The Poligars (or Palaiyakkarars) of the former Tirunelveli Kingdom in Tamil Nadu (South India) gave stiff resistance to the British between 1795 and 1805. From March 1799 to July 1805, two Poligar Wars took place between the Poligars and the British East India Company. The main centres of these powerful uprisings were Tirunelveli, Sivagiri, Sivaganga, Ramanathapuram, Madurai, and North Arcot.
However, the British suppressed the rebellion after carrying out gruelling protracted jungle campaigns against the Poligar armies. Both sides lost many lives. The victory over the Poligars brought large parts of the territories of Tamil Nadu under the control of the British, enabling them to get a strong hod in Southern India.
Poligars were the offshoots of the Nayankara system prevalent in the Vijayanagar administration. The Poligars of South India were quite similar to the Rajputs of North India. They were the feudal lords who were appointed as military chiefs and given land in exchange for military services. Their influence and power increased beyond the traditional lines, as they often acted as sovereigns and even to the extent of extracting taxes from the people.
The problem began in 1781 when the Nawab of Arcot gave the control of Tirunelveli and the Carnatic Provinces to the British East India Company. As the Company’s Government wanted to expand its own sources of revenue, it sought to control the Poligars. This arrangement caused resentment among Poligars, who considered themselves independent sovereign authorities within their respective territories.
First Poligar Rebellion
The first Poligar rebellion, also known as First Poligar War, broke out in September 1799 in the then Tirunelveli region (in modern Tamil Nadu). This rebellion was led by Kattabomman Nayak (Veerapandi Kattabomman), who was in charge of Panchalankurichi. He refused to accept the suzerainty of the British and pay revenue to them.
In 1799, a brief meeting over pending taxes was held between the Kattabomman and the British. But, the meeting ended in a bloody encounter in which the British Commander of forces was slain by Kattabomman. A price was put on Kattabomman’s head, which led to an open rebellion by the Poligars.
After a series of battles in the Panchalankurichi fort, the Company’s forces, with additional reinforcements from Tiruchirapalli, were finally able to defeat Kattabomman. However, Kattabomman fled into the Pudukottai forests. The British captured him with the help of Ettappan, the Raja of Pudukottai, who entered into a backroom agreement with the British. Kattabomman was publically hanged as a warning to other Poligars.
Subramania Pillai, a close associate of Kattaboman, was also publically hanged. Soundra Pandian, another rebel leader, was brutally killed by the British. Kattabomman’s brother Oamaithurai was imprisoned in Palayamkottai prison, while the fort was razed to the ground and wealth looted by the troops.
Second Poligar Rebellion
Despite the British suppressing the First Poligar War in 1799, a rebellion again broke out in 1800-01. The Second Poligar War was more violent than the previous one. The second rebellion began in February 1801, when the Poligars imprisoned in the fort of Palayamkottai were able to escape. The rebels, led by Oomaithurai (brother of Kattabomman), took control of many forts and even captured Tuticorin. A Band of Poligar armies bombed the British barracks in Coimbatore.
Oomaithurai allied himself with Maruthu Pandian and became part of a grand alliance against the East India Company. This South Indian confederacy against the Company included Maruthu Pandian of Sivaganga, Dheeran Chinnamalai of Kongu Nadu, Gopala Nayak of Dindigul, Krishnappa Nayak and Dhoondaji of Mysore, Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma of Malabar.
The British forces soon reinforced from the Malabar to suppress the rebellion by Poligars and finally won after a long, expensive campaign. The Company forces led by Lt. Colonel Agnew laid siege to the Panchalankurichi Fort and captured it in May 1801 after a prolonged siege and artillery bombardment.
Oomaithurai escaped the fall of Panchalankurichi Fort and fled to Sivaganga, where he joined the Maruthu brothers at their jungle Fort at Kalayar Kovil. The British forces pursued him there and eventually captured Kalayar Kovil in October 1801. Oomaithuri and the Maruthu brothers were hanged on 16 November 1801 at Tiruppathur in the Sivaganga district.
Meanwhile, the Nawab of Arcot signed the Carnatic Treaty with the British in July 1801. Under the terms of the Carnatic Treaty, the Nawab surrendered the civil and military administration of all territories and dependencies of the Carnatic exclusively to the East India Company in perpetuity. The Poligar system, which had flourished for over two centuries, came to a violent end. The British introduced a Zamindari settlement in its place.
The suppression of the Poligar rebellion of 1799 and 1800-01 resulted in the liquidation of the influence of the chieftains. Between 1803 and 1805, the Poligars of North Arcot and Yedaragunta rose in rebellion against the Company’s rule. However, the British had also suppressed these rebellions.