The warrior queen of Tulunadu

Rani Abbakka is the first documented freedom fighter of India

(This post is the elaborated version of my article ‘The Warrior Queen of Coast who terrified the Portuguese’ published in Deccan Herald on 09 Aug 2022. You can read the published shorter version here. This article is the complete version. Featured image credit: Deccan Herald)

This country has survived millennia of imperialism from attackers from around the world who laid eyes on its riches about 2000 years ago. That it has preserved its original ethos till date is a matter of massive surprise and admiration. We have a handful of heroic Indian radicals who believed they could face an enemy who towered miles above them in terms of resource and strength, and stood their ground against shattering odds. The story of Queen Abbakka is one such grand tale of resistance.

The First Battle of Independence was fought against the British in the 19th century but Tulunadu has had its share of colonial resistance stories from much before. In fact, the very first and the most formidable opponents to imperialism, or ‘freedom fighter’ was faced by the Portuguese invaders in Tulunadu way back in the 16th century at the beautiful coast of Ullal.

Portuguese imperialism remained unchallenged for centuries, especially in the Southern Coasts of India from where they established trades of spices and imposed heavy taxes on native rulers. However, the coastline was their stronghold; the Portuguese did not manage to penetrate much beyond, thanks to the rulers guarding the coastline including Abbakka at Ullal.

The story of Abbakka begins at Moodubidre where she was brought up, though her ancestral home was at Ullal. Her predecessors established their capital at Moodubidre, about 40 kms from Ullal, to avoid the Portuguese invasion of their heritage. Abbakka was married to Lakshmappa Bangaraja, King of Mangaluru as per the will of her predecessor Thirumala Raya III. She encouraged her husband from acceding to the unreasonable tax demands of the invaders, which he adhered by until the Portuguese threatened to attack Mangaluru and he had to surrender. This surrender was carefully fabricated by Kamaraja, Lakshmappa Bangaraja’s deceptive nephew who aimed for the throne and hoped that Abbakka would move from Mangaluru to Ullal. His conspiracies fell into place when Abbakka and Lakshmappa Bangaraja’s marriage fell apart owing to the compromises he made with the Portuguese. Abbakka moved back to her ancestral home at Ullal and took up the reigns of the kingdom as she was entitled to. Three of her children went with her as well.

Rani Abbakka
Picture credit – Hindujagruti.org

Post their conquest of Mangaluru, the Portuguese eyes fell on Ullal where they made heavy tax demands which Abbakka outright declined to pay. The kingdom of Ullal paid some taxes to the invaders in the past which were halted when Abbakka became Queen. She realized that she had incited the wrath of the Portuguese with her actions, in response to which she strengthened her army and her kingdom’s security. She placed guards on the lookout facing the sea, established a fort around her palace from specially crafted wood and recruited men of all backgrounds to her army. The Somanatha temple of Ullal became the central infrastructure for all administrative and warfare meetings led by Abbakka.

Abbakka’s first resistance move against the Portuguese was an attack she planned with her Minister Narnappa and Military Head Timmanna Naika. Her intent was to send a clear message to the Portuguese that exploitation of the native population through imposition of taxes will not be tolerated. The night after meticulous planning at the Somanatha temple, she and her men set out to sea at nights and began destroying Portuguese ships that sailed close to her territory.

After multiple incidents of destruction of ships, the Portuguese Navy strategized an attack on Ullal in response. This attack was the first large scale attack on Ullal which took place in 1567. At dawn, seven Portuguese ships with 3000 soldiers arrived to the coast of Ullal where the soldiers began capturing, killing and torturing native fishermen. They threatened a full-fledged attack and let some of them go to be messengers. By evening, they sent Abbakka a letter from the ships stating that they’ll launch an attack by night if the taxes weren’t submitted immediately.

Abbakka called her men and discussed the situation; in response to which a counter-attack was planned at Ullal. Her Ministers, soldiers and even the villagers were in support of it. Abbakka sent a response to the letter asking for 48 hours of time for deliberation, which the Portuguese considered a victory, for they assumed the attack of the dawn had instilled fear in the Queen. Abbakka, however, gathered boats, men, torches and local explosives to set their ships on fire.

Come night, the soldiers of Ullal sailed close to the ships in small boats and torched the unsuspecting ships with its soldiers. When two of the ships were aflame, rest of them recoiled sensing imminent danger, and the night belonged to the brave Queen and her equally valiant soldiers.

