The Poligar Rebellion

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South India’s longest lasting resistance to the British colonialism

Popular history of resistance to the British colonialism in Southern India during the 18th Century often tends to sideline myriad rebellions that the English East India Company had to overcome before they could establish themselves in the region, focusing solely on the Mysore Wars that ended with the defeat and slaying of Tipu Sultan. While the Mysore Army might have been the only organized military force the British had to confront, they had to spill as much or more blood in subduing a multitude of isolated rebellions all over the South, many of them extremely fierce. The longest lasting of these was the Poligar Rebellion, which ebbed and flowed over half a century with varying intensity. The word ‘Poligar’ is a corrupted English version of the word ‘Palayakkaran’ in Tamil, meaning holder of an armed camp. They were local warlords who held sway over their respective areas by means of the ‘Palayam-s’ or armed camps they headed. While Thespian Sivaji Ganesan’s magnum opus, Veera Pandya Kattabomman, popularized the legend of the best-known Poligar in recent times, the story of the Poligar Rebellion itself dated back half a century from the day of his martyrdom in 1799, and was to play out its final and fiercest phase in two years thence.

18th Century was a period when almost the entire region that forms the modern state of Tamil Nadu was more or less in a state of political turmoil, with no central authority exercising power. This was a legacy of the breakup of the once-powerful Vijayanagara Empire, of which the region was a part of. Established in early 14th Century by the Southern powers to ward off Islamic invasions from the north, with its capital at Vijayanagara in present-day Karnataka, its glorious reign lasted more than two centuries until it suffered a catastrophe with the defeat of its army in the Battle of Talikota in 1565 by the combined forces of the Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda. The ruling dynasty however survived, moving its capital further south to Chandragiri, maintaining a loose sovereignty over the southern territory of its earlier domain through local chieftains called Naiks. This status quo continued until 1647, when at last the weakened dynasty was overwhelmed by external aggressions from the Deccan kingdoms as well as internal dissent among the Naiks.

This was also the period when the European trading companies were opening their establishments in the Indian subcontinent (The English East India Company had established their trading post and begun building their first fort in Asia, Fort St. George, at Madras in 1646). During the one hundred years that followed the final collapse of the Vijayanagara Empire (from mid 17th to mid 18th Century), the Indian subcontinent witnessed a dramatic transformation in its political power equations. The Mughal Empire that had dominated the scene for two centuries was being effectively challenged by the rising Maratha power, and by the first quarter of 18th Century, post the death of Aurangazeb, its last powerful emperor, it held only a token authority, with its provincial governors assuming autonomous powers, swearing only a formal allegiance to the emperor. Although the Marathas by then had become the most powerful military force of the subcontinent, they had not been able to establish absolute political authority to fill the vacuum caused by the disintegration of the Mughal power, partially for lack of coherence in their leadership after the early passing away of Chatrapathy Shivaji, their pioneering leader, in 1680.

It is in this confused scenario with no central authority that the European trading firms began making forays into the political arena of the land. The inept and selfish native rulers with their petty internecine quarrels provided these foreigners with the ideal opportunity to meddle in the native politics. The Tamil country at this period was loosely governed by the Nawab of Arcot, a vassal of the Mughal Emperor; though the Naiks, who wielded power under the Vijayanagara Empire, continued to lord over their fiefdoms pretty much autonomously. The southern provinces of the Tamil homeland was one area in particular where the authority of the Nawab was hardly pertinent. The area comprising Ramnad, Sivaganga and Theni, which lay beyond and adjacent to the two main provinces of Madurai and Tirunelveli was inhabited by a warlike people known as the 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 (present-day Sri Lanka) for several centuries. Submissiveness was not a trait these proud people were easily given to, especially when provoked by armed aggression, that too by an alien power. Formed into a loose confederacy under the leadership of their Poligars, they waged an unequal war against the army of the East India Company for more than half a century when the Company’s power was on the rise in the Carnatic. Collectively dubbed the Poligar Rebellion, it was essentially a struggle to preserve their sovereignty over Tirunelveli and adjacent provinces.

