Walking through the streets of Calicut (I)

As the readers of this blog already know, I currently come to Calicut frequently. The official name of the city is “Kozhikode” (in Malayalam: കോഴിക്കോട്), but the word is difficult for Europeans to pronounce, so we better stay with Calicut. Arab traders are said to have given it this name (Qāliqūṭ).

When we think of large Indian cities today, we usually think of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Calcutta, or perhaps Bangalore. These are all megacities today or they will be in a few years. We could also call them ‘global cities’ because they are commercial and financial centres with networks that span the globe. Of course, caution is always advisable when we transfer modern concepts to the past. But I would like to show to what extent, since the late Middle Ages, one or the other city understood itself to be global, in the sense of globally networked trade relations or a religious centre which attracted people from all over the world – sometimes both.

From today’s point of view, Calicut is not a city that stands out in demographic, religious or economic terms. It has about half a million inhabitants, or two million if you include the entire agglomeration. This puts the city around the 100th position in the Indian city ranking. This was different in the late Middle Ages and early modern times.

Calicut was already at that time an internationally known port and a trading centre. This also has to do with its prehistory. Since the early Middle Ages, Arab traders settled here. Ibn Batuta from Tangier already determined in the middle of the 14th century that there was an important port in Calicut, to which traders from many distant regions would come. Vasco da Gama landed here in 1498, after he had succeeded in finding the sea route to India. The Portuguese built a fortified factory in 1513, but abandoned it in 1525 for fear of it falling into the hands of the enemy. In 1616, the English followed them. In 1766, Haidar Ali took the city; in 1782, the British occupied it.

The more Europeans – especially the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British – entered the South Asian markets, the more trade in Calicut and thus the importance of the city declined (Mathew 2006). Until at least the end of the 16th century, however, Calicut was one of the most important seaports and trading centres connecting Malacca in the east with Venice in the west.

In Europe, too, the city was known early amongst the merchant communities and in the scholarly milieu. The view of Calicut in the city book by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg, published between 1572 and 1618, is evidence of this.

View of Calicut from 1572. (See here for copyright details).

On the cartouche one can read: “Calechut Celeberrimum Indiae Emporium”, which means “Calicut, famous Indian centre of trade”. Of the Indian cities only Kannur, Goa and Diu were otherwise present with a city view in this book.

Based on these assessments, I would like to examine in more detail how urbanity has developed in this city, or whether and how contemporary observers perceived urbanity. Or, if we take a step back, what this city looked like in the time of its greatest economic success and visibility: the houses, the streets, the squares and the buildings. And how people moved within it, how they used these places and what they thought and expected of it. In the research group “Religion and Urbanity” we are primarily investigating how religion and urbanity formed each other: “What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another?” However, since urbanity has not only been influenced by religious practices, actors and institutions, we first have to ask more general questions (under which conditions urbanity emerges and possibly disappears) in order to be able to define the specifically religious part more precisely.

In order to find answers to these questions, I first try to follow the travelers of that time on their paths through the city or try to reconstruct their descriptions. Of course, this is only possible if they have left written reports. It makes sense to distinguish here with Michel de Certeau two types of reports: map and parcours. The report type “map” describes a city “from above” as if the person were standing on a mountain or tower. With the “parcours” we can follow the traveller through the streets (see Rau 2011). The travelers, whether they are traders or pilgrims, are also basically ‘global actors’ in that they contribute in a praxeological sense – by travelling between distant places and making connections or comparisons in the narrative – to the formation of “globality” or at least an idea of it.

In a series of contributions, I will follow one traveller at a time on his way through the city or – optionally – follow him on the imaginary elevation in order to gradually construct an image of this city between the 15th and 17th century. Today we will start with François Pyrard (1578-1621), who is usually called “de Laval”, because he came from the French town of Laval in northwest France.

