Thursday, 18 August 2011

Veerapandiya Kattabomman Memorial Fort

Veerapandiya Kattabomman

It was on this day, in 1799, that one of our earliest freedom fighters Veerapandiyan was hanged from a tree in Kayathar
209 years after that fateful day (16th October 1799) that saw one of the earliest and arguably the most inspirational freedom fighters of our state Veerapandiya Kattabomman hanged from a tamarind tree in the British Camp at Kayathar, West of Panchalankuruchi, what remains is just a memorial of Kattabomman inside a small rebuilt fort.

Panchalankurunchi wears a deserted look with only a few tea stalls in the vicinity. Bus services are infrequent and visitors to the fort only seasonal, mostly school students and foreign tourists!!!!

It is a matter of shame that the man who fought a heroic battle against the British and could only be captured because of traitors from neighbouring kingdoms (Ettayapuram/Pudukottai) and who was to be an inspiration to Rani Jhansi Bai and the well acclaimed first war of Indian Independence (1857) half a century later has been so forgotten in a world that today only seems to know/talk about ‘IT’ and ‘Stock Market booms and crashes’.

Even our maps seem to have relegated Panchalankuruchi to a non-highlighted region so much so that one has to search for the location. The one recent recognition was the commemorative stamp brought in 1999 to mark his 200th death anniversary!!!

The Kattabomman Clan
Jagaveera Pandiyan of Ottapidaram (then Veera Pandiyapuram) had a brave minister, GettiBommu (in Telugu), who had migrated from Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu. Known for his fighting qualities, the minister at a later point in time came to be called Kattabomman(in Tamil).

Kattabomman ascended the throne after Jagaveera Pandiyan and came to be called Aathi Kattabomman(the first one). Veerapandiyan was born in this clan, on 3rd January 1760, to Jagaveeran Kattabomman and Arumugathammal. He had two brothers –Duraisingam and Dalavai Kumaraswami.

While Veerapandiyan was called the Karuthaiah(black prince), his brother Dalavai was referred to as the Sivathaiah (white prince). Interestingly, his other brother Duraisingam, who was a good orator, was referred to as Oomaithurai (dumb prince)!!! Oomaithurai was the one who held fort for a couple of years after Veerapandiyan’s death

Event leading to the Panchalankuruchi Fort
Once during a hunting expedition, Kattabomman was a witness to a remarkable incident that led to the building of the fort and the emergence of Panchalankuruchi. Several dogs chased a hare, which had to run for its life. However, suddenly, the hare stopped, turned back and in a daring incident, gave the hounds a chase.

Stunned by this event, it struck Kattabomman that this land had special powers and to inspire its people to lead a brave life decided to build the fort in this very same area and named it Panchalankuruchi, after his grand father Panchalan.

Veerapandiyan crowned King
In the Tamil calendar month of Thai(mid January-mid February)- on 2nd February 1790 at the age of 30, Veerapandiyan was crowned the 47th king and the 5th from the Kattabomman clan.

The Tiruchendur Temple connection
Veerapandiyan was a big devotee of Tiruchendur Lord Murugan and would begin his day only after the prayers to the Tiruchendur Lord. Veerapandiya Kattabomman installed around 40 bells, constructed what he called Mani Mandapam at various points between the Tiruchendur temple and the Panchalankuruchi Fort and appointed a person along this route to man the bells. Each of these bells would ring at the time of the pooja at the Tiruchendur temple and it was with the blessings of Lord Muruga would Veerapandiyan begin his day.

To this day, one can see the remains of these bells along the Panchalankuruchi-Tiruchendur route.

Kattabomman was also a staunch believer of Goddess Jaggammal. A temple in memory of this can be seen in the fort area.

Rivalry between Panchalankuruchi and Ettayapuram kings
From the very early days, there was bitter rivalry between Veerapandiyan and Ettappa, the ruler of Ettayapuram, a kingdom about 15kms North of Panchalankuruchi. Bitten time and again by the fearless Veerapandiyan, a wounded Ettappa was biding his time to seek revenge on the ruler of Panchalankuruchi. And it was this petty rivalry between the rulers of the neighbouring villages that was to prove fateful to Veerapandiyan a few years later.

Veerapandiyan was a powerful and fearless leader and very soon he had 96 villages under his rule and his name spread far and wide.

However, very early into his rule, he had to face the wrath of the British on the taxation front. The Arcot Nawab who had borrowed from the British gave them the right to collect taxes across the Southern region. When the Britishers came to Veerapandiyan to collect unpaid taxes of 6 years, he refused to pay and for a while even refused to meet them to discuss this issue.

The meeting with Jackson
Finally, he relented and met with British General Jackson in the Ramanathapuram palace in September 1798. Veerapandiya Kattabomman rendered a fiery speech stating that the British neither had a right over the land nor on the income (generated) from it.

This shook Jackson and the meeting ended on a bitter note. Veerapandiya Kattabomman slain several of the British soldiers. However, Veerapandiyan’s minister Thanapathi Pillai was captured in the ensuing fight and he was taken in their custody and sent to Tiruchirapalli for 15 days. Shaken by the ill treatment meted out to him, Thanapathi Pillai looted the Paddy Granary of the British in Sri Vaikuntam, about 30kms east of Tirunelveli.

With the help of Ettappan, who informed them about Veerapandiyan’s absence, the British led by Bannerman attacked Panchalankuruchi on a day when Kattabomman was away at the Tirchendur temple and in the battle that followed, captain Vellayathevan was killed.

In March 1799, Kattabomman was called for a meeting regarding the non payment of taxes but he refused to meet. Under Bannerman, the British attacked the fort of Panchalankuruchi from all sides. Kattabomman defeated the British who were left waiting for reinforcements, after which they renewed their attacks on the fort with cannons.

