He is one of the earliest opponents of the British rule in South India. He was involved in a vendetta with the Nawab of Arcot who was supported by the British. Thevar's prominent exploits were his confrontations with Marudhanayagam, who later rebelled against the British in the late 1750s and early 1760s.
Nelkatumseval was the headquarters of Puli Thevar, the first chieftain in Tamil Nadu to resist the British.
The author of the Thirunelveli District Gazetteer, H.R. Pate, observes as follows:
Nelkatumseval is chiefly memorable as having been in the eighteenth Century stronghold of the redoubtable Puli Thevar, who figured for many years as the leader of the Marava Confederacy against the troops of the Nawab and the Company. He had a shrewd insight into the political situation of the time and was a veritable thorn against the side of the Nawab's agents.
Pulithevar remains one of the illustrious figures in the chequered history of palayakarars. The vivacity of his character gave him an ascendancy over the western palayakarars, while his determined resistance to the Nawab's overlordship made him a potential enemy of the Wallajahs. He was the principal architect of the coalition of the palayakkars organised against the Nawab. The Nawab acknowledged his victory by presenting him with a gold plate and sword.
Pulithevar is regarded as the first ruler in Indian history, who sowed the seed, by his gallant resistance, to expel foreigners from his native land. His services to the nation are honoured; the government of Tamil Nadu has erected a memorial for him in Nelkatumseval where there are the remnants of his palace
Puli Thevan War
There were a number of revolts by local powers in the South, the first being as early as 1757. When Mohammed Ali, the Nawab of the Carnatic, supported by the Company, attempted to extend his control over the "Madurai" and "Thirunelveli" districts, the poligars rebelled. The western poligars, led by Puli Thevar of Nelkatumseval, forged individual alliances and then a grand alliance as they revolted against Mohammed Ali. Of necessity, Ali had to seek assistance from John Company, and, though battles were won and lost, the revolt was put down in 1761 by Yusuf Khan, who had been nominated the Governor of "Madurai" and "Thirunelveli" in 1758 by the British, despite Nawab Mohammed Ali's objections.
Western confederacy by Nel Kattum Sevval
"Nel kattum sevval" literally translates to "Rice tribute paying place", but after its' ruler Puli Thevan's successful (initially) attempts at defying Mohammed Ali, the name changed to nel kattan sevval ("place which doesn't pay rice tribute"). These palayams declared their independence in 1757. Yusuf Khan, or Marudhanayagam, was sent by the British to bring the poligars under control and make them pay kisthi. Earlier campaigns in 1755 by Mahfuz Khan were unsuccessful in subduing the poligars' partly because of their sticking to each other and partly because British troops had to be withdrawn to raise the French siege of Madras (by Lally). Yusuf Khan quickly intimidated the eastern poligars and moved against Pooli Thevan. A series of sieges of Pooli Thevan's forts followed and eventually the Nerkattansevval fort was razed by British artillery. Puli Thevan was captured and escaped/encountered on the way to incarceration. No verifiable records are found about him after his capture/escape. The rise of the western Poligars of south Tamil Nadu is the first war of Indian Independence and not the 1857 sepoy uprising, as written by Savarkar.
Puli Thevar's struggle-quoted From Caldwell's History of Tinnevelly
See also: Robert_Caldwell
In 1736, Muhammad Ali, Nawab of Arcot annexed the kingdom of Madura in Western Tamil Nadu, but the Polygars or Lords of Madura Kingdom were in no mood to compromise with Nawab. The Polygars refused to pay taxes and pay homage to Nawab.
Meanwhile, Nawab =was dragged into the Carnatic Wars between the French and British which lasted from 1743 to 1763. Their zone of struggle was largely in and near the kingdom of Arcot.
Nawab allied with the British and soon incurred debts with British because of his lavish lifestyle. This gave the British opportunity to interfere in his domestic affairs.
As mentioned before, Polygars viewed Nawab as a usurper who deposed the rightful dynasty of Madura Kingdom. Since Polygars had private armies-with infantry, cavalry, artillery & elephants along with strong forts-often on mountain tops and concealed by forests--they could defy Nawab.
There were 77 Polygars who ruled as they willed in their respective domains and fought one another who posed a real threat to their independence if Nawab were to make a serious effort to subjugate them.
Long before the Carnatic Wars were over, British got their chance to meddle in affairs of Arcot.
In 1755, Nawab unwisely requested British help to bring the turbulent Polygars into control.