François Pyrard set sail from St. Malo in May 1601 in a small two-ships squadron belonging to local ship owners to sail to India, perhaps to the Moluccas. Two months later Pyrard’s ship was shipwrecked near the Maldives. The other ship sailed on to Sumatra. Together with some other sailors, Pyrard spent five years on Malé as a guest against his will. Pyrard observed the people and learned their language (Dhivehi), which gave him a deeper insight into their way of life. In 1607, during a Bengali raid on the archipelago, he was captured and taken to Chittagong. From there, i.e. far in the east, he made a long journey to the Malabar Coast, to Calicut, Cochin, Cannanore and Goa, possibly also to other cities (Bouchon 1989; Lelièvre 2014, p. 22).

The Malabar and Coromandel Coast (Peninusila Indiae citra Gangem; Nuremberg: 1733; Bern University Library)

In 1610 the group finally succeeded in returning to Europe and even to France via Africa and Brazil, where Pyrard then wrote a report on his travel adventures and observations. It was published a few years later in a total of three volumes: in 1611 first in a Discours, then in 1615 a more extensive version in two volumes (see Bibliography).

Pyrard writes not only about the layout of the city and the houses, but also about the streets and squares and the water basins, the – actually non-existent – city walls that the Europeans were always looking for, the merchants and the traded goods. The description is one of the longest we have from this period, and so dense that when reading it, one can almost grasp the ”way of life” of this city:

„The town of Calecut is the court, and, as it were, a summary of the whole kingdom. I resided there much, and I can say that it is a very fair and great city, situate on the sea-shore, in extent from one end to the other more than a league and a half of beach, and along the whole of that distance between the town and the sea are only the houses of the Moucois [i.e. Mukkuva-s], the fishermen, and other poor folks, who also have there their Pagode [read: Hindu shrine] and temples. All the beach or strand is covered with almedies, or little fishing barques, and other vessels. The circuit of the town is more than five leagues, but what is called Calecut is, in fact, a large district covered with handsome, large, and magnificent buildings and spacious enclosures, in such wise that a single house requires a very large space for all its gardens, orchards, fishponds, and plantations. And all around are mansions of this sort only, full of people, as well Nairs, Malabars, and Mahometans, as all manner of foreigners, who are welcomed there. [Nairs or Nayars is the name for a South Indian caste, warriors and land tenants.] For it is not as in the other towns of the Malabars, which are only occupied by the Malabars: here you see all sorts of temples and Pagodes, large and well built, for all the several religions, of which I shall speak anon.”

After having described location, dimensions, villa-like houses and religious diversity, Pyrard comes to infrastructure: water tanks, walls, bazaars, the harbour.

“There are many public tanks, which are very large, well paved, and furnished with balustrades of stone work, and are well cleaned and maintained. Each religion has its own; and there is one such that is a quarter of a league in ambit of the square. These are highly necessary, owing to the excessive heat of the climate. The walls of this town are not very strong: it is only enclosed with earth-works and low walls. The houses are not built in order or arranged in streets as in Europe, but are scattered about in confusion: but in one part of the town, that next to the sea, and near to the great magazine of the king called Alfandeque, there is a quarter of about a half league in circuit, which is built and arranged in streets, as in these parts. In that part of the town are only shops, of all manner of trades, artizans and merchants, which are necessary for the public weal. All this quarter has a barrier round about, although it is within the enclosure of the whole city. In these houses they keep only such furniture and utensils as are necessary.

Their markets, which they call Bazar, or little towns, are so full of people all the day long that it is difficult to pass them. These people are of all races, from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. At nightfall, everyone shuts his warehouse and shop securely with bars and heavy iron padlocks, and goes home with his family to his house, which is as I have described, with its gardens and enclosures. The buildings of this Bazar are very large and well-constructed of stone and wood, and supplied with shops, warehouses, and yards, all securely enclosed: these serve only to keep their merchandise and goods, or for the purposes of their crafts, and there they spend the day only. There are three large spaces in these enclosures, where the market is held every day of the week. This market is surrounded with gates and walls, and the gatekeepers let none pass the night in these warehouses containing the merchandise; and yet nothing is ever lost, so excellent is their judicature and police. In these enclosures remain only officers and gatekeepers, whose duty it is to keep watch and ward throughout the night. There is not a single temple there. The vessels which enter and anchor at Calecut, bringing all that merchandise, ride there with no great security, for there is no proper port or harbor, but only a roadstead, so that when the wind is from the sea they are in great peril. The land is low, and there is a little cape or promontory jutting out into the sea.”

