Saturday, 20 March 2010

Palakkad [or Palghat] Fort] Early History 1757-1766 Part 1.

Figure 1. Palakkad Fort, Courtesy of Google Earth. [ Please click on this image and subsequent ones for larger images.]

For anyone with an interest in forts who travels to Kerala, Palakkad or Palghat Fort has to be one of the most interesting sites to visit.

This austere and irregular fort is however also a puzzle as it is neither entirely Indian in form, nor yet is it a "European" fort. It represents a sort of fusion or transitional fort featuring aspects of both Indian and European design.

Very little is recorded in readily available sources about the fort except its capture on three occasions by the British, and recapture on two occasions by the Mysorean's, and so although I have known about the fort for several years, I could find out very little about its history.

A couple of days ago however whilst researching other forts in Thalassery and Kannur, I stumbled onto some most fascinating documents in the British Library from 1797 and 1798.

These throw new light onto the history of the fort, and enable us to date several of the features in the fort, and to even detail how much they cost to build.

Figure 2. Palakkad's strategic position.

From Figure 2, it can be seen that the fort at Palghat occupies a very important location astride almost the only pass in the entire chain of the Western Ghats that can be easily passed by a cavalry army. There are other passes at places like Periah, but these are extremely steep and in Hyder Ali's time, were limited in use to Tribals and merchants carrying goods very largely by porters on what were little more than steep footpaths.

Hyder, the new Muslim ruler of the Deccan, tried to, but failed to break the stranglehold on the East or Coromandel Coast ports, controlled by hostile French, Dutch and English Companies, he hoped to break out to the west coast by invading the predominantly Hindu states on the Malabar coast.

Trade had been carried on for centuries from ports like Cochin, Calicut, Cannanore and Ponnani by Moplah merchants to the Gulf and Red Sea. Much of this trade in precious goods had travelled through the Palghat region.

An extremely good article on the importance of the Palghat Gap to trade in southern India during the period before 1770 can be found on Manmadhan Ullattil's blog post of 20th February 2010 in his "Historic Alleys" blog. [1]

Hyder's army was a predominantly cavalry army and it was experienced in using cannons to take the many forts that were dotted across the Deccan plains.

The coastal Rajah's armies in the 18th Century Malabar region were made up almost entirely of infantry, and these were mainly recruited from a caste of warrior farmers called Nairs.

The area to the west of the crest of the Ghats was thickly covered in dense forests or marshy valleys filled with Paddy fields. It was ideal for what is now known as Guerrilla warfare.

As the East India Company was to find out for itself, any army approaching the Ghats would soon find itself being ambushed by archers concealed along the forest edge and opposed at stockades built across passes.

The Malabaris don't appear to have built forts for themselves in the way that the other Indian states had before the arrival of the Muslims from central Asia or the later European's.

They relied on the forests, rivers and swamps for protection from invasion.

With the arrival of first the Portuguese and then the Dutch these coastal rulers experienced the power of European forts. The Travancore rulers were the first to adopt forts, using captured Dutch soldiers under Eustachius De Lannoy. [2]

Hyder knew however that in order to defeat the coastal Rajah's at Calicut, Cochin and Cannanore, he would have to defeat these Rajah's European allies.

Over the previous century the European's had built up a series of coastal forts, initially to protect their trade goods as these were assembled for the annual arrival of the trading ships from Europe, but which were increasingly being used to wage war on the other European settlements or to hold down client Rajah's as the balance of power subtly changed from the European's being present in Cochin, Calicut and elsewhere on sufferance, to their increasingly dominating affairs in these settlements.

Hyder would have to bring cannon and supplies for what was going to be a protracted campaign and process of colonisation.

He was going to occupy and establish his own Empire on the coast.

