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.