History books will never tell you who Velu Nachiyar was, or that she was the first ever queen from India to have bravely rebelled against the British forces. Neither will they mention Kuyili, who was the commander of Velu’s army, and gave the British East India Company a real run for their money!
With the exception of Tamil Nadu, both women are relatively unknown across the country despite their epic warfare tactics and historic win against the British in the eighteenth century, and we take this opportunity to share a little-known heroic saga of probably one of the first movement of active and violent resistance against the colonial oppressors.
The year was 1772, when Muthuvaduganatha Peria Oodaya Thevar, the second king of Sivaganga, was embroiled in a war with the Nawab of Arcot for refusing to yield to his demands.
Although the king could have easily managed to fight against the Nawab’s army had it comprised soldiers from the local population, what ended up being problematic and later, fatal, for the former, was the direct involvement of the British troops, who were fighting wars for the Nawab, through a strategic partnership.
Shortly after, the town of Sivaganga was attacked and ravaged by two British officers, who managed to get through to Thevar’s defence forces lined up in the neighbouring Kalayar Kovil forests and take the king down in the battle that ensued, along with many of his citizens.
Velu Nachiyar was Thevar’s wife and mother of their infant daughter, Vellachi, and their lives came to a standstill following Thevar’s unexpected martyrdom.
A woman of rare intellect who was way ahead of her time, Velu’s skill in learning new languages as well as her combating abilities were already well known, and it is believed that her bravery and impressive scholarly knowledge was what won Thevar’s heart before they entered into wedlock.
So, when Sivaganga fell, surrendering to the British was probably the best option to save one’s head sans honour, but Velu had other plans in her mind.
Along with her baby and few surviving courtiers, she escaped to the village of Virupakshi in Dindigul but not before vowing that one day she would come back to avenge the death of her husband and reclaim the reigns of her kingdom.
However, for a fugitive queen to singlehandedly fight against one of the strongest armies in the world with neither military support nor strategies was like entering the lion’s den with no arms or ammunition. As much as she’d been hurting, Velu didn’t want to be carried away with emotions, and so, she patiently waited for the right opportunity.
Following much planning and deliberation, Velu finally zeroed in on a person from the South as a possible ally, who already had a notorious past with both the Nawab and the British.
The man whom she had sought for help through a letter was was Hyder Ali, and following their meeting in person, Ali seemed to be quite impressed with the queen’s unwavering resolve to overthrow the British and offered to give her everything she needed—in terms of men and arms.
More than determination, legend has it that her innate command over languages (Urdu in this instance) was what won her a powerful ally as she was inching closer to retribution.
But it was only after an extended period of eight years that Velu finally decided to launch an attack on the Nawab’s forces, who had already renamed Sivaganga as Hussain Nagar in this while. Along with the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers, the courtiers who had initially helped Velu escape from the hands of British, she managed .
But no attack would ever come close to the final one led by Velu, which may have given the world the concept of suicide bombing. Yes, you read that right! It was none other than Kuyili, the commander of Velu’s army, who undertook a rare and selfless act of nerve and patriotism that would cost the British a humiliating defeat.
Now Kuyili, who hailed from a lower-caste background, had already earned a space in Velu’s inner circles as a confidante, as her father had been working as a spy for the queen but more so, because she had saved the queen’s life while risking her own on more than one occasion.
The final attack on the Nawab and the British troops was strategised by Kuyili, who by then had risen up to the ranks of commander-in-chief in queen’s military entourage.
Interestingly, she had devised a strategy that would involve women infiltrating through the watchdog eyes of the British and enter the Sivaganga fort. The plan was to bomb the entire armoury of the troops, which was located into the fort premises and then attack them at their most vulnerable.
But Velu and Kuyili only had one day to accomplish this hazardous mission. Coincidentally, the festival of Vijayadashami during which women from near and far parts of the country came to Sivaganga to visit the temple of Rajarajeswari Amman, was being celebrated that day.
Using this as their leverage point, Kuyili and few women were not only able to get inside the fort under disguise, with weapons hidden inside flower and fruit baskets, they were able to catch the British unawares, who were swarming the fort and launch an attack upon them.
As chaos began to ensue, Kuyili got to what she had originally planned to accomplish—sacrifice her life for the motherland that would go on to help Velu defeat the troops and reclaim her fort and sovereignty.
Upon her command, Kuyili’s companions poured ghee and oil that were meant for lighting the lamps, upon her. Following which, a valiant Kuyili walked into the armoury chambers with her head held high and set herself on fire.
It is quite possible that Kuyili’s act may have been one of the first instances of a suicide bombing in the history of mankind that ended up leaving not one speck of ammunition left for the British to retaliate.
Kuyili’s sacrifice eventually helped Velu attack both the Nawab and British troops and drive them away from her rightful kingdom, just as she had vowed all those years back. She ruled the kingdom for over a decade before bequeathing the royal commitments to the Maruthu brothers at her death in 1796.
Although Velu Nachiyar is still held in high regard in Tamil Nadu with the moniker ‘Veeramangai’ or brave woman bestowed upon her by the people, Kuyili’s name has somehow faded away from the public memory, except for a memorial in the Sivaganga district by the state government that was erected only recently.
Before the so-called first war of Indian Independence of 1857 took place or even before the legendary duo of Rani Laxmi Bai and Jhalkari Bai of Jhansi revolted against the British Raj, two women warriors from the South had the audacity to fight for their birthright and gave the colonialists an answer they’d never forget.
Though our history books fail to mention or credit these women for their extraordinary contribution to our freedom from a two-century-long colonial rule, the legacy of Velu Nachiyar and Kuyili will live on through local legends and word of mouth.
Lest we forget.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)