Puli Thevar

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The earliest enemy of the British in India

A legendary fighter who was the first Indian to resist British imperialism in India, Puli Thevar lived from 1715 to 1761. He was the Palayakkaran (corrupted to ‘Poligar’ in English) or the local chieftain of a place called Nelkattumsevval in Sankarankoil Taluk of the present-day Tirunelveli District of Tamil Nadu State. ‘Palayakkaran’ literally meant ‘keeper of armed camp’ or ‘Palayam’, and by virtue of his armed might, wielded governing power in his locality. There were 77 or so such Palayams through which the Tamil Country was essentially being governed during the 18th Century, while the English East Company was making its forays into the political arena of South India. This system of governance through the Poligars resulted from the break-up of the once-powerful Vijayanagar Empire of South India in late 16th Century. The Tamil Country, which was part of the empire, thence came to be governed by the provincial governors of the empire called Nayaks. The Nayaks divided their provinces into various Palayams and entrusted the ground-level governance to the Poligars who headed these Palayams. Although the Mughals, after putting down the Sultans of Bijapur and Golconda whose conquest of Vijayanagar had caused the breakup of the empire, had appointed one of their vassals as Nawab of Arcot to exercise their authority over the Tamil Country, neither the Nayaks, nor the Poligars recognized his authority and ruled their domains more or less autonomously.

Nawab of Arcot was the earliest of the scores of India’s namby-pamby native rulers who chose to toe the line of the English East India Company (EEC), with utter disregard to the welfare of their subjects or states. The Nawab’s self-indulgent lifestyle found him perpetually short of funds and borrowing from the Company. The Company, with its ulterior motives, was willing to oblige him, and when he failed to repay his debts, which invariably he did, extracted compensation from him in the form of authorization for it to collect taxes from one province of his state after another. A popular joke among the Englishmen arriving in India, most of whom were vagabonding quick-money-seekers of the Robert Clive model, was that if one wanted to get rich overnight in India, the best means was to lend some money to the Nawab; he would never be able repay it and to make good, give away vast tracts of land for the lender to lord over. The Poligars who ruled their respective fiefdoms pretty much as independent sovereigns collected taxes from their subjects themselves, but had not been paying any to the Nawab in defiance of his authority. The weak-kneed Nawab neither had the capability nor the resolve to make the Poligars fall in line. In such a scenario, as far as the Poligars were concerned, the authorization by the Nawab for the alien Company to collect taxes hardly made any difference. This naturally brought the Poligars into confrontation with the EEC, when the latter tried to enforce collection of taxes through force of arms. Such confrontations between the EEC and different Poligars for nearly half a century, which are historically dubbed as ‘Poligar Rebellion’, form one of the bloodiest chapters of native resistance against British imperialism anywhere in India. It was no rebellion however, but a prolonged war, marked by sporadic but fierce battles, wherein the Poligar forces, diehard fighters to a man, matched the superior weaponry and manpower of the enemy by their sheer pluck and courage. The first of a galaxy of brave Poligar leaders who waged war against EEC over that period during the 18th Century was Puli Thevar.

Puli Thevar belonged to a community of warlike inhabitants of southern parts of the Tamil Country, comprising the provinces of Madurai and Tirunelveli and adjacent regions of Ramnad and Sivaganga, known as Maravas. The Maravas – who assumed the name ‘Thevars’ later – were a brave, free-spirited people who paid obeisance to no one. Traditional warriors, their ancestors had conquered and held the greater part of Ceylon for several centuries. They formed the main military muscle of the southern provinces. Mainly armed with pikes twelve to eighteen feet long, they were adept at constructing crude but effective barriers of mud walls and thorn hedges, and repairing breaches with readily available stuff like the trunks of the palm trees that withstood fair amount of battering by artillery. S. C. Hill, a British historian, who is noted for his factual writings of colonial history of the South, refers to an interesting quote from an unpublished manuscript of the times, which summarizes what the Kallars (mentioned as Kallans in the book) – a sub-caste of the Maravas who lived in the hilly and woody parts of the country, and proved an exceptionally tough and cunning lot with their intimate knowledge of secret paths and ambush sites – thought of the payment of taxes in general: “The Heaven supplies the earth with rain, cattle plough for us, and we labour to improve and cultivate the land. Whilst such is the case, we alone ought to enjoy the fruit thereof. What reason is there to be obedient and pay tribute to a person like ourselves?” And much to the consternation of the animal rights activists and moralists, the men of the Marava territory continue to be passionate about holding their robust if highly dangerous game of ‘Jallikat’, in which participants, like gladiators, try to take on a powerfully built bull let loose amongst them and tame it, many of them invariably getting gored in the act. The British themselves, finding them such formidable foes, came to admire their fighting qualities so much that in later years, after their dominating South India, went on to recruit men from the region in large numbers to the ranks of the Madras Regiment and the Madras Sappers. Their free spirit and martial disposition came to the fore once again years later, towards the end of India’s colonial history, when the men and women of their stock working in plantations of Malaya and Burma, whose forefathers had long migrated to those countries in search of livelihood, rallied to the call to arms by Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose and enlisted in the Indian National Army (INA) in large numbers to fight the British for freedom of their ‘Motherland’, although none of them had ever set foot on the Indian soil. Also, in recent times, notwithstanding the unfortunate turn of events, the hardcore fighters of the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which the Indian Army was pitted against for two long years and was described by one of its senior commanders as ‘the most determined and dedicated guerilla force in the world’, came from their stock.

