Freedom Issue 2017: Dispatches from History

Reclaiming Sivaganga

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Memories of the first resistance

Won’t the breeze blow?
Won’t it sing a song?
In Sethupathi’s land,
In Sivagangai Seemai

THE RELENTLESS HEAT of Tamil Nadu in July seems to impart a more superficial meaning to poet Kannadasan’s wistful lullaby from the film Sivagangai Seemai (1959). The sun follows you around, making you feel like an absurd character from an Albert Camus novel, about to give in to rage at the light crashing down on your forehead. On one such dizzyingly hot day, we arrive in the town of Sivaganga, an hour’s drive from Madurai, to trace the history of an early resistance against the British that is all but forgotten outside of Tamil Nadu. But history is as elusive as the breeze in Kannadasan’s song; in the knotted streets and colourful plazas named after Gandhi, Nehru, Kamarajar, Rajaji, Subhas Chandra Bose and Sarojini Naidu, local heroes are nowhere to be found. Legend proves a more considerate companion, leading us straight to a water body that may have inspired Raja Muthuvijaya Regunatha Sivarama Sasivarna Periya Woodeya Thevar, the first ruler of the small kingdom of Sivaganga—bounded by Ramnad, Dindigul, Madurai and Pudukkottai—to set up a town here in the 1730s and to name it after the sacred spring.

Diagonally opposite a tank that he is said to have built around the spring, across a town square dotted with eminent busts, is a golden woman immobilised mid-stride, her head held high and her sword at the ready. Even without the lotus pedestal, she could pass for a goddess. The stone slab below identifies the figure as Rani Velu Nachiyar (1730-1796), daughter of Sakkanthi Muthathal Nachiyar and Sellamuthu Raghunatha Sethupathi, and wife of Raja Muthuvaduganatha Thevar, the second King of Sivaganga. It celebrates her, the third ruler of Sivaganga, as the first queen of India to reclaim her kingdom from the East India Company, a century before the Rani of Jhansi would lead an army against British forces. But writing her story today, and that of other rebels from the land of Sivaganga, is like trying to remember a dream after waking. Their struggle and sacrifice, which fell through history’s sieve, deserve a re-look for many reasons—first, for the pioneering spirit of Velu Nachiyar, who fought to win back her kingdom; second, for the rebellion sparked by her valiant sherogars or retainers, the brothers Marudhu, who became the first to proclaim independence from British rule in 1801 and were hanged for it; and third, for the tempestuous period around the turn of the century that was shaped by some of the most important acts of armed resistance to British rule in Tamil Nadu.

Sivaganga had been carved out of the kingdom of Ramnad—just as Sivaganga district would be carved out of composite Ramnad district in July 1984—in the early 1730s and came to be known as the Lesser Maravar country. The Maravar—literally translating to those who don’t forget— who lived along Ramnad’s coastline, called themselves Thevar (Tamil for god) and claimed descent from a line of ‘Sethupathis’ tasked with protecting Lord Rama’s sethu. The chieftains of Sivaganga and Ramnad were Maravars and they were served by other communities like the Agamudaiyars, who, along with the Maravars and the Kallars, form the larger community of Mukkulathor. The equation between the ruling family of Sivaganga and their Agamudaiyar retainers Chinna Marudhu and Periya, or Vella Marudhu, had been shifting like a boat with each cresting wave, starting with the boys finding occupation—as betel bearer and dog keeper, respectively—and favour with king Muthuvaduganatha Thevar, transitioning into protectors and generals of the Rani, and culminating in their de facto rule over the land in her final years. Sections of the Maravar community still begrudge the Marudhus for usurping power even as they are hailed by Agamudaiyars as ‘emperors’ and ‘true kings’ of Sivaganga. “Caste politics aside, both the Rani and the Marudhu brothers were instrumental in mounting early revolts against the British and their ally, the Nawab of Arcot. The Rani was trained in warfare and groomed an army that included women, and the Marudhus served her as warriors and strategists, even if they may have had their differences,” says M Balakrishnan, a retired headmaster from Sivaganga and author of A Struggle for Freedom in the Redsoil of South, which draws from several primary accounts.

