Among the innumerable men and women who played an important role in the erstwhile princely state of Mysore, Dewan Purnaiya was undoubtedly one of the most enigmatic and influential characters. The varying view points that exist of the role he played at crucial and turning points in the history of Mysore certainly make him one of the most misunderstood and mysterious figures.
Purnaiya had humble beginnings. Born in a Madhwa Brahmin family in 1746 at Tirukambur in Tiruchirapalli district, he lost his father Krishnacharya when he was barely ten. His mother Lakshmiamma worked hard to bring up her sons Purnaiya and Venkata Rao.
It was Ranga Setty, a shrewd businessman who first noticed the young boy’s potential and appointed him as his clerk. This gave the family the much needed monetary sustenance that they were in dire need of.
The Kingdom of Mysore was passing through a difficult phase then with the usurpation of power from the traditional Wodeyar dynasty by the military dictator Hyder Ali. Annadana Setty, a friend of Ranga Setty and a chief supplier to Hyder’s palace took young Purnaiya to the capital Srirangapatna and recruited him as a junior accountant in the daftar.
A skilled accountant with a sharp and agile brain, Purnaiya handled the dealings of this daftar with the Royal treasury. Once when a major discrepancy arose in the tallying, it was this young lad who caught Hyder’s attention by clearly resolving the issue. From this point on, there was no looking back for Purnaiya in his ascent in the echelons of power in Mysore.
There was a brief period when his malefic stars threatened to spell doom when he rubbed one of the most influential and ruthless men in the firmament, Anche Shamaiya. He came close to being done to death by Shamaiya.
Growing in Hyder’s esteem
But being the eternal survivor, Purnaiya managed to wriggle out of this situation too. He easily won Hyder’s confidence and soon became the head of the toshikhane or treasury. He emerged as one of the most honoured members of Hyder’s durbar and jagirs were presented to him, as also the rare privilege of the golden umbrella that was reserved for the elite few.
It was his sagacity that saved the day for Mysore in the troubled times that followed Hyder’s sudden death in 1782 at Narasingarayanapet in the middle of the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The surreptitious manner in which Hyder’s body was shifted from the war tent and buried ensured that there was no revolt in the Army or an attack by an energised enemy.
Whose side was he on?
Purnaiya’s loyalty to the man on the Throne of Mysore continued even after the succession of Hyder’s son Tipu Sultan. While he continued to remain in the inner circle of Tipu’s confidantes, serving as the Prime Minister of Mysore and gallantly defending the kingdom in the Third Anglo Mysore War and Lord Cornwallis’ onslaught, he and Tipu shared a strange relationship. It is said that Purnaiya’s beautiful daughter was raped by some of Tipu’s soldiers while she was on her way to the Cauvery for a ritualistic bath.
When a devastated Purnaiya ran to Tipu seeking justice, the latter casually skirted away the issue and added insult to injury by offering to take the unfortunate girl into his harem.
On another occasion, in the open durbar, Tipu reportedly made an offer to him to convert his religion. A petrified Purnaiya mumbled something quickly and left the room in haste. All these events and the simmering discontent perhaps impacted his decision to leave the troubled fort of Srirangapatna just three days ahead of its final storming by the Allied forces and the killing of Tipu in 1799.
After Tipu was vanquished, when the British forces traced him and compelled him to surrender he supposedly declared ‘How can I hesitate to surrender to a nation who is the protector of my tribe from Kashi to Rameshwaram?’ Of course the alternate view point has been that it was Tipu himself who urged his Prime Minister to flee and serve the next ruler of the Kingdom.
This is where the dichotomy of his behaviour and loyalties stare us in the face, especially when he put up a strong case to the British in favour of one of Tipu’s sons to be placed on the throne and not a member of the lingering, displaced royal house of Mysore.
Appointed as Dewan
But the British had made their mind about transferring power to the Wodeyar dynasty and hence overruling Purnaiya’s opinions, the five-year-old infant
Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar was crowned the titular King of a partitioned Mysore in 1799. Despite strong protests from the Dowager Queen Rani Lakshmi Ammanni on Purnaiya’s appointment as the Dewan in the new dispensation, the British knew that his administrative acumen would hold the kingdom in good stead.
Thus, despite the changing of masters, Purnaiya remained saddled in the post that he was in during Tipu’s time as the Prime Minister of the State.
The King being a minor, all the treaties between the victorious British forces and the new dispensation were signed on behalf of the ruler by Rani Lakshmi Ammanni and Purnaiya.
The latter of course emerged as the de-facto ruler during the period of regency. Ambitious and well-networked he shared a very close friendship with the British Residents of Mysore.
Speaking about him Lord Wellesley had once written that ‘he has done everything I could wish him to do.’
Purnaiya’s deft management of the finances of the State and administrative reforms brought in the much needed money to pay up the subsidies to the British as per the terms of the Treaty signed with them. He also curbed the occasional revolts of local chieftains who were trying to fish in troubled waters; thereby further earning the confidence of the British masters in Madras.
But things changed dramatically when the young Raja expressed his wishes to start asserting his power and was set to emerge from the regency by 1810. Purnaiya had always nursed ill-will towards the Wodeyar rulers and his open defiance of the Raja led to many an ugly spat in full public view.
His demands for making the post of the Dewan hereditary did not go down well with the British who began to increasingly view him with suspicion now as an avaricious old man. Finally on 27th March 1812, Purnaiya died in his house at Srirangapatna, extremely frustrated and bitter at the turns that his fate had taken.
Thus ended the story of the ambitious, shrewd and tactful Dewan Purnaiya who had so ably steered the affairs of the kingdom in troubled times, but who ultimately earned for himself a dubious place in the annals of Mysore.