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The First Indian Queen to Wage War Against the British

Hailed ‘Veeramangai’ – Brave Woman – by the Tamils, Velu Nachiyar, was the Queen of Sivagangai, once an independent kingdom, now forming a district in the southern part of Tamil Nadu, who reigned from 1780 to 1790. Born the Princess of Ramnad, another such kingdom in its neighbourhod, in January 1730 as the only child of the royal couple, she had a unique upbringing that moulded her into a multifaceted personality. She underwent full-fledged training in warfare and martial arts, traditionally imparted to male progeny of royal households, including horse riding, archery and use of various combat weaponry. She also mastered extraordinary scholastic abilities and proficiency in several languages including Urdu as well as French and English.

When Princess Velu came of age, her outstanding prowess in such varied fields made her a highly desirable bride for any royal household and the ruler of Sivagangai, King Muthu Vaduganatha Periya Odaya Thevar, duly entered into wedlock with her. As years went by, a daughter was born to the couple, whom they named Vellachi. A loving couple with a daughter they dotted on, theirs was a happy world until war clouds descended on the kingdom.

This was a period when the reigning Nawab of Arcot, the Mughal vassal, was trying to expand his territory in the Tamil Country, after entering into an unholy alliance with the English East India Company (EIC), which was cunningly alluring the native rulers of India to aid their colonial ambitions in the country. The Nawab, in fact, was the first of the inept native rulers to play into the Company’s hands to fulfill his insatiable thirst for self-indulgence, thereby jeopardizing the freedom of the land. The Nawab’s game plan met with furious resistance in the southern region of the Tamil homeland, inhabited mostly by a fiercely independent, warlike people called Thevars. While the Nawab’s army was no match for the fiery warriors of the region, the well-trained forces of the English Company with their modern weaponry posed a formidable threat to the Thevars.

The King of Sivagangai, a diehard Thevar, was one of the principal enemies of the Nawab, holding out defiantly against the latter’s nefarious designs. In the year 1772, the Nawab launched a campaign by a combined force of his own and the Company’s troops to subdue the King. The massive force, commanded by Colonel Joseph Smith of the EIC, appeared to face Kalaiyar Kovil, the seat of power of the Sivagangai’s monarch on 25 June. The Thevars under their brave king, Vaduganatha Thevar, although hopelessly outnumbered, met the enemy in a do-or-die battle in the forest skirting the town. They fought hard, slaying and maiming as many of the enemy as possible; but they had nothing to counter the English artillery, which kept pounding them brutally. The Thevars fell in their scores, to a man fighting to his last, including their gallant king, who preferred death to the dishonour of a surrender. Enemy hordes descended on Sivaganga, ransacking and plundering the town. Booty comprising jewelry worth an estimated value of 50,000 pagodas, the prevailing South Indian currency of the times, was carried away by the invaders.

The wily Nawab’s blood-lust did not end with merely toppling the monarch and killing him, but demanded further savagery of exterminating his entire family so that no vestige of the monarchy remained to pose a future challenge. He ordered an immediate hunt for the queen and the infant princess. By a stroke of luck, Rani Velu was out of town at the time of the attack, visiting a nearby temple at Kollangudi with her daughter. Alerted of the Nawab’s sinister hunt for the queen and the princess, Marudhu Pandiyar brothers, two staunchly loyal chieftains of the slain king who had survived the carnage, rushed to Kollangudi and managed to whisk away both of them with their entourage to Dindigul, 100 kilometres away to the northwest where the Nawab’s writ didn’t run. The bereaved queen had had to depart even without seeing the mortal remains of her much-loved husband.

The queen’s bodyguard of female fighters under their chief, a woman of great courage by the name of Udaiyal, stayed put as rearguard to thwart any attempt by the enemy to give pursuit. Nawab’s men did get the wind of the queen’s escape and a large group of them ran into the bodyguard and a deadly skirmish ensued, the female fighters fighting tooth and nail. The valiant women were overpowered by the sheer weight of numbers of the enemy and Udaiyal was taken prisoner. They tortured her intensely to no end, but she refused to give in and reveal her queen’s whereabouts. An exasperated Nawab gave vent to his despair by decapitating the woman. Udaiyal’s supreme sacrifice was just the beginning of a saga of courage and perseverance by the women warriors of Sivagangai, who would rally under the fugitive queen in the coming years, fighting side by side with their men to avenge the sacrilege of their Kingdom and reclaim it from the enemy. When the time came, a grateful queen would honour the martyrdom by raising an all-women army named after Udaiyal.

