Biography of Dheeran Chinnamalai

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Kongu Naattu Singham Dheeran Chinnamalai Biography

Dheeran Chinnamalai (Tamil: மாவீரன் தீரன் சின்னமலை born as Theerthagiri Gounder on April 17, 1756) was a Kongu chieftain and Palayakkarar from Tamil Nadu who rose up in revolt against the British East India Company in the Kongu Nadu, Southern India. He was born in Melapalayam, near Erode in the South Indian state of Tamilnadu.

Dheeran Chinnamalai was one of the main leaders in the Polygar Wars and commanded a vast army made up of Kongu youths, notably during the Second Polygar War that took place in 1801–1802. A thousand-strong Kongu army under him took French Military training in modern warfare alongside Tipu’s Mysore forces to fight against the British East India company.

They helped Tipu Sultan in his war against the British and were instrumental in victories at Chitheswaram, Mazahavalli and Srirangapatna. After Tipu’s death, Chinnamalai settled down at Odanilai in Kongu Nadu and constructed a fort there and defeated the British in battles at Cauvery in 1801, Odanilai in 1802 and Arachalur in 1804.

Later, Chinnamalai left his fort to avoid cannon attack and engaged in guerrilla warfare while he was stationed at Karumalai in the Palani region. He was captured by the British who hanged him at Sankagiri Fort on 31 July 1805 (Adiperukku day).

In 2007 the Tamil Nadu government planned to construct a memorial for Chinnamalai in Arachalur, Erode district at a cost of about 30 lakhs. Veera Paandiya Katta Pomman is a well-known historical name in Tamilnadu. He fought a valiant fight against the British invaders and finally sacrificed his life for the cause of freedom of his kingdom.

Dheeran Chinnamalai was hanged by the British in the year 1799 at Paanchalam Kuruchi which is located in the district of Thirunelveli. The thespian actor, late Sivaji Ganesan, immortalized Veera Pandia Katta Pomman in a movie – well known for its dialogues and histrionics. I vividly remember my school days during the fifties, when every young student’s favorite was to act out the dialogues in the Katta Pomman movie.
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In every marriage function, Katta Pommnan sound track was played out loud – providing mass entertainment to the entire neighborhood. Even now, Katta Pommam gives a sense of pride to the whole of Tamil community and remains a symbol of the forerunner of Indian freedom movement.
But who is Theeran Chinnamalai? He is not as well known as Katta Pomman.

He was a forgotten hero (until very recently) in the annals of the Tamil History. He is a Kongu Tamil who fought against the British invaders and sacrificed his life in July 1805 for the sake of freedom.

Only recently, in the year 2003, Tamilnadu government recognized his valiant fight against British invaders and erected a statue in Chennai honoring him. We did not know much about him. In this article, I would like to present the story of Theeran Chinnamalai that I collected from some sources.

Heritage of Chinnamalai

Theeran Chinnamalai belonged to the illustrious and well known Palaiya Kottai Pattakarar Family. It is well known that Pattakarar family had the title of Mandradiar and controlled large tracts of land from their palace located at Palayam Kottai. Theeran Chinnmalai’s grand father Kotravel Sakkarai Mandradiar was childless.

He adopted two sons  the first one Senapathy was groomed by his first wife and the second one named Rathnaswamy was groomed by his second wife. Both of the adopted sons were groomed well with proper education at the palace. In course of time, the brothers got married.

As it was the custom in those days, the first son Senapathi took the title of Mandradiar in the year 1731 and continued to control the lands from Palayamkottai. The second son Rathanaswamy moved to a nearby village named MelaPalayam and took care of the farming of the lands that belonged to his family.

Rathnaswamy and his wife Periyatha had six children in all � five sons and one daughter. The first son was Kulandiswamy, the second was Theerthagiri, the third was Thambi, fourth was Kilothar and the fifth was Kuttiswamy. Their only daughter was named Parvatham. The second son Theerthagiri who later became Chinnamalai was born in April 1756.

The eldest son Kulandiswamy and the last son Kuttiswamy mainly attended to farming and took care of the vast tracts of lands under their control. However, the band of three brothers Theerthagiri, Kilothar and Thambi devoted their attention to administration and safety of the villages under their control.

They learnt the martial art of Silambu, archery etc. They rode on their horses throughout their jurisdictions and formed Kongu Tamil youth organizations. They also trained the Kongu youth in martial arts. They protected their area from robbers. They also took part in Village Panchayats, which were popular in those days to resolve disputes between families.

