Rani Chennamma ruled the small kingdom of Keladi on the coast of Karnataka for 25 years from 1671 to 1696. She is best remembered today for her quixotic act of sheltering the fugitive Maratha king, Shivaji’s son Rajaram, and taking on the wrath of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
There is a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” The times were certainly interesting; in her lifetime, Chennamma dealt with the Portuguese who had dominated the Indian coast for 150 years, saw the advent of the British and the Dutch, the conquest of her neighbours, the Bijapur Adilshahis, by the Mughals in 1686, and the rise of Shivaji and the Marathas from the 1650s. She dealt with and indeed fought almost all these powers and managed to maintain a prosperous kingdom, made rich by foreign trade. The Portuguese called her the Reina de Pimenta, the pepper queen. The kingdom survived till 1763, when it was finally run over by Haider Ali of Mysore.
To set the context for the period 1650 to 1700—from the 14th century onwards, the Deccan had been riven by war between the Hindu empire of Vijayanagar on one side, and the Bahmani sultanate—and later its successor states like Bijapur and Golconda—on the other. The culmination of two centuries of war was brutal and sudden. At the height of Vijayanagar’s power, in 1565, the Deccan sultanates allied together and inflicted a decisive defeat on the Vijayanagar forces in the battle of Talikota. Vijayanagar, the most important city in India and the second most populous city in the world after Beijing, with half a million inhabitants, was overrun and permanently destroyed. It was never resettled; the ruins still stand in Hampi.
The territory of Vijayanagar was divided up amongst the sultanates, but many of its erstwhile vassals now established small independent kingdoms—Tanjore, Madurai, Mysore, Ramnad and Ikkeri. This was really a test of the survival of the fittest. In a world of matsyanyaya (anarchy), these minnows were under threat from the Portuguese, from the sultanate of Bijapur, from the Mughals, from the Marathas, and most of all from one another. What is amazing is that so many of them survived for centuries by deftly changing alliances and choosing when to fight and when to negotiate, some until 1947.
The kingdom of Keladi was founded by Chowda Nayak in 1499. Over the centuries, the capital moved to Ikkeri and later Bidnur from which Chennamma ruled. They were vassals of Vijayanagar kings, and became independent after Talikota. They expanded their kingdom at the expense of their neighbours, subsuming smaller kingdoms, until they ruled over a territory of 10,000 square miles by the beginning of the 18th century, with a long coast stretching from Goa till Kerala.
Times were hard for the rulers. Of the 11 successions that took place in Keladi between 1660 and 1760, in only two did the king die a natural death, and was succeeded by an adult male relative. The rest of the successions saw a mise en scene of poisoned kings, widows and children as successors, and bloodbaths of relatives, generals, would-be-kingmakers et al.
Much of the wealth of the coastal kingdoms came from the pepper trade with the Portuguese. Keladi had a difficult relationship with the Portuguese—they sold them pepper and bought horses from them, but also warred with them over terms, winning some and losing some others.
Other minor players on the west coast were the Dutch East India Company and the British.
The indefatigable Italian traveler Pietro della Valle had accompanied a Portuguese ambassador to Ikkeri to meet the King Venkatappa Nayak in 1623, and recorded his observations of the kingdom. We see a world which followed all the norms of the Vijayanagar kingdom—with its festivals, devadasis, processions, music and dance, with the temple as the centre of public life. He was not impressed by the king, hardly deeming him one.
In 1664, Somashekara Nayak became the ruler of Keladi. As he roamed about the fair at the Rameshwara temple in Keladi, their family deity, his eye fell upon the young Chennamma, who was the daughter of a Lingayat merchant, Siddappa Shetty. She has been described as having the complexion of a pearl, with bright eyes, a broad forehead, a long nose and curly hair.
Stricken by a coup de foudre, Somasekhara overruled the objections of his ministers who were horrified at her non-royal background, and married her forthwith.
Chennamma now received a royal education in politics and administration, warfare, weaponry, music, arts and literature. She also started participating in the administration, interceding for various applicants.