It was a village called Virupakhipuram where Rani Velu had initially found sanctuary on her arrival at Dindigul, with the local Polygar, Gopala Nayak, offering her protection. Resolved to mete out retribution to the aggressors and wrest her kingdom back, she applied her mind to the task with a feverish zeal, even while moving from place to place in Dindigul with the ever-loyal Maruthu Pandiyars for escort. Although the Pandiyars succeeded in raising a sizeable army from loyalists in the region over a period of time, and the Rani herself put together a women’s contingent, she had the foresight to judge that these forces were too inadequate to take on a powerful foe like the EIC. She needed an ally who had proven potential to take on the mighty English company. Her relentless quest, which took eight long years, finally took her to the gates of Mysore, whose ruler, Hyder Ali, had distinguished himself by delivering one humiliating defeat after another to the army of the EIC, during the past decade. Allying himself with the French, he had successfully transformed his army into a well-trained fighting force, equipped with modern weaponry that could match those of the British.

Impressed by the fierce determination and zeal of Rani Velu, as well as her outstanding intellect and linguistic skills, especially her ability to fluently converse with him in Urdu, Hyder promised her his wholehearted support. He allocated her a 10,000-strong army, 5,000 infantry troops and 5,000 cavalry ones, with necessary guns to support. On top of it, he offered her the services of one of his finest generals, Syed Karki. The Rani, finally ready to undertake the mission she had waited so long for, promptly launched an offensive to win back Sivaganga. In a well-planned operation timed while a great number of EIC forces were locked in battles with Hyder Ali, she conquered territory after territory of her lost kingdom in stages, until at last her forces were able to lay siege to the capital, Kalaiyar Kovil, with the Nawab’s troops cooped up inside the fort. The name Kalaiyar Kovil had been derived from the highly revered Kaleerswarar Temple that had existed there from the Sangam period. The Nawab however, during his eight years of occupation of the town, had renamed it as Hussain Nagar; bolstering its fortifications with English guns. The garrison was manned by English troops and some Indian sepoys.

Rani Velu, in her earnestness to retake the town, braced for her troops to scale the fort wall and attack. However, Syed Karki, the veteran soldier he was with many a battle behind him, counselled her against such a high-risk operation. The troops scaling the high wall would be at a great disadvantage, since the enemy manning the ramparts could easily push them down. He advised her to wait for the siege train, which he had requisitioned and was waiting for, to breach the fort for the troops to charge in. There was no need to fear of reinforcements for the besieged enemy fetching up, he reassured the anxious Rani, with most of the EIC troops engaged in battling Hyder. Only two options were available to her to achieve certain victory, he explained. One was to draw the enemy troops out into the open for a field battle, which was not realistic because there was no way the enemy troops were going to come out of the safety of the fort. Therefore, her sole option was the second one, to breach the fort and assault, for which she had to wait for the siege train. Although the Rani was somewhat convinced and agreed to hold her horses, she remained restless with the frustration of precious time slipping by.

All through the trials and tribulations of her eight-year long exile, the Rani’s constant companion and confidante was another remarkable woman, whose name was Kuyili. Kuyili hailed from a poor background and the queen had come to know her through her father who had been engaged by the court as a spy. Young Kuyili came to earn the gratitude of the queen when on more than one occasion, she saved her life at considerable risk to her own. Drawn into the inner circle of the queen, Kuyili earned so much acceptance and admiration from all by her hard work and dedication that the queen found it fit to appoint her the Commander-in-Chief of her women’s contingent, the Udaiyal Army. Ruminating on her deliberation with Syed Karki and frustrated by the roadblock she was up against in prosecuting the war to the final victory, the Rani now poured her heart out to Kuyili. Kuyili, always the out-of-the-box thinker, assuaged the queen by promising to device a way to get the fort gate opened so that her troops can charge in, instead of waiting for the siege train to arrive and breach the fort. And she did come up with a plan in short order. It was a simple one, but daring to the extreme; the Udaiyal Army she commanded would infiltrate the fort and open the gate from inside.