Brutal Execution of Chieftain
Thaanapathi Pillai was taken as a prisioner and executed, and in a brutal act, the British left his head hanging outside the Panchalankuruchi fort in an effort to send shock waves across the Panchalankuruchi forces.
Regardless of the presence of the huge British army, armed with deadly cannons, Sundaralingam, an important chieftain of Veerapandiyan, hoisted Kattabomman’s flag in an act in line with his leader’s dynamism.


Kattabomman leaves Panchalankuruchi
With the British strengthening their army, Kattabomman was advised to leave Panchalankuruchi and with his brother, left one night for Tiruchirapalli through an underground tunnel from the Panchalankuruchi fort.

Panchalankuruchi Fort Destroyed
In September 1799, Ettappan informed the British of Kattabomman’s departure from the fort. Taking advantage of this, the British attacked the Panchalankuruchi fort once again and demolished it with their cannons.

Kattabomman sought refuge in his friend Pudukottai Vijayaragunatha Thondaiman, who was also a close aide of Ettappan of Ettayapuram. The Pudukottai ruler did give refuge but he also informed the British of Kattabomman’s presence. The British attacked Kattabomman in Pudukottai and captured him.

Kattabomman Hanged in Kayathar
In October 1799, Veerapandiya Kattabomman was brought to the British camp in Kayathar and in what is widely believe to have been an unfair trial he was sentenced to death and hanged from a tree on the morning of 16th October 1799.And thus came to an end the life of possibly the bravest freedom fighter that Tamil Nadu has seen and one who continues to be an inspiration to this day. Even on that morning with death knocking on his doors, it is believed that Veerapandiya Kattabomman did not flinch an eyelid and walked to the tree with his head held high.

Panchalankuruchi after Kattabomman
Oomaithurai, the brother of Veerapandiyan, escaped from prison, gathered 7000 people and rebuilt the Panchalankuruchi fort in just 5 days (in February 1801). The fort rebuilt by him was compared to the Fort Gibraltor in Spain. However, in May that year the fort of Oomaithurai was destroyed in a brutal attack by the British. During this fight, Oomaidurai was gravely injured and fell unconscious.

In an unruly and shameful act, the British sowed Castor and Calostrophic seeds/salt on the area around the Panchalankuruchi fort so as to prevent erection of any structure on that spot in the future. And thus came down the huge fort built by Kattabomman, one that had its original inspiration from a hare chasing the hounds.

What remains today of the 30 acre Panchalankuruchi Fort
A memorial was set up for Veerapandiya Kattabomman in 1974 and a fort built on a 6 acre land here which is maintained by the tourism department. There are about 200 families belonging to the Kattabomman clan who still reside here. They have found jobs as day labourers, mechanics, policemen but it would not be far away from truth if one were to say that they are leading a financially insecure life.

There are seven arches (dedicated to the chieftains of Veerapandiyan) in the gateway to the Panchalankuruchi fort via Kurukkuchalai and Ottapidaram.

Photo sketch at the Memorial Fort
A remarkable photo sketch of the entire life of Kattabomman was done in Panchalankuruchi in 1974. Without any aid from technology, a photo of the hanging incident was sketched in a way that a fiery Veerapandiyan in his last moments seem to be looking at the onlooker from which ever direction you are at.

Conclusion
The map of Tamil Nadu may have handed out a 2nd hand treatment to Panchalakuruchi (quite shockingly, the Tamil Nadu tourism site has Panchalamkuruchi on the 7th page in the most important places of Thoothukudi!!!), the people may have forgotten (except on the day his movie is aired on one of the Television Channels) this inspiring and fearless freedom fighter of Tamil Nadu because of whom we have this freedom today, but make no mistake about it….the residents of Panchalankuruchi have something about them that truly inspires you. They believe in the soil and their valiant hero who gave his life in the battle for freedom. Just setting foot into this land and talking to the descendents of the Kattabomman clan creates a positive vibration and a fearlessness in you that one does not easily get to feel in this current day life.

It is important that Panchalankuruchi and Ottapidaram (the birth place of that other great freedom fighter VOC) are transformed into locations of national importance and hopefully Tamil Nadu Tourism will one day promote this region aggressively- Panchalankuruchi-Ottapidaram- Kayatharu- as the place from where emerged one of the earliest battles for freedom against the colonial rule of the British in Tamil Nadu.

In the absence of a concerted effort to bring back to glory the contribution of this valiant leader, Veerapandiya Kattabomman will remain only in the (school) history books and a once in a year movie on a TV channel.

Where is Panchalankuruchi
Panchalankuruchi is about 20 kms North West of Tuticorin and about 6kms West of Kurukuchalai off the NH45B Tuticorin- Madurai highway. It is about 15kms South of Ettayapuram.

How to reach Panchalankuruchi
1. Take Pearl City Express from Chennai to Tuticorin and then

a. Local bus to Ottapidaram (3 kms from Panchalankuruchi)
b. State bus from Tuticorin to Madurai and get down at Kurukuchalai

2. Take Pearl City or Nellai or Ananthapuri Express from Chennai to Kovilpatti and then

a. Take the bus from Kovilpatti to Tuticorin
b. Get down at Kurukuchalai (Kovilpatti to Kurukuchalai takes about 45minutes to an hour)

3. For Enterprising people Only - Take Pearl City or Ananthapuri Express to Kadambur or Vanchi Maniyachi and then

a. Explore a really infrequent bus service to Ottapidaram

While at Panchalankuruchi, one should also visit Kayatharu (about 25kms West) the place where Kattabomman was hanged. Again, buses every one hour from Ottapidaram.

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