A collection of Indian tales of wit, wisdom, humour, bravery, devotion and lots more...

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Nilamber and Pitamber -The heroic brothers from Jharkhand – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence – 4

Here is the fourth story in the series of “Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence”.

This a story of two brothers from the present-day Jharkhand who fought against the British.

Siblings fighting for the common cause of independence was not rare in Bharat. Prominent siblings among the early freedom fighters were the Marudhu brothers from present Tamil Nadu, Chinna Marudhu and Periya Marudhu, who were hanged together by the British. Dheeran Chinnamalai, who gave up his life for the cause of independence was also hanged along with his two brothers who were with him always in his struggles. (The story can be read here)

This story is also about one such set of brothers namely, Nilamber and Pitamber who belonged to a tribal community of the present-day Jharkhand. This is a story which I read very recently and want to share it with you all.

In the early 19th century, there lived a person by name Chemu Singh in the village of Chemo-Senya in Palamau district in Chhota Nagpur area of Jharkhand. He belonged to the Kharwar tribe who had farming as their occupation, but he was a ‘Jagirdar’.

The ‘Jagirdari’ system was started by the Mughal kings in which, a person was made in charge of a particular tract of land to manage the revenue and tax collection. He was called Jagirdar. He did not own the land but had to manage the people cultivating it and collect the taxes. A portion of the collection was given to him as salary. The balance amount was deposited into the treasury. This system continued even after the decline of the Mughal kingdom through the time of the British East India Company till it was abolished by the Indian Government in 1951.

Coming back to the story, Chemu Singh was a kind-hearted person. Therefore, when he collected taxes, he was very considerate and many times collected less revenue taking into account the adversities faced by the farmers. Naturally he had to face the ire of the British Officers who admonished him every time the revenue collected by him was less.

Chemu Singh was married and soon he was blessed with a baby boy Nilamber. Chemu loved his son very much. As Nilamber grew up to be a young boy, he learnt martial arts like archery, sword-fighting and also agriculture. He always accompanied his father when he went to remit the collections to the British officials. Many a time, he saw his father being demeaned and insulted by the officials and he could not bear to witness it. Sometimes the officials threatened his father with removing the ‘jagirs’ under him which meant his father would lose his income. Nilamber often asked his father why he should not fight back. His father could not, somehow, gather the courage to fight back.

In the course of time, Nilamber had a younger brother Pitamber. Nilamber loved his younger sibling very much. In a couple of years, misfortune struck the family and Chemu Singh fell seriously ill. After a few days, he passed away. Pitamber was still a toddler and the death of Chemu Singh came as a big blow to Nilamber and his mother.

Now Nilamber took up agriculture to earn a livelihood. He also took upon himself the responsibility of bringing up Pitamber. He took Pitamber along when he went for work and also taught Pitamber archery, sword fighting and other martial arts which he had learnt himself.

In 1857, the revolt of the Indian soldiers (Sepoy Mutiny) had started against the British at Meerut and the effect had started spreading elsewhere in the country.

Pitamber happened to visit Ranchi at that time and witnessed the soldiers of the Ramgarh Battalion fighting the British.

Subsequently, he also visited Chatra where he witnessed the fight between the British soldiers and the natives. He came to know that this revolt was led by Thakur Viswanath Shahdeo who was ruling the Barkaghar estate and Pandey Ganpat Rai, a chieftain of Lohardaga district.

Pitamber understood that the country had started revolting for her independence. He was greatly inspired by what he saw and rushed back to his village to tell his elder brother. Nilamber was equally inspired and agreed with Pitamber that the time was ripe to jump into this movement for freedom from the shackles of the British East India Company.

Accordingly, the brothers rallied all young men of the various tribes namely Kharwar, Chero and Bhogta clans and gave a call for unity in attacking the foreigners. They announced that they were now ‘independent’ and made it clear that they were no longer under the rule of the British or by anyone who was paying allegiance to the British.