With Mohammad Ali Khan Wallajah (1717-1795), the prince of Arcot, and the Tondaiman ruler of Pudukkottai allying with the British, many of the 72 poligars or chieftains who ruled Tamil Nadu sought to retain their autonomy by rebelling against oppressive taxation and backing Hyder Ali in the Second Mysore War (1780-84). ‘In these interminable conflicts, the poligars asserted themselves as an effective second line of defence to the country. They suffered reverses and agreed to pay the tribute, it cannot be denied; but freedom-loving as they were and commanding the support of their people, they displayed a remarkable ability to recuperate from their reverses and a will to reassert their freedom, whenever they saw opportunities,’ writes K Rajayyan in his 1971 book South Indian Rebellion, perhaps the only coherent historical account ever written on early freedom movements in the south of India. The House of Sivaganga, as we will soon learn, was pivotal in rallying the rebels against the British and Carnatic forces and providing them asylum, weapons, succour and vigorous inspiration.

Behind the statue of Velu Nachiyar, erected in 1992 by the Jayalalithaa government, rises an imposing facade with arches and towers reminiscent of the 17th-century palace of the Madurai Nayak kings. Built by Sasivarna Thevar as an oasis of comfort in these dry desolate lands north of the Vaigai river, the palace of Sivaganga lost much of its glory to the many battles that rocked its foundations, and subsequently to the shroud of oblivion that has covered it for two centuries now.

When we walk in through the more intimate back entrance (the palace is not open to the public), we are met by chirping parakeets, Rajapalayam dogs and an attendant who shows us indoors. The porch feels lived-in, with rattan furniture and a date-sheet calendar in Tamil published by the Brave King Muthuvaduganatha Thevar Youth Federation of Tamil Nadu. Inside, incense smoke swirls around the cool front hall with high ceilings. Devotional tunes waft in from another part of the house and resound in the sparsely furnished space. Was it here that house scholar Kavi Kunjara Bharati regaled the royals with his dance dramas and kummi songs? Photographs of unsmiling kings, devoid of that banal social reflex of our times, hang from the walls of an airy hall upstairs. To the west is a temple to Goddess Rajarajeshwari, the family deity of the royal family of Sivaganga, who finds mention in a Carnatic classical composition by Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973). To the north stretches the luxurious women’s wing with its lily ponds, native trees and reflection pools that belong in a resort. The centerpiece of the zenana is a large bath with maze-like stone enclosures at various heights to adjust the level of water. Next to it rises a slender tower where the queens dried their hair with fragrant sambrani.

“Fifteen generations after Rani Velu Nachiyar, it is hard to peep into her life except through the handful of primary texts that have survived. I can only tell you stories that we have heard” - R Mahesh Dorai, descendant of Rani Velu Nachiyar

A LARGE WHITE-WASHED building with tusked elephants on the facade lies beyond. It is the residence of the present Rani of Sivaganga, 40-year-old DSK Madhurantaki Nachiyar, who administers over a hundred temples, schools and institutions started by her forefathers. She is not home, but her cousin R Mahesh Dorai, who lives on the outskirts of Madurai and spends his days here managing palace affairs and promoting sports and education, gives us a tour of the complex. He grew up in Bangalore and moved to Madurai only in 2000, he says, apologising for his limited knowledge of family history. In his own way, he has been reclaiming the past by restoring parts of the palace, starting with the main building with its vast terraces, halls—there is no bedchamber or kitchen—and winding stairways. The adjoining structure, housing a gorgeous pillared hall decorated with bright murals of Goddess Lakshmi, is up next for restoration. “Fifteen generations after Rani Velu Nachiyar, it is hard to peep into her life except through the handful of primary texts that have survived,” says Dorai, 47, sweating profusely in his T-shirt and track pants after a ride on his new colt. “I can only tell you stories we’ve heard. She went to Paris and learned to speak French. She could wield a boomerang like a pro,” he says, a horseshoe mustache punctuating his smile.

