Queen Mangammal of Madurai fought off numerous hostile kings. She also created sturdy infrastructure, focusing on roads and access to water. The highway she built from Kanyakumari is still called Mangammal Salai.
The year is 1689 CE. India is almost entirely occupied by the Mughals under Aurangzeb. Well, not entirely. But some small kingdoms of indomitable Nayaks still hold out stubbornly against the invaders at the southern tip of the country. Life is not easy for these kingdoms of Mysore, Madurai, Tanjore etc who constantly fight one another, besides the Marathas and Mughals. And amongst them was the Madurai Queen Mangammal, alternately battling and befriending her neighbours, walking a tightrope to preserve her kingdom for 18 years.
Most histories do not even mention the Nayaks, who ruled small kingdoms in the extreme south of India after the fall of Vijayanagar to the Deccan Sultanates in the battle of Talikota in 1565. This period from 1565 till the rise of Haider Ali in Mysore in 1761 is simply ignored.
A little background. The Pandyas had ruled in Madurai from time immemorial; they have been mentioned in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Sangama literature, and even by the Greek historian Herodotus in 5th century BCE. The longest reigning Indian dynasty, through nearly two millennia, they held on to the throne of Madurai. They were defeated in 1311 by Malik Kafur, Allauddin Khilji’s general, who sacked the ancient Meenakshi temple. The Pandyas were finally displaced by Muhammad Bin Tughlaq in 1323. They retreated further south and ruled from Tenkasi until 1650. The Tughlaq governor later declared independence and created the sultanate of Madurai.
The great Vijayanagar kingdom under General Kumara Kampanna Nayak conquered Madurai in 1378. The conquest is described lyrically by the his wife Gangadevi, a rare woman poet, in the epic poem Madhura Vijayam. Kampanna then ruled the kingdom as a Nayak on behalf of Vijayanagar.
Akin to dukes and counts in medieval Europe, the Nayaks were semi-independent feudal governors in the Vijayanagar kingdom. They owed fealty to the king, paid a certain fixed revenue, and made their troops available for battle. Though initially appointed at the king’s pleasures, the posts soon became hereditary in the great Indian tradition, which still persists!
Vishwanatha Nayak (1559-1600) of Madurai declared his independence soon after the battle of Talikota and the subsequent prolonged sack and destruction of Vijayanagar, the richest and most populous city in the country. Vishwanatha rebuilt the ancient Meenakshi Amman temple, which was dedicated to Meenakshi, the legendary woman ruler of the Pandyas, deified as an incarnation of Parvati.
Other Nayaks also declared independence. These kingdoms of Mysore, Tanjore etc incessantly battled one another, as well as the Sultanate of Bijapur.
Chokkanath Nayak became the king of Madurai in 1662 at the age of 16. He inherited a much shrunken kingdom, as his father had lost territory to the Wodeyar king of Mysore, and the Nayak of Thanjavur, as well as to the Sultanate of Bijapur.
He was married to Mangammal, the daughter of Tupakula Lingama Nayaka, a general of Madurai. In his reign, he started off with some good luck—he won a few battles and recovered some territories. His signal success was the conquest of Thanjavur. The legend of destruction of Thanjavur is thus: Chokkanath sent a proposal for marriage to the daughter of the Thanjavur king, Vijayraghava, who not only refused but was deeply offended at the temerity of Chokkanath, whom he thought a lower kind of Nayak, treated the emissaries carrying the proposal very badly.
Enraged, Chokkanath attacked Thanjavur, and Vijayraghava died on the battlefield, after sending off a signal to blow up his entire family and harem! Chokkanath did not enjoy his conquest for long though; in a dramatic twist, Vijayraghava’s son who had escaped and been secretly sheltered by a merchant, requested the Bijapur Sultan to reinstate him.
Troops were sent under Venkoji, Shivaji’s half brother, who predictably crowned himself instead, and founded the Maratha Bhonsle dynasty of Thanjavur, which ruled till 1855, when Lord Dalhousie annexed it under the Doctrine of Lapse.
Back to Madurai. In the tragic absence of the now dead Thanjavur princess, Mangammal became Chokkanath’s chief queen. Chokka now suffered reverses in the many wars he habitually initiated. To add to his problems, Shivaji came raiding south in 1677. Shivaji captured many fortresses, including the important one of Gingee from Bijapur, and carried away much wealth from all the kingdoms. When Chokka died in 1682, his kingdom was financially distressed, bled by all the wars fought and lost with his neighbours.
