It is a pleasure to pen a detailed history of a queen in Malnad territory who happens to be in the league of queen Victoria and Elizabeth, in fact she happens to predecessor who de-facto ruled their domain with hands on experience derieved from their legacy. History is penned from skeleton remains but if one pens it with passion flesh and blood can be added to historical facts.
Gang of temple courtesans play games on their veranda,
Courtesans shake the dice with one hand and their braids come undone,
When they raise the other hand to fix their hair, their tight silken blouse and perfectly firm breasts are revealed.
Like a soft round pillows of the goddess of Love ( Venus )
As they cast their dice, the mere jingle of their bracelets,
Is suffice to disrupt the hearts and mind of the sages in meditation
( Amuktamalayada 1.59 ) Krishnadevaraya ( 1509-1529 )
While the emperor was on his routine hunting trip he falls the local beauty Chinna Amma Devi who rescues him from the King Cobra and he than stays back and procreates a baby girl who is named as Chenamma Devi. Siddappa Shetty from Kundapur becomes a foster father under the guidelines of the emperor. She grows up among the martian family with lot of encouragement from her mother to take up task of heading a kingdom in future. She is trained in guerilla warfare in the jungles of Malnad from an young age. Training regime including riding horse, archery, taming elephants, hunting wild boar, sambha and tigers. She is seasoned to snake poison with small doses of Cobra venom from childhood, so that she does not fall victim in future to snake poisoning.
Agumbe ghats being infested with King Cobra was definitely a possible source of danger for tribals and farmers. She was made to over come fear and learned the art of capturing a King Cobra which was a rare talent. Public of the area revered and prayed King Cobra as a power diety.
Yakshagana is a dance drama carried out from dusk to dawn during the Dusherra season primarily. It was also known as Bailatta ( play conducted on open fields where buffuloes ploughed ) Yakshagana thus was a combination of folk music, parody, dance, drama, myth and a host of local twists to entertain common folks. Royal had courtesans to entertain them throughout the year but this became a popular entertainment forum.
She also excelled in the local dance drama known as Yakshagana wherein she would don the guise of Bhairavi which is fiercest form Durgama. She moved on the stage with dexterity with her dance forms. It was almost martial in nature slaying the wicked demons. Since Yakshagana was perfomed throughout the night she got used to staying up late hours. She thus earned the title of Bhairav Devi.
During her teenage she used to enter the forest to pluck spices and cashew which grew in abundance because of the fertile soil and plenty of rainfall in the region. She gained first hand knowledge of the spices which later became her forte for revenue garnering. She thus became known to the Portuguese as Raina da Pimenta or the simply the peper queen.
Since they hailed from a small village near Barkur, which was a jain bastion she was influenced by Jainism. Thus she had developed beauty and grace with her dancing skills, martial temper was honed by her association with the gurukul and than her guerilla skills in taming the King Cobra made her a personality beyond compare. She started receiving marriage proposals from various suitors.
After the fall of Vijaynagar Empire, the local feudatories were in dire straits. Keladi Nayaks broke away and formed an empire spreading from the Malnad, North Kanara and South Kanara regions. Shivappa Naik’s ( 1645-1660 ) one of the greatest rulers of Keladi dynasty identified his grandson Shomsekhar Nayak I to be an able successor. He gets him married to Chenamma Bhairav Devi looking into her potential to ably assist in administration.
Somshekar Nayak I ( 1664 – 1672 ) initially listens to his wife and focusses on administration and keeping the Portuguese at Bay. The Portuguese had set up base for trading in Goa, and extended their presence upto Honnavar harbour. The age difference of almost 15 years was a big barrier in understanding, slowly he starts withdrawing from day to day administration and hands over the reigns to his wife Chenamma. He meanwhile falls into the trap of dancer Kalavathi, who pockets him with wine and her physical passion. Her aunt Bharame Mauta induces slow poisoning into the drinks of Somshekar, eventually he succumbs to it.
Portuguese see this as an opportune moment and lay seize on further territories upto Bhatkal to garner monopoly of spice trade which was in great demand in Europe and rest of the world.
Chenamma had no time to grieve the death of her husband, she starts recouping the divided clan and by convincing them that they will become slaves of Europeans unless they unite and fight against their invasion. She had trusted generalS who were close to her in Bhadrappa and Chennabasavasetti. Gurubasappa Devaraya was made the chief counsellor in the mould of the maverick Chanakya.
