italian traveller, Ludovico de Varthema, wrote that Calicut was the most important city in all of India. The German translation even included a wood engraving, although the woodcutter himself, Jörg Breu, had never been there himself.

Woodcut of Calicut.
Jörg Breu the Elder, Woodcut of Calicut, from the German translation of Varthema’s Itinerario (1515), in Die deutsche Buchillustration in der ersten Hälfte des XVI. Jahrhunderts, ed. by Max Geisberg (Munich: Schmidt, 1930).

If this many people strove to reach this destination, Calicut – like some other cities along the Malabar coast – must have already been known beyond the region. In fact, the city developed into an important supra-regional trading centre as early as the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, travellers such as Ibn Battuta (1304-1368/69) and Niccolo de’ Conti (c. 1395–1469) reported that Calicut was the largest trading centre in South Asia. Goods from all over India, but also from China, East Africa, Arabia, Persia, and Europe were transhipped there. For their part, the ships took spices – not only pepper, but also ginger and cinnamon – sometimes also coconuts, wood or precious stones.

A city view of Calicut
City view of Calicut, in Georg Braun/Frans Hogenberg, Civitates orbis terrarium (Cologne: Auctores, 1572). The cartridge reads: ‘Calechvt Celeberrimvm Indiae Emporivm’.

The Portuguese built a fortified factory in 1503 but abandoned it in 1525 for fear of it falling into the hands of the enemy. In 1616, the English followed them and built a trading post a couple of years later. After this first attempt, they established a factory at Calicut only in 1664. The French (1668), as well as the Dutch (treaty in 1604 at Ponnāni, factory in 1663), and the Danish (1752) were also present in the city for a short time. In 1766, Haidar Ali took the city; in 1782, the British, occupying the city for the second time, expanded their economic base to cover political and military control. The following history is well known not least because the British, as the holders of local political power, started documenting and archiving life in the city as part of their proto-colonial bureaucracy.

Painting of Calicut.
Johannes Vingboons, Beschrijving Gezicht op Calicut, India, 1665 (Netherlands National Archive ).

However, what do we know about how Calicut became a city? The travellers who described the city and the customs of its inhabitants in detail usually say little about this. Inscriptions are sometimes found in mosques, thus documenting the early presence of Islam in South India, but they say nothing about the beginnings of the city itself. Going back further, we find the port of Tyndis, also a trading centre, in the ancient geographies, for example in Pliny the Elder. It must have been located near Calicut: at Beypore, Chaliyam or Kadalundi, as some ancient historians assume. Unfortunately, however, this cannot be proven, and, above all, there are no evident continuities into the Middle Ages. There are, however, somewhat more detailed local sources from later times that report on the beginnings of the city. One of these is the so-called Keralōlpatti, a text that describes the beginnings and development of the land of Kerala and contains a chapter on the residence of the local ruler, i.e. Calicut. Texts of this genre do not list “facts” in the modern sense, but reflect the view of the ruling family, thus seeking to legitimise their rule and institutionalise rituals, social norms, and practices. Moreover, these texts were only written down from the sixteenth century onwards. Before that, they were part of local oral culture and circulated as stories. In this respect, they are written narratives that create meaning rather than being history in the modern sense.

The text first tells the story of the Cheraman Perumals, the rulers of the Chera kingdom, until the last Perumal, who divided his land into three parts and then disappeared. The Zamorin – the ruler – who lived up the country in the land of Ernad, took advantage of this situation by attacking the coastal land of Polanad, eventually conquering it, and deposing its chief. Thereafter, the text continues like this:

The Establishement of the City of Kozhikode

After that, a fort was built at Velapuram in Kozhikode, they conquered ara [a warehouse] and tura [port] and blew aalavattam [ritual shield or fan] and vencamaram [white flywhisk].

A chetti [Tamil merchant] from the Eastern coast sailed to Mecca for trade and on his way back the ship was about to sink as it was overloaded with gold. It reached the Calicut coast and he presented the Zamorin a chest full of gold as tirumulkkazhcha [votive offering] and requested his help. And the Zamorin gave permission to keep the gold in the palace. After hearing this, the chetti made a stone chamber at tamuri koyilkam [Zamorin’s residence] and gave presents to the king and undertook the control of the warehouse. After that, he brought gold in front of the king and the measurement of gold was stated and the gold was kept in the stone chamber. And then, he sailed back to his country. After a while, he returned to Kozhikode to take back the gold he kept there and presented gifts to the king and asked for gold. He counted the gold in the king’s presence and found it intact. Then, he divided it into two halves and presented one half to the Zamorin. But, the Zamorin said, ‘You may take away the whole of your treasure’. After hearing this, he felt that ‘there has never been such an honest king and swarupam’ [dynasty].