Puli Thevar’s was a comparatively smaller domain in the Marava Country, but he was imbued with such exceptional leadership qualities that he commanded tremendous respect, not only among his men but among the various other Poligars of Tirunelveli and adjoining regions, who were collectively called the Western Poligars for their geographical orientation to the southwest of Tamil Country; vis a vis the Eastern Poligars who hailed from the coastal provinces of Ramnad and Sivagangai to the southeast. His run-in with the EEC began in 1755, when the latter sent its first-ever military expedition against the Poligars, under the command of Colonel Alexander Heron, with the elder brother of Nawab Mohammed Ali of Arcot, Mahfuz Khan, for his sidekick. Heron’s army marched through the Poligar territory more or less successfully to begin with, intimidating most of the Eastern Poligars to pay ‘Kisthi’ (tax) by his superiority of manpower and weaponry, including the most powerful among them, Kattabomma Nayak of Panjalamkuruchi (not the legendary ‘Veerapandya Kattabomman’ revered for his heroic fight against the British, but his grandfather), who gave in conditionally, handing over a couple of hostages, pending payment. The force further drew the wrath of the populace by going beyond their objective of collecting taxes and indulging in largescale looting, more so because they carried away the idols of worship from temples. Its winning and plundering streak however came to an abrupt halt when confronted by Puli Thevar’s stout defence of his fort at Nelkattumsevval. Heron’s artillery proved not very effective against the thick stone walls of the fort. He was also facing a severe shortage of supplies, his column having been ambushed and plundered over and over again all along their route by locals, who were out en masse to avenge the looting his troops did, and to recover the idols that were sacrosanct to them, which they successfully did. An ineffectual commander not up to overcoming the odds, Heron found his troops demoralized and in total disarray. Puli Thevar, on the other hand, was a shrewd strategist and had planted spies in the English camp, who gave him constant updates, which helped boost the morale of his garrison, a highly motivated lot as they were. Repeated attempts by Heron’s troops to storm the fort met with no success against the dogged defence by the garrison. Eventually, his army plagued by indiscipline and desertion, a number of his men, including three high-ranking officers, even switching sides to join the Thevar, Heron had to beat an ignominious retreat, to end his military career in disgrace afterwards, when he was court-martialled and sacked by the EEC. Mahfuz Khan would go on to lead some unsuccessful campaigns against Puli Thevar with his Arcot troops, forging alliances here and there, for a while, but cowardly by disposition, would in the course of time switch his alliance to the Thevar; but that was later. In the aftermath of Heron’s retreat, Puli Thevar’s reputation skyrocketed for his heroic defence of his fort and the entire lot of Western Poligars rallied under his leadership forming a confederacy to wage war against the British and the Nawab. Grabbing the opportunity, Puli Thevar unleashed a campaign capturing one fort after another, ousting the Nawab’s troops from wherever they had a foothold and took control of the entire countryside and their main power centre of Tirunelveli itself. Dedicated to cleanse his native soil of the foreigners once and for all, he used his exceptional diplomatic skills to forge an allegiance with the Maharaja of the neighbouring kingdom of Travancore, who possessed an army trained on European model, which had the fierce reputation of having driven out the Dutch colonialists from Indian shores during the previous decade.

