“Entaro Mahanubhavulu, antariki vandanamu” sang the poet saint Thyagaraja meaning, “Salutations to the many great people of the world”.
So many great people have lived and gone in this beautiful country Bharat. Some of them we know about and some of them we do not know.
Amongst the many freedom fighters who fought to end the British rule in India there have been many untold stories of exceptional valour, in our history books.
It is indeed sad that these brave hearts have not been showcased in the history taught in our schools.
This time, I am attempting to narrate a story of one such brave heart, in fact, the first woman to wage a battle against the British. “Velu Nachiyar” was her name and she lived between 1730 and 1796.
Before I come to the story, a brief introduction on the political situation in those days for the benefit of the youngsters reading this story.
India was a conglomeration of many provinces and kingdoms, ruled by kings or chieftains, in those days before Independence. The area in and around the present Ramanathapuram district was ruled by the chieftains who had the title of ‘Sethupathi’.
Similarly another kingdom which was ruled by Chieftains was called Sivaganga which is now a district in Tamil Nadu. Sivaganga kingdom was founded by Sasivarna Periya Oodaya Thevar in 1730.
These Chieftains were originally working for the Nayak Kings of Madurai and when the King’s rule weakened, these Chieftains became the rulers of the provinces under their control.
Velu Nachiyar was born on January 3, 1730 to Sellamuthu Vijaya Reghunatha Sethupati (who was king of Ramnathapuram from 1747 till 1762). She was the only child of her parents.
Being born in a royal family, Velu was a natural warrior and was trained in horse riding, martial arts, archery, and in using the Valari, a dreaded weapon made of iron, which was a boomerang used widely in war. She was also taught the rules of war and various strategies used in war. Velu was also taught six languages apart from her mother tongue Tamil, namely, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, English, French and Urdu. She mastered all of them and was fluent in all.
It is really interesting to note that the female child as a heir was treated as equal to a male heir and trained in everything a male heir would have been trained in!
Growing up to be a bold young lady, Velu was married to Muthuvaduganatha Thevar, the son of the Chieftain of Sivaganga, Sasivarna Periya Oodaya Thevar at the age of sixteen. Four years after her marriage, Muthuvaduganatha Thevar became ruler of Sivaganga after his father’s demise and Velu became Rani Velu Nachiyar (Queen Velu Nachiyar).
With the able guidance of his educated wife who took a very great interest in tax reforms and development of waterways and other infrastructure, things were going on very well for the Muthuvaduganatha Thevar and the Kingdom.
Kalayar Kovil was an important town in the Sivaganga province and it had a beautiful temple and Fort.
With the British aspiring to gain more control in South India, they were teaming up with the local kings and playing them against each other and were taking advantage of the situation by grabbing the territory so won. The reasons for waging war were frivolous.
In one such instance, in 1772, the British, led by General Joseph Smith and Colonel Abraham Bonjour colluding with the then Arcot Nawab attacked Kalaiyarkovil. Muthuvaduganathar, who was present there with his another wife Gowri Nachiyar was taken unawares and was killed treacherously in the most gruesome manner. So many civilians were massacred and the temple was ransacked and plundered. There was looting and arson everywhere and the beautiful town turned into a graveyard with hundreds of bodies strewn around in no time.
During that time, Rani Velu Nachiyar had gone to a nearby place Kollangudi with her young daughter Vellachi. As soon as she came to know of this ghastly attack, the Rani rushed to Kalayarkovil fort only to witness how inhuman this incident had been. It was heart wrenching. The King, Queen, men, women and children had been slaughtered alike without distinction. The temple had been plundered by the British and the Nawab’s soldiers. It is said that they looted about 50000 pagodas from there. (The pagoda was the unit of currency in use in those days and was made of gold or semi gold).
Rani Velu Nachiyar was devastated at the sight of the destruction. It was sheer fate that saved her, her daughter, the Minister Thandavaraya Pillai and the Marudu brothers who were well known warriors, who served her loyally. They had all been to Kollangudi and escaped the massacre.
The Rani, though overcome with grief at the gruesome incident, had to make up her mind fast. Either she could immolate herself on the pyre of her husband as a ‘faithful wife’ or she could take revenge and wreak havoc on the British the same way they had done to her.
It is said that the Rani took the inspiration from the legendary Kannagi who brought destruction to the city of Madurai over the injustice that was meted out to her husband. She spoke her mind to the minister Thandavaraya Pillai who had been her like a father figure to her. He was her late father in law’s minister too and he concurred with her idea that the British should be taught a lesson. But the time was not ripe yet for the mission. So on his advice, the Rani sought asylum with her daughter in a place called Virupachi near Dindigul which was ruled by one Gopala Nayakkar who was also against the British. The Marudu brothers would live in the outskirts of Sivaganga, in the woods to be the Rani’s informants and to create trouble for the Nawab whenever possible.