British exploited this chance and sent a large army under Colonel Heron to subjugate the country that lay between Trichinopoly and Cape Comorin. Heron’s army behaved like bandits and even looted shrines-an act that made sure that people hated them well.
Heron marched through Polygar country, where he fought a number of Polygars into submission. The strongest Polygar was the Kattabomman of Panjalakurichi. He too surrendered and as he did not pay the full sum demanded by the British as tribute, he surrendered some of his close male relatives as hostages.
This part of the story is puzzling indeed. Kattabomman could have easily paid the sum demanded by British, but he chose to give relatives as surety. But soon, Heron asked Kattabomman to pay the demanded sum and recover his hostages as English were in dire shortage of cash. He calculated that since British army would soon march out of country, why waste money? Let them have hostages-It does not cost himself a rupee-this was his line of thought.
But this crooked line of thought would in future end up as a disaster for Polygars in fututure.
Soon British troops under Heron decided to march out of Polygar country. They could not collect tributes as they calculated and as they marched home, Heron ordered a temporary diversion. British army must bring a minor Polygar who was a turbulent figure-His name is Puli Thevar.
Puli Thevar was the hereditary title of Polygar of Nelkattumseval, now in Sankarannainarkovil Taluk of Tinnevelly District. He possessed only a small estate, but his influence among Western Polygars were considerable-due to the fame of his abilities. That made him indeed a force to be reckoned with.
First Siege of Nelkattumseval, 1755
As soon as Thevar refused the British demand for repayment, they besieged Nelkattumseval but Thevar and his troops resisted. Thevar had a spy in the British camp, the interpreter of Colonel Heron, who relayed the information that the British were short on supplies and also did not have heavy artillery. Thevar was delighted at this news and decided to hold on further.
Heron ordered a massive bombardment of Thevar’s fort, but the British made little progress against the thick stone walls of the fort. Heron was forced to acknowledge that he could not storm the fort, so he asked that a paltry sum of 20,000 rupees be paid, to which Thevar replied-“My country doesn't have that much income.......Besides I know the value of money well and don't expect me to burn even a single rupee......”
The heroic defense of Nelkattumseval by Thevar’s small force along with his efficient spy reports and good diplomacy made sure that British army made no progress in Thevar’s country. Also with his army on the brink of mutiny due to lack of food and pay, Herron retreated at full throttle.
Soon much of Polygar country was in full revolt and many Polygars confederated into a single force led by Puli Thevar. From then on, an epic struggle of Polygars to resist British sponsored Muslim encroachment would last up to 1763.
Once Heron retreated, Thevar let loose his Maravas to seize the whole countryside. Maravas are prominent among the Tamil military caste; their ferocity and predatory warfare made them ideal to fight the British. Thevar himself was a Marava and the majority of soldiers in the Polygar armies were of Marava stock. They looted and ambushed British units, looted and burnt those villages who supported British and overran the whole countryside.
Battle & Siege of Kalakadu, 1755
Puli Thevar also won over three Pathan generals of Nawab named Mudemiah, Mian and Nabi Khan. Mudemiah was a good negotiator so Thevar sent him to Travancore to win Marthanda Varma, Raja of Travancore [whose areas were captured by Heron] to support the Polygar confederacy. Main aim was to expel Mahfuz Khan, agent of Nawab in Polygar country.
Mudemiah returned to Tamil country with a force of 4000 men given to him by Marthanda Varma. Puli Thevar joined Mudemiah with his armies to fight Mahfuz Khan’s armies Mahfuz Khan had a larger army than Thevar, as he had received reinforcements from Nawab and British, but he had scattered his forces and Thevar’s troops, better armed, swiftly defeated these units before they could coalesce into a large formation.
These early swift victories in the open field encouraged Thevar to besiege the fort of Kalakadu. Mahfuz Khan sent a large cavalry force to help the garrison thus besieged. At this critical moment, the Travancore troops retreated as they had to handle a rebellion at home. With a large chunk of his men lost, Thevar knew well that the war was lost so he retreated.
Second Siege of Nelkattumseval, 1755-1756
Thevar knew well that he stood no chance if his small army engaged the huge cavalry force of Mahfuz Khan so he assembled all available troops and guns into his fort of Nelkattumseval. Mahfuz Khan besieged this fort for the second time that year and sent his horsemen in pursuit of Thevar’s Marava troops who had plundered and wreaked havoc in territories held by Arcot troops. The Maravas were chased off and Arcot troops re-established control but Thevar’s troops held the Nelkattumseval fort. Mahfuz Khan had trapped Thevar and driven away the predatory Maravas.