There were over thirty Poligars in the region who, together or in separate groups, kept the fight going on from early 1750s, when the Nawab of Carnatic, Muhammed Ali, allied with the British, sent the first of the expeditions to subdue them. The Nawab was one of the first in the country to play into the hands of the British, initially to ward off the challenge to his throne by a rival prince, Chanda Sahib, who was supported by the French, and in later years to lead his indulgent life in comfort, negligent of his responsibilities as a ruler and complaisant of the English Company’s impudence (A popular joke among the Britons in Madras was that the best investment to get wealthy in India was to lend some money to the Nawab. The Nawab, with his extravagant lifestyle, was always broke, and will never be able to return the money. Instead, he would allot a province in return authorizing the lender to collect taxes). Not only did the Poligars beat back the Nawab’s expedition of a thousand native soldiers with an English detachment, they went on to defend Maduraii under Chanda Sahib’s flag and decisively repulsed a British force.

Though armed with only primitive devices like pikes twelve to eighteen feet long, the Poligar fighters 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 palm trees that could withstand fair amount of battering by artillery. In1755, the Nawab, after having beaten off Chanda Sahib’s challenge and ousted the French from the scene with British help, launched a second and larger expedition against the Poligars, only to end up with egg on his face, with his own brother, who led it, secretly treating with Poligars and the English commander, whom he bribed off, getting courtmartialled and sacked. The confederacy of Poligars under their most popular leader of the times, Puli Tevan, maintained the upper hand, and joined by a well-trained Travancore Army, handed out one humiliating defeat after another to the Nawab’s forces under his discredited brother Mahfuz Khan. Eventually, only after 1759, following the appointment of Yusuf Khan-alias-Maruthanayagam Pillai, the legendary Indian soldier who rose to fame in the service of the East India Company, who himself hailed from Ramnad, was the Poligars contained to an extent, primarily for him turning out to be an eminently capable administrator, winning their loyalty. However, the peace was short-lived, as Yusuf Khan himself turned against the British, when he fell out with them after his relations with them turned sour with their falling for insinuations against him by the Nawab. The Nawab felt terribly insecure by the rising popularity of Khan that he may usurp his crown – a paranoia shared by most Indian rulers of the times about their vassals who grew in power – that he was willing to try any kind of intrigue to bring him down. An exasperated Khan declared his independence as the governor of Maduraii and raised his own army, mostly of local inhabitants, along with some French mercenaries. The Poligar fighters were back in action, once more to defend Maduraii, this time around under Yusuf Khan’s flag.

Yusuf Khan’s defiance of the British onslaught saw the fiercest battling the British had to do anywhere in India, prior to the Mysore and Maratha Wars. For almost two years, he gallantly held out against the British might, inflicting one defeat after another on them, until at last, under siege, he was betrayed by his own officers who were misled to believe that he was planning to escape leaving them to their fate, through a rumour spread by a disaffected French mercenary. Cornered in his quarters and made prisoner, he was handed over to the Nawab, who delightedly had him hanged.

The Anglo-Poligar strife continued unabated for the remaining part of the century, with the British occasionally succeeding to put down the rebellious Poligars, only to face yet another insurrection within a few years, assisted for some time by the Dutch at Tuticorin. So, it was inevitable that the British would run into trouble with their inglorious tax collection drive in the southern provinces beyond Madurai. In fact, trouble was brewing up even as they were engaged in the 4th – also the last – Mysore War in the closing years of the 1790s. The final drama of this struggle would be played out in the small hamlet of Panjalamkurichi deep south, at the dawn of the 19th Century.

