This is the last piece of history in the series ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence.
This is the life-story of Oomaithurai – the mute prince who despite his physical challenges, was a terror to the British forces.
As we have already seen from the story of Rani Velu Nachiyar (which you can read here) and the story of Dheeran Chinnamalai (which you can read here), the seed of revolt started sprouting in Bharat much before the organized revolt in the form of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.
Starting from Rani Velu Nachiyar to the Palayakkarars and the many brave heroes till the middle of the twentieth century, the spirit of bravery ingrained in all the citizens of this country manifested in innumerable ways paving the way for our freedom in 1947.
Veera Pandya Kattabomman was a great warrior who defied the British and was captured by them and hanged to death in 1799. Oomaithurai was the younger brother of this Kattabomman. He was the solid support for his brother in all his revolutionary and war activities.
Oomaithurai was born as Kumarasamy at Ottapidaram in today’s Tuticorin district. His parents were Jegaveera Pandyan and Arumugathammal. He also had a younger brother by name Sevathaiah.
Kumarasamy was challenged in speech and so got the name Oomaithurai. (Oomai meaning mute – the British referred to him as Umai)
The Nawab of Carnatic signed the Carnatic Treaty of 1792 with the British, endowing the British the right to collect taxes directly from the Palayakkarars (chieftains who were called Poligars by the British). The money so collected was to be used for maintaining the British armed forces. The refusal to pay tax to the British was the reason of the Poligar Wars. As it happened with other brave warriors, Veera Pandya Kattabomman was also captured and hanged to death. Following this, Oomaithurai and all other warriors were captured.
Their fort at Panchalamkurichi was completely razed to the ground. From then on, Oomaithurai and the others were imprisoned in a prison at Palayamkottai.
Oomaithurai and his brother Sevathaiah somehow got in touch with the Marudhu brothers and Gopala Naicker of Virupatchi (Palayakkarars who were against British rule), to help them escape from the prison and start the revolt afresh.
On 1st February 1801, hundreds of men disguised as vendors selling banana leaves and wood were seen near the Palayamkottai prison. Many prisoners had been suffering from small pox and so they had not been chained at that time. It is said that the prisoners wanted to buy things from those vendors for performing obeisance to their ancestors. In the process, the vendors forcefully entered the prison with concealed weapons overpowering the guards. Disarming all the security guards, hundreds of prisoners led by Oomaithurai escaped, countering at least one hundred British forces on the way and reached Panchalamkurichi by the morning. Panchalamkurichi was thirty miles away from Palayamkottai.
The British gathered all their forces under the instruction of Major Macaulay who had ordered them to march to a designated place Kayattar and then proceed to Panchalamkurichi in a bid to recapture the persons who had escaped.
Accordingly, the army was marching towards Kayattar. On the 8th February morning when they were 19 miles from Kayattar and sat down to eat their meal, about one thousand two hundred men directed by Oomaithurai appeared all of a sudden and launched an attack on the British, leaving forty people dead. After fighting back Oomaithurai’s men, the army proceeded with more caution towards Panchalamkurichi.
They reached Panchalamkurichi by the next morning when to their utter surprise, the fort which had been razed to the ground was fully rebuilt (‘as if by magic in six days’ says General James Welsh in his account) and guarded by about fifteen hundred warriors. The fort and the Palayakkarars were armed beyond the expectations of the British.
The British decided that it was not wise for them to attack the fort in the day time and as they waited for night, their spies brought in the word that the Palayakkarars had planned an attack on them at night. The British then decided to leave for Palayamkottai and bring in more forces. As they had covered some distance after nightfall, they were again attacked by Oomaithurai’s men and suffered casualties.
After getting additional forces from Trichy they waited and attacked the fort of Panchalamkurichi by the end of March 1801 but still could not succeed in breaching it. It is said that indigenous materials like clay, straw and millet paste were used in the construction of the fort that had made it impregnable. Building such a fort in such a short time was indeed an engineering marvel! Major Macaulay who was in charge of this operation was removed from his post as he was seen as incapable of breaching the fort and capturing Oomaithurai.
