– Shivraj Pawar
Sangolli Rayanna was a revolutionary who opposed the expansionist policies of the British in India, and whose struggles were collectively a prelude to the revolt of 1857.
Not well known outside Karnataka, Rayanna is an iconic figure in the state. Literally a towering personality, he was well built and 7 feet tall. He is remembered for his patriotism, loyalty to his queen, heroic exploits against the British and unwavering commitment to the nation.
Born on August 15, 1796 in Sangolli village in Belgaum district, which was part of the Kittur principality, Rayanna belonged to the shepherd community. His family had a fighting tradition and was loyal to the Desais of Kittur. Rayanna rose to the rank of ‘Shetsanadi’ (Commander-in-chief) of the Kittur armed forces at a time when Rani Chennamma rebelled against British attempt to usurp the principality. The British refused to recognise the adopted son as the legal heir to the principality, and under their draconian Doctine of Lapse, attempted to annex Kittur. The dowager queen Chennamma refused to obey their orders, which led to the first Battle of Kittur in October 1824. Rayanna along with another warrior Amtur Balappa led the Kittur forces against the British in these two battles. Rayanna was an expert trainer and the British had to put up a tough fit by engaging in the battlefield – 20000 armed men against 12000 soldiers of the Kittur army.
Despite the formal defeat of the Kittur forces and incarceration of Rani Chennamma in Bailhongal prison, Rayanna continued his fight against the British. He began to mobilise support in the name of the queen and pledged to release her from prison and install Shivalingappa, her adopted son, as the ruler of Kittur.
Rayanna enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of Kittur. The outrageous taxes levied on them by the British had ruined the lives of the common folk, especially the peasants, and this considerably helped Rayanna’s cause. He was also joined by Siddi tribal warriors like Gajaveera, who became his close aide and confidant.
He also leveraged the expertise and indigenous knowledge of the local youth he had recruited and inspired and kept up his offensive against the British. He vandalised government offices and looted their treasuries. Rayanna also targeted local landlords and wealthy Indians who had supported the British to exploit the poor. He also destroyed land and revenue records, forcing the British to incur heavy revenue losses. In addition he extracted huge sums from corrupt bureaucrats and unpopular landlords.
The feats earned Rayanna the love and support of the common people, who greatly resented being victims of colonial rule. This sentiment is beautifully captured in folk songs, which vividly narrate Rayanna’s exploits.
Desperate to capture Rayanna, the British and the local landlords who supported them hatched a cunning plan to nab the revered warrior through trickery and betrayal with help from his uncle Lakshmana. He was subsequently hanged from a banyan tree on the outskirts of Nandagad village. The campaign unleashed by the fearless and mighty warrior thus came to an end in 1831.