Panjalamkurichi, located about 75 miles south of Madurai, had for its Poligar, Kattabomman Nayak, a brave man and a sworn enemy of the British, who had been in the forefront of the fight against them for more than three decades by then. While the other Poligars of the area, most of whom were also rebellious, submitted to the British authority towards the end of the century, Kattabomman led an uprising in Ramnad in 1797. In August 1798, W. C. Jackson, the British collector at Madurai, persuaded the defiant Poligar to meet him at Ramnad. Either Jackson attempted, or Kattabomman suspected a trap, and the latter’s escape bid turned violent; the fort commander of the place, Colonel Clarke, getting fatally wounded in the fracas. Kattabomman extricated himself with his party. The British, much as they wished to go after him, could do little, tied up as they were with the war with Tipu.

Soon after the fall of Seringapatam, a force of some 400 Europeans and two battalions of sepoys with a detachment of the Bengal artillery, commanded by Major Bannerman, moved against the fort at Panjalamkurichi. Overconfident of his superiority, Bannerman attempted to storm the fort before his artillery had taken up their posts, and was thrashed soundly; his attack repulsed with terrible losses. But he was reinforced soon, and better prepared, he opened up with his guns the next day. That night, with the fall of the fort imminent under intense bombardment, Kattabomman escaped with a few followers to Pudukotta while his two brothers and a general and confidant, Subramania Pillai, held out with the remaining men before surrendering after a while. The two brothers were taken captives; and Pillai, with whom the British had a score to settle (his having raided and plundered their post at Palamcottah nearby, not long ago), was executed. Perhaps they all had hoped to gain some time for their escaped leader, so that he lived to fight another day. But that was not to be; Kattabomman was caught by the Tondaman ruler of Pudukotta who was friendly with the British, and handed over to them. He was hanged as a rebel on 16 October 1799 at Kayattaru, and his fort razed to the ground.

But the flame that Kattabomman lit was not about to be put off easily. Two of his brothers, who were incarcerated at Palamcottah, managed to escape in February 1801. One of them, born dumb (and hence known variously as Oomaiyan or Oomadurai), was a ferocious fighter reputed for his daring exploits; and the people of Panjalamkurichi rallied under him to renew the fight. In a remarkably short period of time they rebuilt the fort and formed a 1500-strong garrison to man it. By the time the British field commander in the province, Major Macaulay, was able to put together a force of about 1000 men and move against the hamlet, the garrison had swelled to a strength of nearly 5000, the people of the surrounding country having enthusiastically assembled under Oomadurai; prepared for a showdown. Outnumbered, Macaulay beat a hasty retreat, fighting off a night sortie by the rebels. Positioning himself at Palamcottah, he sent a desperate plea for reinforcements to Madras. Meanwhile the insurrection spread like wild fire, and the rebelling Poligars soon took many of the forts including that of Tuticorin.

The British reinforcements arrived on 27 March; and Macaulay, now commanding a 3000-strong force, marched to Panjalamkurichi, to appear before the hamlet on the morning of the 31st. The fort was built in an oblong form some 500 feet long and 300 feet broad, a strong, well-fortified structure surrounded by a thick thorny hedge. The British guns started a bombardment, and by 3 in the afternoon an operative breach had been made in the northwest bastion. An assault was launched immediately.

The storming party, covered by a barrage and musketry from the rest of the force, broke through the hedge and made it to the top of the breach. That was as far as they got; every man who showed himself further fell dead or maimed in an instant. The defenders had played an ingenious trick. The bastions were made hollow, and the attackers, once on top, suddenly found themselves with no footing; and right when they tottered, the defenders, closely packed inside the bastions and armed with their traditional 18-foot pikes, played merry hell into them. The dead and the dying rolled back in a heap. There was no way the assault was going to succeed, and at the end of the day Macaulay’s men were left licking their wounds, having lost 4 officers and 49 men killed, and 13 officers and 254 men wounded. Only at the hands of Yusuf Khan had the English Company’s Madras Army suffered a drubbing of that severity in the past.