Then he goes into more detail about the way houses are built, which he compares with that of the Maldives.

“As for the fashion and form of the buildings of the country, it is to be noted that the common people build with earth, and thatch their houses with coco-leaves, but not with such care and skill as the Maldive people. Taking some earth, they mix it with water, and mold it into large squares, which they dry in the sun, and then use for their walls; but the rich and well-to-do build with good stone, and roof with tiles. All their buildings are square, like four arcaded pavilions with a court in the middle. Their carpentry and joinery is the handsomest and prettiest it is possible to see: it is worked of diverse agreeable designs, as we do our finest sideboards and tables, and all painted. Their houses have stories, but not so many as ours. Some have two or three buildings of this style in the midst of others; that in the midst has a smaller court and arcade; the others are round about it in a square. They construct their houses and courts in this fashion, to avoid spilling or casting a drop of water or any dirt upon their floors, which are as clean as a table of highly polished wood.

All the houses of the Malabars are of this sort. They have large porches at the entrance to their houses, as well poor as rich, within the enclosure: for all their houses are enclosed with walls, – that is, those of the rich; the rest have ditches and good strong palisades of wood, and note that these are so high that when one wants to go from one house to another one must ascend a ladder of five or six steps, and so descend, while on both sides are wooden barriers which close with locks. You never see there any house but has its garden and orchard, small or large. These porches or Aviards in front of the houses are for receiving passing strangers, both for giving them meat and drink, and also a place to rest and sleep; they take them not inside their houses, so that they may depart during the night when they will, and whenever their boats, or if they be wayfarers, their fellow-travellers, are ready to depart.”

Finally, it is explained why Calicut is the most important trading city in the whole of India. Pyrard probably emphasized that the religious freedom prevailing in the city was particularly conducive to trade, especially against the background of the experiences in his home country France.

“But to return to what concerns this town of Calecut in general: it is the busiest and most full of all traffic and commerce in the whole of India; it has merchants from all parts of the world, and of all nations and religions, by reason of the liberty and security accorded to them there: for the king permits the exercise of every kind of religion, and yet it is strictly forbidden to talk, dispute, or quarrel on that subject; so there never arises any contention on that score, every one living in great liberty of conscience under the favour and authority of the king, who holds that to be a cardinal maxim of government, with a view to making his kingdom very rich and of great intercourse. If by chance there should arise any difference or disturbance on that subject, he who began it would receive corporal punishment, as being guilty of treason, without hope of pardon or remission of sentence. This is why everyone lives there in great peace and concord, notwithstanding the great diversity of races and religions of the inhabitants, and of strangers and sojourners: for besides the native Gentiles [that is, Hindus] and Mahometans, there are many Christians. In former times the Portuguese lived there, and had two towns and fortresses, which they had permission of the king to build near the sea, yet was there never friendship or any good understanding between the two; in so much that these towns and fortresses were captured and razed by the native kings and the Portuguese driven out, and at the present day they have neither town nor fortress there, as I have remarked already. At present, however, they are at peace, and the Portuguese by divers presents cultivate as best they can the friendship of this king, whom they fear more than any other. For the purposes of trade, there is at Calecut a factor on behalf of the Viceroy of Goa, assisted by a clerk, along with their wives and families. This factor is a kind of agent or ambassador, having also the power of issuing passports to the Indian merchants; for at all the harbours and ports of India, which are at peace with the Portuguese, the latter have these factors for this purpose, otherwise the merchants would have much trouble in going for passports to the Portuguese towns.

