Rani Abbakka is a Tuluva warrior queen who is truly the first woman freedom fighter of India.
But for a statue, the Karnataka government has hardly done anything to perpetuate her memory.
History says Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi is India’s first woman freedom fighter. She tops the list of 12 women freedom fighters of the country. But there has been another woman, who had fought for her motherland quite early in the 16th century and but her legacy has remained untold.
This woman is Rani Abbakka Devi Chowta, the Tuluva queen, who hailed from Karnataka’s fishing town of Ullal. Abbakka provides a great heritage to Ullal. At least three Abbakkas lived between 1530 and 1599 in the area where it is common among clans to name their children after mothers as they follow a matriarchal lineage. But Rani Abbakka lived around 1556 at Ullal and drove away the Portuguese with her ingenuity.
Prof Thukaram Poojary, head of the history department at SVS College, Buntwal, said that Rani Abbakka is clearly the first woman freedom fighter of the country who took on a better armed and equipped Portuguese. Abbakka’s rusting warfare defeated the Portugese and their imperialistic designs.
Historians say that a small regency like Ullal under Rani Abbakka had managed to defeat the well-equipped Portuguese flotilla that had all powerful cannon Galleons. Rani Abbakka was credited for having used the ‘flaming arrow’ technique for the first time outside Europe. She used coconut husk dipped in edible oil and her archers shot arrows, with the husk tied to their heads, at the Portuguese cannon, destroying many of them.
Though details of her life are sketchy, history of her valour has been passed by word of mouth. The queen was a Jain but her army and administrative set up were integrated, comprising people from all religions. Poojary has set up an exhibition in her honour in Buntwal taluk depicting Rani Abbakka as the first woman-general of the Indian independence struggle against imperialist forces. Her history was nothing less than that of Chand Bibi of Adil Shah lineage of Bijapur Sultans and Razia Sultana of Delhi’s lineage of Slave rulers. While Chand Bibi defended her turf from Mughals, Razia Sultana was the first woman ruler of Delhi in the 13th century.
“Though Rani Abbakka lived almost in the same timeline of Chand Bibi (1550-1599), she had to fight imperialist forces despite being the queen of a small kingdom and yet took on the massive naval force of Portuguese with her army of fishermen,” says Poojary.
A few other admirers of Rani Abbakka likened her to William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter, who led the Scottish army against the tyranny of Edward Longshanks. "Though they both belonged to different hemispheres and time, they both fought alienation and tyranny. We should be proud that Rani Abbakka was a woman who fought in the same spirit, which makes her legacy worthy of a national level museum in the land where she lived and fought.
In 1555, the Portuguese sent Admiral Don Alvaro da Silveira to fight the Abbakka Devi Chowta as she had refused to pay them tribute. She defied the invaders’ first command and with her army, set fire to the Portuguese flotilla.
The Karnataka government has not done anything to perpetuate her memory, though her descendents feel a befitting memorial would be the best tribute to her.
“The government has erected a crude sculptured statue of her in Ullal town and spends few lakhs of rupees every year in February for a badly organised and poorly attended Abbakka Utsav. It serves no purpose as it is highly localised and does not project Rani Abbakka at national level as the first woman freedom fighter,” says Dilip Chowta a descendent of Chowta lineage.
Abbakka’s Name Still Rings A Bell!
For some reasons Ullal had been a hot cauldron of communal incidents. For well over 20 years till 2001, Ullal had reeled under communal issues.
But then few elders like late B M Idinabba (poet and three-time MLA), late U T Fareed (four-time MLA), Jayaram Shetty, Dinakar Ullal and a small group of people came up with a plan to put an end to the communal tension in the town by enlivening the legacy of Rani Abbakka and forge communal harmony. That was when the Rani Abbakka festival was held in 2001 with communal harmony as the main theme. The first festival was totally funded by the people of Ullal and was perhaps the best one till now, say the people of the town.
“The festival has worked wonders for this riot-torn town in the last 10 years. Ten editions of the festival have since been held and the town is getting ready for the 11th edition to be held on 17 and 18 February. We have seen a number of changes in the socio-political and socio-economic milieu of Ullal and there has not been a single communal riot ever since the festivals started being held. It has brought people together and made them discover the benefits of a long-lasting peace,” says Dinakar Ullal, president of Ullal town panchayat.
Though Mangaluru has seen communal unrest over the last few years, Ullal has been totally unaffected by any such incident. “We feel it is the new found understanding between the people of different communities in Ullal, spurred by the Abbakka festival and her spirit of nationalism through communal harmony, that has worked wonders for Ullal,” said Jayaram Shetty, former member of Parliament.
“In the modern context, her legacy has helped Ullal to shed communal feelings. Police records show that except for small personal skirmishes, there has not been even a single communal flare-up in Ullal in the last 10 years,” says U T Khader, Karnataka legislator from Mangalore South (formerly Ullal). The government has released Rs 34 lakh for converting the Abbakka festival into a ‘Nada Habba’ of Ullal. In addition, the government has released Rs 2 crore for constructing Abbakka Bhavan - a community hall at Ullal.
Kannada actor Jayamala has a dream of making a film on Rani Abbakkal, her idol. “The dream of making a full-fledged film on Rani Abbakka is still inside me, but there are so many ups and downs in the industry nowadays and I am not able to galvanise my dreams into reality,” she told Swarajya
The late Dr Shivram Karanth attended a meeting on making a film on Rani Abbakka in Mangaluru two years before his death in 1997. It was convened by well-known filmmaker Richard Castelino. Then, Dr Karanth had opined that a film on Abbakka could do justice only when the social and political conditions prevailing in those times can be recreated.