The next six years would witness a most turbulent period in the history of the southern provinces of the Tamil Homeland, wherein the Poligar Confederacy, joined by the Travancore Army, effectively fought off the forces of the Nawab and EEC in a series of fierce seesaw battles stemming the tide of imposition of colonialism in the region. At one stage, Puli Thevar even came close to retaking Madurai, the kingdom the Maravas traditionally swore allegiance to, but had been seized by the Nawab with EEC’s help. Unfortunately, a crucial alliance he tried to forge with the Eastern Poligars fell through, with the latter remaining neutral, constrained by the EEC holding their men hostage. By the time they came around following a change of their leadership, and were willing to join the Confederacy, the Travancore Army had withdrawn from the fray, consequent to the shrewd diplomacy of a new ‘renter’ (practically the governor) by the name of Yusuf Khan, appointed by the EEC. An intrepid adventurer who hailed from the same region (born a lower-class Hindu with the name, Maruthanayagam Pillai, he had converted to Islam to escape cast discrimination), he had risen to fame as a legendary soldier serving the EEC, after switching over to them from the French camp, where he had obtained training in modern warfare. Khan would be successful in containing the defiant Poligars; but ironically, within four years of his appointment, he himself would revolt against EEC and lead a historic struggle. That would however be too late for Puli Thevar who had been successfully fighting off the Nawab and his English cronies for four long years by 1759 when Yusuf appeared on the scene. An eminent soldier and a brilliant strategist, Yusuf would go on to successfully exercise his authority in the region, more by efficient administration and strategic foresight than by military muscle. Faced by such a formidable foe whom he could match only in courage and fighting spirit, but not in his armed might and resources, and betrayed by his own people, who chose to ally with Yusuf for the greater part, Puli Thevar fought a losing war for two years, never giving up his zeal. Meanwhile, Yusuf Khan was expanding his army, recruiting locals to his ranks and consolidating his power in the region. Many of the Poligar fighters thus enlisting in Yusuf’s army effectively sabotaged a temporary advantage Puli Thevar gained when Kattabomman joined forces with him. Even their combined might did not prove adequate to take on Yusuf. Mahfuz Khan, the rank opportunist who had allied with the Thevar, once again switched sides, seeking a pardon from Yusuf, which the latter gladly obliged him with. Not that he would have been of any great value to a diehard fighter like Puli Thevar fighting with his back to the wall. Mahfuz had the dubious military distinction of having commanded a 10,000-man Mughal Army that was routed by a puny Franco-Indian force of 1000 men at the Battle of Adyar during the previous decade.

With the tables turned, Puli Thevar lost his holdings one after another to Yusuf Khan’s forces, which outnumbered him by a huge margin. Nevertheless, the gritty, unrelenting fighter that he was, the Thevar never gave up, making the enemy pay heavily for every battle won, often using brilliant hit-and-run tactics. By now, Yusuf Khan had successfully won over the Maharaja of Travancore and Puli Thevar found himself pitted against an overwhelmingly strong, combined armies of Yusuf and Travancore. His gallant resistance had to come to an and it happened in his own home turf, Nelkattumsevval. Rich in paddy cultivation, the place derived its name for its tradition of paying taxes in rice; ‘Nel-Kattum-Sevval’ literally meaning ‘Rice-Taxpaying-Locality’. With Puli Thevar’s declared defiance not to pay tax, the place had assumed the name ‘Nel-Kattan-Sevval’, which meant ‘Rice-Tax-Not-Paying-Locality’.

With the fall of his last bastion at Nelkattumsevval after colossal pounding of the place by Yusuf Khan’s artillery, Puli Thevar vanishes into history. The Thevar and some of his troops are known to have survived the attack on the fort and abandoned it to disperse in the jungles nearby to fight another day. What happened to him later remains a mystery. Some accounts suggest that he was forced into exile in Ramnad where he died later. Other, more popular version, suggests that he was taken prisoner by Yusuf’s troops, but escaped, was caught again, taken to a nearby hill called Kalugumalai (Vulture’s Mountain) and hanged. There is also a legend that he expressed a last wish on his way to execution, to be permitted to pray at a Parvathi Shrine en route. Left to pray in solitude in chains in the sanctum sanctorum, his guards waiting outside heard the sound of chains rattling and rushing inside, found the Thevar gone, leaving the chains behind; never to be seen again. It seems plausible that he was indeed taken to the remote hill in the wilderness and secretly executed. Well aware of Puli Thevar’s tremendous popularity among the people of the region, Yusuf Khan would have preferred not to antagonize them by a public hanging.

In spite of the failure of his epic struggle, Puli Thevar remains a much-revered hero of the Tamils, especially among the people of Tirunelveli and adjoining regions. The Pulithevan Palace in Tirunelveli, which was his headquarters while he reigned as the leader of the Western Poligars, is a national monument today. A statue of his adorns Nelkattumsevval, where he was born and fought his last battle. The people of Tirunelveli commemorate his birth anniversary every year with absolute devotion. Sadly, the monumental saga of this great Indian who was the earliest to resist the British imperialism in India is little known beyond the Tamil homeland, thanks to a lot of Indian historians for whom colonialism in India began with Plassey and no India existed south of the Vindhyas.

Capt. D P Ramachandran
Capt D P Ramachandran is a war veteran and military history enthusiast, who writes about battles of the Indian Army. He can be reached at captdpr@gmail.com
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