Queen of Gersoppa

Chennabhairadevi, Brave Ruler of Gersoppa (1552-1606 C.E)

by Jyotsna Kamat

First Online: June 15, 2005
Page Last Updated: April 04, 2014

"We must deal with her, most carefully and diplomatically. We must be courteous, polite and diplomatic to win her to our side” reads a Portuguese record of 1591 C.E. this was the realization of the Portuguese after a very bad defeat they suffered at the hands of Chennabhairadevi, the Queen of Gersoppa.

Now a small town on the northern banks of Sharavati River in North Kanara district of Karnataka State, Gersoppa (a.k.a Gerusoppa) was the capital of Salva kings. The land was known as Haive, which was ruled by Salva dynasty for more than two centuries. Earlier Gersoppa was known as Nagar Bastikeri, or just Ngaire. A big center of trade and commerce, the city was famous for beautiful temples, basadis and as a place of literary and cultural activities. Honnavar (a.k.a Honavar) was under the control of the Salvas. It was a big harbor of interior trade and Bhatkal was a big international trade seaport. Quality horses and weaponry were imported from West and landed at Bhatkal. Pepper and other spices were exported by shiploads to Middle East and European countries through Bhatkal port. Many wars were fought for the control of Honavar and Bhatkal ports by Vijaynagar, Adilshah and Keladi kings. They tried to keep Salva kings in good humour and Salvas made their presence felt throughout. They were at times in charge of Tuluva (South Kanara) country as well.

The great Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar (1509-1529) was of Tuluva lineage and his predecessor was a Salva descendent. In all probability they belonged to the once illustrious dynasty of Salvas who ruled Tuluva-Haive  "country" (nadu), which comprised of the Western coastal belt to the tip of Kerala and the forest rich area of Malenad.

Chennabhairadevi belonged to Tuluva-Salva lineage wherein the ruler or a noble was succeeded by his sister's son or "aliyasantana" a custom that prevailed in Kerala and Tuluva or south Kanara.

There were two other queens who ruled from Gersoppa and Haduvalli (another Jaina principality near Honavar) who were Bhairadevi and Padmaladevi. But Chennabhairadevi, who had the longest rule for fifty four years, showed rare statesmanship, bravery and shone as patron of all religions and sects. Her rule also provides a sad example of internal bickering of small kingdoms and age-old adage of matsyanyaya (big fish swallowing smaller fish). This finally brought in foreign intrusion that existed since the days of Alexander the Great (327 BC)

Inscriptions call Chennabhairadevi, as ruler of Haiva, Tuluva and Konkan areas. These roughly comprised of North and South Kanaras, southern region of  Goa and Malabar. Since important harbors of Mirjan, Ankola and Baindur came under this territory, there used to be skirmishes with adjoining rulers throughout, which wanted to grab them. Besides, this entire belt was known as pepper country, where the spices grew abundantly in the virgin forests, which were in great demand in Europe. Actually Chennabhairadevi was known as Raina- Da-Pimenta or "Pepper Queen".

Though the Vijayanagara empire was on the decline, the queen called herself a subordinate (mahamandaleshwara) of Vijayanagar rulers. She was always busy checking the advances of Portuguese who were notorious for their unfair practices and treachery in Indian context. At the same time she had to be ever alert with the rulers of the adjoining Keladi kingdom and Bilgi chiefs, the latter being another principality near by. They always tried to grab the harbors and trade. She had sought help of Adilshah of Bijapur a strong king of Deccan while crushing the Portuguese. The help did not reach on time, but she was successful. The Portuguese were humbled.

Herself a Jain, she gave grants to all Shaiva, Vaishnava and Shakti temples in Gokarn, Uppunda, Baindur and Khetappa Narayana temple of Bhatkal. Saraswat Brahmin businessmen and other skilled Konkani craftsmen from Goa came, settled and availed her benevolent rule, to escape Portuguese persecution. Most prominent among these were Lakkarasa Kamti and Kheta Pai who built beautiful temples. Akalanka, the Jain scholar and Bhattakalaka, the renowned grammarian were protégés of Gersoppa queen.

But the efforts of Keladi Nayaka and Bilgi chiefs continued to pull her down. Finally a marital tie brought the two rulers together, literally joining hands! They jointly attacked Gersoppa, completely defeating the brave queen. Gersoppa thus became part of Keladi kingdom. The ageing queen was taken a prisoner and died in a prison in Keladi.

Thus ended the rule of a brave, kind, tolerant and benevolent queen who perhaps had the longest reign as a woman ruler in Indian history.

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