Asked to name warrior queens from the country, few would go beyond the Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, and probably none would be able to name women from south India. Though history may make it seem that the first revolution of Independence in 1857 was an orchestration of north Indian rulers, Lucknow-based researcher Kirti Narain is bringing to the fore contribution of the forgotten heroes.
Narain says the popularly held belief that the revolution of 1857 was concentrated to north and central India was not true. “Southern India also responded to the first movement for Independence.Some of these southern rulers were women,” says Narain who was in the city recently with her assistant Amina Hasan to delve into the Tamil Nadu government archives. Narain is engaged in a study , on participation of women in the 1857 uprising under the aegis of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Giri Institute of Development Studies, Aliganj in Lucknow.
Instead of going by British records, Narain’s study has unearthed forgotten Indian writings. Backing her findings, Narain cites examples of powerful women like the 18th century Sivaganga queen Rani Velu Nachiyar, besides Belawadi Mallamma and Kittur Rani Chennamma of Karnataka.
“Rani Velu Nachiyar was the first queen of Tamil origin to fight against the British in India. She formed an army and fought and won against the British in 1780, with military assistance from Hyder Ali,” says Narain, head of Giri Institute of Development Studies. Nachiyar, the princess of Ramanathapuram, was married to the king of Sivaganga, Muthuvaduganatha Periyaudaiyathevar. She was drawn into battle after her husband was killed by the British. Living under the protection of Hyder Ali of Mysore near Dindigul, Nachiyar was said to have come up with idea of a human bomb. She also formed a women’s army and was one of the few rulers who regained her kingdom and ruled for 10 more years.
Inspiring women in the south was another queen from Karnataka Kittur Rani Chennamma. Born in 1791, she was best known for leading an armed rebellion against the East India Company in 1824. The resistance ended with her arrest and she was imprisoned for life.Adept at horse riding, sword fighting and archery from her youth, Channamma called for a war when the British refused to accept her adopted son as ruler. “Kittur Rani Chennamma was the first woman activist who fought a lonely , but courageous battle against the British. She did not succeed in driving them away , but she inspired many women,” says Narain.
Prior to these women, Belawadi Mallamma was a popular warrior queen from Bailhongal, in Belgaum district of Karnataka. She was the first woman to form a women’s army to fight against the British and the Marathas in the 17th century. “Belawadi Mallamma fought with the Maratha king, Shivaji, while defending her husband’s kingdom. She was defeated and taken to Shivaji, who was quite impressed by her valour and decided to return the kingdom.”
During the turbulence of revolt, there were many women who participated in their own way. While many gave away their jewellery to finance the revolution, some requested their masters to train them in warfare. “Our study also looks at unknown women and tribal women who have no identity. These women played a significant role in the revolt,” says Narain.