Dharmadam is a sleepy little town located on NH17, just north of Thalassery. For the blasé voyager, there is nothing much noteworthy about Dharmadam nowadays. Passing by once a traveller can note only a few pointers – the heavy traffic jam that budges slowly to and from Thalassery, the heavy trucks that look for diversions to country roads to avoid the tottering Moidu Bridge, the Beverages Corporation outlet that is the lifeline for thousands of drunkards in and around this part, and the police station that is barely noticeable except for the insignia of the four lions of King Asoka that is prominently displayed at its entrance.
Passersby who go through Dharmadam once in a blue moon usually are down in the mouth by the experience, the small roads that is an affront to the concept of a national highway, the rash driving of the buses, bikes and autos looking to clear through the hustle, all leave them with quite a high level of aggravation and irritation by the time they are through all of it.
The noteworthy facet of today’s Dharmadam is that it’s basically a junction to a few places worth mentioning – Andallur Kavu, Brennen College, Kannur University PG Campus, Muzhappilangad beach etc.
But was this the case always? Was Dharmadam just another inconsequential junction?
A few centuries back, since the turn of the 18th century, it was quite a different picture. Lying obscure for centuries, Dharmadam suddenly came to the limelight when the British decided to make Thalassery and outpost for their trade activities in Malabar. The English were not quite successful like the Portuguese or Dutch in their efforts to get a foothold over the spice capital of the world, and it took the Kolathiri Raja a lot of convincing to hand over a trivial part of his kingdom to them to set up a factory. After all, the Anjarakandy River was not quite as vital and significant as the Valapattanam River to the people who mattered, With the Dutch well entrenched in Chirakkal, Thalassery was the best the deal the British could have got.
Slowly but surely, Dharmadam and Thalassery grew in stature. The British had factories in what is now the centre of Thalassery town. They also had a significant fortress at the Dharmadam Island (Dharmadam Thuruttu as called by locals). The small island just off the coast of Dharmadam could stand out as one of the most beautiful colonial outposts the medieval and modern world could have seen. The advent of foreign missionaries like Gundert and Brennen was a bonus to the improving trade and prosperity of the people. Soon the place grew to be a centre of trade, prosperity and learning.
With the prosperity of spice trade that originated from the hill ranges that ran the course of the Anjarakandy River, the British, the local landlords and the Raja of Cotiote prospered. So did the local Muslim traders and merchants of the region like Chovvakaran Moosa. Even though the British did not have sovereignty over the land and people except of the factories it owned, and all was much in control of the Cotiote Raja and the Kolathiri, and Dharmadam had made its mark in the prevailing world economy.
The invasion of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan was a dampener to prosperity. Despite the factories being protected tooth and nail by the British, who were supported by the Pazhassi Raja’s men, it was a period of depression. As the overall affluence of Malabar was dipped in turmoil, this had its rub-off effect on Dharmadam also. The war with the invaders ended, but British became the masters instead of Pazhassi Raja, and then once again it was anarchy till the English war with Pazhassi had ended.
The region moved on to become a part of the Malabar District under Madras Presidency, and after Karachi and Bombay, the region became one of the significant ports of entry and exit for the British. The presence of French Mahe nearby, also lent a sense of homeliness for the Europeans in Malabar, and till 1947, Thalassery was like a second home to most Europeans.
This part of history has been well documented, thanks to the scores of educationalists and British Civil Servants who graced Thalassery during its heydays. But, how many of us have any idea that Dharmadam was a prime centre of Buddhist culture and learning in Malabar region?
A very long time before the advent of British, Dutch and the Portuguese, Dharmapatanam, as it was known then, had its Buddhist values significantly entrenched in its soul and was a junction for learned scholars across this part of the world. (This explains why the Asoka Pillar at the Dharmadam Police Station is a significant landmark of the present day Dharmadam. Don’t know whether this was placed here by intent or by accident, but the presence of the symbol does a lot of natural justice to the bygone glory of Dharmapatanam’s Buddhist days). Dharmapatanam got its name from the combination of words in Malayalam, Dharma and Patanam, where Dharma meant virtuousness and purity and Patanam meant city, literally translating into the “City of Virtuousness”. Sadly, over the centuries, sometime between ancient and medieval history, Buddhism in Dharmapatanam seems to have lost out to the revival of the Sanātana Dharma.
Most of local populace in Thalassery and Kannur would know that alms seekers are called as dharmakaar in the local dialect of Malayalam. How did this word come up? Well, ages before the modern era, followers of Buddhism used to roam the land in search of alms. Since Buddhist folks came from Dharmapatanam, they came to be known as dharmakaar. Unfortunately nowadays, we do not understand the profundity with which words are created in literature, and every beggar is called as dharmakaaran.
So, Dharmapatanam during the Buddhist times became Dharmapatam for the Europeans, and for the present day Malayalee, it’s Dharmadam. After Independence, and once it became a part of United Kerala, like all important historical trade towns - Madayi, Ponnani, Beypore and Kodungaloor, Dharmadam’s history and tradition is also lost somewhere among the leaves that has been shed by the tree called time. What was once called the city of Dharma, or the city of righteousness and values is just an inconsequential town on a protracted National Highway, dotted with flags of Saffron and Red.