They not only helped to resolve family disputes but also land disputes. They became very famous for their public service in the region. In course of time, the brothers got their sister Parvatham married to Ulagapuram Muthi Thiurumalai Gounder. As they were rich, they conducted the marriage lavishly and made their sister happy by giving generous marriage presents in the form of jewellery, ornaments and vessels.

Dispute with Hyder Ali

During those days (late 1700s), Kongu area was under the control of Mysore Muslim king Hyder Ali. Hyder Ali was entitled to collect tax the from Kongu Tamils. A Diwan appointed by Hyder Ali, named Mohammed Ali and a Tax collector were troubling farmers in the collection of taxes in the Kongu area.

They humiliated the farmers by confiscating their land their only means of livelihood. Hearing the atrocity committed by the Mysore King’s Diwan, Theerthagiri and his two brothers mounted on their horses to challenge them in their unfair collection of taxes. As they were searching for the Diwan, the Diwan and his party were returning to their tents after colleting taxes.

Theerthagiri met them on a road between the well known Sivan Malai and Chenni Malai. They recovered all the taxes from the Diwan and asked him to go and report to the Mysore King that a Chinnmalai that was in between Sivan Malai and Chennimalai took away all the taxes.

The Diwan was very angry and protested that the taxes belonged to Hyder Ali and Theertahagiri would face severe consequences for his actions. When Diwan informed him that Kongunadu was ruled by Hyder Ali, Theerthagiri asked the Diwan to inform Hyder Ali that Kongu Tamils could rule themselves and they did not need a Mysore King.

He distributed the taxes back to farmers. The story of his encounter with Mysore King’s Diwan spread like wild fire. Kongu Tamils were highly rejoiced and named him Chinnamalai for this show of bravery.

Mysore Diwan was humiliated. He wanted to take revenge against Chinnamalai and also wanted to punish him for challenging Mysore King’s rights in Kongunadu. The Diwan sent a contingent of soldiers from Sankagiri to attack Chinnamalai. Chinnamalai and his soldiers met them on their way to Kangayam at the Noyyal River and defeated them.

This was the first battlefield experience for Chinnamalai. Knowing that he had to meet Mysore King in battle in course of time, Chinnamalai collected an army of soldiers from all the villages. He gave the new Kongu Tamil soldiers training in many martial arts. Chinnamalai became a very powerful figure in the Kongu region, although he did not have an official title of a ruler of the region.

Their house had become a guest house for the all Kongu Tamil activities. The eldest brother Kulaniswamy and his wife Kempayammal took good care of the all the guests who visited them by providing food and shelter.

Alliance with Tippu Sultan

Hyder Ali died on 12th July, 1782 and his son Tippu Sultan became Mysore King. After Tippu became Mysore King, hostilities broke out between British and Tippu Sultan as Tippu claimed sovereignty to his kingdom and refused to pay taxes to the British.

Tippu Sultan wanted to raise a big army of soldiers to fight the British and invited the Kongu Tamils to join him in his fight against the British. Chinnamalai, his brothers Kilother, and Thambi decided to join Tippu Sultan. They also took with them their loyal soldiers Karuppan and Velappan. In Tippus’s army, Chinnamalai was made chief of Kongu Regiment.

About 1000 young Kongu Tamils joined the Kongu Regiment. They were given proper military training by French who were collaborating with Tippu in his fight against the British. It is worthwhile remembering that these were the days of aftermath of famous French Revolution.

The wars between the Mysore King and the British are known as Mysore Wars. The fourth and crucial battle between Tippu and the British took place in the year 1799. Chinnamalai’s soldiers battled against the British at Mala Valli front and caused severe damage to the British forces. Srirangapatnam war front was led by Tippu himself.

In the severe battle that took place, Tippu himself was killed on April 5, 1799. After the defeat of Tippu, Kongu area came under the control of British technically.

After the death of Tippu Sultan, Chinnamalai led all his soldiers through Kaveri River into Kongunadu. However, their loyal friend Velappan was captured by the British and remained in their custody.

Velappan promised the British that he would act as their agent. Believing his words, they gave him a position in their army. However, Velappan remained loyal to Chinnamalai and sent secret notes concerning British activities and helped Chinnamalai in many ways.
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Battling the British

After his return from the Mysore War to Kongu, Chinnamalai built a palace in a village called Oda Nalli. He advocated to all Kongu Tamils and the neighboring Palayakarars that they should all unite together and fight the British. At that time, Salem and Malabar areas were under the control of British.