There reside also two Jesuit fathers, the one an Italian, the other a Portuguese, who are well received of the king, and get from him a pension of a hundred crowns a year, worth more than five hundred in Spain, besides what they have from the king of Portugal for their living and maintenance. They have builded a very handsome and large church, with an enclosure and cemetery attached, near the sear-shore, on ground presented by the king; and they have the king’s leave and licence to convert the people to Christianity, so long as they use no constraint. Their labours had borne good fruit at the time of my departure, for there were already a good number of new Christians [that is, converts]. They preached publicly in their church, and not elsewhere. They are very well housed, and have very fine gardens, and before their church is a large cross. The Christians all have their houses in the same quarter near to one another, which they have themselves built. There are, however, some among them that are not Christians, and even in the same house will sometimes be found inmates of different religions. [….] Having spoken of the Christians resident at Calecut, I shall proceed with what concerns the other religions that are practiced there. Among others, the Jews have their own quarter and synagogue, which none enter but they. The Mahometans, although they be of divers races and countries, yet have no difference of religion (except the Persians [i.e. Parsis]), and frequent the temple of the Mahometan Malabars. There is also another race of Gentiles besides the natives, who, albeit of the same religion, make no alliances with them, nor go to their temples, but have their own Pagode, using none other: of such are the Banians [or Vanya-s: members of the Vanya merchant community from Gujarat] of Cambaye and Diu, who have their own Bramenis, and hold them in the greatest honour. Yet the Bramenis of Malabar may freely enter their Pagode, as having common rights with them. This leads me to say that they are the one race in India who are throughout all the countries held in the highest esteem, for there are some of them among all the Gentile Indians.” (Pyrard 1887, vol. 1, p. 401-407)

— Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


Pyrard, François: Discours du voyage des François aux Indes Orientales, ensemble des divers accidens, adventures et dangers de l’auteur en plusieurs royaumes des Indes et du séjour qu’il y a fait par dix ans, depuis l’an 1601 jusques en cette année 1611… Traité et description des animaux arbres et fruicts des Indes Orientales… plus un brief advertissement pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes, Paris 1611.

Voyage de François Pyrard de Laval contenant sa navigation aux Indes orientales, aux molusques et au Brésil. Les divers accidens, adventures et dangers qui lui sont arrivez en ce voyage… avec la description des païs, mœurs, loix, façons de vivre, police et gouvernement, du trafic et commerce qui s’y fait…, 2 t. en 1 vol, Paris 1615.

Modern scholarly edition:

Voyage de Pyrard de Laval aux Indes orientales, 1601-1611 contenant sa navigation aux Maldives, Moluques, Brésil ; les divers accidents, aventures & dangers qui lui sont arrivés en ce voyage […] ; avec un petit dictionnaire de la langue des Maldives ; un traité des animaux & plantes des Indes, plus un bref avertissement & avis pour ceux qui entreprennent le voyage des Indes orientales, préface de Geneviève Bouchon; établissement du texte & notes de Xavier de Castro. Suivi en annexe de La relation du voyage des Français à Sumatra / de François Martin de Vitré, 1601-1603, 2 vols., Paris 1998.

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

The voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil, transl. Albert Gray, 2 vol. in 3, London 1887-1890.

Research literature:

Bouchon, Geneviève: A French traveler in Portuguese India (1601-1610): François Pyrard de Laval, in: STVDIA 49 (1989), p. 301-314.

Bouchon, Geneviève: Sixteenth Century Malabar and the Indian Ocean, in: Ashin Das Gupta, Michael Naylor Pearson (eds.), India and the Indian Ocean, 1500-1800, Oxford 1987, p. 162-184.

Lelièvre, Guillaume: Les précurseurs de la Compagnie française des Indes orientales, 1601-1622. Thèse d’histoire, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, 2014. HAL Id: tel-01658114

Mahlke, Stefan (ed.): Atlas der Globalisierung. Welt in Bewegung (Karten und Grafiken von Adolf Buitenhuis), Berlin 2019.

Mathew, K.S.: Calicut, the international emporium of maritime trade and the Portuguese during the sixteenth century, in: Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 67 (2006), p. 251-270.

Narayanan, M.G.S.: Calicut. The City of Truth Revisited, Kozhikode 2018 (first published: 2006).

Rau, Susanne: Zeit-Räume, Parcours und Karte. Die Raum-Erkundungen der Reisenden in frühneuzeitlichen Großstädten, in: Elisabeth Tiller, Christoph O. Mayer (eds.), RaumErkundungen. Einblicke und Ausblicke, Heidelberg 2011, p. 154-180

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay: Historicizing the Global, or Labouring for Invention?, in: History Workshop Journal 64 (2007), p. 329-334, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbm040

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