So, on 21st October 1857, a group of about 500 men under the leadership of Nilamber and Pitamber launched their attack on the properties of a local Zamindar by name Raghubir Dayal, of Chainpur. This Zamindar was very loyal to the British and this was the reason for their attack. They knew that this would send a message to the British.

Next another group went to Lesliganj and literally shooed away the British officials using swords and sticks.

The British had never thought in their wildest dreams that a tribal population would ever rise against them and therefore, caught unawares, they were jolted. The acting Commissioner, named Lieutenant Graham, brought about fifty soldiers to fight the them but they were effortlessly driven away and Graham had to hide in the bungalow of the Zamindar Raghubir Dayal!

The army of Nilamber and Pitamber went in hot pursuit and surrounded the bungalow making it difficult for the Lieutenant and his men to come out. The higher officials of the British came to know of this and sent about four hundred soldiers under Major Cotter to assist Lieutenant Graham.

All the soldiers had guns and Nilamber and Pitamber along with their men were outnumbered and had to flee. The British chased them and after a few days caught hold of Devi Baksh who was also fighting along with the brothers.

They tortured Devi Baksh in the hope of getting information on Nilamber and Pitamber’s whereabouts but Devi Baksh would not budge. The tribal men started living in the jungles and attacking property of people who supported the British. Now Lieutenant Graham brought six hundred more men but had no luck in catching Nilamber, Pitamber and the others.

The British were so desperate to finish off the brothers that now they sought help from the Madras Regiment and Ramgarh Cavalry.

With their help, the Commissioner Mr. Dalton decided to go himself to capture the brothers. He started out in the middle of January of 1858 and reached a village near Palamu. There he was met by Lieutenant Graham who informed that the tribal men had taken shelter in the fort at Palamu.

The twin forts at Palamu are still a tourist attraction. They were built by a Chero king Medini Rai in the 17th century. The Chero kings were a powerful clan who ruled this area before the Moghuls attempted to rule this place. The forts were very well built and very strong. The forts had escape ways through tunnels.

On 21st January 1858, Mr. Dalton himself marched to the fort with all these soldiers and ordered firing on the fort. The soldiers were much more in number than Nilamber and Pitamber’s men put together and so the men inside the fort had to flee. As locals, they knew the forts well. So they fled through the secret tunnels into the thick cover of the forests.

The British waited for some time for them to come out but later realized that they had fled through the secret exits. Furious, they tried chasing them. There were about two thousand soldiers targeting Nilamber and Pitamber and their group. However, try as they might, they could not catch them. Mr. Dalton suspected that they would have gone to their village Chemo and led his troops there. He reached there by the middle of February 1858.

On not being able to find Nilamber and Pitamber, an angry Dalton ordered the whole village to be destroyed. The British soldiers targeted the households of the tribals and seized all their cattle and grains and the lands so that neither them nor their families would be able to survive, were they to return to the village from their hiding place.

The British never gave up their search for the brothers and finally in 1859, Nilamber and Pitamber were caught through a covert operation.

The British were jubilant. And as was their practice with anyone who raised their voice for independence, the British hanged Nilamber and Pitamber on 28th March 1859 at Lesliganj.

The voices of the two sons of Jharkhand were silenced, but not before they kindled the thirst for independence in many, many others in this country.

Jharkhand has the Nilamber Pitamber University in honour of these heroic brothers. The area of ‘Daltonganj’ has been renamed as ‘Medininagar’ in honour of the King Medini Rai.

It is time the stories of such heroes occupied the main pages of our history books.

Jai Hind!!

Saraswathi Rajamani – The youngest Indian woman spy – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence – 3

Namaste! Here is the third story in the series of ‘Azaadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ – Celebrating seventy-five years of Independence.

This bit of history which I came across very recently, left me with a great feeling of sadness – sadness, as the brave-heart in question had been very much alive till four years ago, but lived in ignominy and destitution for most part of her life, as many other heroes and heroines of the Indian Independence movement have. This is something we can never forgive ourselves for.