His young son Virappa Nayak now came to power. He was guided by his mother Manganammal, who had staunchly refused to commit sati. He had a short but successful reign and was known for his energy in handling both external and internal issues. He however died in 1689 of small pox.
He left behind a disconsolate pregnant wife, whom Mangmmal forcibly restrained from committing sati. On giving birth to a son Vijayaranga, his wife Mutuammal promptly committed suicide!
In 1689, Mangammal now assumed the power of the state as regent on behalf of her infant grandson.
Mangammal’s rule was quite different from her husband Chokkanatha’s. He had been forever embroiled in futile, impractical and expensive wars, which had drained his kingdom. Mangammal also fought many wars, but she often concluded treaties with former foes, and was more interested in the fruits of peace and the welfare of her subjects. She is considered a great ruler of Madurai, who preserved her kingdom in troubled times, and truly cared for her subjects.
Bijapur and Golconda had fallen to Aurangzeb in 1686 and 1688 respectively, and the Mughals were at her door. Chikkadevaraya Wodeyar of Mysore and Shahji Bhonsle of Tanjore had accepted Mughal dominance, and Mangammal could read the writing on the wall. She accepted a tributary position to the Mughals and indeed then exploited the relationship by sending beautifully written letters and expensive gifts to the Mughal generals, and keeping them firmly on her side.
She solicited troops from them to fight her other enemies like Tanjore and thus recovered territory. In an extremely fluid and dangerous environment, she fully used all the kootniti options prescribed in Indian polity—sam, dam, dand and bhed. She continuously evaluated her options with her foes; often fighting them, sometimes buying them off, and sometimes creating allies who would then fight them. Her prudence substantially prolonged the life of her kingdom.
However, as has been seen with other women rulers, who are typically perceived as weak, on her accession, neighbouring kingdoms attacked her, and some tributaries promptly stopped paying their tribute.
She held her own against Chikkadevaraya of Mysore, who attacked her kingdom and invaded her capital Trichy. They had to withdraw due to the Maratha threat they faced in Mysore.
Ravi Varma, the king of Travancore, had stopped paying tribute. So, every year, she would send an army, which would successfully collect the tribute. An organized resistance by him in 1697 was firmly quashed, with much transfer of wealth to Madurai.
The dreaded Marathas of Tanjore under Shahji continued raiding Madurai, and Mangammal had to finally declare war on him. As his army spilled into Madurai, realizing that her troops would be unable to hold off the excellent Maratha cavalry, Mangammal decided that offence was the best form of defence, and stealthily sent off her troops to harry Tanjore. As Shahji’s troops turned back to defend their territory, they were ambushed at a river crossing, and forced to sue for peace. Remember, at this time, even Aurangzeb was having trouble fighting off the Marathas! Madurai and Tanjore signed a peace treaty.
Their newfound friendship was soon put to the test. In an early edition of the Cauvery water dispute, the Mysore king built a dam, which stopped the flow of the river into Madurai and Tanjore. Some things never change! The erstwhile foes planned a war together against Mysore, but were fortunately spared the effort as unprecedented rains washed off the dam and removed the threat.
Mangammal’s major defeat was her inability to suppress the rebellion of the Setupati ruler of Ramnad, who then declared himself an independent ruler in 1702.
She built a lot of infrastructure. She focused on the provision of sadak and paani (bijli had not yet been invented). She was particularly known as a road maker; she built numerous roads, lined with inns, wells and trees. The highway she built from Kanyakumari is still called Mangammal Salai. In fact, almost every fine avenue in the towns of her kingdom is now ascribed to her. She built many canals and tanks as well.
In her kingdom, she was very liberal in allowing the practice of all religions. When pressured to persecute Christians by other rulers, she is supposed to have said that just as some were allowed to eat rice and others meat, so also was it lawful for each man to practice or adopt whatever religion seemed to him the best. She also gave gifts to mosques.
In particular, she endowed the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, where she instituted the Unjal (swing) festival and built pavilions like the Rani Mangammal Mandapam. A painting in the temple shows the temple priest handing over the royal sceptre to the queen.
She built many choultrys—residences for pilgrims, including a particularly fine one in Madurai. Her own summer palace Tamukkam in Madurai now houses a museum.
Her death is shrouded in mystery. Oral legend says that her grandson, on achieving his majority, wanted total control. He is supposed to have locked her in a room where she starved to death. There are of course no official records. Vijayanatha assumed the throne in 1706, and had a disastrous rule.
The kingdom was finally annexed by the Nawab of Arcot in 1739.