Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Pepper Queen

   In this post under ARCHAEOLOGICAL HERITAGE we explore the life of an enigmatic queen.

Stories of kings and queens always attract the young and the old alike. Indian history is abundant with interesting tales of brave queens.In India, where women strive to emulate Sita,are docile and meekly submit without resisting,there were valiant women taking up arms against enemies and very often succeeded in their attempts.Is it not fascinating to know about brave queens with killing instinct, warrior traits, never say ‘never’ attitude who gave nightmares to the enemies?  Here comes one such brave ruler Rani Chennabhairadevi, the queen of Gerusoppa, who ruled for 54 years, the longest rule of all the queens of India.

Brass idol of Queen Chennabhairadvi

Gerusoppa, situated on the banks of the river Sharavathi in Uttara Kannada district, was under the control of the Vijayanagara kings. In the decentralized Vijayanagara empire, various regions were ruled by royal families known as Mahamandaleshwaras. By the early 1550s Chennabhairadevi, who belonged to Saluva dynasty, became the queen. As per the inscriptions her kingdom extended from south of Goa, Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada to Malabar region. This region is best known not only for important harbors like Bhatkala, Honnavar, Mirjan, Ankola and Baindur but also for pepper. Honnavar and Bhatkala served as internal and international flourishing trading centers. Arabian horses and weapons were imported from the west. Pepper, betel nut and nutmeg were exported to Europe and Arab countries.

Idol is tiny,  but her accomplishments are huge!!

From the beginning of her rule, Chennabhairadevi found herself on confrontation with the neighboring rival kingdoms as well as the Portuguese. The attempts of the Keladi kings and Bilgi chieftains to pull the queen down turned futile. The queen had to resist the advance of the Portuguese who tried to grab the control over the ports and trade. She was at war with the Portuguese in 1559 and again in 1570 and crushed the Portuguese army with her intelligent battle strategy and defended her territory.  One of the Portuguese chronicles states that during the war of 1570 Portuguese attacked Honnavar and burnt it to the ground (a familiar Portuguese strategy). After the decline of the Vijayanagar, Chennabhairadevi dealt with the Portuguese very diplomatically, who nicknamed her ‘Raina de Pimenta’ – the Pepper Queen.

Mirjan Fort - The Queen is believed to be the resident of this fort. Later this Fort became an important trading centre.

An interesting letter sheds more light on importance of pepper trade with the Portuguese. Affonso Mexia, the Portuguese Captain of Cochin, writes to the King of Portugal, ‘Between Baticala and Goa there are certain places called Onor, Mergen and Ancola, from which I hear 5000 crusados worth of pepper are annually shipped…… these places are under the dominion of Queen of Guarcopa…..This pepper is larger than that in Cochin, but is lighter and not so hot. It appears to me that we ought to secure…..’

Chaturmukha Basadi, Gerusoppa,  originally built by Chennabhairadevi

Queen Chennabhairadvi was a Jain. The ChaturmukhaBasadi of Gerusoppa is attributed to her. She gave grants to Shaiva and Vaishnava temples too. Saraswath Brahmin businessmen and skilled Konkani craftsmen took shelter in her kingdom to escape Portuguese persecution. The famous Jain scholars Akalanka and Bhattakalaka were under the patronage the Queen. She is credited with building the Mirjan Fort and is believed to be the resident of the fort for several years.

A letter written by Jnanapeeth Awardee Dr. Shivarama Karanth, to one of the authors of this Blog, Ravi Hegde 

The Keladi and Bilgi chiefs adopted ‘Unity is Strength’ formula. Matrimonial alliances brought these two families together. The combined forces of Keladi and Bilgi attacked Gerusoppa, finally defeating the Queen. Gerusoppa came under the control of Keladi. The ageing queen was taken prisoner to Keladi and she breathed her last in prison. The Portuguese had the last laugh. If the same strategy of Unity was adopted against the foreign intruders, the History of India would have been different!!

Queen Chennabhairadevi projects herself as a powerful and courageous woman of her age, when other women stayed indoors under submission. Chennabhairadevi was the contemporary of the Queen ElizabethIof England and succeeded in ruling for the longest period against all odds. Her struggle, ups and downs in life, glory and determination are beacon lights for the modern women.    

Tempted to quote Shakespeare from Julius Caesar
         Cowards die many times before their deaths,
           The valiant never taste of death, but once.  


  1. Very nice to know about Gerusoppa and the Pepper Queen Chennabhairadevi.. ..Beautifully written article ..You 2 are doing Great Job....Ravi Hegde and Laksmi Murthy ..

  2. Enjoyed reading your article. Highly informative. Look forward to more such articles from both of you.

  3. Very well written, enjoyed it

  4. Nicely written Ma'am. Even collecting bits and pieces of historical information is commendable. After this Queen's time, did Mirjana was ruled by some Sultans? I have read somewhere that Ibn Batuta visited Mirjana and wrote that it was ruled by a local Sultan.

  5. History is mesmerizing, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it till the last lines of Shakespeare. It would be nice to share the full letter (both sides) written by of Dr Shivram Karanth.