Rani Veeramangai Velu Nachiyar was the queen of the Tamil kingdom of Shivagangai – today found in the Madurai Division of Tamil Nadu – from 1769 to 1790 CE, barring an 8-year gap from 1772 to 1780. The Rani is one of the few rulers of princely states to have successfully defeated the British to regain her kingdom and go on to rule it until her death, over a decade later.
She was also the first female ruler of India to take up arms against the British.
Rani Velu Nachiyar was born in 1730 CE, the only child to Mannar (King) Chellamuthu Sethupathy and to Rani Sakandhimuthal of the Ramnad Kingdom. Perhaps it was because there was no male heir, or perhaps it was because she showed an aptitude for it, but the royal family brought up the young Princess Velu Nachiyar like a male child would have been, at the time.
She was well trained in the use of weapons and also in martial arts like silambam, use of the valari, varmakalai, and fighting off horse back. She was also a gifted archer.
The Royal couple had also engaged teachers for languages such as French, English, and Urdu. Also, the young Princess had spent countless hours studying the rules of war. She was a scholar in many languages and had been bred to rule. She married the Mannar of Sivagangai, Muthuvaduganathar, at the age of sixteen. All was well, and they were to remain undisturbed for over 2 decades before the big bad imperial wolves would come knocking on their door.
In the year 1772, the English invaded her kingdom and Rani Velu Nachiyar soon received the news that her husband Raja Muthuvaduganathar and her daughter young Princess Gowri Nachiyar had been killed in war for Kalaiyar Koil Palace – which the British troops stormed under the command of Lt. Col. Bonjour who had teamed up with the traitorous Nawab of Arcot.
Thandavarayan Pillai and the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers sustained injuries during the attack. They promised the Rani that they would recapture the kingdom and “punish” the English, and the Nawab of Arcot, who had been placed on the throne by the British.
Thandavarayan Pillai, the military head as well as prime minister, is said to have been an incredibly strong and distinguished person, and history remembers him as the epitome of the loyalist – he is also among the most powerful administer in the history of the Tamils.
Thandavarayan Pillai served as the chief of the military under three different rulers of Sivagangai – King Sasivarna Periya Oodaya Thevar (1730–1750), Muthuvaduganatha Periya Udaya Thevar (1750–1772), and Rani Velu Nachiyar, for whom he also performed the duties of prime minister. Essentially, he held the two most important and critical administrative functions in the state for around 60 years.
Thandavarayan Pillai was the son of Kathavaraya Pillai, who was an accountant and administrator in Sivagangai. Kathavarya Pillai had rendered his services with loyalty from the time he took office, so much so that Raja Oodaya Thevar bestowed upon his family the hereditary title of management.
Anyway, Thandavarayan Pillai advised Rani Velu Nachiyar just as ably as he and his father had advised previous rulers. It was based on his advise that the Rani decided to keep shifting her bases of operations so as to keep the British in a constant state of doubt.
Meanwhile, Thandavarayan Pillai wrote to Sultan Hyder Ali on behalf of the Rani, with a request that he provide 5000 infantry and 5000 cavalry to help her defeat the British army, but he was an old man and passed away in his sleep around this time.
The Rani went through with the meeting anyway, accompanied by Thandavarayan Pillai’s son, in Mysore. It helped that she and Haider Ali were able to converse in fluent Urdu, swapping stories about their problems with the East India Company. Hyder Ali was very impressed with her resolve and promised to help her with her conflict – and provided the necessary military assistance.
Haider Ali deputed Syed Karki of Dindigul Fort to Rani Velu Nachiyar, and immediately released 5000 infantry and 5000 cavalry under them. Her now-bolstered troops advanced on Sivagangai under the leadership of the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers.
In 1780, she struck back with the first recorded “suicide bombing” in history. Velu Nachiyar had employed her intelligence gathering agents to discover where the British stored their ammunition. One of her followers, Kuyili, doused herself in oil, set herself alight, and walked into the storehouse. She also employed another agent, her adopted daughter Udaiyaal, to detonate a british arsenal, blowing herself up along with the barracks. Velu Nachiyar formed a woman’s army she named “udaiyaal” in honour of her adopted daughter.
The Nawab of Arcot plotted vigorously and placed many obstacles to the advancement of the Rani’s troops – sinking so low as to resort to repeated sabotage. The Rani and her forces overcame all the hurdles as they marched on like a colossus and entered Sivagangai.
The Nawab of Arcot was defeated dramatically and taken captive – eventually traded in exchange that the Rani’s kingdom be left alone by the British. She recaptured Sivagangai and was again crowned queen – with the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers and Syed Karki both swearing undying love for and loyalty to her.
Rani Velu Nachiyar was loved by all who met her. Where many rulers commanded loyalty with their wealth or by invoking divine will, she invoked nothing more than the admiration and adulation of all who ever met her, with her common sense approach and unquestionable bravery.
She was the first female ruler to revolt against the British empire, take them on, and win – and she continued to win for over a decade after regaining her kingdom.
Sadly, upon her death, the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers were captured by the British and the Kingdom of Sivagangai became the district of Sivagangai, under the control of the British East India Company.