Circa 1772. The woods of Kalayarcovail were lined with defences. The second Rajah of Sivagangai, Muthuvaduganatha Peria Oodaya Thevar, was preparing for the last fight of his life. He had refused to bend his knee to the Nawab of the Carnatic (also known as the Nawab of Arcot) – and the penalty was war.
It was a battle between regional kingdoms, but the Nawab’s belligerents were not Indian. The British East India Company (BEIC) sent their own soldiers to fight the Nawab’s battles. This was in part due to the Sivaganga kingdom’s trade with the Dutch.
Two officers of the BEIC, Joseph Smith, and Benjour, attacked and conquered the town of Sivagangai. They then attacked the Kalayar Kovil forest from either side. Muthuvaduganatha died in the battle along with many of his followers, on June 25, 1772. Little did he know that his wife would one day gain revenge – and invent suicide bombing in the process.
Velu Nachiyar (1730-1796) was the Rajah’s queen and confidante; a well-educated lady who was also trained in martial arts, fencing, archery, spear throwing, and horse riding. It was her valour that won her the hand of the king of Shivaganga. But it was her skills at language (she is said to have been fluent in ten, including Urdu, English, French, and Sanskrit) that would save her life.
On hearing of her husband’s death, she had two choices. Ritual self-sacrifice in the fire, as per tradition, or to flee to live and fight another day. Along with her infant daughter, Vellachi, she escaped to Virupakshi in Dindigul. She brought with her the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers and an advisor named Thandavarayan Pillai. She had barely escaped with her life; but she needed to act fast to regain her kingdom.
There was only one power in the South whom both the Nawab and the British were at odds with – Hyder Ali. She wrote a letter requesting his help – and then, decided to meet him in person. Face to face, Hyder was impressed over her resolution against the British and her command of Urdu. He gave her the men and arms she required.
She bided her time, until 1780. By then, the Nawab had renamed her kingdom to Hussain Nagar. With the Muruthu brothers, she staged an attack on the Nawab’s forces and steadily won the territories up to Sivaganga.
Legends surround her final assault on the capital. Up against her was a combined force of the Nawab and the British. It’s here that a Dalit woman named Kuyili comes into the picture.
As per the legend (for there is no historical evidence), Kuyili and some other women infiltrated the town without the security forces noticing them. It was a day where only women were allowed to enter the Rajeshwari temple – and they used it to gain access to the Sivaganga fort. Their target was the armoury, filled with arms and ammunition. Unarmed themselves, they needed a way to blow it up.
Kuyili is said to have doused her Saree in oil and set herself alight in the armoury. The result would make her among the first suicide bombers in history. Whether these are true or not, Velu’s forces subsequently swept the capital – making her among the few rulers to regain her kingdom from the British.
She ruled for ten years, and left the administration of her empire to the Muruthu brothers. Nearly 85 years before the Rani of Jhansi became the legendary warrior-queen of the Revolt of 1857, Velu Nachiar was the first Indian queen to resist the British colonizers. In memory of a warrior named Udaiyal, she set up an all-female regiment in her army.
Curiously, the Muruthu brothers came from no royal family – but won her trust with their valour in battle. The Rani died early, in 1796, but the Muruthu brothers continued to fight the British until they were hanged in 1801. That same year, they had released their own declaration of independence – calling upon all, Muslim, Hindu and Tamil, to resist the British.
Therefore, you Burmah’s Chittarahs, Ryahs, Sooderahs, and Mussulmans, all who wear whiskers, civil or military, in the field or elsewhere; and you Subedars, Jemadars, Havildars, Naigs, and Sepoys, in the service of the low wretches… let them… display their bravery…Therefore, all whose blood is not contaminated by the Europeans will begin to unite… To all living at Sheringham, the priests and the great people, Mahradu often prostrates himself at their feet… Grant me your blessing![As reprinted by J. Gourlay in 1813].
It’s worth noting that this called out to the soldiers of the British to revolt – a half century before the revolt of 1857. J. Gourlay likened this address to that given by the Caledonian general Calgacus to his troops, about to fight the Romans eighteen hundred years before. “Human nature, everywhere, is pretty much the same.”
It was a fiery document, and it roused patriotic fervour – even to take it off a wall would be considered treason according to it.
Today, Velu Nachiyar is remembered as a hero in Tamil Nadu – as is her supposed suicide bomber, Kuyili – in whose name, a memorial is being built in Sivaganga.
There is a greater effort now within the arts to remember India’s many warrior queens and princesses. The artist Tara Anand has made illustrations of each, including Velu. And the rapper-educationist “Professor Ali” has written a song on Velu titled ‘Our Queen‘.
To paraphrase the rapper, it’s time that the narrative of the Indian freedom struggle included a few ‘herstories’ with the histories.
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