Second Battle of Kalakadu, 1755
Thevar instructed Mudemiah to engage Travancore once more into a war with Arcot troops. This battle ended in a clear victory for Travancore force, but Mahfuz Khan went ahead with the siege, as he could not afford to let Thevar escape.
Retreat of Mahfuz Khan, 1756
Mahfuz Khan’s army unit ran short of supplies, and he requested more from the British, escorted by troops. Thevar got scent of this program and so he sent a band of his crack troops to attack and loot this British convoy and thereby worsen Mahfuz Khan’s misery. Thevar's success gave a rude shock to Mahfuz’s belief that Thevar was running out of options; he realized that he must rush back to his base at Tirunelveli in order to meet payroll and supply his troops. Thevar, equally surprised by his success, planned a large scale offensive on the enemy-Arcot-British troops.
Thevar used his influence among Western Polygars to become leader of the Polygar council. His power of persuasion was so great that even the strongest Polygars obeyed him and sent troops whenever he demanded. He then turned his attention to the Eastern Polygars, led by Kattabomman. Thevar proposed that he and Kattabomman form a union to fight the enemy.
Kattabomman’s earlier decision to not ransom his hostages wrecked the whole enterprise. He still had hostages with Nawab and so although he wanted to join Thevar, he must remain neutral or lose his loved ones held captive by the Nawab. However, Madura Polygars joined Thevar and promised troops in event of war; Thevar could cajole Polygars of Nattam to join him.
The confederacy's aim was to seize the ancient and strategic city of Madura, as that would be a symbolic restoration of pre-1736 order in addition to enabling them to oust the Anglo-Muslim garrisons and seize control the country south up to Cape Comorin. Their objective was to restore native rule in what was once the kingdom of Madura.
British soon learnt of this preparation for war and they were alarmed by the sheer scale of ambitions of Thevar. They blamed Mahfuz’s incompetency for this dangerous situation and resolved to intervene directly. They despatched 1000 sepoys under Yusuf Khan and also put Mafuz's armies under Yusuf Khan’s orders.
Siege of Srivilliputtur, 1756
Puli Thevar had already led the confederate army which he had assembled at Nelkattumseval towards Madura. As they marched, they faced the fort of Srivilliputtur, which they must seize if the wished to march on to Madura.
This fort and neighbourhood was under Abdul Rahim and he and his troops were confident that they could rout Thevar’s host. At first they engaged with Thevar’s men in an open battle outside the fort, but Thevar cleverly had the over-confident Arcot army surrounded. The Arcot troops fought hard to break out of this encirclement and fled to the fort. They were so demoralised by their catastrophic engagement that soon most of the Arcot troops either joined Thevar’s army or fled. With his troops lost, Abdul Rahim also fled the scene. This great victory prompted even the reluctant Polygars jumped into Thevar’s bandwagon. Thevar's overconfidence prompted a fatal change of plans.
The original plan was to march from Nelkattumseval to Madura via Srivilliputtur. With Srivilliputtur in their hands, Madura lay open to capture. Now several Polygars argued that the confederate army must march south and seize Tirunelveli and then move north towards Madura. Their forces were now strong enough that they were confident of victory so Thevar also agreed to this change of plan.
At this time, Madura was only lightly held by Arcot troops. The bulk of the Arcot army, along with Mahfuz Khan, was at Tirunelveli. If the confederates had moved north and seized Madura, Mahfuz Khan would have been trapped in Polygar country and initiative would have passed permanently into Thevar's hands. Kattabomman’s treachery wrecked the whole plan. Mahfuz Khan persuaded Kattabomman to support him in return for large land grants and several concessions. As Kattabomman led the Eastern Polygars, war that began as a war of independence now became a civil war.
Battle of Tirunelveli, 1756
Thevar did not lose heart even then. Both sides were evenly matched with 20,000 men apiece, but Mahfuz Khan had superiority in cavalry. On 21 March of 1756, some 40,000 men clashed. The battle was fierce and bloody. Even after long onslaughts, the confederates could not break through enemy formations and once the opposition began their counter attack, the exhausted confederate troops broke up and retreated. The confederate army disintegrated and Thevar and his troops marched back to Nelkattumseval.
