For around 300 years, a large part of present-day Tamil Nadu was ruled by warrior chieftains known locally as ‘Palayakkarars’ (literally, heads of districts) or the Anglicized ‘Polygars’. Forgotten over time, these regional administrators were brought back into focus by two blockbuster Tamil movies of 1959 – Veerapandiya Kattabomman starring Tamil superstar Sivaji Ganesan and Sivagangai Seemai by noted Tamil poet Kannadasan.
These films turned the spotlight back on the Polygars and their two revolts, which erupted in 1799 and 1801 CE, under the leadership of Veerapandiya Kattabomman and the Maruthu brothers. History would call these the first and second Polygar wars.
Origins of the Polygars
But who were the Polygars and how did they rise to prominence? The roots of these regional chieftains go all the way back to the 14th century, to the beginnings of the Vijayanagara Empire in South India. Back then, vast swathes in the region came under this empire, after two brothers, Harihara and Bukka, established their kingdom in Vijayanagara, or present-day Hampi in Karnataka, in 1336 CE.
Their descendants ruled a mighty empire, which over time encompassed most of what are today the five southern states of India It was the most powerful among the Vijayanagara emperors, Sri Krishnadeva Raya (r. 1509 – 1529) who established a unique three-tier administrative system, thereby creating an administrative class called the ‘Palayakkarars’.
This simple but effective three-tier set-up consisted of the Emperor at Vijayanagara at the top of the pyramid; the Nayakas or Viceroys at Madurai, Thanjavur and Jinji forming the second tier; and the Palayakkarars or Polygars comprising the grassroots leaders in this hierarchy. This unique ‘three-tier monarchy’ allowed for an efficient revenue administration as well as created a mechanism to help raise an army, besides keeping generals, warriors , vassal rulers, courtiers and nobles gainfully occupied.
‘Palayam’ in Tamil and ‘Palamu’ in Telugu literally means an ‘army camp’. There were 72 Palayams (administrative divisions), each headed by a Polygar, who in turn reported to the Nayaka (Viceroy) of Madurai. This system continued till the death of Sri Ranga Raya III (1642-1681), the last titular ruler of the Vijayanagara Empire, who ruled from Chandragiri, after which the Polygars came directly under the Madurai Nayaka.
Under the Madurai Nayakas, the Polygars functioned as semi-independent principalities. They had a standing army, palaces, forts in certain cases, they collected taxes, had private estates, dispensed justice, maintained law and order, held durbars, maintained water bodies while expanding the land under cultivation, built and managed temples, and indulged in philanthropy in a big way. Over time, the Polygars acted as local rulers. The paraphernalia of royalty was maintained by retaining a quarter of the collected revenue, while the rest was deposited at Madurai.
The Polygar Wars
By the 18th century, while the northern Polygars fell under the Kingdom of Mysore, those in southern Tamil Nadu had to deal with the revenue demands of the British East India Company. The Nawab of Arcot had borrowed money from the East India Company and had given the Company the right to collect taxes. All the Polygars, except Veerapandiya Kattabomman (1760 - 1799 CE) of Panchalankurichi, submitted to the East India Company.
It is said that during a meeting between Company officials and the district collector of Ramanathapuram in Tamil Nadu, Kattabomman got into a heated argument, leading to a skirmish in which a British officer was killed. This sparked a conflict with the British, and Kattabomman retreated to his fort. The British forces put a heavy price on his head and attacked his fort at Panchalankurichi in present-day Thootukudi district of Tamil Nadu, and razed it to the ground.
For the next few months, Kattabomman retreated to the surrounding forests and carried out a guerrilla war against the British before being betrayed and captured.
After a brief trial, Kattabomman was sentenced to death and publicly hanged on 16th October 1799.
This brought the First Polygar War to an end. But the spirit of defiance lived on.
The following year, another revolt against the British broke out in Sivagangai, in present-day Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu. It was led by two brothers, Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu, popularly known as the Marudhu brothers. The brothers too defied the British attempt to collect taxes from Sivagangai and offered refuge to many of Kattabomman’s followers.
They launched a covert war against the British, with the help of Pazhassi Raja of nearby Wayanad in present-day Kerala. This came to be known as the Second Polygar War. The Marudhu brothers were also defeated and hanged in 1801. The British were wary of the Polygars and forced them to disband their armies, transforming them into mere rent-seeking zamindars or landlords.
However, the Polygars were back in popular Tamil culture, with two blockbuster movies released in 1959 – Veerapandiya Kattabomman and Sivagangai Seemai. The story of Kattabomman was immortalized by the fabulous South star Sivaji Ganesan in Veerapandiya Kattabomman, which premiered in London and later released in Tamil Nadu.
A great box-office success, the movie ran for 25 weeks and was even dubbed in Hindi as Amar Shaheed.
It also received a ‘Certificate of Merit ' at the Afro-Asian Film Festival in Cairo. It is claimed that Sivaji Ganesan had always dreamt of playing the role of Veerapandiya Kattabomman and this movie was a dream come true for him. The songs and the dialogue of this iconic movie continue to be popular even today.
Sivagangai Seemai was based on the revolt of the Marudhu brothers and it released due to the initiative of famous Tamil poet Kannadasan. While the movie did not do well commercially, it acquired cult status. Funnily, since all the actors sported large moustaches (‘meesai’ in Tamil), Tamil weekly Kumudham nicknamed the movie Sivagangai ‘Meesai’.
After the defeats of Kattabomman and the Marudhu brothers, the British began to implement the ‘Permanent Settlement’ in Tamil Nadu in 1802, turning the Polygars into zamindars. Free of their administrative responsibilities and obligations, the Polygars were now only interested in extracting money from the peasantry.
The implementation of an alien revenue system backed by exploitative interests spelled disaster for the region. Food production plummeted and a third of the population perished in an epidemic in the Madurai region. There were droughts and famines too, which caused untold hardship.
Those who had once resisted British rule now became their allies. The zamindars supported the pro-British Justice Party as a counter to the freedom movement. Finally, after India’s independence in 1947, the Congress party finally pushed for land reforms, leading to the abolition of the zamindari system, with the Madras Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, of 1948. This marked an end to the vestiges of the Polygars.
Some historians believe that the Polygar Wars were the first organized uprising against the British in India as they represent the first large-scale resistance to foreign rule. While that may be open to debate, the fact remains that these feudatory vassals, who fought tooth and nail to retain control over their territories, have a special place in history.
Cover Image: Polygars under the British, courtesy Rajesh Govindarajulu
Rajesh Govindarajulu is a noted writer and columnist who writes on the history and heritage of Western Tamil Nadu for some of India’s leading publications. He is also a former Member of the Governing Council for Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)