We come to a halt in front of a dramatic portrait of Velu Nachiyar wielding her valari (a kind of boomerang), and sip cool water from a flask. The dreaded weapon of the Tamils, popularised by the Marudhus, was banned and seized in the thousands along with swords, spears and other arms after the rebels were put to death in 1801, says M Rajendran, a retired IAS officer who has written 1801, a novel based on their life and times. “It was he [Chinna Marudhu] who first taught me to throw the spear and hurl the colliery stick, a weapon scarcely known elsewhere, but in a skillful hand, capable of being thrown to a certainty to any distance within one hundred yards,” wrote Colonel James Welsh in his Military Reminiscences. On the trail of legends in Sivaganga, we come upon a stash of such weapons in the nondescript village of Aranmanai Siruvayal. A dark, low building with its roof partially caved in, it was one of the many royal residences-cum-administrative centres of the Sivaganga kingdom. The antique weaponry housed here, mounted on an iron frame in a room facing the puja, is said to have belonged to Rani Velu Nachiyar and, thereafter, used by the Marudhus to train their guerrilla army of thousands. “The Marudhu brothers had camped here to gather supplies and prepare for war,” says Muthuramalingam, a school teacher who claims descent from a branch family in Velu Nachiyar’s lineage and occupies a small outhouse adjoining the ruin. A collapsed fort named after the Marudhus and a 13th-century Pandya temple are the only antiquities that remain in Siruvayal. “A clean town with broad streets and well-built houses”, according to Colonel Welsh’s account, it served as the headquarters of the brothers, but in July 1801, when the British came charging towards Siruvayal, the rebel forces sacrificed it in a heartbeat, burning it down to stave off the invaders.

The story of rebellion in Sivaganga really begins with the first British invasion of the kingdom on June 25th, 1772 by East India Company forces under Colonel Joseph Smitt and Major Abraham Bonjour. The Nawab had written to the Madras Council the previous year, alleging that Muthuvaduganatha Thevar had ascended the throne without his approval and had evaded paying tribute to the tune of Rs 1 lakh. In anticipation of an attack, the king and his wise minister, Thandavaraya Pillai, temporarily moved the capital to Kalayarkoil, a then-densely forested region. It was here that the king and his first wife Gowri Nachiyar were caught unawares and gunned down by British forces. A widowed Velu Nachiyar and her infant daughter Vellachi fled to Virupakshi in Dindigul under Hyder Ali’s protection, to be joined later in exile by the Marudhus.

A lonesome memorial to the fallen king, painted neon yellow and abutting a funeral ground, now marks the place of his death. At the Kaleeswarar temple, after which the town is named, a stone statue in the main hallway honours him. “He was a great king, that is all I know,” says N Muthulakshmi, a 42-year-old vendor of flowers, stringing a garland of Madurai jasmine and roses at a stall near the statue. “But the Marudhus are bigger legends. My son is a fan. He has a moutache just like them,” she says, pointing in the direction of a cage-like enclosure at the other end of the temple corridor. A couple prostrating in front of the cage with figures of Chinna Marudhu and Periya Marudhu are happy to explain their allegiance to these hypermasculine heroes, usually depicted with bulging eyeballs and furry mustaches, their swords drawn high astride galloping white horses. “They symbolise the brave Tamil spirit of yore. We worship them in the form of the Marudha tree (terminalia arjuna) and celebrate October 24th, the date of their hanging, with a puja at our family temple,” say Bala Chellaiah (Thevar, he adds as an afterthought), 38, and Tamilarasi, 30, from the neighbouring town of Vetriyur. It was, after all, the brothers who renovated the colossal rajagopuram of Kalayarkoil. At 155 ft tall and 93 ft wide, surrounded by an 18-ft-high wall of stone, it became a beacon for British forces struggling to cut across miles of thorny forest in a bid to capture the rebels.

In this once-impenetrable town dotted with busts and memorials to Sivaganga warriors, the Marudhus and their gopuram are towering symbols of the resistance of the south. There is, of course, an utter lack of nuance in the elevation of the brothers as gods who defended the lowly against the wicked, ignoring historical accounts of their armies’ gratuitous cruelty and plunder. To be sure, the Marudhu brothers pursued an ethic of war until their deaths in 1801. Eager to recapture their lost capital and reinstate their exiled queen, they struck back at the Nawab in 1780 with help from Hyder Ali and the Dindigul poligar, Gopala Nayakar. The indelible hero of the rebels’ sweep of Sivaganga, however, seems to have been Kuyili, a commander of Velu Nachiyar’s all-woman ‘Udaiyal Padai’, who is said to have launched a suicide attack on the British, detonating a large cache of ammunition. “She was a Dalit but the Rani honoured her, as she did her trusted advisor who was a Pillai,” says Dorai. “Caste crept into the story much later.”

