The Polygars of South India, little known to history, offered a desperate resistance to the British rule. The rebellious disturbances led by the Polygars inflicted the heaviest casualties on British arms that were ever suffered by the Company in any of the civil and internal commotions in the pre-Mutiny period. However as S.B. Chaudhuri remarked, the Company succeeded in settling the problem posed by the Polygars in the early part of the 19th century and later they were absorbed in the administration. Otherwise, South India would have been another Oudh in the mutiny days.
Bishop Caldwell described the character of the Polygars thus, “Looking at the result of the appointment of Polygars by the rulers of Madurai it can hardly be said that the idea of governing the country by means of an order of rude, rapacious feudal nobles, such as the Polygars generally turned out to be a happy one, for down to the period of their final subjection and submission to British authority in 1801, whenever they were at war with the Central authority, they were at war with one another and it was rarely possible to collect from them the tribute or revenue due to the Central authority without a display of military force which added greatly both to the unpopularity and the expense of the collection.”
In 1781 the Nawab of Arcot handed over to the Company the management and control of the whole of the revenues of Tinnevelly and the Carnatic Provinces on condition that he should be allowed 1/6 of these for his personal use. This assignment was objected to by the- freedom-loving Polygars. The Polygars of Panjalankurichi in the Tinnevelly district held out stubbornly against the English in 1783. The opposition of the people to the collection of revenues by the Company forced the Company authorities to surrender the assignment to the Nawab in 1785.
The management of the area by the Nawab also proved ineffective and by 1790, the revenue administration of the country was taken over by the Company who established a board of Assigned Revenues for the purpose. This brought the Polygars to the point of open resistance and violent armed uprising. The leader of the rebel confederacy who organised a series of insurrections was the Poly gar of Panjalankurichi, Kattabomma Nayakan.
The whole of the eastern province was under the control of Kattabomman and the British decided to send an expedition to reduce him to submission. But the whole Company force was obliged to return to Trichinopoly. Later the western Polygars with the support of the king of Travancore blockaded the advance of English forces.
Encouraged by these successes and under the chieftainship of the Puli Devar they formed a league with the Western Polygars of Madura (from which the Eastern Polygars of Tinnevelly, headed by Kattabomma Nayakn, were only with held by the fact that they had given hostages to English’ forces) for the capture of Madura and the complete subversion of the Nawab’s authority.
The Company’s war with Tipu Sultan gave the Polygars the opportunity they desired for evading payments of their tribute and for creating the usual disturbances. Thus although the management of the country had been from 1781 made over under treaty by the Nawab to the English little or no progress was made until after the fall of Seringapatam and the death of Tipu (1799).
Previous to the fall of Seringapatam the Tinnevelly Polygars had for several years been growing more and more rebellious. The chief of them, Kattabomma Nayak of Panjalamkurichi, when summoned to attend the cutchery of Mr. Jackson, the District Collector in 1798, rushed out on pretence of alarm and is believed to have stabbed Lt. Clarke.
The principal Polygars who took Kattabomma Nayak’s side against the Government were those of Nagalapuram, Gollar patti, Elayarapannei, Kulathur and also Puli Devar, the Polygar of Avudayapuram. The first Polygar War lasted for over 2 months from 18th August to 21st October 1799. Major Bannerman took active steps to seize the fort. The Polygar did not wait for the renewal of the hostilities, but evacuated the fort with all his party.
Later Kattabomman escaped to Shivaganga and then to the territory of the Tondiman Raja. All of his principal adherents, especially his chief adviser Subrahmania Pillai were, however, captured and hanged. Subrahmania Pillai’s head was exposed at Panjalamkurichi. Sundara Panday Nayak, brother of the Polygar of Nagalapuram, who had headed a marauding and murdering expedition into Ramnad was also hanged at Gopulapuram and Kattabomma Nayak himself was captured by the Tondiman Raja and sent to Major Bannerman, the Commander of the English forces.
Kattabomman was court- martialled and hanged at Kaitar in the presence of the rebellious Polygars of Tinnevelly. The resistance movement of Kattabomman who fought for his country was a rare example of daring spirit. It is difficult to agree with the view that Kattabomman was not so rash a rebel as he is depicted, for he did pay the tribute to the Company so as to excite no suspicion and proceeded to organise the Polygar rebellion. Whatever be the means adopted for resistance, Kattabomman’s innate desire was to do away with the authority of the British intruder.
Marudu Pandyan, another hero of the resistance movement in South India was greatly influenced by European political ideals. The establishment of the British supremacy, he believed, was due to the folly and disunity of the local princes, indifference of the inhabitants, and the duplicity and jobbery of the Europeans. Since the British forces were well-equipped and well trained Marudu adopted guerilla tactics in his dealings with the English
The collapse of his friend and ally, Tipu in 1799 instilled in him feelings of patriotism and he thought of uniting the patriotic elements of the population. His alliance with Gopala Nayak of Dindigal served as the nucleus of his scheme. He also had the support of the rebel chiefs like Dhoondaji Waug of Shimoga.
