Rani Abbakka Chowta was the first female freedom fighter that India has seen. She was the first Tuluva Queen of Ullal (present-day Mangalore) and was crowned queen of Ullal by her uncle Tirumala Raya in 1525, as the Chowta’s followed a matrilineal system. Her uncle also arranged for her to marry – this unity however ultimately led to her losing Ullal and it also resulted in her death.
From a young age, Rani Abbakka Chowta was trained to be a good ruler. She was taught how to wield a sword and how to fight with one, military strategies, archery, diplomacy and other subjects on what was needed to make a kingdom run.
She ruled over a kingdom that consisted of mainly Hindus and Muslims. Though she was a Jain, her administration comprised Muslims and Hindus. The diversity of her army knew no bounds. The men from the Mogaveera Muslim fishermen section of society were an extremely powerful asset for her to have since it helped immensely in her naval battles with the Portuguese.
Conflict with the Portuguese and colonialism
After the Portuguese discovered a new trade route to India with Vasco Da Gama’s help and with European colonialism at its peak, they ended up having a monopoly of the Indian Ocean within twenty years of Vasco Da Gama’s discovery. This was after setting up a number of forts in regions that outlined the Indian ocean, namely India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and even Macau in China. This went undisputed by other European traders, who only arrived on the scene during the 17th century and further strengthened their hold on all the spice routes to India.
The Indian ocean, which was once a free trade zone, required that traders pay a permit to the Portuguese. Adding to this, the Portuguese had superior naval skills and a large army which helped them in controlling local rebellions against their tax policies – rendering them somewhat indestructible.
Rani Abbakka’s small kingdom was situated in the western coastal region of India, which caught the attention of the Portuguese after they captured Goa and set up various ports along the Mangalore coastal line. Ullal was a fertile region and an important port for the export of spices and textiles, which was flourishing under the leadership of Rani Abbakka Chowta.
The Portuguese could not extort money from Ullal, even after repeated attempts at threatening Rani Abbakka. She refused to accede to their ridiculous demands and continued to defy them by letting her ships continue trade with the Arabs, despite being attacked ferociously by the Portuguese.
Ullal being a strategically placed port was the Portuguese’s next target to conquer after conquering other ports on that coastal region. The non-compliance of Rani Abbakka Chowta only fuelled their want for capturing her territory.
Their first attempt at capturing Ullal was a failure, as the Portuguese didn’t think much of a thirty-something-year-old queen being able to drive out their highly skilled soldiers. However, she skillfully deflected the attack and won the first of many battles against the Portuguese.
The next round of battles
The next major attack against her took place in 1556 when the Portuguese sent a large fleet commanded by Admiral Don Alvaro de Silveira to capture Ullal, she once again fought valiantly and ended up beating them. The Portuguese came back defeated and embarrassed.
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Battles between the two only kept on intensifying after that period. The Portuguese, however, could never win a battle against her. Her army consisted of people from various castes, religions and sections of society. With this diversity, she ended up mobilizing her people to persistently oppose the Portuguese. For this, she was given the name ‘The Fearless Queen‘.
The battles that occurred next were fought by forging alliances with Zamorin of Calicut and other Muslim rulers south of Tulunadu – which helped her retaliate further.
As the attacks grew drawn out and longer, her resilience to the cause only strengthened. In 1568 when João Peixoto, the Portuguese general managed to take over Ullal with his fleet, entering her royal grounds. She was resilient as ever, and escaped, taking refuge at a mosque.
She was enraged by their actions, and with that set forth to get Ullal back from the foreigners. Gathering two hundred of her best warriors, she attacked them that same night, killing the General Peixoto and seventy of his soldiers.
Her strategic military attacks enabled her to take back her city. After collaborating with five hundred of her Muslim supporters, she ended up killing Admiral Mascarenhas. With the help of Muslim soldiers, she took back the Mangalore fort, which the Portuguese were forced to vacate.
However, that was not the end of the attacks against her. The Portuguese soon tried to attack her again. Rani Abbakka Chowta was skilled in diplomacy and formed an alliance with the Bajipur Sultan of Ahmed Nagar and the Zamorin of Calicut immediately.
She was however betrayed by her husband (legend has it that they were estranged) who conspired with the Portuguese to topple her from power. When the Portuguese finally defeated her, she was immediately imprisoned, yet she still managed to head a single-handed revolt within bars and was eventually killed in the revolt itself.
Rani Abbakka Chowta’s legacy
Her legacy now lives on through memory in Dakshin Karnataka in the form of folk songs, stories and performances of Yakshagana – a form of local theatre. In a local ritual dance, a person recounts the brave and heroic actions of Rani Abbakka Chowta.
Kannada’s Bantwal Taluk has a museum in her name, known as the Tulu Baduku Museum, created by historian and professor Thukaram Poojary. The Indian navy, in order to honour her, named an Inshore Patrol Vessel after her.
Bronze statues of Rani Abbakka Chowta have been erected in both Ullal and Bangalore. Her memory is cherished in her hometown of Ullal and the Veera Rani Abbakka Utsava is an annual celebration held in her name. The Veera Rani Abbakka Prashasti is an award given to distinguished women on that day.
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