Caste and linguistic tensions simmered for a few days in Belagavi district in Karnataka recently, as Kannada activists went head-to-head with Marathi activists over the installation of a statue of a freedom fighter at a busy traffic intersection. The modern theatre of war was Peeranwadi village in Belagavi district, and the statue was that of 19th-century revolutionary, Sangolli Rayanna. The Kannada activists were intent on erecting the statue of the brave Kannada warrior a short distance from another statue, of the great Maratha warrior king, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
Sadly, activists stoking such controversy do not realise that national heroes stand taller than caste, communal, language and political considerations. For these brave souls, the nation always comes first. One of these revolutionaries and martyrs was Sangolli Rayanna, among the freedom fighters who opposed the expansionist policies of the British in India, and whose struggles were collectively a prelude to the Revolt of 1857.
Not widely known outside Karnataka, Rayanna is an iconic figure in the state. Literally a towering personality, well-built and 7 feet tall, he is remembered for his patriotism, loyalty to his queen, heroic exploits against the British and unwavering commitment to the nation.
Ironically, Rayanna and Shivaji, his ‘rival’ in the Peeranwadi skirmish, share many similarities – both were gifted military strategists, intrepid warriors and experts at guerilla warfare. But this national hero is something Shivaji wasn’t; he is an icon for pregnant women and young mothers.
Rayanna's tomb in Nandagad, a village 40 km from the Belagavi city, has emerged as a pilgrimage centre of sorts and boasts a unique tradition – pregnant women throng the site to pray for ‘brave sons’. A giant banyan tree shelters his tomb and is festooned with coconut offerings and replicas of cradles tied by women devotees from all walks of life.
Born on 15th August 1796, in Sangolli village in Belagavi district, which was part of the Kittur principality, Rayanna hailed from the shepherd community (Kuruba Gowda). His family had a fighting tradition and was loyal to the Desais of Kittur. According to folklore, he was so fearless that this was enough to send shivers down the spine of rivals! Rayanna rose to the rank of ‘Shetsanadi’ (Commander-in-Chief) of the Kittur armed forces at a time when Rani Chennamma rebelled against British attempt to usurp the principality.
Kittur, a small town 30 km from Dharwad in Karnataka, was the headquarters of a Desgaddi (chieftaincy) ruled by the Desai family. They were feudatories of the Maratha Empire and later fell to the British and became a British protectorate. Hostilities began brewing when the ruler of Kittur, Mallasarja Desai, died without an heir in 1824. Since his son had predeceased him, his wife, Chennamma adopted a boy.
However, the British refused to recognise the adopted son as the legal heir to the principality and, under their draconian Doctrine of Lapse, attempted to annex Kittur. The dowager queen, Chennamma, refused to obey their orders, which led to the First Battle of Kittur in October 1824. After putting up fierce resistance and holding off the British for two months, Chennamma was defeated and taken captive in December 1824.
Rayanna along with another warrior Amtur Balappa led the Kittur forces against the British in these two battles. It is said that Rayanna was an expert trainer and the British had to put up a tough fight by engaging in the battlefield - 20,000 armed men against 12,000 soldiers of the Kittur army. After Kittur fell to the British, partly due to the treachery of some of the black sheep in his own regiment, Rayanna was arrested and was later released.
Despite the formal defeat of the Kittur forces and incarceration of Rani Chennamma in Bailahongal prison, Rayanna continued his fight against the British. He began to mobilise support in the name of the queen and pledged to release her from prison and install Shivalingappa, her adopted son, as the ruler of Kittur.
Rayanna enjoyed the overwhelming support of the people of Kittur. The outrageous taxes levied on them by the British had ruined the lives of the common folk, especially the peasants, and this considerably helped Rayanna’s cause. He was also joined by Siddi tribal warriors like Gajaveera, who became his close aide and confidant.
He also leveraged the expertise and indigenous knowledge of the local youth he had recruited and inspired and kept up his offensive against the British. He vandalised government offices and looted their treasuries. Rayanna also targeted local landlords and wealthy Indians, who had supported the British to exploit the poor. He also destroyed land and revenue records, forcing the British to incur heavy revenue losses. In addition, he extracted huge sums from corrupt bureaucrats and unpopular landlords.
These feats earned Rayanna the love and support of the common people, who greatly resented being victims of colonial rule. This sentiment is beautifully captured in folk songs, which vividly narrate Rayanna’s exploits. One ballad describes his prowess when he robbed and set fire to a government office at Sampagavi, while another speaks of Rayanna urging the ruler of Surapura to throw in his lot with him.
Desperate to capture Rayanna, the British and the local landlords who supported them hatched a cunning plan to nab the revered warrior through trickery and betrayal. They convinced his uncle, Lakshmana, to help them corner him. Rayanna was nabbed while bathing in a stream near Dori Benachi. Before entering the stream, Rayanna had left his sword with his uncle and when he asked his uncle to hand it to him after his bath, Lakshmana instead gave it to British soldiers waiting nearby. An unarmed Rayanna was quickly overpowered and arrested. He was later hanged from a banyan tree on the outskirts of Nandagad village. The campaign unleashed by the fearless and mighty warrior thus came to an end in 1831.
190 years on, the banyan tree is still standing, at once a reminder of the brutality of the British and a stoic marker of a soldier and a loyalist who chose his country over all else. All around the tree are open fields and a small shrine as a mark of reverence to Rayanna.
His tomb is close to the village and is a memorial maintained by the Karnataka government. Unlike other tombs, Rayanna’s grave is eight feet long as he is believed to have been 7 feet tall. A statue of the man and an Ashokan pillar has also been raised in the premises.
A Kannada film on Rayanna, titled Kraanthiveera Sangolli Raayanna (Legendary Warrior, Sangolli Rayanna), was released in 2012 and, to honour his memory, the Karnataka government has renamed Bengaluru City Railway Junction ‘Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna Station’.
But perhaps the most evocative memorial to this great warrior is an oral tradition that has immortalised his story. There is an entire series of folk songs and ballads that eulogise Rayanna’s brave deeds, patriotism and loyalty to Rani Chennamma and the Kittur Kingdom. These ballads, popularly known as Gee Gee Pada, are sung in homes and on festive occasions even today.
Oddly, and very aptly, Rayanna is the only freedom fighter in the entire nation whose date of birth (August 15) and date of martyrdom (January 26) coincide with the country’s Independence Day and Republic Day, respectively.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dinesh Nayak is an independent journalist and author based in Hubballi, Karnataka.