If Kattabomman had not supported Mahfuz, most of Tamil country would have been freed from the control of Arcot Nawab and British. A golden chance was lost-but certainly not due to Thevar. After all, it was he who took Polygars to the brink of a decisive success.
After this catastrophe, Puli Thevar noticed a drop of morale among his fellow Polygars. He himself evaluated the situation and decided on a double-faced policy. Thevar sent out affirmations of loyalty to the Nawab and the British and even met the Tirtarappa Mudali, a fellow Tamil belonging to theVellala caste and Nawab’s new viceroy in Madura and Thevar paid him a large sum as tribute. Meanwhile, he loosed his Maravas once more to loot and devastate enemy held territories once more. When Arcot sepoys tried to control them, they looted Arcot camps as Arcot troops watched helpless. Thevar was determined that the British and the Nawab will know no peace.
The military commandant, Yusuf Khan, recognized Thevar’s tricks and ordered him back to Nelkattumseval. Thevar instead met Nabi Khan and Kattabomman, whose treachery had undermined his earlier effort to liberate Tamil Nadu. Thevar also enlisted Mian in this second confederacy and rallied the Polygars who had lost their nerve after the Battle of Tirunelveli. Thevar thus collected and assembled a force of 10,000 men south of Madura and proceeded eastwards into a forest that was held by Kattabomman, which stretched to the outskirts of Tinnevelly.
Capture of Tirunelveli, 1756
Thevar took this torturous route instead of the highway to Tinnevelly to conceal his troop movement and surprise the enemy, basing his plan on a spy's report that Mudali had camped his bulk of force some 20 miles away where he anticipated Thevar’s attack. At the edge of the forest, they could see Tinnevelly but chose to wait till night to begin their invasion. By dawn they had infiltrated into the town in several bands through unguarded points.
Siege of Palamkotta, 1756
Thevar seized Tirunelveli by surprise and camped there for two days. Mudali, who heard that he had been outwitted, rushed back but instead of attacking Tirunelvi, assembled his troops at Palamkotta fort. Thevar had no artillery so ordered his cavalry to encircle the fort and burn a large area around the fort to deprive them of supplies. His troops could not scale the fort walls because of gun-fire by Mudali’s troops; their only option is to wait and starve the enemy. Thevar learnt that Yusuf Khan was on the march in order to relieve the fort so he ended the siege and rushed with all his forces to meet Yusuf Khan.
Battle of Gangai Konda 
The armies met at Gangai Konda, north of Tirunelveli. Thevar’s troops attacked from all sides but suffered huge losses as Yusuf Khan’s artillery took its toll on Thevar’s ranks. Thevar realised that the battle was lost and ordered a retreat. Thevar’s army split into three; the forces of Polygars under Thevar fled into the jungle, Mian with his horsemen went to Madura and Nabi Khan retreated towards Srivilliputtur. As they had no artillery to breach the walls, they attempted to climb the walls but failed, so he and his men left Srivilliputtur.
Puli Thevar had not lost hope. He opened talks with agents of Mysore at Dindigul and offered them 5 lakh rupees in exchange for military help. He also tried to persuade the corrupt officers of Mahfuz Khan to give up Cholavandan, a region through which the only road between Dindigal and Madura passed through a mountain defile. In order to tempt Mahfuz Khan to join his side, Thevar also tempted him with promise of hig office in Mysore.
Thevar’s plan was to oust both Nawab of Arcot and the British from the kingdom of Madura and to restore a member of the ruling dynasty of Madura as the king. The English soon got reports of this effort for a third confederacy and despatched a large force under Yusuf Khan and Mudali; a third of this force was posted at Tirunelveli and another third was assembled in the fort of Palamkotta.
As the English prepared for war, Thevar persuaded Mian and Nabi Khan to join with their cavalry troops at Nelkettumseval. Once Yusuf Khan found that Mian and Nabi Khan were on their way to join with Thevar’s troops, he marched into Srivilliputtur. Yusuf’s plan was a show of might so as to dissuade other Polygars from joining hands with Thevar.
Mudali tried to negotiate a peace agreement, sending his agent Alagappa to Thevar’s camp. Mudali offered large land grants if Thevar were to join Nawab’s side but Thevar was too shrewd to fall for this trick. Instead of refusing outright, he sent his agent along with Alagappa into Yusuf Khan’s camp along with a force of 300 Marava guards for negotiations.