Macaulay set up camp about a mile away from the fort and awaited further reinforcements. They arrived after about two months, on 21 May – a massive force this time, with a large train of artillery, commanded by Colonel Agnew who now took charge of the operation. A well-planned assault was launched on the 24th. There was delay crossing the hedge again, but once on top the attackers were better prepared. In a hot contest that lasted over twenty minutes, they countered the pike men in the bastions by throwing in grenades. At the end of it almost the entire lot of defenders within the bastions was killed, and the attackers began bludgeoning their way into the fort. For the gallant Poligars, it was the end of the road; but they chose to die fighting like men rather than surrender. About 3000 of them who were within the fort rushed out in battle order to meet the enemy head on in a suicidal charge. And that is what it turned out to be, because they ran right into the enemy cavalry charging at them. It was mayhem all over, the Poligars adding a bit of innovation even in that last desperate bid as they unleashed their famed dogs of the Rajapalalyam breed into the fight. These ferocious canines, every bit as brave as their masters, gave the cavalrymen a run for their money as they sprang fearlessly at the riders and their mounts, biting and tearing.

The Madras Army’s casualties in the battle were estimated to be nearly 200. The Poligar losses were of course much more. But the rebellion did not die off still. Oomadurai and his brother survived, and withdrawing into the nearby jungles with many of the rebels, carried on with the struggle. It took a fair bit of intense fighting for the British to quell the rebellion ultimately by October that year, when Oomadurai and his brother, captured at Sivaganga, were brought to Panjalamkurichi and hanged. The fort was once again razed to the ground; and the site ploughed over and sown with castor seeds.

The operations to put down the Poligar Rebellion cost the Madras Army nearly a 1000 men killed and wounded, including 40 or so officers. In the pages of history, this rebellion often finds itself relegated to the status of a localized conflict born of frustration among the traditionally recalcitrant Poligars, whose power and influence the East India Company tried to curtail. Nevertheless, it stands out unique in that it was the first popular insurrection of the kind in the South, in which the participation of the people, and not the diktats of any sovereign that became instrumental. The immense mass following enjoyed by Kattabomman and his brothers was definitely indicative of the overwhelming popular resentment to the crude imposition of British authority at that time.

The British themselves admired the dogged courage of the Maravas who, poorly armed, with no formal training and with no artillery worth the name, held out against the might of the Madras Army for more than a year. No wonder in later years, heartily encouraged by the British, many of these brave fighters and their descendants found themselves in the ranks of the Madras Regiment and the Madras Sappers & Miners.

The Poligar Rebellion was also unique for being the first insurrection in the country to have displayed a degree of trans-national ethos. Marudu Pandyan, the chief exponent of the rebellion in Sivaganga, had tried to expand its scope by forging a grand alliance of the disaffected groups all across the peninsula. Besides all the Southern Poligars, the alliance generally included the Poligars of Dindigul, the Kurichias of Malabar, Dhoondiah Wagh of Bidnur, some Sardars of the Nizam of Hyderabad and even some of the Maratha chiefs including Daulat Rao Scindia. Unfortunately this popular initiative that came to be often referred to as the South Indian Rebellion, could only bring about widespread but isolated peasant uprisings lacking cohesiveness, all of which collapsed within a year in the face of the sustained military onslaught by the British. But the resentment to alien rule continued to prevail with sporadic disturbances like the Chittoor Poligar Revolt of 1804, and major insurgencies like the Pazhassi revolt of Malabar. The Poligar Rebellion found its echo one last time, when the sentiments it evoked proved partially instrumental in inciting the sepoys to mutiny at Vellore in 1806. Sometime later, the East India Company is believed to have assembled some 23 surviving Poligars on the pretext of peace talks and, deceptively making prisoners of them en masse, deported all of them to Andamans. Not one of them ever returned to their homeland. Thus, in one stroke, the British had put paid to the one rebellious movement in the South that had the potential to destabilize them.

The Poligar Rebellion was the last flicker of defiance by the people of the Tamil homeland against the inexorable slide of the region into the ignominy of colonialism. A memorial hall for Kattabomman adorns the hamlet of Panjalamkurichi. The Puli Tevan Palace at Tirunelveli, revered as a historic monument now, was the headquarters of the first great Poligar, Puli Tevan.

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