But, British could not control the Kongunadu due to opposition by Chinnamalai and his alliance. If the British wanted to travel to Malabar from Salem, they had to take a circuitous route through Mysore. Kongu Tamil soldiers were guarding Kongunadu and were preventing the entry of British through Kaveri River.

The British wanted to take over the control of Kongunadu without a fight. They sent a messenger and promised Chinnamalai favors in exchange for accepting the British Control of Kongunadu and paying taxes. Chinnamalai refused the offer and challenged the British for the hegemony over Kongunadu.

Although Velappan was serving the British, he informed Chinnamalai and warned him in advance of the British activities through some secret messengers. Chinnamalai knew that British would enter Kongunadu in course of time. He made preparations for the eventual fight with the British. During this time he built an ordnance factory at Oda Nalli to make war preparations to face the British.

Even during those tough times, it is said that Chinnamalai was generous to poets and learned men. He made Arunachala Kavi the official poet for his area. He also generously donated large sums of gold coins to the poet Poonthurai Ambikapathi and honored him in his kingdom.

Dheeran Chinnamalai punished the infiltrators sent out by the British into land under his control and made his area safer. In all, people lived a peaceful and happy life under the rule of Chinnamalai.

The British were very much annoyed that Chinnamalai was running his own independent kingdom without a real title and did not listen to their demands to accept their hegemony. The British decided to strike him and take the control of the land by force.

Initially, they sent out a troop of soldiers under the captainship of Colonel Makiskan to arrest Chinnamalai. Velappan who was serving the British informed Chinnamalai of the British plan though his informers. As Chinnamalai was forewarned, he met Makiskan and his soldiers on the banks of Noyyal River and defeated them in the battle thoroughly.

Makiskan was beheaded in the battle and it is said that this head was paraded in the villages of Kongu.  Learning what had happened to Makiskan, the British became very furious and sent out a cavalry unit under Captain Harris to capture Chinnamalai.

When Harris was approaching Arasalur in the Kongu area, he heard the Puja sounds from the Arasalur Amman Temple. Thinking that Chinnmali might be in the temple, Captain Harris entered the temple in search of Chinnamalai. As he could not find him, he was frustrated and proceeded to Oda Nalli where Chinnmanalai’s palace was located.

A sentry at the top of the palace noticed the movement of the troops led by Harris and immediately informed Chinnamalai. Chinnamalai planned to attack them alone with a hand grenade first. He advised his soldiers to attack them after he had a chance to throw the grenade at them. Chinnamalai mounted a horse and sped towards Harris and his troop.

As Harris was wondering why a single person was approaching him, Chinnamalai swiftly threw his grenade at his horse’s side. The horse got bewildered and started running away from the bomb and the smoke. Harris lost control of his horse and a pandemonium ensued as Harris could not control his horse. Meanwhile, Chinnamalai’s troop joined him.

Harris and his troop had to withdraw. Chinnamalai and his troop drove them all the way to Kaveri River up north. This battle took place in the year 1802.
Hearing what had happened to Harris, the British became much more furious and they decided to send in a troop carrying Cannons. As soon as Velappan knew of the British plan, he sent a word through the informers about the impending British attack on Oda Nalli.

Chinnamalai used to wear a new pair of shoes every day. The informer left a note inside his shoes about the British plan of attack. When Chinnamalai was about to the wear the shoes, he found the note from Velappan. After reading the note, he left it there by mistake.

Chinnmalai consulted his brothers for a plan of action. They decided to leave their loyal soldier Karuppan in Melapalayam in hiding. Chinnamalai and two of his brothers and a cook named Nallappan decided to hide in the Karumalai area, which is adjacent to the well-known Palani Malai. Karumali area was full of thick forests and provided cover for the brothers to hide from the British attack.

The British came to Oda Nalli with their cannons and found that all had vacated the palace. When they were searching the palace area, they found the note sent out by Velappan. The moment British came to know that Velappan was an informer to Chinnamalai, they shot him dead. They also demolished the entire palace with cannon shots. They decided to search and find Chinnamalai.

Capture and Execution

Meanwhile, Chinnamalai and his brothers stayed during the daytime in the Karumalai area and returned in the night to a house at the foot of the hills for dinner and sleep. They ate the food prepared by the cook Nallappan. They always carried guns for safety.

Cook Nallapan was a traitor. He was tempted to accept bribery and to inform Chinnamalai’s whereabouts. He secretly informed a British agent about Chinnamalai and his brothers and their daily routine of eating dinner in the house at the foot of the hills.

The British dug an underground trench leading to the house and waited for Chinnamalai and his brothers.  As usual, in the evening the brothers returned to the house for dinner from their hiding in the forest area. That day, cook Nallappan cunningly asked the brothers to leave their guns on the floor.