Colonel Agnew was appointed in Major Macaulay’s place.
He called for additional forces from Srilanka to attack Panchalamkurichi. This was in addition to about one thousand Ettayapuram Palayakkarars who were hereditary enemies of Kattabomman and others.
Now, in the middle of May 1801 the troops were ready under the command of Colonel Agnew. They launched their attack on Panchalamkurichi fort on May 21st. With great difficulty the fort was breached and on 24th May, after a bloody battle, Oomaithurai was badly injured and was lying some three miles away from the fort.
One of the women who came to look for her warrior-son, found her son in a critical state but it is said that her son told her to save Oomaithurai first. Accordingly, Oomaithurai was taken by her to her house. Hearing this, the Ettayapuram Palayakkarars also went in search of him with a view to capture him dead or alive and gain the favour of the British. But the woman who had save Oomaithurai acted with great smartness. She covered Oomaithurai fully with a white cloth and started crying aloud along with ladies of the neighbouring houses that her son had died due to small pox. As small pox was a deadly disease then, and death by small pox was not uncommon, the Ettayapuram Palayakkarars did not even stop to look at the ‘body’ and ran away.
Oomaithurai survived well and with his wounds healed he escaped and reached Kamudhi and met the Marudhu Brothers. He stayed with them at Siruvayal. The British came to know of this and Colonel Agnew asked the Marudhu brothers to hand over Oomaithurai to them. The Marudhu brothers refused.
This caused a major battle between the British and the Marudhu Brothers. It was a widespread battle and Oomaithurai led the forces from Sivaganga and Virupatchi. Initially Major Jones could not handle Oomaithurai but on 16th October 1801, Oomaithurai and other warriors were captured by Colonel Innes and Agnew and Oomaithurai was hanged to death near the Panchalamkurichi fort.
General James Welsh who was an officer in the Madras army involved in all these battles wrote about Oomaithurai as follows:
“One of the most extraordinary mortals I ever knew. A near relation of Kattabomma Nayaka who was both deaf and dumb. He was a tall, slender lad… yet possessing that energy of mind, which in troubled times, gains pre-eminence; whilst in his case, the very defect which would have impeded another proved a powerful auxiliary in the minds of ignorant and superstitious idolaters. The Umai was adored; his slightest sign was an oracle and every man flew to execute whatever he commanded. No council assembled at which he did not preside; no daring adventure was undertaken in which he did not lead. His method of representing the English was extremely simple; he collected a few little pieces of straw, arranged them on the palm of his left hand to represent the English force; then with other signs like time etc., he drew the other hand across and swept them off, with a whizzing sound from his mouth, which was the signal for attack; and he was generally the foremost in executing those plans for our annihilation. Whatever undisciplined valour could effect was sure to be achieved wherever he appeared; though poor Umai was at last doomed to grace a gallows. He had escaped, as it were, by miracle, in every previous engagement”
After Oomaithurai and other Palayakkarars were done to death, the British carefully erased all the references to Panchalamkurichi in all documents and maps. This is mentioned in the book of 1881 ‘Political and General History of the District of Tinnevelly in the Presidency of Madras from the earliest period to its cession to the English Government in A.D.1801’ written by The Right Rev R. Caldwell, Bishop, Fellow of the Madras University. It reads as below:
‘Not only was the fort of Panjalamkurichi pulled down and levelled to the ground, but, to make assurance doubly sure and to produce an impression on popular mind the site was ploughed over and cultivated. It was ordered that the name Panjalamkurichi should be removed from all maps and accounts. Notwithstanding this, it found a place afterwards in the Ordnance map, where it appears as “Panjalamkurichi in ruins” ‘
The Palayakkarars who had valiantly fought against the British, all along from mid-eighteenth century were slowly destroyed over the years albeit with great effort and loss of men and money for the British.
With this story of the most valiant Oomaithurai this series of twelve stories, ‘Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence’ comes to an end.
There is no doubt that it is this exemplary courage of all these brave hearts and many more that has resulted in the freedom we enjoy today. I bow down to the innumerable warriors who laid down their lives at the feet of Bharat Mata.