Unfortunately, they had no offspring.
The Vijayanagara Kings celebrated Dussehra with great pomp, and their vassals continued the tradition. (The Mysore Wodeyar kings were their vassals and the Mysore Dussehra is still famous.) The Dussehra celebrations in Keladi would be accompanied by performances by artists who gathered from all over the region.
King Somasekhara was clearly subject to sudden passions; during one Dussehra, he became enamoured of a dancer Kalavathi of Jambukhandi, and set her up as Royal Dancer and Royal Mistress. Her family and evil stepfather Bharame Mahut accompanied her to Keladi.
The tale goes that the obsessed king moved in with Kalavathi. Bharame Mahut controlled the king with drugs and he gradually fell sick. His ministers had to visit the king in his paramour’s residence for any discussions.
The administration was more or less run by the queen with the help of her ministers, the chief of whom was Thimanna Nayak, a trusted retainer from her father-in-law Shivappa Nayak’s time. The ministers were very worried about the succession, and variously pressured her to adopt their sons. The queen resisted these pressures, maybe hoping for a miracle and the Return of the King.
Thimanna Nayak left in a huff because she disregarded his advice regarding adoption.
The Sultan of Bijapur saw this as an opportune moment to finally acquire the kingdom they had tried to conquer for a century and sent an agent, Jannopant, to talk terms with Chennamma. This was a ruse, as he was followed by an army.
To stave off an invasion, Chennamma gave Jannopant Rs 3 lakh. He apparently bribed Bharame Mahut to finally poison and finish off the king as the Bijapur army arrived at the doorstep.
Bereaved and overwhelmed by the numerical superiority of the Bijapur forces, the queen secretly left with her troops and her treasure for Bhuvanagiri, a fort hidden deep in the jungles and ravines.
There she was joined by Thimanna, who came back in an agony of remorse—in his absence, his king had died, and the kingdom had been occupied by the Bijapur forces. Thimanna got together an army, and managed to ambush the Bijapur force which had ventured into the jungle to catch the queen. The Bijapur army was destroyed and the queen triumphantly returned to Bidnur. She had Jannopant and Bharame Mahut executed, and purged their followers and supporters.
This victory must have helped with what followed. The queen was crowned in her own right in 1671. Unusually, she was not a regent, as she had no heir of the blood she was representing. Chennamma also chose a successor, Basappa, the three-year-old son of a relative, Markappa Shetty, instead of a Nayak boy.
Her ascent to the throne was in spite of the presence of many other family members who were eligible to be king, and who brought forward their claims. Many were to plague her to the end of her days, asking for help from neighbouring kings and other powers, to displace such a monstrosity as a woman who would rule over men, and such a woman, with not a drop of royal blood in her, the daughter of a merchant.
For example, in the Dutch East India Company records, there is a letter it received in 1689 from a Sadashiva Nayak, purporting to be the true king of Ikkeri. He gave an elaborate genealogy of eminent royal ancestors, and assured the Dutch that he had the support of the nobles of Ikkeri, who abhorred the thought of a woman ruling over them. He wanted military help from the Dutch, which they did not proffer. He had been roaming about for the last 17 years trying to find support!
Her ascent was also considered an apt time for neighbours to declare war. Among others, Chikkadevaraya Wodeyar, the king of Mysore, attacked Keladi, supporting the pretensions of Andhaka Venkata Nayak to be king. A number of battles were fought, which finally ended in a friendship treaty.
Chennamma had a punishing schedule—every morning after her bath, prayers and breakfast, she would go to the court and listen to the plaints of her subjects. She would then confer with Basappa Nayak and her ministers on matters of state. After midday prayers, she would spend an hour giving alms to priests and the needy. She also personally supervised Basappa’s training and education.
She survived by maintaining a policy of neutrality with her neighbours, and grew rich on the Portuguese trade. The Portuguese exported spices and rice from the Keladi ports like Mirjan and Honavara; she allowed them to settle and build their churches.
