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Bhavana Nissima

She is revered in Dakshin Kannada Tulu circles. She is a cultural symbol in Ullal. Amar Chitra Katha has published her story, which is a fascinating page of Indian women’s history.  

Rani Abbakka circle in Ullal, Karnataka

Rani Abbakka was a 16th century queen who belonged to the matrilineal Jain Chowta dynasty in Ullal (near Mangalore). She married the King of Banga dynasty. This was the time when Portuguese were making inroads into Indian trade. Her husband favoured a Portuguese alliance. But she didn’t. She formed alliances with other powerful rulers in the area like the Zamorin of Calicut and defied the Portuguese.

Some accounts say her husband tried to marry off their daughter to his nephew who was an ally to the colonisers. She rescued her daughter from that marriage. She broke off with her husband by returning wedding jewels. She went on to rebuild Ullal fort (now in utter ruins). She is also reputed to have built the Someshwara Temple across the breath-taking  Someshwara Beach.

One early morning, the Portuguese ships landed and attacked her as she returned from the temple. The queen bravely fought (perhaps with her daughter by her side) but lost the fort to them. She escaped and took shelter in a dargah where along with her Muslim soldiers, she planned a surprise midnight attack. The Portuguese, still drunk on victory, could offer no resistance and she regained her fort. This victory and her other military exploits ensured her reputation reached European shores, where she was known as Barefoot Queen.

She continued to repulse Portuguese attacks for nearly two decades, until they gathered information about her military strategies from her estranged husband.  Reports vary about the circumstances surrounding her death. Some say she died in battle. Some say she died in a prison revolt. Local folklore celebrates her as Abhaya Rani. (There are three Abhaya Ranis in history. It is possible Rani Abbakka’s daughter was also named Abbakka).

What is interesting is how the queen was able to navigate the demands of her time and how she managed her public and private life. The choices she made—as a woman, as a mother, and as a queen should inspire any woman today. Her perseverance in fighting the Portuguese, not once, not twice but over decades should have been celebrated in both Indian freedom movement history as well as Indian military history.

Her life offers following leadership lessons:

  • A woman leader has to navigate both gender and diversity issues to become accepted as a leader. A Jain herself, Abbakka Rani, was the queen of a land which had both Hindu and Muslim subjects. Yet documents point out that she was able to garner loyalty from all. She is supposed to have built the famous Someshwara Temple. She negotiated deals with the Zamorin of Calicut and together kept Portuguese from taking over their trade. The day the Portuguese took over her fort, she took refuge in a dargah and from there with her Moplah soldiers, she planned the midnight attack.
  • A woman leader often has to navigate both home and world for professional success. In this case, Abbakka Rani resisted her husband’s attempts to force her to ally with Portuguese and decided what was good for her land and people. When she was captured by her husband, she is said to have charmed all and sweet-talked her way out of the capture.
  • A woman leader often finds it difficult to maintain her femininity in the top positions. Accounts from travellers point out that Abbakka Rani was a simply dressed, barefoot queen with no airs, who would walk and meet with her subjects and that she worked very hard to ensure welfare of her subjects.

As I read through the various accounts of this queen, I wonder—shouldn’t Rani Abbakka be included in Leadership workshops? For both men and women?

If you want to know more about her, there has been some research and books written in Tulu. Please find information here:

Bhavana Nissima is a Communications Consultant who has worked in India and abroad in multiple capacities ranging from university faculty and researcher to programme director at an NGO. She combines academic expertise with extensive grassroots experience to bring people, knowledge and resources together. She has a PhD in intercultural and gender communication from the University of New Mexico


#1 Ram 2014-10-28 06:38
Interesting to read about a woman warrior whom I had not heard of before. Thanks for sharing the struggles that she went thru...

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