Indian queens have always left not only their natives in awe but also the foreign invaders mesmerized. The Portuguese were a group of people who invaded India, and when they saw Rani Chennabhairadevi, they were surprised by her intelligence and her expertise in trade. They gave her the name Raina-Da-Pimenta – ‘The Queen of Pepper’.
“The coasts of Karnataka would never forget her name,
She was a fighter who never gave up, elegantly she played her game.
Her ways and tactics gave her the fame
Kingdoms she ruled, for generations she paved the lane.”
Rani Chennabhairadevi belonged to the Nagire Province of the Saluva dynasty well known as Gerusoppa. She was the younger sister of Chennadevi, the wife of Immadi Devaraya of Gerusoppa. The king died while fighting against the Portuguese. The Portuguese captain Alfonso D’Souza attacked Bhatkala, defeated Chennadevi and burnt down Bhatkala -the capital city. He accused Chennadevi for sheltering Mohammaden noncartage ships and for not paying tribute(kappa) as per their agreement. Now Chennabhairadevi had to take over the rule.
According to the New Indian Express, “Gerusoppa, situated on the banks of the river Sharavathi in Uttara Kannada, was under the control of the Vijayanagara kings. In the decentralised Vijayanagara empire, various regions were ruled by royal families known as Mahamandaleshwaras. Inscriptions state her kingdom extended from south of Goa to Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada, and Malabar. This region is not only known for harbors like Bhatkala, Honnavar, Mirjan, Ankola and Baindur but also for pepper.”
Present amidst a heavily forested land, Gerusoppa has always enchanted people. It is home to art and architecture, a kingdom which quietly contributed to the fame of the then world’s richest Vijayanagara Empire. It is an area that stays quiet in the woods, but is a gem consisting of the most beautiful stone carvings and rich history.
Captain Alfonso in a letter to the king of Portugal says “Between Batikala(Bhatkala) and Goa there are places called Onor(Kanur), Marzen(Mirjan) and Ankola. I have heard they export 5000 cruzados (a fifteenth century Portuguese fold coin) of pepper annually. These places are under the rule of the queen of Gerusoppe(Chennabhairadevi). These peppers are thicker, heavier, spicier than black pepper. These places should be taken under our control.”
Hence the Portuguese waged war on Gerusoppe, not once but twice once in 1559 and once in 1570. The queen won both wars with her brilliant strategies and un-beatable courage. Later in her old age too, she dealt with the Portuguese using diplomacy. She was a brilliant thinker. She is also credited of commanding a united army in 1571. This united army included many kings such as the Sultans of Gujarat, the Sultans of Bidar, the Adil Shahis of Bijapur, and the Jamorin rulers of Kerala.
The queen was officially known as Mahamandaleshwari Rani Chennabhairadevi. She was a Jain. She reigned from 1552 to 1606, being known as the longest ruling female ruler in India. The very famous Mirjan Fort on the banks of the Aghanshini river was built by her. She used it to control pepper trade. Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and sandalwood were exported during her reign to Europe. Honnavar and Bhatkala served as internal and international, trading centres and were of great importance as these provided for a better flourishing trade. Arabian horses and weapons were imported from the West.
She also built the Kanur fort and the Chaturmukha Basadi. She also gave shelter to the Saraswat Brahmins and the Konkanis who sought refuge to escape from the conversion being done by the Portuguese. She helped in renovating many Shaiva and Vaishnava temples. She constructed a number of Basadis. The well-known Abhinava Bhattakalanka of the Swadi Digambara Jain Math, author of the grammar book “Karnataka Shabdanushasana”, was under the patronage of Rani Chennabhairadevi. The queen was so famous that the Portuguese once said “We must deal with her most carefully and diplomatically. We must be courteous, polite, and diplomatic to win her to our side.”
Unfortunately, the queen was defeated by people from her own country. The Keladi and Bilagi chiefs with their matrimonial alliance formed a strong bond. They attacked Gerusoppe and defeated the queen. The rani was held in the Keladi prison for years and she even breathed her last there.
She received the title of ‘Queen of Pepper’ also from the Portuguese. There is also a famous bronze statue dedicated to her.
She was a brave warrior, a great diplomat, and the longest-ruling Indian queen. She was the pride of South India. People in these areas still celebrate the reign of this queen and her contributions. This is the story of Rani Chennabhairadevi-The Pepper Queen.