The war, however, was far from over and both ends knew it. Abbakka knew it well that there will be a retaliation; for which she began preparations instantly. Every village household was handed simple weapons and was asked to remain alert.

The Portuguese took shelter at the port of Mangalore for the time being and strategized their next move- a savage attack on Ullal which would give them no time to reflect or recover. This attack took place on 6th of January in 1567 where the imperial soldiers fired and attacked Ullal like brutes in large numbers. The brave men and women of Ullal fought back as much as they could but they were no match to the trained Portuguese soldiers armed with guns. Hell broke loose in the village of Ullal where Abbakka was fighting alongside her soldiers too; but the sights around her where her men were butchered or burnt down disheartened the brave Queen. It made her give in to the moment and back out of the battlefield; to the safety of her Talapady fort.

Realizing that the Queen had moved out of the battlefield to safety, her Ministers Narnappa and Timmanna Naika decided that surrender was the best way out for the moment. They laid down their weapons and agreed to pay the taxes so that the invaders would stop destroying Ullal.

This defeat cost Ullal dearly. The Portuguese looted the village and further imposed taxes on them. After this battle, they established a new fort at the Poyye coast of Mangalore with the help of Kamaraja who also rejoiced at the Queen’s defeat. Now, the not only did the Portuguese have a stronghold over the finances of Ullal, they also had a strong backup at the Mangalore fort which ensured them military dominance.

The Queen returned from Talapady after a while but it took her years to amend the damages of war. But her ambition to rid the Coastline of Portuguese invaders was far from extinguished. She always looked for new and more practical ways to counter them but it proved harder than before considering the growing military and economic stronghold of the Portuguese in Tulunadu.

The news of the Zamorin King (located in Calicut) chasing and torching Portuguese ships inspired her. Abbakka heard that the Zamorin ruler’s soldiers were better trained, as was their military leader Kutti Pokare. With counsel from her Ministers, she wrote to Kutti Pokare to join forces with her navy and attack the Portuguese. The letter received a positive response in the form of Kutti Pokare himself arriving to Ullal with six small ships and a plan of attack for the very night he arrived. He sailed to Mangalore with his and Abbakka’s men to set the Mangalore bazaars on fire and returned without as much as a scratch on his army. Right after that instigative attack, he went back to Zamorin with a promise of returning with a bigger army.

The promise was kept and when Kutti Pokare joined forces with Ullal to attack the Portuguese fort in Mangalore, it was an ambitious day. The plan was to impregnate the Mangalore fort and attack from within. Soldiers began climbing the fort in the middle of the night using ladders but unfortunately, an Officer spotted a few of them from inside the fort. With nothing else available for defence, he dropped suitcases of silver coins collected in taxes over the climbing soliders, which resulted in commotion and a battle broke out. Kutti Pokare soon realized that it would be a waste of lives to fight a battle against soldiers armed with guns – so he ordered a retreat. The soldiers returned, but with the suitcases of silver.

It was a yet another defeat; but the intensity of it was lessened greatly by Kutti Pokare’s presence of mind. Abbakka and her Ministers still weren’t convinced that this was the end of their vision. They decided that no matter how small or insignificant it gets, their fight against Portuguese imperialism will continue. The Queen had dedicated her entire life for this fight; she wouldn’t give up.

Rani Abbakka
Picture credit – @beautyoftulunad

In 1581, Abbakka declined from paying taxes again. A few letters of warning were passed, but the Queen remained firm in her decision. The Portuguese launched an attack again with 3000 soldiers, and history repeated itself at Ullal. Armed soldiers drowned Ullal’s ships, looted the village, and even set fire to the wooden fort around Abbakka’s palace. This time, however, Abbakka fought until she was wounded severely on the back of her head. Her soldiers carried her back to her palace where her physical wounds slowly recovered. But the disdain of defeat did not deteriorate this time. For a few months after her final battle, she led a life of great mental agony and isolation until she breathed her last. 

The warrior Queen is a hero in Tulunadu who has an entire museum dedicated to her, located at Bantwal. Her story isn’t one with a happy ending; in fact it is of a series of defeats in the hands of the better armed enemy but it is one of unmatched persistence in colonial resistance. She was India’s first freedom fighter. She was backed by some equally radical men and their stories are worth telling for as long as India recollects its freedom struggle. It all began from here at Tulunadu.

Rani Abbakka article Deccan Herald
Published article on Deccan Herald

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