He assured them that there was no danger when they were eating food. The brothers believed his words and left their guns on the floor, as they also did not sense any danger.

When they were about to eat the dinner, Nallaplan opened the secret door leading to the underground trench and allowed the British soldiers inside dining area. The British soldiers quickly surrounded Chinnamalai and his brothers. With all the fury, Chinnmalai hit the traitor Nallappan and killed him on the spot.

The British arrested Chinnamalai and his brothers and kept them in Sankagiri prison. A four person tribunal consisting of Genaman, Marvul, Horse and Backy Hart was formed. Their loyal servant Karuppan who was in hiding at Melapalayam also surrendered to the British.

The tribunal asked Chinnamalai to accept the British rule over the Kongu area and pay taxes to the British. They also offered him amnesty if he tendered an apology. Chinnamalai refused the British offer and informed his decision to face the consequences.

Preparations were made to hang them by rope tied to a Puliya tree (aka tamarind) located at the top of the Sankagiri fort. Chinnamalai, his two brothers and their loyal friend Karpuppan were brought to the tree on the day of the hanging. They asked the escorting soldiers to move away from them.

Then each one tied the rope around his neck and jumped down to embrace death. The whole of Kongunadu wept for their heroic deeds on that day. The British saw to that that Chinnamalai’s name did not become household legend by banning all books and literature on Chinnamalai for a long period of time. Theeran Chinnamalai was hanged on July 31, 1805.

The story of Chinnamalai and his heroic battles with the British and the eventual sacrifice of his life for the cause of freedom would have been completely consigned to oblivion but for the heritage of oral story telling that existed in our culture. The singular credit goes to Pulavar Kulanthi who heard this story from his grand father during early 1900s.

However, during the British rule it was not possible to write about the freedom fighters as the British banned all literature dealing with freedom fighters. Pulavar Kulandi could write about Chinnamalai only after independence.

By the time he was about to write, he could not recollect everything his grand father told him. But, he was able to create the first account of the Story of Theeran Chinnamalai and in course of time Kongu Tamils understood the heroic role of Chinnamalai and his struggle for independence from British domination.

The three brothers  Chinnamalai, Kilothar and Thambi did not marry. Hence, we do not have any direct lineage of Chinnamalai. However, two of his brothers Kulandiswamy and Kuttiswamy were married and they have descendants. As we have seen before, the Palayamkotti Pattakarar and Chinnamalai have common lineage.

Milestones in the life of Chinnamalai

  • Birth :  Born as the second son of Rathnaswamy Gounder (Payiran Kootam) and Periyatha (Othalan Kootam) on April 1756. He was named Theerthagiri.
  • Growing-up : He grew up learning martial arts along with two of his other brothers Kilother and Thambi. He formed Kongu Tamil Youth Groups and gave them martial arts training.
  • Encounter with Hyder Ali’s Diwan :  He recovered the taxes collected by Mysore Diwan and earned the nick name Chinnamalai. He also defeated Diwan’s soldiers and successfully defended the Kongu Region from Mysore Kings.
  • Allianace with Tippu Sultan He led 1000 Kongu Tamil Youths and joined with Tippu Sultan to fight the British. In 1799 he fought the British in Melapalayam Front and caused severe damage to the British forces. However, Tippu died at the Sriranga Patnam front. Fourth Myosore war ended.
  • Defending Kongu ( 1799-1805) Returned to Kongu after Tippu’s death and organized an alliance of Kongu Palayakarars against the British. Fought four battles with British and successfully defended himself.
  • Refuge and Capture(1805) British destroyed his Oda Nalli Fort with cannons. Chinnamalai took refuge in the Karumalai forests. A traitor cook cunningly helped the British to capture Chinnamalai and his brothers.
  • The End(1805) The British hanged Chinnmalai, his two brothers and their loyal soldier Karuppan on 31 July 1805. They banned any literature on Chinnmalai. However, due to the existence of the oral tradition of Story Telling, Chinnmalai Story survived and reached us in the form of books and Kummi Songs.

Sources :

  • Theeran Chinnamalai Gounder by Pulavar S. Rasu, Publ. 1996, Samba Publications, 152 Peters Road, Chennai, TN 600086, India.
  • Kongu Naattu Singham – Theeran Chinnamalai by Kavignar Magudam Manickam, Publ. 2001, Sakunthla Publications, Rangoli Graphics, 329 E.V.N.Road, Erode, TN 638009, India.