Palghat Fort's earliest history is little known. Before 1757 the area was ruled by the Palghat Achchan, and was nominally under the rule of the Zamorin's of Calicut. The Zamorin's were however becoming much less powerful than they had previously been. The Palghat Achchan seems to have taken the opportunity to try to break away, and faced by a counter attack from the Zamorin he appealed for support to Hyder Ali Naik, a rising military officer in the Mysore state.

In 1756-7, the Zamorin had advanced his forces into the Palghat area seizing an area he called Naduvattam. The Palghat Raja sent a deputation to Hyder Ali who was Foujar of Dindigul, a major fort about 95 miles to the south east of the Palghat gap.

Hyder sent his brother in law Mukhdum Sahib with 2,000 horse and 5,000 infantry and some guns to Palghat and these forces were able to push down the Ponnani Valley defeating the Zamorin's army. A fine of 1,200,000 Rupees was claimed from the Zamorin, and the Zamorin tried to stop Hyder by appealing to the Mysore Court over his head. They approached Deo Raju, who sent Rajput troops under Herri Sing to try to collect the monies owed to Hyder Ali from the Zamorin. On the 19th of June Deo Raj was killed at Seringapatam, and Herri Sing was killed by a force under Mukhdum Sahib a few days later. Hyder had removed one of the last barriers to his taking over power at the Mysore Court. He also had the pretext of the unpaid indemnity to use when he next wished to invade the Malabar again.

Hyder Ali [3] first seriously came to notice of the European's on the west coast of India in January 1763, when he attacked and captured Bednur and later Mangalore. The Muslim's on the Malabar Coast had at times a difficult relationship with many of the Hindu Rajah's. As the numbers of Muslim's grew they sort to expand out from the small settlements into Hindu areas. This led to petty covert wars and even overt warfare.

The Rajah's of Travancore and Cochin and the Zamorin from Calicut were also at war with each other in 1762.

This next invasion was not long in coming. When seriously threatened the coastal Muslim communities appealed again for support from their co-religionists to Hyder Ali. At this stage there is no mention of the presence forts at Palghat.

In 1766 Hyder invaded the Malabar in force, and it was in support of this attack which affected the entire coast from Cannanore to Cochin that I believe Hyder ordered the fort at Palakkad to be built. [4]

Hyder was aware of the improved military techniques that the French in particular were bringing to India. The Mysore forces contained a number of French engineering officers familiar with cannons and artillery fortifications.

By the 15th of March 1766 Hyder's army was on the boundaries of Cannanore and Tellicherry.

They entered Mahé on the 6th of April, and entered Calicut shortly after, causing the Zamorin to commit suicide by setting his own palace on fire whilst he himself remained inside.

The army under Hyder intended to stay, and Logan says that his forces established block houses called lakkidikottas or wooden forts. Hyder's advance slowed as he approached the Travancore Lines previously built under the instruction of De Lannoy.

Hyder then sent off east to return to his home territory before the onset of the approaching monsoon. He left a force of 3,000 men on the coast supported by a force from the Ali Raja of Cannanore. An experienced official called Madanna was left to leveé contributions from the area.

Shortly after Hyder's main force had left the region a rebellion or uprising broke out in which the local Rajah's, Nairs and others rapidly over ran the smaller Mysorean garrisons and forts.

Hyder's garrisons at Calicut and Ponnani were besieged and the routes back to Coimbatore were cut so that messengers could not get through.

Reza Sahib, Hyder's local commander eventually got a message out by paying a Portuguese sailor to navigate his way overland by compass, presumably so that he could cut across country to avoid the tracks that the Nairs would have under observation.

Hyder was forced to re-invade the country that autumn during the Monsoon. The Nairs built an entrenched camp near a village called Pondiaghari, which was in the Ponnani Valley. The attack on this village was led for Hyder by a mixed group of English, Portuguese and French soldiers and renegades from their respective countries East India Company forces.

Following a bitter battle lasting many hours the stockades around the village were stormed and Nairs defeated. Following this victory a campaign of oppression and reprisal followed with many Nairs marched off to Mysore and many others forced to convert.