Thevar sent his main army to rendezvous with Mian and Nabi Khan and sent another force to ravage the enemy territories west of Tirunelveli, intending to cause the negotiations to fail. The Nawab’s people themselves withdrew from the talks. As a man driven by a great vision, he had no interest in conceding for paltry gains.
Soon Thevar got what he wanted-Yusuf Khan put to death some of Thevar's Maravas of Thevar, alleging that they had stolen horses and oxen from his camp. Immediately, Thevar’s agent and Marava guards fled to Thevar’s castle and reported this event. Thevar declared that he could in no way tolerate such a cruelty on his own people.
Mahfuz Khan himself was an unscrupulous character and soon thought that his future depended on the good will of Thevar, so he came to Nelkettumseval with his troops by end of 1756. Several of Nawab’s officers in Madura revolted and took control of Madura but as Mahfuz Khan was reluctant to engage in a war, they got no support and were chased away by English troops led by Calliaud. Calliaud and English troops made the mistake of leaving, as Thevar had completed his preparations for a third attempt to liberate Western Tamil country.
Second Capture of Tirunelveli, 1756
In early 1757, Thevar along with Mahfuz Khan and supported by many Polygars marched towards Tirunelveli for the third time at the head of an army of 10,000 men. They camped near Tirunelveli but did not attempt to capture the town. Thevar remembered well what would happen if a largely primitive force engaged with the well-equipped army which held Tirunelveli.
Instead, in an effort to seize the country-side, Thevar sent messages to Mudalis, or tax collectors, that from now on he was in charge and that they must pay tax to him.
Talks were opened with the Raja of Travancore to persuade him to support the confederacy in exchange for which Thevar promised him those territories on which Raja of Travancore coveted.
Soon the troops that held Tirunelveli marched to Madura and Mahfuz Khan marched into the abandoned town. Mahfuz was so intoxicated by this success-in reality only luck-that he on his own, ordered his men to assault the nearby fort of Palamkotta; his men suffered staggering losses. The commandant of Palayamkotta enticed Kattabomman, the rank opportunist to support him in exchange for lucrative land grants.
Kattabomman’s troops routed Mahfuz’s troops who camped some distance away from the fort. After this Kattabomman retreated but Yusuf Khan came to the scene. Mahfuz Khan fled the scene to Nelkettumseval to join Thevar, who had left much earlier as he understood that plans were not working as he had envisaged.
Thevar aided Mahfuz Khan’s repeated but failed to seize Palamkotta. Thevar’s troops helped Mahfuz’s men to capture Kalakadu fort and deeded it to Raja of Travancore in an attempt to win him into side of confederacy.
Yusuf Khan threw a spanner into the confederacy’s plans; originally named Marudanayagam Pillay, a Hindu Tamil of Vellala caste who converted to Islam, he was one of the most brilliant generals of 18th century, comparable to Baji Rao. Yusuf Khan was a ruthless opportunist who felt no loyalty to any one except himself.
Yusuf Khan’s troops marched towards rebel country in south-west Tamil Nadu. He seized Kalakadu and captured the forts of Papankulam, Alvarkurichi, Brahmadesam and Tarankurichi; the first three were held by Mahfuz and the last by Polygar of Wadagiri, ally of Puli Thevar and most powerful of Western Polygars.
In the summer of 1758, Puli Thevar, for the fourth time, was ready to clash with the English and Nawab. Puli Thevar was supported by Polygars of Wadagiri, Kotaltava, Naduvakurichi and Sorandai. Ettaiyapuram Polygar also joined Thevar’s enterprise and soon confederates persuaded the Polygar of Settur to join them.
Stand At Settur & Aftermath, 1759
Puli Thevar camped his troops inside the Settur fort, only 15 miles from Srivilliputtur and their joint force ravaged the enemy-held surrounding zone. Yusuf Khan besieged the Settur fort, whose Polygar lost nerve and expelled Thevar’s troops, paid a fine and surrendered.
Thevar’s troops re-grouped and they seized all enemy outposts from Nelkettumseval to Tirunelveli and massacred the garrisons they overran. This great success elated Thevar and his confederates and they attacked and captured the Uttumalai fort held by a pro-English Polygar and prepared to capture Palamkotta and Tirunelveli.
The arrival of Yusuf Khan’s troops at Srivilliputtur checked their progress. Instead of an open fight, Thevar wisely chose to strengthen the chain of posts he had captured. He also sent troops to Nelkettumseval to prepare for defence and spread out his troops around Yusuf’s army in order to harass Yusuf’s troops.
