Veerapandiya Kattabommu, of Telugu descent, is arguably the Tamil region’s most valiant freedom fighter.
The British did all they could to wipe his name from the pages of history. Here is how bards and books reinstated this freedom fighter’s forgotten glory.
A 150 years of forgetfulness is a long time in almost medieval conditions, especially after a king was hanged, his kin killed, fort razed, land ploughed and planted with castor or strewn with salt to make it desolate. And, with the name of his town expunged from the revenue registers, plus the very mention of his name being made equivalent to sedition, is like pouring acid (not just salt) on to a bare wound.
The East India company did all the above, and yet, Veerapandiya Kattabommu rose like a colossus 150 years later to take his pride of place among those who understand and value the idea of liberty.
The bravery of Kattabommu and his pursuit of freedom are never in doubt. However, a look into the facts and circumstances of the period is important from a historical perspective. This is especially since we know the level to which the British went to make people forget him, and the fact that he is considered the greatest freedom fighter ever from the Tamil region.
“A race of rude warriors, habituated to arms and Independence,” was how the late colonel James Welsh described the ‘Southern Poligars’ who ruled this part of the country in the eighteenth century. The Poligars were holders of estates called Palayams, which literally meant an “armed camp”. They were supposedly the guardians of the 72 bastions of the fort in Madurai, but in reality, the land was divided into provinces for better revenue management.
This system was followed by the Vijaynagara empire when it destroyed the Madurai sultanate, and by the Nayaks who succeeded them. Some of these 72 quasi-feudal palayams, each ruled by a Palayakkarar, were very small. There is also an account which says their sizes were roughly 33 villages each.
Besides rendering military services, a Poligar had to pay annual tributes to the British Raj. In return for these, the Poligar was entitled to collect taxes from the inhabitants of his estate and to exercise civil and criminal jurisdiction.
A large part of the Carnatic, south of the Kaveri, remained under the sway of the Poligars. The powers of the Poligar rajas continued to increase throughout the Nayak period and, by the end of the seventeenth century, some of the more dominant princes such as of Ramnad, Sivaganga, and Pudukottai had become virtual rulers. There were also smaller Palayams, and Panchalankurichi was one of them.
The ramparts of their forts, comprised of mud and baked in the punishing sunlight of the southern districts, outlived severe tests by the British artillery.
The Nawab of Arcot, who inherited the Palayakkarar system from the Nayakas, had a bohemian lifestyle funded by loans from British lenders at exorbitant interest rates. Heavily in debt, the Nawab was forced to cede the revenue-rich Tinnevelly district, including areas ruled by his Poligar vassals, to the East India Company. The Palayakkarars were not in line with British ambitions and emerged as a force to be reckoned with during the second half of the eighteenth century. The British, however, found the existence of a parallel authority prejudicial to their interests.
Puli Thevan, a Poligar who ruled Nerkattumseval, was notable for being one of the earliest to oppose British rule in India 100 years before the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny. Sadly, he was decimated in a war against the colonisers. Subsequently, a local legend surfaced, peddling the belief that he had mysteriously “vanished” into a temple. Exasperated by this twist in history, the British resorted to publicly hanging their enemies thereafter.
The Appearance of Kattabommu
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the British enjoyed relative peace with the Palayakarars. It was then that Kattabommu, the Poligar of Panchalankurichi, could not completely pay his dues. His arrears of tribute amounted to 3,310 pagodas of which repayment of only 1,080 pagodas to the Crown remained. On 18 August 1798, Jackson, the collector of Trichinopoly, despatched an order directing Kattabommu to meet him at Ramnad in two weeks.
When Kattabommu arrived on time, he found Jackson had left on a tour of the district. Despite this humiliation, Kattabommu followed Jackson for 23 days in a journey spanning 400 miles through the latter’s route and reached Ramnad again.
Kattabommu, in spite of his quasi-royal status, was made to stand before the collector for three hours. When Jackson instructed Kattabommu to stay in Ramnad till he (Jackson) obtained certain clearances from Fort St George in Madras, the Poligar assumed he was being arrested and made a break for it. A British soldier, Clarke, was killed in a scuffle that ensued. Kattabommu’s vakeel (legal advisor) was slow to react to the situation and was left behind in the escape attempt. Oomathurai (the deaf and dumb brother of Kattabommu) was instrumental in saving the Poligar.
Post-this, Kattabommu did not want to escalate tensions. He had a company lobbyist in Nellai to whom he sent word for guidance. Subsequently, he was advised against rash adventure and asked to address letters to Governor Edward Clive, professing his loyalty to the Crown.
Kattabommu attributed the scuffle at Ramnad to the “rashness of Jackson” and requested the release of his vakeel. Fort St George, too, did not wish to risk unpleasantness because the Mysore wars had occupied its attention. Edward Clive later invited Kattabommu to submit to the Company. Assuring a fair investigation into the Ramnad incident and the Crown’s intent to remove all causes of suspicion, he suspended Jackson from office and released the vakeel from confinement.