The lady of the story is the first and youngest woman spy of India – Saraswathi Rajamani.

Born in 1927 at Rangoon, Rajamani, as she was named at birth, was the daughter of a very rich businessman who belonged to Tiruchirappalli. Her father Ramanathan, had like many others migrated to Rangoon in Burma. At the time when India was struggling for independence, Burma, the present- day Myanmar was hustling and bustling with lot of business opportunities. This prompted many Indians to go to Rangoon (now Yangon) and operate from there.

Rajamani’s father was one such businessman who migrated and settled in Rangoon. He was in the mining business and owned gold and tungsten mines and so one can imagine what a rich family Rajamani’s was.

Burma used to be a part of “Akhand Bharat” in ancient days till it became a British Colony in 1824. Therefore, the Burmese had a lot of goodwill for Indians and that was also one of the reasons for Indians settling there. Rajamani’s family, though at Rangoon, held Bharat Mata dear to their hearts and Rajamani’s father often used to donate large sums of money for the cause of the freedom movement.

The whole family were devoted to Gandhiji’s ideals.

When Rajamani was ten years old, Gandhiji visited Rangoon and visited Rajamani’s family (since her father used to contribute large sums for the cause of Independence). The whole family were welcoming Gandhiji in the porch of their house but little Rajamani was missing.

Gandhiji also joined them to search for her and as he walked into the huge garden at the back of their mansion, he saw the little girl hold a toy gun in her hand, practising to aim at a target. When he asked why she was practising shooting, she said, without battling an eyelid “To shoot the British of course!”

A shocked Gandhiji stopped the child and advised her against being violent. He told her that violence was not the way to gain independence.

Though Rajamani temporarily put the gun behind her, she asked herself, “How does one deal with a robber if one’s house is looted? British are looting my country and so I will treat them just as one treats the robbers in one’s house”. And as Gandhiji went back into the house, she resumed her shooting practice. For her, clearly, non-violence was not the way to independence.

When Rajamani was a year or two older, she started keeping track of the Independence movement by reading the newspapers regularly and listening to the news on the radio. Not many owned a radio or could afford newspapers, and these were the perks she enjoyed being born in a rich, liberal family. And slowly, Rajamani came to know about Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His ideology of fighting back, with arms and giving the British a taste of their own medicine resonated very much with her ideas. His fiery speeches aroused the patriotic fervor in her.

She started collecting all photos of Netaji which appeared in the newspapers along with articles on him. She made notes whenever she heard his speeches on the radio. She yearned to be a part of Netaji’s movement.

Soon Netaji made a visit to Rangoon in January 1944 appealing to the Indian community living there for the cause of Indian National Army (INA) for which he needed volunteers and money. There was a camp set up where people could go and donate money. Many people including Rajamani’s father gave huge donations.

However, the person collecting the funds had the greatest shock of his life when a young Rajamani gave him a velvet bag containing gold, diamond and jade bangles and necklaces and earrings which could easily be worth lakhs in those days. The fund collector took down her name and address.

Rajamani attended school that day and, in the evening, when she went home, she had a pleasant shock. Her father was conversing with none other than Netaji over a cup of tea. Netaji, who had been apprised of Rajamani’s donation of jewels, had come to return it to her father as he thought she had given it away naively, without his permission.

The moment her father mentioned this to Rajamani, she became furious and pushed the bag towards Netaji and said, “These are my jewels and I do not need to ask my father’s permission to give these and I will not accept what has been given away once”.  Rajamani’s father was also smiling as if to acknowledge what she was saying.

Netaji tried his level best to convince her, especially since her father had also given lot of money in donation and finally Rajamani put forth one condition. “If you should let me join the INA, I will take these back”

Netaji smiled. “Yes, I will let you,” said he. “Lakshmi (meaning wealth) comes and goes but when Saraswathi (wisdom) comes to a person she stays put with them. That Saraswathi is with you and has bestowed you with so much wisdom. So, I will call you Saraswathi Rajamani”. And from then, the name Saraswathi stuck to her.