The family celebrates Pongal, naming ceremonies and other events at the feet of their forefathers. The present generation of the Marudhu brothers’ lineage, spread across towns like Narikudi, Urudhikottai and Vengapatti, numbers in the hundreds

WHAT HAS DEVOLVED into a petty conflict between sub-castes began as a story of unchecked ambition and palace intrigue. By the 1780s, the Marudhus were already outsize heroes in the thrilling screenplay of Sivaganga. It is alleged that they conspired to choose Vengai Peria Udayana Thevar, a man loyal to them, as the spouse of Velu Nachiyar’s only daughter Vellachi. With the queen’s death, Vengai Peria Udayana Thevar was instated as the ruler, making the Marudhus the real governing lords of the Lesser Maravar country through the last decade of the 18th century. Upon Vellachi’s untimely death, the king is said to have married Periya Marudhu’s daughter. There was, however, another contender to the throne. Velu Nachiyar, it is believed, had adopted a child related to the late king’s family, Padamathur Gowri Vallabha Thevar, hoping to pass the royal baton to him. But this young man is said to have been exiled by the Marudhus, and sheltered by Vijaya Raghunatha Tondaiman, the Raja of Pudukkottai and an opportunistic ally of the East India Company, returning only at the invitation of the British to take over as Zamindar of Sivaganga under the new system of administration introduced in 1801. At a conspicuous ceremony in Cholapuram in September 1801, the rival prince was installed as the new ruler of Sivaganga by Colonel Agnew in a bid to shift the loyalties of locals away from the Marudhu rebels. It seems to have worked. Within a couple of weeks of the fall of Kalayarkoil in October 1801, Chinna Marudhu and Vella Marudhu were captured from Cholapuram and Singampunari, respectively, possibly on tip-offs from disgruntled locals.

Long since reduced to a simplistic tale of derring-do, the story of Marudhu Pandiyan, especially from 1795 to 1801, captures the pulse of the very human struggle for freedom and belonging in pre-Independent India. Incensed at the English disregard to public welfare at a time of drought and famine, Marudhu wrote a letter expressing his displeasure to the Madras Council. He then began organising a league of patriots from Sivaganga, Ramnad, Madurai and Tirunelveli by sending emissaries with the message of rebellion. This dark-skinned man of affable manners and a network of spies established close relations with Veerapandiya Kattabomman, the revolutionary chief of Panjalamkurichi and Tamil Nadu’s most idolised martyr to date. The rebels did not risk direct battles with the British at first, but churned through the treacherous landscape under cover of the dark like forces of nature. They looted firearms and foodgrain when the British were busy with the Mysore war, and conspired with one another to try and foil the foreigners’ plans for south India. With the victory of the British forces over Tipu Sultan in May 1799, however, the colonialists decided to quell the rebellion with a rather arbitrary attack on Kattabomman’s fort in the plains of Panjalamkurichi in Tirunelveli. The poligar’s armies put up an iron defence and the attackers had to call for fresh forces to take the fort. Kattabomman and his kin fled to the jungles, but were captured in October 1799 with the active assistance of the traitorous Pudukkottai Thondaiman. At his public execution in Kayathar, Kattabomman said he regretted abandoning his fort—a scene immortalised in technicolour in the hearts of all Tamils who have watched the 1959 Sivaji classic Veerapandiya Kattabomman. “It was chance that made Kattabomman a hero. But the story of Marudhu Pandyan is like an unread classic. If there was a Tamil who chose the path of most resistance against the British, it was him,” says Enoch Simon, a 41-year-old physiotherapist from Madurai who is part of a Marudhu Pandyan fan club—of which there are many.