She made a truce with Shivaji in 1675, and he offered her his protection against the Portuguese and the Adil Shahis.
But great changes were now afoot in the Deccan. Shivaji, who had dominated the landscape of the Deccan for 35 years, died in 1680. Aurangzeb now made a push to conquer the Deccan and moved south of the Vindhyas—never to return to the north till his death a quarter century later. The Mughals had been unsuccessfully trying to conquer the Deccan kingdoms since the time of Akbar. Aurangzeb was finally successful—he completed the conquest of Bijapur in 1686 and Golconda in 1687. He then turned his attention to the Marathas, captured their king Sambhaji in 1689, and brutally tortured him to death. The Mughal behemoth now moved into the Maratha strongholds, capturing fort after fort.
The 19-year-old Rajaram, Shivaji’s younger son, now crowned king of the Marathas, decided to flee to the fort of Jinji in the deep south, often considered the most impregnable fort in India. But he had to traverse thousands of kilometers of Mughal territory to reach there. He and a few companions, disguised as Lingayat pilgrims, started moving south, clinging to the Sahyadri. He showed up at the Rani’s daily alms giving as a supplicant, and asked her for shelter.
As per her royal code of conduct, her rajadharma, she felt bound to give shelter to any supplicant, specially the son of her benefactor Shivaji. Against the advice of her aghast ministers, but with the enthusiastic consent of her young son Basappa, whom she had imbued with her chivalric code, the Rani aided Rajaram and facilitated his passage to Jinji.
She had put her kingdom at the risk of destruction by Aurangzeb who had a visceral hatred of the Marathas. Rajaram, not without some hair’s breadth escapes, managed to reach Jinji, and directed the Maratha resistance against the Mughals, later continued by his wife Tarabai.
This then is what Chennamma is really remembered for—this great quixotic act of courage and principle—to take on the wrath of Alamgir, the all-conquering Aurangzeb, on a matter of dharma, against her and her kingdom’s own best interests.
Had Rajaram been captured, the Maratha resistance may not have survived, Aurangzeb would not have emptied out his treasury and decimated his armies trying to fight them, the Mughal empire may not have declined, the British would not have kicked open a rotten door, and India would not have been beggared.
How is that for alternate history!
As Rajaram left, Keladi geared up to face the might of Aurangzeb, fully expecting to be destroyed by the Mughals as effortlessly as an elephant stepping on an ant.
Aurangzeb of course came to know that Rajaram was in Keladi. He sent a letter to the queen along with rich gifts:
The Queen replied:
Aurangzeb was not convinced. He sent an army commanded by Janissar Khan to reduce Keladi and capture Rajaram. The army made its way through dense forest on the way to Bidnur.
Just as Russia’s greatest general is considered to be its winter, India could possibly lay claim to the monsoon as its saviour. A significant factor in Alexander’s armies turning back was the relentless monsoon rain and the innumerable bugs, aches and fevers it generated. So it was with the Mughal army, which foundered about, sick and quagmired, continuously harried by guerilla attacks by the Rani’s forces. Aurangzeb called her a “female bear”.
To her great relief, on hearing that Rajaram had reached Jinji, Aurangzeb redirected the army to besiege Jinji. The army moved on, collecting a tribute and some border forts from the Rani and concluding a peace treaty.
A grateful Rajaram wrote from Jinji:
In her last days, she handed over administration to Basappa Nayak and devoted herself to religion. She went on pilgrimages and endowed temples at Kashi, Rameshwara, Shrishaila and Tirupati. She had an agrahara—an entire street with houses on either side—built, and invited scholars to settle down there. It was named Somashekharapura.
She rebuilt a fort in Hulikere which Basappa Nayak later renamed Chennagiri in honour of his mother.
She died in 1696, handing over her kingdom to Basappa Nayak, later known as Keladi Basavraj. He ruled well and long and also wrote a massive Sanskrit tome called Sivatattva Ratnakar about the history of that period.
Chennamma had taught him well.
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