Saraswathi initially joined the INA as a nurse. The second world war was raging and the British (part of Allies) had taken a stance against Japanese (part of Axis powers) and were destroying Japanese properties and men everywhere. Saraswathi was given training and was fully into nursing wounded soldiers. But she was not satisfied. She wanted to be on the field and enjoy the thrill of risking her life every single moment.

One day, as she was staring out of the window, she saw something unusual. Some civilians were going over secretly to a British soldier and information was being exchanged for money.

Saraswathi felt weird about these clandestine exchanges. It occurred to her that something was not right surely. She went straight to Netaji who was at the base camp five kilometers away in Rangoon and reported what she saw. Netaji got the matter investigated and found that it was indeed true, and the British were being informed of the Japanese movements enabling them to attack the Japanese.

Now Netaji, realising her shrewdness and acumen, wanted Saraswathi and four of her friends to become spies for the INA. The girls who were barely sixteen were excited, though their parents were not, since this was an extremely dangerous job.

The girls were inducted into the Rani Jhansi Regiment headed by Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan (Sehgal) and were given rigorous military training including, running, climbing and other physical exercises. They were also trained in using different kinds of guns. They were sent to Maymyo, about 700 kms from Rangoon.

Their hair was trimmed to a boy-cut. Dressed up like boys and in disguise, they posed as helpers or errand boys and were sent to the houses of the British officers and the military camps. Rajamani named herself ‘Mani’ on this mission.

They went about doing jobs of cleaning their houses and the gardens, polishing shoes, removing garbage, laundry and such odd jobs. However, their eyes and ears were always alert as to what was being spoken or discussed by the officers. Whenever they intercepted valuable information, they passed it on through the informants to Netaji. They had to be extremely careful in their mission to not get caught. They had also been coached that in the event of being caught, the individual who was caught should shoot and the others should escape in the confusion.

We can well imagine the minds of the anxious parents of the girls who would not have been even aware where the girls were!!

One day however, unfortunately, Saraswathi’s friend Durga got caught by the British. She was thrown into the jail. Saraswathi came to know of it but contrary to the instruction to escape, she was determined to set her friend free. She went into the prison in a Burmese attire with the straw cap and all, along with a Burmese servant pretending to clean the prison. As the jailor went to chat with another jailor carelessly leaving the key behind, Saraswathi mixed a bit of opium in his drinking water and opened the door of the prison and both of them escaped. They started running and this was discovered after some lag (due to the opium water). The jailors gave them a hot chase.

The girls ran and ran as fast as they could, panting for breath and at one point one jailor shot at them. Saraswathi fell down with the bullet in her right leg. But they could not afford to be caught. With great difficulty Saraswathi pulled herself up and ran. Fortunately, there was a densely wooded area nearby and Durga climbed a tree and lugged Saraswathi up on a safe branch. The military training, they had undergone, helped them a lot.

The gun-shot wound was bleeding, and the girls were thirsty and hungry, but the men were soon below the trees looking for them. They searched for a long time and then left. They came for the girls on the following two days also and all this while both the girls were huddled up on the tree braving hunger, thirst and cold. Saraswathi’s leg was totally numb, and she felt that her leg was gone forever.

The third day, the jailors gave up and both the girls climbed down carefully and an injured and drained-out Saraswathi, with the help of Durga, made their way to the main road and caught a van to Rangoon. After an eight to ten-hour arduous journey, they reached the INA camp and met Netaji. Saraswathi was given immediate treatment but the delay in treatment left a limp in her right leg for her entire life which she treated as a symbol of honour.

Netaji was very extremely pleased and delighted with her bravery and awarded Saraswathi the rank of Lieutenant in the Rani Jhansi regiment. He also gave her an appreciation letter where he addressed her as the ‘first Indian woman spy’. The Japanese emperor also presented Saraswathi a medal and a cash award in recognition of her bravery.