Coincidentally, the festival of Vijayadashami was only a couple of days away. Traditionally women from the surrounding villages congregated at the temple of Rajarajeswari Amman situated within the fort on that auspicious day. Kuyili put together a crack team of Udaiyal Army volunteers to mingle with the village women and enter the fort through the pedestrian gate that was customarily kept open for them on the day. The volunteers would carry their personal weapons concealed on their persons.

The Vijayadashami day dawned and women began streaming into the fort. Kuyili’s team walked in with them unobtrusively, even as the Rani with her main body of troops closed in on the fort. Festivities started and women began congregating at the temple. Out of the blue, a shrill battle cry from Kuyili rent the air. In a flash, her teammates fell upon the unsuspecting soldiers, cutting and slashing with their swords. Caught unawares, scores of Engliish soldiers and Indian sepoys went down killed or maimed, while some of the women fighters rushed to the fort gate and threw it open.

Rani Velu and her army, waiting under cover outside, rose up and charged the gate as one. Just as they gushed in through the gate like an avalanche, a massive explosion rocked the fort, jolting friends and foes alike. The ammunition dump within the fort had gone up in flames and burned furiously. The garrison had no ammunition to fight with, even if they could gather their wits and put up a fight. As it happened, the havoc the explosion caused had completely unnerved them and they fell easy prey to the Rani’s vengeful army charging at them. It was a complete rout and the attackers were in possession of the fort in little or no time, while the enemy dead and the dying lay strewn all around. No one immediately knew who or what had caused the explosion.

Kuyili, while preparing her team for its daring mission, had worked out another scheme, even more hazardous than the one they were venturing on, a plan within a plan. She had intelligence from her spies and knew exactly where the ammunition dump of the garrison was located. She was determined to blow it up and effectively deprive the enemy of their firepower. She knew of a large vessel kept near the temple, filled with oil for lighting its many lamps. As soon as she gave the signal for her team to attack, she took a couple of her teammates with her and rushed to the oil vessel. She had the teammates douse her with oil. Pulling out one of the torches in front of the temple, she then dashed across alone to the ammunition dump, her sword drawn. Furiously slashing at the sepoys guarding the dump to clear out her way, she ran right inside and set herself ablaze. As the flames leapt up towards the closely stacked bags of gun powder, Kuyili would have had the ultimate satisfaction of fulfilling what she deemed her sacred mission, ensuring victory for her queen and her army. Did she spell out her lifelong commitment and steadfast loyalty with one last passionate cry “Rani Velu Nachiyar Vazhge – Long Live Rani Velu Nachiyar”? We would never know; the highly combustible storge of the dump exploded, snuffing out her young life. Kuyili’s supreme sacrifice, the world’s first suicide bombing by any reckoning, remains an iconic act of unmitigated patriotism with few parallels in India’s colonial history.

Rani Velu Nachiyar was duly crowned the Queen of Sivaganga. While the Nawab never again dared to make a move against Sivaganga, the EIC itself found it wise to leave the kingdom unmolested. Velu Nachiyar ruled for ten years; the elder Maruthu Pandiyar, Periya Maruthu, serving as the Commander-in-Chief of her army and the younger one, Chinna Maruthu, as her Chief Minister; giving her subjects a benevolent administration, before handing over the reins to her daughter Vellachi, who had come of age, in 1790. The Rani would die a natural death six years later, the sole South Indian leader to fight the British and survive. Her beloved kingdom would once again be embroiled in conflicts against the British before the end of the century, the Maruthu Pandiyars forging alliances with neighbouring native rulers to create a united front against the colonialists; but that’s another chapter of the South Indian challenge to colonialism.

Today, while Rani Velu Nachiyar and the Maruthu Pandiyar Brothers generally find space in the realm of public knowledge, at least in Tamil Nadu, the names of Udaiyal and Kuyili, the two women fighters who sacrificed their lives in the strife, do not resonate as those deserve to be beyond the district of Sivaganga, where the local lore still celebrate their valour. In recent years, the Tamil Nadu government has installed a memorial for Kuyili in Sivaganga, the sole reminder of an intensely patriotic act that should inspire generations of Indian youth, and the lofty height of loyalty a true leader could inspire.

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