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Travelling in the land of the Pepper Queen of India
CN Traveller - 8 March 2022

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Standing on the coarse, tufted, blond grass of Karnataka's Kagal Cliff, I slowly pivoted to take in the vast and staggering view. Paddy fields and prawn farms cut to a long sandy ribbon pounded by the Arabian Sea, the boundless blue stretching around to the Aghanashini estuary and mangroves, and Gokarna's lighthouse and beaches beyond. The laterite steps that eased my walk are over 400 years old, the work of Chennabhairadevi, who ruled here for 54 years—by all accounts, the longest reign by an Indian queen. In a way, I was glad that the first time I heard of the Pepper Queen—as the Portuguese knew her—was on her turf, on a trail led by Mangal Shetty, conservationist and owner of the beachfront boutique stay Panchabhuta, Retreat @ the Foundation. 

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Kagal Watchtower and its ramparts guarded maritime access to Mirjan Fort (located along the River Aghanashini, about 24km away), which early records credit to Chennabhairadevi. Kagal Cliff has some remnants of over a dozen lookout points, and is grooved with pits that the queen's troops and their horses used as resting spots. Open to wind and sun, dotted with cashew trees whose sweet fruit leave an astringent taste, this land is far from the stained glass and golden thrones that would frame your standard queen. All the more frustrating then that the most we have on this formidable ruler is a brief and tantalising summary of her reign.

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The story of the Pepper Queen of India

Chennabhairadevi is said to have her origin in the Salva kingdom, a principality of the Vijayanagara empire that ruled from the rich trading hub of Gersoppa. In power from 1552 to 1606 AD, she was the contemporary of Rani Abbakka II, said to be the first female ruler to defeat the Portuguese invaders, at Ullal Fort, over 200km away. She was also the contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England for 45 years. Chennabhairadevi went to war in 1559 and 1570 with the Portuguese, who wanted her ports to control the spice trade.


A letter in 1591 to the Portuguese king from Affonso Mexia, the Portuguese Captain of Cochin, observes: "Between Batticala [Batticaloa, Sri Lanka] and Goa there are certain places called Onor [Honnavar], Mergen [Mirjan] and Ancola [Ankola], from which I hear 5,000 crusados of pepper are annually shipped to Diu, Ormuz, and Jedda, carried by Moorish vessels. These places are under the dominion of the Queen of Gersoppa, who in her turn is subject to the King of Narsynga.


This pepper is larger than that in Cochin, but is lighter and not so hot. It appears to me we ought to secure...". It was the Portuguese who crowned her the Pepper Queen, or Rainha da Pimenta, and sought to establish diplomatic ties with her. 

Chennabhairadevi's reign ended in imprisonment, following a battle with neighbouring Keladi king Venkatappa Nayak. A couple of decades earlier, Rani Abbakka II’s reign had ended in imprisonment too, after her estranged husband, the king of Mangalore, betrayed her to the Portuguese. Queen Elizabeth I had passed away from illness three years earlier. A glorious period had come to an end.


Inscriptions declare that Chennabhairadevi’s territory extended from the south of Goa to Uttar Kannada and Dakshin Kannada and parts of the Malabar. Chennabhairadevi was a Jain queen known for her religious tolerance.


She commissioned over a hundred shrines that are now ruins in the forest outside Gersoppa village in Uttar Kannada. The granite temple Chaturmukha Basadi is the most prominent of the Gersoppa complex; built in 1562 on an octagonal pedestal with four entrances in the cardinal directions, the shrine encloses sculptures of four tirthankars and is beautifully carved. 

As incredible as the details of war and trade, there is surely more to Chennabhairadevi's story. As one of few women rulers, what had it taken to reign as she had? Did she look anything like the sari-draped sculpture displayed as her likeness? What was the real deal with the love stories of Chennabhairadevi and these two contemporaries? Would she have wanted to be remembered as something other than India's longest-reigning queen? I have a million questions but the only bridge I have to her is this unfettered view that is well-worth fighting for: over the Aghanashini, one of India's last rivers to flow undammed; over still-protected mangroves; over a landscape that remains more sky and grass than steel and glass. Up here, it's easier to imagine, just for a moment, what it feels like to be a warrior queen of all you see.

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