The World War II came to an end in 1945 after the disastrous nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Netaji disbanded the INA and the volunteers went back to their families.

Netaji himself is said to have been killed in an air crash some days later.

Saraswathi and her family donated all of their property and came back to India in 1957. But Saraswathi did not get her freedom-fighter pension. She moved to Chennai and after persistent efforts started getting pension from 1971 almost twenty-five years after independence. From being one of the richest Indians at one time, the family had become paupers and life was tough. No recognition, penury, no family and not even a house to call her own. Such was Saraswathi’s condition.

In 2005, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Ms. J. Jayalalithaa, came to know of her through a news article. She immediately granted a small apartment in Royapettah along with an aid of Rupees five lakhs which Saraswathi accepted albeit with reluctance as she was only used to giving things and never had sought anything. Her financial condition was so pathetic that she had to accept the help.

It is said that she used to collect scraps of cloth from nearby tailors and stitch them into garments and donate to orphanages. Also during the Tsunami of 2004, she donated her pension, to the Chief Minister’s relief fund. She also donated her INA memorabilia to Netaji’s museum in Kolkata in 2008.

Saraswathi lived in the apartment surrounded only by the photos of Netaji on every wall. Though battered by age and ill-health, people who have interviewed Saraswathi say that the mention of Netaji’s name fired her up and she spoke voraciously in spite of having had three heart attacks. Saraswathi died in January 2018 of a massive heart attack.

Her story has been made into a short film in the series ‘Adrishya – True stories of Indian spies’

And I am indeed proud to narrate her story on this platform.

Dheeran Chinnamalai – Celebrating seventy- five years of Independence -1

Bharat, is celebrating its seventy fifth year of Independence this year– Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav.

On this occasion it is my pleasure to narrate the stories of Indian brave-hearts, freedom fighters and precious gems among the general public who have given their whole life for a specific cause and inspired millions of people.

As my contribution to Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, I plan to narrate a story every month for one year beginning this August, on one such inspirational character.

Pleased to begin the series with the story of Dheeran Chinnamalai – a warrior from Kongunadu, who was one of the first to rebel against the British, much before the revolt of 1857.

Prior to independence, present day Tamil Nadu comprised of various regions like Kongunadu, Thondainadu, Pandiyanadu, Cholanadu and so on. The area covering Nilgiris, Coimbatore, Erode and some part of Dharmapuri was called Kongunadu.

Dheeran Chinnamalai was born in this Kongunadu in Melapalayam near Erode in in April 1756 CE to Rathinaswamy Gounder and Periyatha. He was the second of the six siblings. He was named Teerthagiri Sakkarai Manradiyar. His elder brother and the youngest brother took up farming and managing the family’s large tracts of land. His sister was married at the appropriate age.

Teerthagiri, however was much interested in learning martial arts, horse riding, archery and warfare. With his other two brothers following suit, they took upon them the task of protecting their territory consisting of many villages from dacoits, robbers and infiltrators and solving disputes through Panchayats. They also trained the local youth in the villages in horse riding and wielding the sword and archery. Since they protected a territory known as ‘Palayam’ in Tamil, they were called ‘Palayakkarars’. Other notable Palayakkarars were Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Marudhu brothers of whom Teerthagiri was a contemporary.

(The Marudhu brothers were associated with yet another brave queen Rani Velu Nachiyar whose story I have already written in my blog. You can click here to read it)

Coming back to our story, the area of Kongunadu, was under the reign of Hyder Ali of Mysore. Once Teerthagiri and his brothers came to know that Mohammed Ali, a Diwan (minister) from Mysore was collecting taxes using unfair methods, from the people of their villages. This infuriated Teerthagiri.

He and his brothers confronted the minister at a place between two mountains Sivan Malai and Senni Malai. The minister was shocked at being accosted thus. The men then pounced on the minister and snatched the money bag from him.

