On October 24, 1801, two middle-aged brothers were publicly hanged to death at the Tirupputhur fort of southern Tamil Nadu. The fact that the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers were the rulers of Sivaganga kingdom did not invoke any ceremony during the execution. Every one of their fellow rebels, their commanders and servants, their sons and even their young grandsons were hanged alongside them, supposedly from palmyra trees around the fort.

With those mass executions, the British East India Company and its allies successfully put an end to a fierce rebellion by the Southern kingdoms of India – a revolt that is little remembered, and barely finds mention in history textbooks.

More than 50 years before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers had led a concerted struggle against the oppressive practices of the British. On June 16, 1801, months before their death, the brothers issued a proclamation of independence from the Tiruchi fort, calling for people of all castes and communities to unite their fight against European domination.

“An all-Indian concept inspired the proclamation, for it not only made a direct appeal to the entire country but expressed an anxiety that if the political malady persisted, India would fall under alien rule,” wrote K Rajayyan, author of the book South Indian Rebellion: The First War of Independence 1800-1801.

Turbulent beginnings

Popular representations of the brothers, evolved over the two centuries following their death, depict them as tall and muscular, with fierce moustaches and eyes filled with rage. In almost all of them, they are turbaned and brandishing swords. Every year till date, in Kalayarkoil temple of Sivaganga district where their mortal remains were buried, a guru pooja is conducted on their death anniversary, in memory of their valour.

Periya Maruthu and Chinna Maruthu were born to Mokka Palanisamy Thevar and his wife Ponatha, who served the second king of Sivaganga kingdom, Muthuvadaganatha Thevar. Though the exact dates are still unclear, historians claim that Periya Maruthu, or the Big Maruthu, was born in 1748 in Ramnad state. Chinna Maruthu, or the younger Maruthu, was five years younger.

As children, the brothers worked in the palace as aides to the king, while they developed their skill in warfare and artillery alongside. Legend has it that the brothers even saved the king from a wild tiger, without the use of weapons, thereby gaining his favour. He then bestowed upon them the title of Pandiyar.

But their time in the palace was to soon come to an end. While the brothers were in their early 20s, the Nawab of Arcot, who claimed overlordship over the Southern kingdoms, sent officials from the East India Company to collect taxes from the rulers. When the king refused after long negotiations, he and the queen were killed at their palace one night.

The same night, the Maruthu brothers fled the kingdom along with the first queen Vedanachiyar, and received sanctuary in the neighbouring kingdom of Virupakshi, ruled by Gopal Nayak. Here they stayed for seven years. This was where the brothers trained in warfare. But the queen was not one to accept defeat so easily. Through those seven years, she gathered allies among the Southern kingdoms. Through careful strategic placement of troops, Vedanachiyar’s forces led by the Maruthu brothers took over Sivagangai again. Periya Maruthu was then appointed as commander of the army and Chinna Maruthu was the chief minister.

State Archives, Madras via South Indian Rebellion: The First War of Independence 1800-1801

Bloody war

It was around this time that the East India Company was penetrating the Southern reaches of India, tackling one kingdom at a time. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan in Mysore, the rebellious Kattabomman Pandiya of Panchalamkurichi was killed for resisting taxation by the British.

“The British had this tactic of dealing with one enemy at a time,” said M Rajendran, the author of the Tamil novel 1801, released in 2016. “Their next target was the kingdom of Sivaganga.”

Meanwhile, the brothers, who were the ad hoc rulers of the kingdom, began gathering support from smaller rulers, even those who supported Tipu Sultan in his fight against the British. The brothers even adopted the idea of a jailbreak to intimidate the officials of the East India Company. In 1799, a jailbreak in Coimbatore orchestrated by the brothers and their Southern allies failed terribly, with many of their people being captured and executed.

“But the Maruthu Pandiyars decided that they would fight till the finish,” said Rajendran. They planned another jailbreak in 1800, this time to release the brothers of Kattabomman Pandiyar, Oomadurai and Sevatiah, from the Palayamkottai jail. They soon became close allies of the brothers and played a key role in the 1801 war.

Over the next one year, the rebellion grew in momentum, leaving the British rattled. In the proclamation of 1801, the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers said:

 “The Europeans violating their faith have deceitfully made the Kingdom their own and considering the inhabitants as dogs, accordingly exercise authority over them. There existing no unity and friendship amongst you the above castes, who, not being aware of the duplicity of these Europeans – have not only inconsiderately calumniated each other, but have absolutely surrendered the Kingdom to them. In these countries now governed by these low wretches, the Inhabitants have become poor and the rice has become vellum (water).”  

— South Indian Rebellion: The First War of Independence 1800-1801

According to Mari Servai, a Tamil writer who authored a booklet on the brothers, the Maruthu Pandiyars knew that by issuing such a proclamation, they were endangering their lives and their kingdom. But that did not bother them.

The brothers led the fight of the rebels by employing guerrilla tactics in the deep jungles of Thiruverkadu, as C Balakrishnan noted in his book A Struggle for Freedom in the Red soil of South India. It was a bloody battle that went on for 31 days, with loss of lives on both sides, said Mari Servai. But towards the end, fatigued with no food or water, the rebel army was captured. The Maruthu brothers were wounded and caught when engaged in battle at Cholapuram, on October 19, 1801, wrote Rajayyan.

Grim defeat

Four days later, they were hanged. “With him [Maruthu Pandiyar] fell the last war of independence in Southern India. The road was open for the British for the conquest of Hindustan,” wrote Reverend Baauche, a French Catholic Priest in his book Marutha Pandiyan, The Fateful 18th Century.

According to Rajayyan, the process adopted for their execution was “both anomalous and irregular”. He wrote:

“It does not appear that the evidence of any witness was taken and if it were taken, it was not definitely upon oath. The seventy-three-year-old rebel diplomat Gopala Nayak, and several other leaders of Dindigul were executed even without waiting for the confirmation by the Madras Government.”

According to Rajendran and Mari Servai, the male heirs of the family of an executed leader were usually pardoned by the British. But an exception was made for one son of Periya Maruthu called Doraisamy, who was banished to Malaysia. None of the other sons or grandsons were spared. “The Britishers were so troubled by the rebellion that they wanted to eliminate any possibility of another uprising,” said Rajendran. Clive’s proclamation issued after the hanging echoed this intention:

“The infatuated obstinacy of those leaders in neglecting the warning voice with which the Governor in Council had announced to them the danger of Rebellion has rendered indispensably necessary the signal punishment of their crimes. His Lordship encourages a well-founded expectation that the ignominious manner to which those misguided chieftains have terminated their ambitious and criminal career will indelibly fix on the minds of their surviving families and inhabitants the danger of defying the British Government in arms.”  

— South Indian Rebellion: The First War of Independence 1800-1801

But despite the denouncement of the rebellion, the lives of brothers are still celebrated, even deified, today. “They were dedicated to the larger cause of independence from the growing control of the British,” said Mari Servai. “That’s what set them apart from the other rulers.”

As it happens, the brothers, who in their proclamation of independence exhorted the people to rise above caste considerations to fight a common enemy, have been thoroughly transformed into caste icons over the last three decades. Their memory has been wrested by the Thevar community, and the guru pooja dedicated to them is now an event to celebrate caste pride rather than their resistance against the British.