A fort built and demolished thrice

A fort built and demolished thrice

Centre piece of the Kalyana Mahal discovered at the Veerapandiya Kattabomman fort at Panchanlankuruchi. Ravi Digital, Ottapidaram

“A race of rude warriors, habituated to arms and Independence,” was how the late colonel James Welsh described the ‘Southern Poligars’ who ruled this part of the country in the 18th century and whose most dauntless warrior-king was Veerapandiya Kattabomman who valiantly challenged British supremacy.

Ruling from Panchalankuruchi, his once-glorious seat of power, 53 km from Tirunelveli, Kattabomman was one of the earliest sub-altern heroes of India’s freedom struggle as the modern era brought the English East India Company to Indian shores.

A relentless fighter who was hanged by the British after a swift and unfair trial on Oct 16, 1799, when he was just 39 years, Kattabomman’s saga of courage and sacrifice that began with his refusal to pay taxes to the erstwhile British rulers, is best captured in the discourse of his Fort at Panchalankuruchi rebuilt thrice after three demolitions, only to be finally razed down again.

It is a heart-rending melange of human courage, the Poligars’ fight for self-respect, twisted by scenes of betrayal and contingency, architectural marvels and finally a heightened archaeological sense to preserve some of the remnants of Indian modern history, that speak from the now-fenced 36 acres that was once his fort.

An hour’s bumpy ride from Tirunelveli – tourists complain that this stretch badly needs better roads to enable more people visit the historic Panchalankuruchi Fort--takes one to Ottapidaram town. From there Kattabomman’s hallowed place is three km away, as one drives through several archways named after his daring men who laid down their lives at different times.

With the British rule then determined to stamp out Kattabomman’s defiance root and branch from Panchalankuruchi, records and stone inscriptions say that the original over 300-year-old fort was first demolished in 1786 by Col Bullorton.  Kattabomman reconstructed it, but later a force under Col Bannerman, pulled it down in 1799, even as he and his other chiefs were “condemned to ignominious imprisonment.”

In a miracle, as the rudiments of the first freedom struggle was playing itself out in this region, his equally valiant younger brother Umaithurai, rebuilt the fort at Panchalankuruchi “with clay and jaggery within six days.”

However, after Kattabomman’s death, there was a third assault on the fort in 1801 by Col Macaulay, which “finally destroyed” it. For long years since then an earthen mound had covered that site until the State Department of Archaeology took up excavations in the early 1970s’,  K Srinivasan, Assistant Tourism Officer, told Deccan Herald.

And when they did dig out the legendary living place of Kattabomman, archaeologists were stunned to discover the remnants of a “Kalyana Mandapam” (where marriages were performed), a “Durbar Mandapam”, kitchen, living rooms and an “Anthapuram” (courtyard and ante-chambers for the royal women and including what looks a bathing area)!

The central platform of the once ‘marriage hall’ is sparkling white even today and refreshingly cool even under the blazing noon sun. It is a sooth stone as the finishing has been done by a guarded indigenous building technique that mixes the ‘white’ of eggs with locally available green herbs, explained Samuvel of the Archaeology Department. The “Poligars” had mastered the art of keeping their interiors naturally cool with no carbon emissions of modern air-conditioners.

Native rebellions

The Britishers even wanted Panchalankuruchi to be erased from the maps then, wary that such “native rebellions” might break out again. The present smaller “memorial Fort” seeks to be a replica of the old glorious fort, based on a sketch that Col Welsh had left behind. It houses a museum, depicting Kattabomman’s life on wall colours, sculptures of Kattabomman’s warrior-team and war memorialist like iron shells pounded by the British fighters.

Interestingly, a demolished circular temple of Goddess Janka, the family deity of Kattabomman who was also an ardent devotee of Mutagen at nearby Titleholder sea-shore temple, was also rebuilt by the warrior’s descendants in the early 1950s. Some 200-odd families of the Kattabomman lineage live just outside the Panchalankuruchi Fort. “We still preserve a sword of the family and an iron cannon ball that hit our fort in the temple for posterity’s sake,” says Balakrishnasamy, a fifth generation descendant of the Kattabomman family.

Significantly, two of the battles fought by the British rulers to destroy the Panchalankuruchi Fort, is confirmed by the stone plaques found at two different places.

The Kattabomman memorial near a tamarind tree at Kayathar where he was hanged, remnants of another French-built fort above the Gundar River near Kamudhi in the  neighbouring Ramanathapuram district, where Kattabomman is believed to have stayed three days on his way to meet the then Tirunelveli Collector Jackson, are now part of the warrior-king’s legacy, all within a 100-km radius from Tirunelveli. But all these are like hidden treasures, yet to gain the attention of mainstream historians.