“We will give back the money to the villagers!” said Teerthagiri. “If your king asks for the money, tell him that a ‘Chinna Malai’ (small mountain) between Senni Malai and Sivan Malai took away the money.” He laughed aloud at the thought of referring to himself as ‘Chinna Malai’.

The angry minister retorted, “Don’t play with the king His Highness Hyder Ali Saab! You will soon face the consequences!”

“King? What king?” chuckled Teerthagiri. “Go and tell him that we people from Kongunadu can rule ourselves quite well. We don’t need a king from Mysore to rule over us!”

The startled minister had to beat a hasty retreat. Teerthagiri distributed the money back to those from whom it was collected. The villagers were overjoyed and started to address Teerthagiri as ‘Chinnamalai’ and the name stuck. Because of his heroic deeds he was addressed as ‘Dheeran Chinnamalai’.

Hyder Ali’s minister returned to Mysore seething with anger and humiliation. He arranged for a battalion of soldiers to be sent to attack Chinnamalai.  Chinnamalai and his men met them and defeated them at the banks of the Noyyal river. This was despite the fact that Chinnamalai had very less men with him.

This was the first time Chinnamalai was actually fighting an armed contingent, and in a way, his first battle. Now, he realized that he would have to fight with a bigger contingent of Hyder Ali any time. In preparation for the same, Chinnamalai and his brothers recruited lot of young men and started training them in warfare methods, archery etc. He had the full support of the villagers and his elder brother and his wife gladly played host to the crowds which thronged to their place on account of these activities.

Chinnamalai was nothing short of a king except that he was not specifically crowned as one. However, there was no retort from Hyder Ali for the defeat by Chinnamalai. Hyder was busy fighting the British and other enemies of his. The heroic deed of Chinnamalai though, was now known everywhere including in the Mysore state.

In 1782 CE, Hyder Ali died and he was succeeded by his son Tipu Sultan. Tipu was totally against the British and had frequent clashes with them. Tipu had heard about the bravery of Chinnamalai and sent messengers to request Chinnamalai to join his side in fighting against the British. The British had humiliated Tipu in the third Anglo Mysore war to a very great extent that Tipu was making big plans to avenge his humiliation.

Though Chinnamalai had reservations in joining Tipu Sultan, for the greater good of liberating our land from the clutches of the British, he agreed and went along with his army, his brothers and their trusted lieutenants Karuppan and Velappan. This army was called the Kongu regiment and Dheeran Chinnamalai was the chief. This regiment was of great support to Tipu Sultan. Tipu Sultan was taking the help of the French and the French were supporting Tipu and also trained his warriors. This training benefited the Kongu regiment.

However, in the Fourth Anglo Mysore war in 1799 CE, Tipu Sultan was killed. British also captured Chinnamalai’s lieutenant, Velappan. Velappan promised the British that he would work for them as their agent.

Chinnamalai and his men returned to Kongu and in a place called Oda Nilai, Chinnamalai built a fort and resumed his training activities knowing fully well that there would be wars with the British in future and he had to be prepared. He started manufacturing arms also. The British came to know of this and could not digest the fact that an individual was doing all this activity independently.

This was the period of the Second Polygar war between the Palayakkarars and the British. ‘Polygar’ was a crude pronunciation of the word ‘Palayakkarar’ by the British.  After Veerapandiya Kattabomman (who was also a Palayakkarar) was hanged to death on Oct 16,1799 by the British, his brother Oomathurai, the Marudhu Brothers, Pazhassi Raja of Malabar had together formed a grand alliance covertly and there was a joint uprising against the British. Arms were being manufactured in secret factories including in Oda Nilai. The Palayakkarars and their men were also receiving clandestine training from the French.

The British barracks at Coimbatore were being attacked. But the British could not travel there easily and had to pass through thick jungles under cover, because of the presence of Dheeran Chinnamalai and his army in the Kongu region. He was a thorn in their flesh. And he was not even a crowned king! They could simply not digest his audacity.

