Chennabhairadevi was a Jain queen who ruled in the costal Karnataka – Karavali Karnataka during the 16th century A.D. She was called as the Pepper Queen.
Was born in a Digambar Jain family early 1530s at Hadavalli, Uttara Kannada, Karnataka, India.
Channabhairadevi’s Kingdom and Rule
She, being part of the ‘Saluva’ dynasty ruled over the ‘Nagire raijya’ that was spread across the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka for 54 years (1552-1606). This is probably the longest tenure ruled by any queen in Indian history.
Area Ruled by Chennabhairadevi
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.
By the early 1550s, Chennabhairadevi, who belonged to the Saluva dynasty, became the queen. Rani Channabhairadevi was the one who protected today’s Canara region by standing as a barrier to the efforts of the Portuguese who were on the verge of expanding their possession to South Konkan. As per epigraphical references, her kingdom extended from south of Goa to Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada and Malabar. This region is known not only for harbours like Bhatkala, Honnavar, Mirjan, Ankola and Baindur but also for pepper. The kingdom’s capital was ‘Gerusoppe/Gerusoppa’. The city was a flourishing trade center and pilgrimage destination. They mainly traded in spices like pepper, nutmeg and betel nut.
After the decline of Vijayanagar, Chennabhairadevi dealt with the Portuguese diplomatically, who nicknamed her ‘Raina de Pimenta’ — the Pepper Queen.
Inscriptions and copper coins found in the region show the extent of her kingdom to have touched the south of Goa, Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada and parts of the Malabar. A few other refernces indicate the area ruled by her consisted of Dakshina Goa, Uttara Kannada, Dakshina Kannada, Bhatkala, Malpe, Honnavara, Mirjan, Ankola, Bynduru, Karwar. Along with this coast, Bharangi, Marabidi, Karuru, along the western ghats. Honnavar and Bhatkala served as internal and international, flourishing trading centres. Arabian horses and weapons were imported from the West. Pepper, betel nut and nutmeg were exported to European and Arab countries. She earned respect not just from other Indian rulers but also from the Portuguese invaders. It was them that gave her the moniker, “The Pepper Queen” or “Raina de Pimenta”.
Although politically opposed to the Portuguese, she forged a business alliance with them and sold rice, pepper, cardamom, daltinni, jaggery, cane, sandalwood, ginger, cloves, ivory etc. She is called Mutsaddi. If it was not for her, the Portuguese would have cut and stolen the trees like mango, gulama, surahonne, hebbalasu etc. needed for the construction of ships and left the entire Western Ghats barren.
Chennabhairadevi found herself at confrontation with the neighbouring rival kingdoms as well as the Portuguese. The attempts of the Keladi kings and Bilgi chieftains to pull the queen down proved futile. The queen had to resist the Portuguese who tried to grab the ports and take over the trade. She was at war with the Portuguese in 1559 and again in 1570. She crushed the Portuguese army with her intelligent battle strategy. One of the Portuguese chronicles states that during the war of 1570, the Portuguese attacked Honnavar and burnt it to the ground.
Channabhairadevi’s and Jain Connections
Queen Chennabhairadvi was a Jain. The Chaturmukha Basadi of Gerusoppe/Gerusoppa is attributed to her. Yati Abhinava Bhattakalanka of the Swadi Digambara Jain Math, author of the grammar book “Karnataka Shabdanushasana” was under the patronage of this queen.
Channabhairadevi’s and other Religions
She gave grants to Shaiva and Vaishnava temples too. Saraswath Brahmin businessmen and skilled Konkani craftsmen took shelter in her kingdom to escape Portuguese persecution. She is credited with building the Mirjan Fort and is believed to have lived there for several years. Rani also helped in the renovation of Yoganarasimha Swami Temple and Vardhamana Basadi at Venupura.
Mirjan Fort – The Mirjan fort that stands beside the Aganashini River near Kumta in Uttarakannada district is spread over 10 acres. The fort stands mostly in ruins but back in the day, it was famed for its high ceilings, watchtowers and interconnected wells. Chennabhairadevi is said to have built or renovated this fort. She spent a significant part of her life in the fort. She lived in the fort for many years until the Talikota war after which she moved to an island in the Sharavathi river.
Quote by International Scholars
Professor of English at the University of Texas, USA, and Head of Comparative Literature at the South Asia Institute, Dr. Hannachapelle Wohiciehowski in her article writes, “Chennabhairadevi was a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth of England and in many respects equal to her. “Chennabhairadevi boldly handled the many contradictions she faced through shrewd alliances and managed to rule her kingdom efficiently for more than fifty years without relinquishing her political, cultural and economic supremacy.”
Decline of Chennabhairadevi – The Keladi and Bilgi chiefs adopted ‘Unity is Strength’ formula. Matrimonial alliances brought these two families together. The combined forces of Keladi and Bilgi attacked Gerusoppa, finally defeating the Queen. Gerusoppa came under the control of Keladi. The ageing queen was taken prisoner to Keladi and she breathed her last in prison. If the strategy of unity was adopted against the foreign intruders, India’s history could have been different.
Queen Chennabhairadevi projects herself as a powerful woman, when other women stayed indoors under submission. She was the contemporary of the Queen Elizabeth I of England and succeeded in ruling for the longest period against all odds.
Her struggle, dedcication to her kingdom, subjects and Jainism, ups & downs in life, glory & determination are guiding lights for the modern women and humanity.
This picture postcard on “Chennabhairadevi – The Pepper Queen of India” has been released by the Mangalore Postal Division, Department of Post, Government of India, on the occasion of “Kannada Rajyotsava – 2022” under the “Jina Ratna Bhushanaru” series. The picture postcard has been sponsored by Hombuja Jain Math. The entire project has been led by Mahavir Kundur, Hubli.