Yusuf was far stronger and soon he recaptured all the outposts seized by Thevar and then he marched and destroyed much of Polygar country by fire and sword. But even so his attempt to reduce Polygars went only slowly as Polygars retreated into their strong impregnable forts. Soon Yusuf was forced to retreat because of orders from British authorities.
In 1759, Thevar took revenge; he marched towards Palamkotta and the garrison troops came out and fought Thevar’s men. Thevar devastated his enemy’s force in open field, but retired-as he knew that it would be nearly impossible to storm a well-defended fort. The incident was an embarrassment and shock to the English.
Thevar’s troops overran the countryside from Nattam to Travacore also. Enemy garrisons were safe only in their forts. They once more deputized Yusuf Khan to crush Puli Thevar. Thevar was worried that Mahfuz Khan might switch sides-he was a rank opportunist-and so kept him under close watch.
Second Struggle with Yusuf Khan
The pro-British Kattabomman died and the new Kattabomman loathed them. He, as the leader of Eastern Polygars, pledged support to Puli Thevar, the undisputed leader of Western Polygars. This union was aimed to meet the threat of Yusuf Khan.
Yusuf Khan could have been driven back easily if he had to face so mighty a confederacy alone. Some Polygars were eager to collaborate with enemy. Yusuf came into Polygar country with only 1000 men but soon his army grew to 4000 with support from these renegades. Even so he was not ready. He waited for reinforcements to come. His strategy, till he received reinforcements, was to prevent the armies of Puli Thevar and Kattabomman from joining. He sent a heavily armed force into Ettaiyapuram with this task-they were to fight and block Eastern Polygars’ troops so that he could deal with Puli Thevar and men separately.
Once fully prepared, Yusuf Khan marched on. His force captured the strategic fort of Kollarpetti and reached Tirunelveli. Mahfuz Khan requested a pardon from Yusuf Khan and a jagir for himself if he left Thevar’s camp. Yusuf Khan assured him that his demands would be met.
Puli Thevar surprised an enemy army at Sorandai and massacred and looted it. Yusuf immediately sent another force to retaliate, but Thevar had left by that time. Travancore troops began incursions into lands between Cape Comorin and Kalakadu. The Maravas of Puli Thevar and his allies ravaged all of Tamil country south of Tirunelveli and Yusuf who had to deal with three enemies, appeared in dire straits.
An idiotic action by the Polygar of Wadagiri turned the tables. He had let his Maravas repeatedly plunder the territories of the Travancore Raja who was his neighbour too. The Raja of Travancore, angry at this policy, began to have second thoughts. Yusuf Khan exploited this by opening talks with the Raja of Travancore. This talk was to have fatal consequences. The Raja of Travancore agreed to side with Yusuf, if he left the Polygar confederacy. The Raja sent a large force of musketeers to join with Yusuf’s troops-altogether 20,000 men marched towards the fort of Wadagiri, and Polygar had to escape as he could not withstand them for more than a day.
The Polygar of Wadagiri took refuge with Puli Thevar at Nelkattumseval. Puli Thevar himself was unnerved-the most powerful Western Polygar-Wadagiri Polygar-is finished. He learnt that the French had sent a letter to Mahfuz Khan which stated that soon the English would be finished and that Mahfuz would be crowned as Nawab after the present Nawab, an English puppet, was ousted.
Thevar exploited this situation. He sent a message to Travancore Raja about this letter and argued that since the French will win in the end, what would Travancore gain if they allied with the English, whose man was Yusuf? Thevar offered that if Travancore Raja side with them, he would let Raja have those parts of Tirunelveil of his own choice.
The Travancore Raja told Yusuf Khan of this communication of Puli Thevar. The Raja of Travancore argued that since Thevar had offered him so much, he will side with Yusuf only if Yusuf ceded the land between Cape Comorin and Kalakadu that Nawab had denied to Travancore. He also threatened Yusuf that if he supported Thevar that would mean the end of Nawab’s ambitions in country south of Tirunelveli-which indeed was a real threat.
The Dutch seizure of artillery sent by English meant for Yusuf Khan, opened the prospect of war with Dutch in Tuticorin [Toothukudi]. Yusuf relented and ceded the territories demanded by the Raja and so Puli Thevar’s attempt to win this Raja ended in failure. If the Raja had allied with Thevar, the British conquest of South India might have been delayed by years and even decades.