They sent word to him to sign a pact with them and promised him favours. But Chinnamalai would not budge to give up freedom for anything in return. So now, the British sent a contingent of soldiers in 1801 CE under Colonel Maxwell to attack Chinnamalai. Chinnamalai had advance information and defeated them on the same banks of Noyyal as he had done with the soldiers of Mysore earlier.

The British sent soldiers once again in 1802 CE and yet again they miserably failed. They waited and waited and again in 1804 CE, they sent General George Harris who had actively taken part in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war. This time they had information that Chinnamalai with all his people would be visiting a local temple at Arachalur for the festivities. The plan was that George Harris would go and occupy the fort when no one was there and then attack when Chinnamalai and his people came back from the temple.

When General Harris came, the fort appeared unoccupied. But suddenly, Chinnamalai rode from the inside of the fort in lightning speed, and threw hand grenades at the surprised Harris and his men. There was utter chaos as the horses ran hither-thither neighing aloud, throwing their riders off their backs. Harris had to retreat hurriedly.

The adamant British, however, would not give up. And this time they sent a huge army with cannons also to attack the fort.

Yet again, General Harris got a shock as he found the fort completely empty. It seemed abandoned. He went inside and as he was looking around, he found a pair of sandals. Interestingly one sandal was split open with a chit sticking out. As the curious Harris picked it up, it contained a message and to his shock, he found that it was a message from Velappan (whom the British had captured in the Mysore war) informing Chinnamalai of the plan of Harris.

Velappan had actually been informing Chinnamalai every time by sending pairs of new sandals in which chits were hidden. That was how Chinnamalai was always prepared when attacked.

Harris was furious and shot Velappan dead. In his anger, with the cannons he had, he completely destroyed the fort, razing it to the ground. The act of inadvertently leaving the sandal at the fort had cost Chinnamalai the life of his friend Velappan.

Chinnamalai, now with his brothers went into hiding in the forest in an area known as Karumalai. Their lieutenant Karuppan, was stationed at Melapalayam to keep them informed of what the British were up to. Chinnamalai and his brothers went about in disguise into the nearby villages during the day and went into hiding in the forest, at night.

In the village they met a person Nallappan who seemed to be very hospitable. Nallappan was a cook by profession and he volunteered to provide dinner for the brothers every day at his place. The offer was accepted by Chinnamalai and his brothers and they regularly dined there at night.

Nallappan was actually a snake in the grass and was greedy for wealth and was exactly the type of person British would use for carrying out their malicious intentions. Nallappan, lured by the British, allowed them to dig a trench from afar right up to the inside of his house. And one night when Chinnamalai and his brothers were having dinner in a relaxed mood, the British soldiers came inside through the trench.

Chinnamalai and his brothers, totally caught unawares, were outnumbered. Quickly understanding the role of Nallappan in this drama, Chinnamalai strangulated him to death then and there. The British arrested him along with his brothers and took them to a prison at Sankagiri near Salem. Karuppan who was hiding at Melapalayam also surrendered. The British talked to Chinnamalai asking him to accept their supremacy and pay taxes to them in which case he would be set free and pardoned. Chinnamalai flatly refused the offer. So arrangements were made to hang the four of them from a tamarind tree which was on top of the Sankagiri fort. This was in 1805 CE.

On the day of hanging Chinnamalai and his brothers told the executioners to move away. They then took the ropes themselves and thrust their necks into the nooses and jumped from the fort, hanging themselves in the process.

Four brave-hearts were wiped out from Bharat, the land which they considered more precious than their own mothers. Brave-hearts, who lived as per the saying, “Janani Janmabhumishcha Swargadapi Gariyasi” meaning mother and motherland are dearer than even heaven.

Veera Mangai Velu Nachiyar – The first woman to rise against the British rule in India.

“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 Joseph, 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.

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