In the meanwhile, General James, who came to know about the valorous wife of the slain king wanted to make sure that she was also murdered. He went in search of her to Kollangudi and came to know from his spies that one particular young woman knew the whereabouts of the Rani Velu Nachiyar. He zeroed in on the woman and questioned her repeatedly. Despite the mental torture inflicted by the General, the woman would simply not give away the whereabouts of the Rani. As a result the lady was inhumanly cut up with a sword in the most ghastly manner by the General.
Rani Velu heard of the incident and was deeply saddened. She performed the last rites of this valiant young woman at Virupachi. It is said that in her later days, the Rani named her army “Udaiyal Padai” in memory of this young woman.
In the safe haven of Virupachi, Rani Velu was planning her next strategy. She badly needed an ally and forces to go against the British. With the consultation of her Minister, they decided that approaching Hyder Ali, the de facto ruler of Mysore would be the best thing to do. Hyder Ali was a strong force to reckon with as he was also dead against the British rule. Secondly, allying with a Muslim king would prevent the Nawab of Arcot from offering assistance to the British.
In the meanwhile, Sivaganga had been renamed Hussain Nagar by the Arcot Nawab and his son Ameer- ul- Umara was ruling there as the Nawab’s representative.
Rani Velu initiated the correspondence to Hyder Ali seeking military assistance and a letter was sent to him. It was planned to meet Hyder Ali in person also.
Unfortunately, Rani’s minister Thandavaraya Pillai passed away and so the meeting did not materialise. However, shortly thereafter, Hyder Ali made a visit to Dindigul and Rani Velu met him and conversed with him in chaste Urdu.
It is said that Hyder Ali was greatly impressed by the tenacity of this lady and more wonderstruck in the way she spoke flawless Urdu. Both being against the British rule, they discussed the problems created by the British at length and on how to quell the British.
Hyder Ali sanctioned the Rani a princely sum to maintain herself at the Fort and raise an army. He also gave instructions to one Syed Karki to make her stay in the Dindigul Fort as comfortable as should be for a queen and treat her like a queen.
Since Rani Velu Nachiyar was a devotee of the Mother Goddess, he also facilitated her daily worship at temple of Goddess Rajarajeswari within the Fort premises.
Rani Velu Nachiyar started raising a Women Military Regiment and was the trainer herself for her recruits.
The army was given rigorous physical training and was also trained in guerrilla warfare under the careful eye of the Rani. The army had women captains and spies as any other army in the world would have. One of the Captains was Kuyili, who was a close confidante of the Queen.
In addition to this army, the Rani also got 5000 cavalry and 5000 infantry from Hyder Ali to assist her when she would launch the attack to restore Sivaganga.
In 1780, the army of women, along with Rani Velu Nachiyar headed towards Sivaganga in disguise.
The British also suspected that something was to happen in Sivaganga, but could not get to know clearly what would happen. In anticipation of any attack they had stored lot of ammunition in the arsenal near the Rajarajeswari temple within the Sivaganga Fort.
Kuyili came to know of this. The Rani was apprised of the situation and they had to decide quickly on their strategy.
It was the day before Vijayadasami (during Navaratri) in the month of October. The temple in the fort premises being that of the mother Goddess, it was the usual practice of hundreds of ladies to come for worship in the temple from far and near and were allowed freely into the fort.
The whole army, carrying baskets of fruits and flowers and oil and ghee for worship entered the fort. What the British soldiers and the Nawab’s men did not know was the baskets had weapons like the deadly Valari concealed in them. They were easily hoodwinked.
It was twilight and the sun had almost set. Kuyili went inside the temple and drenched herself with the oil and ghee. In a swift move, carrying a lighted wick, she dashed into the arsenal where the ammunition was kept, lit herself and threw her burning self on the ammunition.
The huge blast that followed, shook the entire town and the hearts of the British alike. It was unthinkable and probably the first suicide bombing in history. Kuyili had become a human bomb and sacrificed herself for her province.
In the meanwhile the cavalry and infantry had entered the town and in the panic that followed, lot of the Nawab’s men and the Britishers met the same fate in the hands of the women’s army, as Rani Velu’s people met eight years ago. The Nawab was captured alive and his flag brought down and the flag of the Rani hoisted.
The province was rid of the British and the Nawab’s men and the Rani was crowned Queen of Sivaganga.
She ruled the province for ten years thereafter with the able assistance of the Marudu Brothers and in 1790, handed over the administration to her daughter Vellachi.
It is said that as a thanksgiving gesture to Hyder Ali, Rani Velu Nachiyar built a mosque at the place called Sarugani near Sivaganga. She also maintained friendly relations with Tipu Sultan, son of Hyder Ali, after the passing away of Hyder Ali in 1782.
Rani Velu Nachiyar passed away on December 25, 1796 suffering from a heart ailment.
She is remembered in her Tamil Nadu as the “Veera Mangai”, meaning, the daring woman.
The Government of India has honoured her by releasing a postage stamp in December 2008 and the Tamil Nadu Government has built a Memorial for her in 2014 at Sivaganga.
It is a matter of immense pride that Rani Velu Nachiyar was the first lady to rise up against the British rule in India!
Today is Rani Velu Nachiyar’s 289th birth anniversary.