They quickly assessed the situation and started building fortress at Mirjan, and fortified all the coastal forts such as Honnavar, Bhatkal, Karwar, Bekal and Mangalore. She displayed a rare courge by providing asylum to Rajaram, son of Shivaji Maharaj, against the forces of Emperor Aurangazeb.
On coming to know Aurangazeb about her audacity to provide asylum to Rajaram he sent a formidable force to defeat her and subjugate her empire. She being trained in guerilla warfare gave a horrid time to the Moghuls who were forced to retreat. Rajaram was finally escorted to safety by her troops back to his kingdom. Historians have acknowledged her brave act as a genuine valour and courage against an empire.
The main source of income for her empire came in trading gems, spices, honey, sandlewood, cashewnuts, cardamonon, honey, teak wood, etc. She bartered best of the horses for the same with Portuguese. A portion of the treasury from the fallen Vijayanagar empire too fell into her possession. She was benevolent in donation and established mutts and goshala. Many water reservoirs were constructed during her reign.
She gave lavish donation to Mookambika temple Kollur, and granted them land for upkeep of the temple. She also passed her largesse to Sringeri Mutt, Gokarna, Udupi and Barkur Temples. She established a dargah at Bhatkal and gave permission to build churches along the coast starting from Karwar, Kumta and Mangalore. During her long reign extensive renovation and contruction of temples belonging to various sects of Hinduism and Jainism were undertaken. The temple complex of Banavasi, Keladi, Ikkeri, Hosagunda etc were focus of attention. She gave the artisans of the day plenty of freedom of expression wherein erotica were exhibited in a miniature format.
She realised the importance of building broad roads on coastal route from Karwar to Kasargod, for quick troop movement. This enabled her to ensure law and order in her kingdom along with trade routes being protected. This made the Portuguese to deal with her with respect and dignity. Historians have recorded the same ““We must deal with her, most carefully and diplomatically. We must be courteous, polite and diplomatic to win her to our side”
Rani Chenamma did not have any issue and she adopted Basavappa as heir apparent to the throne. She slowly handed over the reigns and retired to follow religious and devotional life. Before departing she gave her adopted son
“Do not go back on your words. At no time and nowhere you should neglect your duties. Take care to speak always in a wholesome way. Do not disclose your intentions to the wicked. Do not go astray. Do not be partial to your kinsmen. Refrain from committing sins. Do good deeds. Always remember God. Have compassion for all living objects. Give protection to those who come to you seeking it. Do not hate others. Conduct yourself in the world with your senses under control. Conquer lust and other weaknesses and seek liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Do not, lose fortitude even in the face of dangers. When you come by riches, do not be conceited. Contemplate on philosophical values. Grasp the purpose of non-dualism. Do not lose opportunities. Honour those who are versed in Humanity,Well being. Consider this life as a dream. Reflect on the question “Who am I ? “. Laugh, but in such a way that you do not become a laughing stock. Speak in a fine way. Behave yourself in such a manner that it can win commendation of the people. Follow that path which will not bring about rebirth.”‘
Thus the reign of Rani Chenamma Bhairavi Devi marked a departure from subjugation to East India empire and colonial powers of Europe. She literally withstood the onslaught of Wodeyars, Moghuls, Bahamani rulers and diplomatically forged alliance without giving suzereignity to Portuguse or Danish traders. Her era marked by fortifications of the entire Western coast extending from Karwar to Cannanore. She held sway over the ports, trading routes and had a formidable army to back up in case of conflicts. The revenue generated from trading was substantial enough to build edifices in Keladi, Ikkeri, Banavasi, Belligavi, etc. Her reign was filled with religious tolerance, wherein people were free to follow religion of their choice. She started the practise of celebrating Dusherra and it was filled with festivity, fireworks and dance and drama specially Yakshagana. Competitions and awards were instituted to felicitate the artisans of the time. Thus Rani Chenamma’s was filled with cultural diversity and commercial progress. In an era of strife and discord she managed to keep the empire united.
Epilogue : Rani Chenamma’s probably got overshadowed and relegated because of practise of elogising reigns of Marathas, Moghuls, Wodeyars and British. Her valour can be judged her defence against powerful conterparts such as Moghuls, Wodeyars, Bahamanis and Portuguese.
Acknowledgemen : Gazetteer of Mysore, Wiki, Youtube videos, Travellers tales……etc