He requested Mannattaccan [the chief minister of the Zamorin] to allow him to practice trade in this coast. And Mannattaccan convinced of him and gave permission to trade at Calicut. He brought taccans [carpenters] and a site for a city (nagaram) was laid out away from the palace.

The passage about the founding of the city of Calicut then continues with the surveying of the place by craftsmen, the laying of a foundation stone, the building of streets and houses, the beginning of commercial activities and the settlement of foreign merchants. It is also said that there is no other country or city so good for import-export trade, for sailing to Mecca and launching sailing vessels, for keeping of accounts of income and expenditure, and for fines and profit taking.

This excerpt covers nothing less than the beginning of the big bazaar of Calicut, which was already known far beyond the country’s borders at the time of the Keralōlpatti. The story of Chetti from the land of Tamil, to whom this creation of the market was attributed, had the function of portraying the Zamorin as a trustworthy ruler and the city as a place where all traders could be safe. And with the keyword Mecca, it is also immediately implied here that the Muslims played a very important role in the foundation of this bazaar and in all long-distance trade. The portrayal, however, as if the city had been built on a ‘no man’s land’ is probably a whitewash or exaggeration in favour of the Zamorin as the sole founder of the city. For it was also reported that the ruler of the land of Polanad inhabited a fort and had ten thousand warriors fighting for him.

Three possible beginnings of Calicut emerge from this reading of the Keralōlpatti. The text indicates that the Zamorin, accompanied by his family, soldiers and retinue did not settle in an uninhabited area on the coast. While we cannot know for certain whether the Porlathiris had already built a city at the Zamorin’s chosen site, at least a fort and a small settlement must have existed. The Keralōlpatti, of course, presents the Zamorin’s arrival as the founding act of a new settlement, another beginning. In this version of events, the Zamorin quickly built a fort, a palace and a temple. He laid out how the streets would run and made room for a marketplace (bazaar). He invited groups of people to settle here, including Arab merchants, who were Muslim and dominated the long-distance trade in the Arabian Sea.

Lastly, we could ask whether Ernad, situated in the hinterland where the Zamorin had resided before moving everybody to the coast, was not also the former Calicut. Neither the name of the place nor the exact location is known, for both were perhaps simply to be forgotten in the course of the ‘new beginning’ on the coast. Yet, we still have to deal with the fact that the entire population, certainly several thousand people, moved with their ruler. Basically, the Zamorin and his people only gave themselves a new name in a different place. The new thing, however, was the founding of the bazaar, that is the deliberate addition of a trading function. This made the city not only richer, but also larger, more cosmopolitan and multi-religious – the traces of which can be experienced in Kozhikode today.


Further Readings:

  • Ezhuthachan, Thunchaththu, ed., Keralolpatti (The Origin of Malabar) (Mangalore: Stolz & Reuther, 1868).

  • Narayanan, M.G.S., Calicut. The City of Truth Revisited (Kozhikode: Mathrubhumi Books, 2018), pp. 51-60.

  • Rau, Susanne, ‘The City: A Socio-Spatial Configuration – Reflections in a European-Indian Perspective’, in Proceedings of the Kerala History Congress, ed. by T. Muhammedali (presented at the 6th annual session, Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala History Congress, 2022), pp. 1–16. [This article contains the translation of a paragraph of Keralolpatti.]

  • Rubiés, Joan Pau, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance. South India Through European Eyes, 1250-1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).


Susanne Rau studied History, Romance Languages and Literatures and Philosophy in Tübingen, Reims and Hamburg. She received a PhD in Medieval and Modern History in 2001 at Hamburg University and her habilitation in 2008 at Dresden University. Since 2009 she is Professor of Spatial History and Cultures at Erfurt University and since 2011 regular visiting professor at the ENS Lyon and the CIHAM, France. She has published widely in urban history and in the theory, history and anthropology of spaces, including the history of cartography. Since 2018 she is a spokesperson of the Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (DFG FOR 2779) in Erfurt.


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