“The stories of the gallant resistance offered by Tipu in the north and Kattabomman in the south to alien domination and the ideals for which they faced death gave rise to a fresh wave of nationalistic fervour across the Peninsula,” Rajayyan writes. It was now Sivaganga’s turn to take centrestage. After a brief period of stunned silence at the turn of the century, the forests of Kalayarkoil and the palaces at Sivaganga and Siruvayal, protected by Marudhu’s men, were once again alive with intrigue. The fieriest rebels fleeing from the north and the south of Tamil Nadu took refuge here. Oomai Durai, who had been gravely injured in the second battle of Panjalankurichi where over a thousand people died fighting British forces, was welcomed as an honoured guest of Marudhu’s at Siruvayal. The rebels, surviving on large stores of grain and firearms in the jungles of Kalayarkoil, Kadalgudi and Kallarkudi, entered their boldest phase yet, storming British strongholds, reclaiming several forts including Melur and Natham near Madurai, and Palamaneri and Thiruchuzhi in Ramnad, and establishing total control over the coast, forcing the Company to redirect supplies to Ceylon.

On June 16th 1801, a rebel proclamation issued by Marudhu Pandyan was found plastered to a wall near the Nawab’s palace in the fort of Tiruchirappally; a second copy was addressed to the temple town of Srirangam. A remarkably inspiring document, it has no parallel in the history of the struggle for freedom in India. Calling himself an “implacable enemy of the European low wretches”, Marudhu censured the Nawab for allowing the British to trample over his sovereignty and exhorted “every man in his place and palayam to fly to arms and unite to make even the name of the low wretches cease”.

It took the British forces months to clear a path into the heart of the rebellion at Kalayarkoil. On September 30th, they marched in from all directions, with Lieutenant Colonel Spry of the Scotch Brigade launching a great attack on the gopuram at the dawn of the next morning. The rebel armies scattered like autumn leaves through the woods, only to be trampled upon by English boots. “It was the first and the last big rebellion in Tamil Nadu. Rebel poligars had been silenced, hanged in public in their own hometowns to set an example. Every royal house had suffered casualties. It was left to the mutineers of Vellore to mount another struggle a few years later in 1806—and after that, nothing,” says Rajendran.

With the hanging of the Marudhus on October 24th from a fort in Tirupattur, now a chaotic town about 40 km north of Kalayarkoil, the vim and vigour of the Tamil rebels was extinguished overnight. A memorial housed in a tall white cage, marking the spot of their execution, occupies a busy town square opposite the bus stop, flanked by medical shops, a children’s hospital and mossy buildings. Behind the structure enclosing two small statues of the Marudhu brothers, lanes branch off like tendrils every which way and motorbikes lurch up and down dangerously. “It is common practice here to name children after Marudhu and his associates,” says Sasikala P, a slender 23-year-old cradling a newborn in her arms, waiting for her appointment with the paediatrician next door. She may not know when Marudhu lived and died, but she says she will name her son Pandyan as per her mother’s wishes.

“Legend is all we have left,” says Vijayalakshmi Ramaswamy, a handsome, soft-spoken woman of 45 who married into the family of Periya Marudhu’s descendants. “The brothers’ sons were also butchered with them; Doraiswamy, the youngest son of Chinna Marudhu, was shipped off to Penang along with dozens of other rebels,” she says. According to family history, Periya Marudhu had several daughters and grandchildren through his five wives. One of his grandsons, Perumal Servai, who came to Tirupattur to perform the last rites of the Marudhus days after they were hanged, stayed back, in time begetting four sons. Vijayalakshmi’s husband T Ramaswamy was born to the third son. We meet her and her eight- year-old grandson Sarvesh Rajan at the large memorial hall with giant golden statues of the Marudhu brothers supposedly built on their graves. A part of the 150-acre sprawl of the Swedish Mission Hospital, it was inaugurated by the state in 1992. “My father-in-law worked all his life to get the government to build this memorial, but he didn’t live to see its inauguration,” says Vijayalakshmi, locking up the hall and walking home—a humble residence in the adjoining compound strewn with Marudhu memorabilia. The family celebrates Pongal, naming ceremonies and other events at the feet of their forefathers. The present generation of the Marudhu brothers’ lineage, spread across towns like Narikudi, Urudhikottai and Vengapatti, numbers in the hundreds. “There are 20 families,” says Ramaswamy. A government committee under MG Ramachandran’s chief ministership had deemed 232 members of the family to be eligible for pension. Today, two members of each independent family unit receive a monthly freedom fighters’ pension of Rs 6,000. “It is said that Chinna Marudhu was brought in a cage to his execution— the British were that afraid of him,” says Ramaswamy. “We often joke that our kids, who’ve heard these stories, will never fear us.”