Saga of Fight for Independence!
Chapter 7: Maruthu Brothers
On October 24, 1801, two middle-aged brothers were publicly hanged to death at the Tirupputhur fort of southern Tamil Nadu. The fact that the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers were the rulers of Sivaganga kingdom did not invoke any ceremony during the execution. Every one of their fellow rebels, their commanders and servants, their sons and even their young grandsons were hanged alongside them, supposedly from palmyra trees around the fort.
With those mass executions, the British East India Company and its allies successfully put an end to a fierce rebellion by the Southern kingdoms of India – a revolt that is little remembered, and barely finds mention in history textbooks.
‘They were the first to issue a proclamation of independence from the colonial British rule from Trichy Thiruvarangam Temple, Tamil Nadu on 10 June 1801, 56 years before what is generally said to be the First War of Indian Independence which broke out mainly in Northern India in 1857.
The Marudhu Pandiyar brothers (Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu) ruled Sivagangai, Tamil Nadu, India, towards the end of the 18th century. They were the first to issue a proclamation of independence from the colonial British rule from Trichy Thiruvarangam Temple, Tamil Nadu on 10 June 1801, 56 years before what is generally said to be the First War of Indian Independence which broke out mainly in Northern India in 1857. Periya and Chinna Marudhu, sons of Mookiah Palaniappan, and Anandayer, also known as Ponnathal. The elder brother was born on 15 December 1748 in the small hamlet of Narikkudi near Aruppukkottai in then Ramnad state (now Virudhunagar district); the younger was born in Ramnad in 1753. Their father was a general in the Ramnad state military, and he moved his family to Virudhunagar from Narikkudi. The Marudhu brothers were trained in native martial arts at Surankottai, which traditionally served as a training centre for the Ramnad army.
Legend has it that the brothers even saved the king from a wild tiger, without the use of weapons, thereby gaining his favour. He then bestowed upon them the title of Pandiyar.
But their time in the palace was to soon come to an end. While the brothers were in their early 20s, the Nawab of Arcot, who claimed overlordship over the Southern kingdoms, sent officials from the East India Company to collect taxes from the rulers. When the king refused after long negotiations, he and the queen were killed at their palace one night.
The same night, the Maruthu brothers fled the kingdom along with the first queen Velunachiyar, and received sanctuary in the neighbouring kingdom of Virupakshi, ruled by Gopal Nayak. Here they stayed for seven years. This was where the brothers trained in warfare. But the queen was not one to accept defeat so easily. Through those seven years, she gathered allies among the Southern kingdoms. Through careful strategic placement of troops, Velunachiyar’s forces led by the Maruthu brothers took over Sivagangai again. Periya Maruthu was then appointed as commander of the army and Chinna Maruthu was the chief minister.
They were in close association with Veerapandiya Kattabomman of Panchalankurichi. Kattabomman held frequent consultations with Marudhus. After the execution of Kattabomman in 17 October 1799 at Kayattar, Chinna Marudhu gave asylum to Kattabomman’s brother Oomadurai (mute brother). But, the British took this reason to invade and attacked Sivaganga in 1801 with a powerful army. The Maruthu Pandiyars and their allies were quite successful and captured three districts from the British. British considered it as a serious threat to their future in India that they rushed additional troops from Britain to put down Maruthu Pandiyars’ rebellion. These forces surrounded Maruthu Pandiyars’ army at Kalayar Koil, and the latter scattered. The Maruthu Brothers and their top commanders escaped. They regrouped and fought the British and their allies at Viruppatchi, Dindigul and Cholapuram. While they won the battle at Viruppatchi, they lost the other two battles. The Marudhu Pandiyars, along with the war leader Sivanandi and many of their family members, were captured at Cholapuram. They were hanged in the fort of Tirupputhur, in what is now Sivaganga district, Tamil Nadu, on 24 October 1801.
In the proclamation of 1801, the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers said:
“The Europeans violating their faith have deceitfully made the Kingdom their own and considering the inhabitants as dogs, accordingly exercise authority over them. There existing no unity and friendship amongst you the above castes, who, not being aware of the duplicity of these Europeans – have not only inconsiderately calumniated each other, but have absolutely surrendered the Kingdom to them. In these countries now governed by these low wretches, the Inhabitants have become poor and the rice has become vellum (water).”
— South Indian Rebellion: The First War of Independence 1800-1801
According to Mari Servai, a Tamil writer who authored a booklet on the brothers, the Maruthu Pandiyars knew that by issuing such a proclamation, they were endangering their lives and their kingdom. But that did not bother them.
“With him [Maruthu Pandiyar] fell the last war of independence in Southern India. The road was open for the British for the conquest of Hindustan,” wrote Reverend Baauche, a French Catholic Priest in his book Marutha Pandiyan, The Fateful 18th Century.
As it happens, the brothers, who in their proclamation of independence exhorted the people to rise above caste considerations to fight a common enemy, have been thoroughly transformed into caste icons over the last three decades. Their memory has been wrested by the Thevar community, and the guru pooja dedicated to them is now an event to celebrate caste pride rather than their resistance against the British.
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Dr. Sindhu Prashanth