Kattabommu appeared before the Committee of Enquiry, which upon a thorough probe into the circumstances that culminated in the clash at Ramnad, concluded that Kattabommu had indeed been humiliated. Jackson was condemned and Kattabommu was acquitted. But Panchalankurichi was required to make a provision equal to that of the salary of Clarke, who was killed in the scuffle, towards compensation for his family.
The British Grudge
But the British were not the ones to keep quiet. Vengefully, they held a grudge against Kattabommu. When Tipu Sultan was defeated, and their entire resources freed up, they turned their guns on the Palayams.
This time, the Company’s Major Bannerman wrote to Kattabommu to “meet him” regarding his arrears. When Kattabommu evaded the meeting, saying he had no auspicious date available, the British closed in on Panchalankurichi fort with all their might.
Six pounder guns were ordered to blow open the south gate, and a combined detachment of the Company and Ettayapuram, a neighbouring vassal, decided to attack the northern face of the fort.
The troops of the Poligars, directed by Oomathurai, held their ground with determination and threw back the hostile columns. Sustaining heavy losses and overwhelmed with despondency, Team Kattabommu ordered reinforcements from Palayamkottai. But realising that the fort was beyond repair, Kattabommu ordered a general evacuation. He was chased for a long distance and was finally captured by Raja Sri Vijaya Raghunath Tondaiman Bahadur, the king of Pudukkottai. There are records which state that the king was gifted control over Kilanilai fort in lieu of this service.
After a hasty trial, Kattabommu was hanged from a tamarind tree in Kayathar. His last moments are ironically recorded only by the enemy. Major John Bannerman wrote to the Madras Government saying:
It may not be amiss here to observe that the manner and behaviour of the Poligar during the whole time of his being before those who were assembled yesterday at the examination which took place were undaunted and supercilious. He frequently eyed the Etiapore Poligar (Poligar of Ettayapuram), who had been so active in attempting to secure his person, and the Poligar of Shevighergy with an appearance of indignant contempt and when he went out to be executed, he walked with a firm and daring air and cast looks of sullen contempt on the Poligars to his right and left as he passed. It was reported to me that in his way to the place of execution, he expressed some anxiety for his brother (Kumaraswamy Nayak) alone, and said when he reached the foot of the tree on which he was hanged, that he regretted having left his fort, in the defence of which it would have been better for him to have died.
Oomathurai and his valiant comrades, who were kept shackled by iron chains in this Palayamkottai prison, later made a daring escape and partly rebuilt the fort. But the British, under Major Agnew, attacked them again with the forces getting scattered again. Oomathurai offered resistance along with the formidable Sivaganga zamin before being captured and executed.
It was then that the British drew up plans to erase the zamin and its valiant kings from history and public memory. The Tinnelvelli Gazetteer compiled by H R Pate, a British ICS officer in 1916, recorded how the destruction of this fort was carried out by the British.
The Panchalankurichi mud fort was razed, the site ploughed over and sown with castor seeds, and the name also expunged from all registers of the district.
The lands of that palayam were then subdivided and apportioned to the neighbouring loyal Poligars rajas and the entire mud fort and the palace complex of Panchalankurichi was trodden and buried. Destruction was deliberately pursued to make a powerful impression upon other unruly military households.
The original Jakkamma shrine was devastated and laid under a mound. The colonial administration also kept the buried site out of bounds.
This act seems to have been done earlier in history as well, when the Pandyas conquered the Chola capital of Gangaikonda Cholapuram in the twelfth century. It was an act where humiliation was inflicted and every ounce of history eliminated from public memory.
The colonial administration kept the buried site out of bounds, but this only increased its local veneration. New legends began circulating about the valorous properties of its soil. A grain of the soil from the fort was kept on the tongues of newborns during every Sivaratri in the belief that it would increase bravery.
In the light of this, a wake was held in the fort premises for a few decades, despite the possibility of sedition charges being slapped for physical presence in the ruins.
Panchalamkurichi, famed for its defiance during the Poligar raja period, became depopulated by the colonial government. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was largely forgotten by the rest of the Tamil country. The site of the Poligar raja’s fort was heavily overgrown with vegetation and people slowly avoided the area.
Divinisation of Sacrifice
However, the site of Kattabommu’s execution at Kayathar has become a “powerful local shrine” and sheep were sacrificed there during marriages or death ceremonies. Travellers are also known to throw stones at the foot of the tamarind tree, possibly symbolic of a “contribution” towards rebuilding the fort. Soon, a large mound of rocks accumulated as well.
Legends of Kattabommu slowly found their way into ballads and street performances. Veerapandiyan Kathai Padal and Kattabomman Sarithirakathai seem to have been popular. Kambalathaar Koothu, a street play which had Kattabommu as a minor character, seems to have been as popular as the Desingu Rajan Kathai, a ballad about a Rajput prince of Senji who fought the Mughals.
In the early 1930s, a young boy of five, Ganesan, was inspired by this koothu and decided that his life would be the stage. This would go on to affect the history of Kattabommu much later. The boy was none other than the famous actor Sivaji Ganesan.
