I guess it is inevitable that from having hardly ever been to Mangalore (I had made a trip by bus just once, in my junior doctor years, in the 1990s, to visit a colleague at his workplace), I would begin to visit much more often after marrying a Mangalorean.

Technically, it’s not Mangalore proper that we visit; rather it is a little village on its outskirts, Kinnigoli, where my wife’s family has a sprawling farm estate, with paddy fields, arecanut plantations, and an abundance of coconut, tadgola, mango and jackfruit trees. It becomes the extended family’s annual, sometimes bi- or even tri-annual, bolthole escape from urban life, literally out of earshot of any traffic, and just the sounds of nature: peacocks, frogs, and crickets instead. It is a birdwatcher’s paradise.

Although we’ve travelled there by air a few times, I love the train journey the most, because the route takes you through some really breathtakingly picturesque coast-hugging tracts of our southern neighbour Karnataka.

This was in stark contrast to the muddy mayhem we would pass through on our way out of Goa, particularly at Loliem, where mining activity is back in full swing, with hundreds of trucks back and forth in columns of dust, like so many worker-ants in an ant-hill.

The first few times, the intervening stations between Margão and Mangalore (Canacona; Balli; Karwar; Ankola; Gokarna Road; Kumta; Honnavar; Murdeshwar; Bhatkal; Byndoor; Kundapura; Barkur; Udupi; Mulki; Surathkal) would seem a confusing blur. But over time, especially as I began to delve more and more into Goan history, the connections with several place-names became apparent.

South of the Border

It would be impossible to do justice to so much history in a column, but we could take a whistle-stop tour as we progress toward Mangalore.

Take the port city of Karwar (also called Chitrakul; or Cintacora by the Portuguese) for starters. It was noted for its shipbuilding, and much coveted through history for its favourable, safe-harbour port and for its access to the pepper markets as well as other spices such as cardamom; and to muslin. In 1510, the Portuguese ransacked and burnt its fort, described in their records as Forte de Piro due to the presence of the dargah of a Sufi saint (pir) there.

Aggressive demands by the British for the cession of the port to them prompted the king of Sonda to seek the protection of the Estado da Índia in 1697, becoming its tributary. The Sonda kingdom eventually capitulated to the British demand to establish a factory in Karwar, whereupon the Marquis of Távora captured the Sonda strongholds of Cabo de Rama and Karwar between 1752 and 1754. The French (notably Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix) also coveted Karwar, as they had an inferior port in Mahé, but desisted as it would upset the Portuguese, whose friendship they needed.

Honnavar, Bhatkal, Kundapura and Barkur all find mention in our history. According to one account (Oriente Conquistado, by António de Sousa), Muslims from Honnavar (Onor in Portuguese chronicles) sought refuge in Goa, then under the Bahmani rule, to escape the wrath of the Vijayanagar empire after a massacre of 10,000 there.

Although there is much historical confusion about Timoja (or Timayya), the controversial figure who colluded with the Portuguese in their conquest of Goa in 1510, Padre M.J. Gabriel de Saldanha in his História de Goa (Política e Arqueológica) refers to him as ‘Soberano de Onor’ (sovereign of Honnavar).

Some historical accounts state that Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar Empire permitted the Portuguese to build a fort at Bhatkal in 1510. Prior to that, in 1502, Vasco da Gama torched its port. Luís Vaz de Camões in the final instalment of his epic Os Lusíadas (Canto X, stanza 66) waxes jingoistic about ‘Baticala’: ‘Having cleared India of enemies, he [Dom Martim Affonso de Sousa, viceroy of Estado da Índia 1542-45] will take up the viceroy’s sceptre, With no opposition, nor any danger; For all fear him and none complain, Except Baticala, which brings on itself the pains Beadala [a southern port near Rameshwaram captured in 1538 by Affonso de Sousa] already suffered’.

[Here is the text in the original Portuguese, of Camões’ Os Lusíadas (Canto X, stanza 66):

Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos inimigos,
Virá depois com cetro a govern-la,
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dêle e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os áspersos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala:
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia,
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.

Mangalore fell into Portuguese hands in 1524, and Honnavar and Kundapura in 1569. But links between Goa and Kanara pre-dated the Portuguese era as well, with migrations in both directions due to trade, or the ravages of pestilence and famine. The history of the Estado da Índia is marked by its heavy reliance on imports of rice from the rich paddy fields of Kanara and the Províncias do Norte for its sustenance. Annual tribute was received from Honnavar, Bhatkal and Basrur (Barcelor) in Kundapur district in the form of thousands of bags of rice.

Persecution added to the reasons many Goans, both Hindu and Catholic, migrated to Kanara, as is still evident from many surnames one encounters there. And in the reverse direction, we still encounter surnames here that are in fact place-names there: Mundkur, Padubidri, Kumta, Mulki, Uchil.

In the failed 1787 revolt (Conjuração dos Pintos) in Goa against the Portuguese, the outside assistance sought of ‘200 Muslims’ from beyond the Estado would probably have been of Kanara origin.

Mangalore brought to mind the wonderful ethnography ‘In an Antique Land’ written in narrative form by Amitav Ghosh, which I was reading at the time of our last trip. In it, he traces the history of a 12th century Jewish merchant Abraham Ben Yiju, and his slaves Ashu and Bomma, using documents from the Cairo Genizah, Jewish manuscript fragments spanning a millennium, in the genizah (store-room) of Ben Ezra synagogue, Cairo. Blowing the centuries of dust off the trail of Bomma from India to the Middle East, and of Ben Yiju in the reverse direction, Ghosh devotes a whole chapter to Mangalore. Its allure, as he puts it, was that it was “one of the premier ports of an extremely wealthy hinterland: a region that was well endowed with industrial crafts, apart from being one of the richest spice-producing territories of the medieval world.”

It was inevitable that ports like Mangalore and others along the Kanara coast should have strong links with Goa, another key port, borne out by travellers through history.

As in Goa, the past in Karnataka is simultaneously obscured, but also manifest in other ways. For instance, Portuguese is hardly spoken or understood on the city streets and in the villages today. But what do my son Manuel and his cousin, (and the rest of us), say to their great-grandmother, the family doyenne, at the end of the pre-bedtime rosary (ruzar)? “Bessao (Benção) di, Mãe!” There are two Portuguese loan-words in that three-word sentence.

(An edited version of this article was published on 23 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)