Thus Yusuf Khan was saved because by that time, Maravas across southern Tamil Nadu had flocked to Thevar’s fort to fight for their hero. It was beyond the capacity of Yusuf Khan to overpower so great a host alone, but with help from Travancore assured, he was confident. Soon, Travancore troops and Yusuf Khan’s units jointly captured the fort of Isvara Thevar, a vassal of Puli Thevar. Isvara Thevar and his men retreated to Nelkettumseval, but this victory had exhausted his ammunition and he was delayed in his next move. As they waited, a force of 6000 Maravas launched a surprise raid on the Travacore camp and killed several troops. But by time Yusuf Khan marched with his men, Marava force had retreated.
Siege of Vasdevanellur, 1759–1760
In December, 1759, Yusuf besieged fort of Vasudevanellur with his allied troops after he received a large stock of ammunition. This fort belonged to Puli Thevar and was his second strongest fort, located on top of a mountain range and was covered by a vast forest on all sides.
Puli Thevar kept 1000 men in the fort and spread out the rest of his force in the forest that surrounded the fort. These troops raided enemy camps, sniped and ambushed scattered units of Yusuf’s armies and they also disrupted his effort to build a massive construction for artillery batteries-it took three weeks for Yusuf to complete the construction; relentless bombardment caused Yusuf to lose some of his heavy artillery and most of his ammunition. He had breached the wall of this mighty fort and he unwisely decided to engage his troops in a hand to hand combat with Thevar’s soldiers.
Puli Thevar was at this time not at Vasudevanellur-he was at his headquarters of Nelkattumseval. As both sides prepared for the final struggle for Vasudevanellur, Thevar collected 3000 of his ablest Maravas and led them in a night march from Nelkattumseval to Vasudevanellur. Once he approached Vasudevanellur’s neighbourhood, Thevar led his troops through the forest below the fort to avoid detection by enemy and sprang into a surprise attack on Yusuf Khan’s camp.
Thevar’s troops devastated the enemy camp and Yusuf Khan threw a large force into the fray to tilt the balance. The Maravas, intoxicated by their success, fought with great ardour. In the meantime, those Maravas who had concealed themselves in forests and ambushed Yusuf Khan’s troops for the last 3–4 weeks came out of the woods and began to attack Yusuf Khan’s battery positions and the enemy infantry that was trying to move into the fort through the breach.
The Maravas were repeatedly beaten back by Yusuf’s men, but each time they returned to the attacks. These Maravas worked together with the garrison to check the enemy advance into the fort and they were successful. The Maravas then returned to the woods below the fort and lay in wait for a renewed enemy attack in night. But Yusuf Khan was nearly exhausted of his ammunition and he foresaw the catastrophe if he stood before the fort without ammunition.
The following day, Yusuf Khan and Travancore troops retreated and they split into two-Travancore troops went home while Yusuf and his men went to Tirunelveli. Yusuf Khan no longer had the ability to launch an offensive into Puli Thevar’s country so he stayed at Tirunelveli and posted his men at key points to limit Puli Thevar’s raids. For the time being his grand plan to crush this turbulent Polygar was shelved.
Puli Thevar was in a dilemma as to what to do next because Mahfuz Khan had left him for his brother Nawab of Arcot, Muhammad Ali. Thevar hoped that Mahfuz will return to him if Nawab rejected his terms. There were also thoughts about a peace agreement with Yusuf Khan.
Thevar did not leave Yusuf Khan in peace. His Maravas ravaged Tirunelveli country so much that Yusuf Khan himself realised that he could not crush them by force so he bribed many of them to join his side. Yusuf soon found himself at war with Mysore and Dutch, which bought Thevar time. Yusuf Khan crushed a force of 3000 men sent by Kattabomman.
Thevar was in a depressed mood. He learnt that the French were besieged in Pondicherry by the English and that Mahfuz Khan had gone over to Nawab, but his Maravas ravaged lands held by Yusuf Khan so much that he soon deployed the bulk of his force in front of Nelkettumseval in order to force the Maravas to abandon his lands.
He bought several pieces of heavy artillery but had no ammunition and sent a message to the British camp in Trichinopoly to sent him ammunition. As he awaited, Puli Thevar launched a lightning raid on Yusuf’s camp and after killing and wounding several of Yusuf’s men retreated.