Marudu was put in the position of the chief commander of the rebel confederates in the whole of Madurai. Power, balls, and fire arms were manufactured, and old ones repaired. Spies were sent to British camps to collect secrets about hostile movements. With grim determination, Marudu and his followers made the temple of Kalayar Koil their strategic centre.
The leaders under Marudu’s direction launched a general offensive against the English with the occupation of the fort at Coimbatore marudu sent rebel parties in support of the insurgents of Dindigul and Coimbatore. When the movement attained formidable proportions, the English troops appeared from different corners of India.
The Nawab of Arcot and the Rajas of Travancore and Tanjore sent their forces in support of their ally, the English. The patriotic forces repulsed an attack on their stronghold, Panjalamkurichi on 31st March. 1800, but were defeated in the second attack on 23rd May. The reverses in Dindigul and Tinnevelly forced Marudu to take shelter in their own camps for sometime.
Marudu Pandyan issued a proclamation in 1800 from Tiruchirapalli exhorting the people of South India to rally round the patriotic cause. It indicated South India’s political interests and pointed out the folly of the Nawab of Carnatic, the indifference of the natives, and the tactics employed by the alien powers.
On the fall of Panjalamkurichi to the English, Oomathurai, the leader of the rebellion in Tinnevelly, escaped to Siruvayal, the headquarters of Marudu in May 1801. Here both leaders consulted and launched a fierce counter- offensive against the English and administered a series of reverses on the enemy. By July 1801, Ramnad, Madurai, Kallarnadu and Tanjore came under the control of Marudu Pandyan.
By August 1801, British reinforcements came and 3 major battles were fought. While Marudu Pandyan and Oomathurai led the patriotic forces, Blackburn, Maclean and Macaulay led the English forces. The rebels humbled the enemy in the early attacks, but very soon English won spectacular victories in Kalyarkoil. The loss of control over the coastal waters shook the confidence of the rank and file of the patriotic elements. By 30th September 1801, Kalayarkoil was surrounded on all sides by the forces of the British Company.
This offensive was so coordinated as to prevent any further humiliation for the Albion at the hands of the natives. Lt. Col. Spry, Major Sheppard and Major Agnew blockaded all paths to prevent the escape of the rebels led by Marudu Pandyan and at last Kalyarkoil fell to the English. This broke the patriotic resistance to a certain extent. Marudu and his chief adherents escaped leaving behind a large quantity of ammunition deposited in the jungles. Captain Munro followed the fugitives, but failed to take them.
When Marudu Pandyan was deeply engaged in an operation at Cholapuram on 19th October 1801, he was captured. Some of his followers escaped while a large majority was taken as prisoners. On the 24th October 1801, Marudu Pandyan together with his brother Vella Marudu and a horde of others were executed at Ramnad. Thus Marudu Pandyan died for the great cause he fought for.
But he failed to achieve what he aspired for. The reasons for this ranged from his own smallness when juxtaposed with the British power and small tactical errors to the unfeeling political opportunism or unpatriotic activities of local magnates and rulers.
Marudu Pandyan does not seem to have taken into confidence the Muslim troops, and for that matter the Muslim population also, in the service of the Company. It has to be inferred from his actions that his attempt had a touch of Hindu sectarianism, a blemish on his nationalistic venture. This is in clear contrast with Pazhassi Raja’s attempt, whose strongest support came from Muslims and low caste tribal. The selection of Srirangam as the venue of the second proclamation also seems unwise.
“Srirangam, being a Hindu spiritual centre”, it is said, “appeared as a suitable place for the issue of an appeal to all the people of the entire subcontinent.” Certainly it was a proper place for appealing to and rousing the religious sentiments and enthusiasm of the Hindus. And for the same reason this was the most unsuitable place whence to activate and enthuse the Muslims.
However, Marudu, who appealed at least to the entire Hindu population of South India, occupies a place in history a little above Velu Tampi of Travancore, who appealed only to the caste Hindus of his state for expelling the English, but his place is far below a patriot like Pazzhassi Raja.
In the war front a coterie of native powers rallied against him; the Nizam, the Marathas, the Rajas of Carnatic, Tanjore, Mysore and Travancore extended their support to the English. The well built military force of the English with their superior weaponry was more than a match to the forces of petty Polygars and chieftains.
Though unsuccessful in his attempt, Marudu Pandyan is one of the most colourful personalities of the early anti- British resistance movements whose patriotic acts will be a source of inspiration for the rebels of all time.