– Ratnakar Sadasyula
The Polygar Wars
While 1857 is often regarded as the first large scale revolt against British rule, there were many localized revolts that broke out. And one of them was the Polygar Wars down South between March 1799 to July 1805. This was one of the bloodiest revolts ever faced by the British, fought primarily in Tamil Nadu, the Malabar region. And contrary to what most historians claim, the British did not have an easy run, the Polygar Wars were the most serious and bloodiest challenge to their hegemony. The 6 long years, saw a large number of losses on the British side and they had to taste defeat in many a battle. And the major players in the Polygar Wars actually challenged and outwitted the British, head to head. In most cases, it took some cunning and treachery to capture and execute these warriors.
The Polygars or Palegars or Palayakarrars as they were called, were primarily small time chieftains, who rose to prominence during the Vijayanagara Empire. Renowned for their fighting capabilities, the Polygars were the sword arm of the Vijayanagara Rayas, and most had their own private armies, that did duty during major battles. Also the Polygars were well acquainted with the latest artillery, and were trained by the French, in the end most were done in by betrayal of fellow chieftains. Some of the legends of the Polygar Wars included Veera Pandya Kattaboman and Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja.
One such great warrior was Dheeran Chinnamalai, born as Theerthagiri on April 17, 1756, at Melyapalam in Erode district, to Rathina Swamy and Periyaatha. He had an elder brother Kulandhaisamy and three younger brothers-Thambi, Kilothar and Kuttisamy and Parvatham, his younger sister.
His grandfather Kottravel Sarkkarai Mandraadiaar was one of the larger land owners, and his father looked after their lands in Melyapalam. While Kulandhaisamy and Kuttisamy, were involved in farming, Theerthagiri along with Thambi and Kilothar took care of administration and safety of the villages under their jurisdiction. Along with his brothers he was well trained in the martial arts, archery, horse riding. They also took part in village panchayats, and learnt how to settle family and land disputes.
The Kongu region, then was part of the Mysore kingdom under Hyder Ali, during the later half of the 18th century. The diwan Muhammad Ali who was in charge of tax collection, followed rather unfair practices, sometimes even grabbing lands. Theerthagiri and his brother confronted Muhammad Ali between Sennimalai and Shivanmalai, and recovered the taxes he had forcibly collected. A furious Muhammad Ali, threatened them that Kongu being under Hyder Ali, the consequences would be severe. Theerthagiri shot back, saying Kongu would not accept Hyder’s rule, and it was capable of governing itself. And this was when he got the name of Chinnamalai, when it’s believed he stated to the Diwan- “I am Chinnamalai who reigns between Sennimalia and Shivanmalai”.
Hyder Ali, as expected struck back, sending an army to Kongu to attack Chinnamalai. However Chinnamali, routed Hyder’s army on the banks of the Noyyal river. This only enraged Muhammad Ali even more, and vowed to wreak vengenance. Knowing Ali’s intentions, Chinnamalai himself began to build up his army. However Hyder was more preoccupied with the Nizam, British and Marathas, with whom he was in constant conflict, and so that attack never took place.
When Tipu Sultan took over in 1782, he adopted an even more aggressive policy towards the British. And in order to fight against the British, he requested the Tamils of Kongu, to help him out. Dheeran and his brothers responded to that, as also their trusted commanders, Velappan and Karuppan. Chinnamalai himself was the commander of the Kongu regiment in the Mysore Army, and took active part in the 3rd and 4th Mysore Wars. However with the death of Tipu in 1799, Chinnamalai returned to Kongu along with Karuppan. Velappan however was captured by the British and he later became their agent. Chinnamalai, had the benefit of receiving French training during his stint with Tipu Sultan.
On his return to Kongu, Chinnamalai built a fortress at Odaanillai and settled there along with his army, waiting for the right time to strike. He also reached out to the rulers of Malabar and Salem, hoping for a larger alliance against the British. Recognizing that Chinnamalai was a grave danger, the British tried to get him to sign a pact, where he was promised favors in return for accepting their sovereignity. He however refused to sign the pact, fully knowing it would result in war.
Chinnamalai’s defiance annoyed the British, a man with no title, technically not a ruler, yet refusing to accept their sovereignity, this when most of the Rajahs had surrendered to them. In 1801, they sent a troop of soldiers under Colonel Maxwell, however Chinnamalai having got advance news of the attack, defeated the British on the banks of the Noyyal. Maxwell returned again in 1802, and a long siege of Odaanillai fort, ended in total defeat for the British, and Maxwell himself was beheaded.
The British though furious, waited for the right opportunity and they got it in 1804, when during a particular day, Chinnamalai and his entire army would be attending the Arasalur Amman temple festivities. They felt this was the best chance and sent an army to capture Odaanilai under General Harris, who had led the campaigns in Mysore. Chinnamalai however got the news, and stayed back at the fort, with his contingent, while some went to the temple. Harris was taken by surprise when he attacked the fort, and Chinnamalai stormed out, throwing hand grenades, forcing Harris to retreat.
The British were now more determined than ever, and built up a huge army to take down Chinnamalai, with men from Kallikudi and cannons from Madras. With 140 cannons and 30,000 men, Harris attacked Odaanilai, and surrounded the fort, demanding Chinnamalai to surrender. However, they found that the fort was abandoned, and also found a note from Velappan, whom they had captured. The fact is Velappan was acting as a double agent, for Chinnamalai, while on the British side. Harris executed Velappan, and also razed the fort to the ground using cannons.
Chinnamalai and his brothers now lived in exile, at a place called Karumalai near Palani, often using disguises to venture into the towns. One of the persons they would often meet was Nallappan a cook, who gave them refuge and food too. It was this very Nallappan who would betray them to the British, informing them of the whereabouts. And on one night when Chinnamalai and his brothers were having dinner, Nallapan signalled the British, who stormed the house from all sides.
An enraged Chinnamalai strangled Nallapan, to death before the British captured him, his brothers and their commander Karuppan. He was taken to the Sangagiri fort, and a 4 person tribunal demanded that he pay taxes, accept the British sovereignity. With Chinnamalai refusing to do so, he was sentenced to death. And on July 31, 1805, Dheeran Chinnamalai, his brothers and Karuppan were all hanged to death at Sangagiri fort. Another brave son of India, gave up his life fighting the British.