Rani Abbakka Chowta
Indian Freedom Fighter

Rani Abbakka Chowta, sometimes known as Abbakka Mahadevi, was Queen of Ullal, a small feudal state of Tulu Nadu in modern-day Karnataka, during the 16th century. That a woman should rule and fight was not unusual in their time and culture. The Chowta Dynasty was part of the Jain Bunt community, a subgroup of the Digambaras. One unique feature of the Jain Bunts is that they follow a matrilineal system.

Also unusual among the Jains as a whole, they were a rather martial group. In preparation for the throne, her uncle, Thirumala Raya, had Abbakka Chowta trained in martial arts, diplomacy, fencing, and battle maneuvers involving cavalry. And as the Portuguese became more aggressive, pushing for possession of Ullal, Rani Abbakka's subsidiary capital strategically located on the Arabian Sea coast, this preparation was most useful.

Initially, the Portuguese attempted to get their foot in the door, so to speak, through diplomacy, as they attempted to bargain for trade links in order to monopolise the spice trade. Unable to secure this foothold, they fought Rani Abbakka directly.

Her strategic alliance through marriage with Lakshmappa Banga-raja of the powerful Banga dynasty in Mangalore initially strengthened her position greatly. Now the Portuguese colonial government operating out of Goa would be forced to confront the ardor of both kingdoms. And although she was a Jain, she was well versed in the art of warfare and state craft. She had members of many faiths in her service, including Muslims, Hindus, and tribals, including Mogaveeras. She is said to be the last ruler to use the fire arrow in battle.

For four long decades of her reign, Abbakka Chowta fought back the colonial Portuguese powers and maintained autonomy for her tiny realm. Because of this, she is sometimes known as India's first woman freedom fighter. Although she has largely faded from memory, eclipsed by the more modern heroine, the Rani Jansi, she was a charismatic and patriotic woman of great courage and tenacity. Her people called her Rani Abhaya, the Fearless Queen.

In the end, however, the treachery of her estranged husband aided the Portuguese in their defeat of her. She was captured and jailed. Yet even there, she refused to give up and died fighting against those who would attempt to rule her.

The Chowta Dynasty

The Chowta Dynasty ruled portions of the Tulu Nadu region, which would lie in modern-day Karnataka and partially in Kerala, from the 12th to the 18th century. Early on, they ruled from Ullal, the city of great interest to the Portuguese invaders.

The first Chowta king was Tirumalaraya Chowta, who is said to have instituted a matrilineal inheritance system, called Aliyasantana. Two of the most renowned Chowta rulers were Rani Abbakka Chowta and Bhojaraya Chowta II, who received royal insignia from Krishnadevaraya, the Vijayanagar emperor.

Jain Bunts

Chowtas were members of the Jain Bunt subgrouping of the Digambara sect. The Jain Bunts came about when portions of the larger Bunt community accepted and assimilated Jain traditions into their own Hindu culture and worship. At least in this case, it would be difficult to say whether they are more Jain or more Hindu (or both), since they worship the Hindu gods and the Jain thirthankaras, as well as local spirit deities. They are even sometimes involved in the administration of Hindu temples, as with the famous Dharmasthala Manjunata Temple.

As Jains, they are vegetarian, and also abstain from eating even vegetables that were grown below ground. They also do not eat after sunset.

Buhabali, an ascetic king, is highly honored among them, and they erected several large statues to revere him. The largest one is 42 feet tall and stands in Karkala. They also give special honor to cobras and snake gods, including Hindu snake gods like Ananta and Vasuki, performing rites of Nagaradhane in their honor.

Among Jains, a unique feature of the Jain Bunts is their adherence to a system of matrilineage.


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