But the British also exhibited Machiavellian tactics. To prevent migration, a general amnesty was given. The Palayakarars were made into zamindars and disarming in lieu of money happened. Peace prevailed in the area even during the Sepoy Mutiny and much of the freedom fighting years.
But the government did not forget this slight for a century-and-a-half. The colonial government’s iron grip over Panchalamkurichi eased only in 1946, one year before India’s Independence. In that year, permission was granted by the district collector for rebuilding a small concrete cupola of the shrine. This was constructed upon the existing foot-and-a-half high round base.
‘The skies pour and the fields yield...Why would I pay a tax to you?’ is today, the most recognisable piece of proclamation Tamil history has ever known. Kattabommu, the Palayakkarar of Panchalamkurichi, who spoke these words and was hanged from a tamarind tree, was of Telugu descent.
Historians believe that these lines came into prominence 150 years after Kattabommu’s death, through books and theatre. They were finally immortalised by Sivaji Ganesan’s film Veerapandiya Kattabomman that released in 1959.
Traditionally, Madras’ armies had quelled other freedom movements, but when Independence neared, there was a great patriotic fervour and Madras needed historical stories of freedom fighters.
Kattabommu, On Screen
In the late 1940s, Gemini Studios headed by SS Vasan made a movie with RK Narayan penning the story, perhaps the only time he directly worked on a movie script. Miss Malini was a colossal flop, but the songs stayed in the collective memory of the people.
Tamil filmmaker and poet Kothamangalam Subbu, who penned the songs, wrote a lullaby wherein a mother sings to her infant a song to instil bravery in him. In the verse, Subbu mentions Kattabommu along with Mahatma Gandhi and Subhas Chandra Bose (Gandhi Mahan, Netaji, Kattabomman kathai koori).
Astoundingly, most Tamil movie-goers hadn’t heard of Kattabommu till then.
Subbu’s words sparked a huge biographical journey on Kattabommu’s lost story. Ma Po Sivagnana Gramani wrote a biography called Veerapandiya Kattabomman. A flurry of books on Kattabommu and his brother Oomathurai subsequently flooded the market. Soon, movie companies, in a bid to pre-empt competitors, announced their Kattabommu productions.
In 1953, Gemini Vasan tried to pre-empt others by issuing a promotional newspaper advertisement. TKS Brothers brought Kattabommu to the stage as Muthal Muzhakkam (the first cry/call), but the audience response was lukewarm.
During the mid-50s, Sivaji Ganesan, along with scriptwriter Sakthi Krishnaswamy, was travelling through Kayathar, the place where Kattabommu was hanged, and was inspired to play him on stage. While crossing Kayathar, Sivaji, perhaps, reminded of his life-inspiring childhood experience, suggested a play based on Kattabommu’s life. Sakthi wrote the script in a month’s time — and it was launched in Salem in August 1957. The team invested close to Rs 50,000 on sets and costumes. The play successfully ran 112 shows, 12 of which were staged after the movie was launched.
Producer BR Panthulu, who specialised in the history and mythology genres, decided to make it into a movie. Panthulu and Sivaji were not sure how close Gemini was to making the movie, but did not want to challenge the giant. Sivaji swallowed his pride (he had once been rejected by Vasan for a small role in Chandralekha), went over to Gemini to request Vasan to keep away. Vasan handed over the material he had collected for the script.
It was then that the opposition strengthened. Bestselling detective fiction writer Tamilvanan wrote a book called Kattabommu Kollaikaran mentioning that Kattabommu’s achievements were “dubious” and that he was actually a “bandit”. Poet Kannadasan went one step ahead and stated that the Maruthu Pandiyars were the real freedom fighters. He made a film about them — Sivagangai Seemai. And the two films clashed at the box office. Kannadasan went into debt after this film flopped.
Veerapandiya Kattabommu, that was shot in technicolour, a first for a Tamil film, had its premiere, ironically, in London in 1959. High production costs nullified its successful theatrical run of 175 days.
It was dubbed in Telugu as Veerapandiya Kattabrahmanna, where Kattabommu spoke in his mother tongue. At the 1960 Cairo Afro-Asian Film Festival, Sivaji received the Best Actor Award from President Nasser. A decade later, Ganesan made a statue of Kattabommu at Kayathar.
The government-sponsored statue in Panchalankurichi bears a close resemblance to Sivaji Ganesan, and his breath-taking performance changed the perception of Kattabommu, who is still a favourite for school fancy dress competitions.
While historians busy their time contradicting the depth of his patriotism and bravery, and experts proclaiming that history and folklore are being conflated, Kattabommu today still remains the greatest freedom fighter yet of the Tamil soil.
(Venkatesh Ramakrishnan is a bilingual novelist and historian. He authored the sequel to Kalki's “Ponniyin Selvan” and a novel on Delhi sultanate’s invasion of South India called “Gods, Kings & Slaves: The Seige of Madurai”. He specialises in the history of Madras city)