Returning to Mysore Hyder, mindful of the recent uprising and the cutting of communications is believed to have instructed his officers to build the fort at Palghat.

In the next part, I will explore the forts construction by Hyder and the sieges it suffered.

[3] For a good brief account of Hyder Ali's early years see
[4] See William Logan's Malabar Manual, Volume I pages 399 to 437 for a veery good account of these events.


Maddy said...

Hi Nick - nice article, in particular, the comment you made about Malabar rulers resorting to the forests is interesting. While recently reading another contemporary history book by Zainuddin Makhdum 2, I read that the act of warfare in Nair Malabar was the old fashioned face front head on war without treachery or deceit (I think Barbosa & Varthema also testify to this). So there was no need to hide behind a fort, because you will never be attacked at the wrong time of the day by one you trusted or did not..right or wrong, that was how it was...

Hyder supported Palghat against the Zamorin only because he was told he could build a fort...and thus prepare for the next phase of his invasions of Malabar & hopefully Travancore.

I do not quite believe he was interested in the trade revenue or mastery over trade, he just needed quick and steady revenue for his own war effort by way of heavy tributes exacted by instilling pure fear due to strategic and violent invasions of these rich kingdoms at various times, with additional threats to destroy one's caste. That was the real clincher on the fickle mind of the medieval Malabari Nayar & Brahmin who both had by then gained much by their superior caste position.

Nick Balmer said...

Hello Maddy,

You make an interesting point about Hyder's motivation. Many of these Indian warlords must have been in much the same dilemma that had faced European mercenary leaders like Wallenstein or Tilly.

Without patronage and access to plunder, how could you keep your armies in check and onside. How could you also do this without in effect destroying your own country.

You had if possible to direct them into your neighbours territory as much as possible, so that they got their pillage and supplies at somebody else's expense.

This might be where the difference in approach comes with the Nairs.

Nairs operated for generations in a comparatively narrow strip of land. They probably didn't wish to exterminate their opponents completely, and were probably also often related to the opposing Nairs.

Their wars were probably regulated a bit like the wars in Europe between say France and Britain, when extreme brutality was a comparatively rare event, and battles were relatively formalised affairs.

Where it breaks down is were wars are between people's with very different cultural backgrounds or where competing religions get involved.

This is borne out by the atrocities that took place when Hyder's armies came to Malabar with its mass enforced conversions and ethnic cleansing.

I believe that these events led to a break up of the highly structured society that had existed in Malabar before.

It certainly seems to have led to floods of refugees from the countryside moving into Tellicherry and Cochin to escape the unrest.

Maddy said...

yes, Nick that is correct. While the Cochin and Travancore kings were paying tribute to Haider, the Zamorin was avoiding it - for he had little money and the demands were too great.

Yes, the entire society and amicable relations broke up with the Hyder Tipu invasions..Tipu never became friendly with the wealthy Moplah traders, he taxed them heavily too - so there was no way he could have profited from that trade even by force. Also the supply lines from the hill terrains had broken down and he himself had razed large parts of pepper cultivations in Malabar..

Anonymous said...

Dear Maddy,
Can You get any info on Palakkad from Logans Manual and can share it. We want to know more aboutthe mention of agraharams in Logans manual.


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Sunilkumar p said...

Hi , I would like to ivite your attraction to fortress of kerala especially of Calicut forts , it was recorded in earliest travellers like varthema , Abdu razag , Vasco de gama giving details of calicut zamorins fort with half sq KM width , and many palace records it again and again indicates , fort walls each side , and the maot , and the granite pillar door frames and doors ...
More over we recived an granite heavy piller recently from calicut town while digging , which was clearly correspond to the above mentioned pillers
As a calicat native person I have special interest on it and can give many proof also to it thank you

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Anonymous said...

Nice article but a small doubt about actual age of fort