Once upon a time there lived a king (more a feudal lord) called Dhulagappagouda Desai in Kakati near Belgaum. His daughter Chenamma, was an exceptional young girl for her times with beauty; and skilled in administrative strategies, warfare and hunting. One day, Mallasarja, a raja from nearby Kittur was passing by on his way to meet Dhulagappagouda Desai to discuss how they and other local feudal lords and chieftains could shield themselves from the skirmishes and conflicts of the bigger powers in the area – Hyder Ali and his son Tipu, the Peshwas, the Adil Shahi kings, the Nizam of Hyderabad and the English, French and Portuguese. The villagers requested him to stay with them and help kill a tiger which was causing havoc in the area. Mallasarja agreed. The tiger was tracked, spotted, chased, hunted and the tiger lay dead. When Mallasarja and his hunting expedition approached the dead tiger, much to their combined surprise they found another arrow, other than the one that was shot from his bow that had pierced the tiger with marked precision. On looking around they found the beautiful young lady whose arrow had found its mark and the bold lady staked her claim on the tiger. Cupid had also struck! Mallasarja was in awe of this woman and despite already being married was determined to make her his wife. Much to Mallasarja’s joy this lady was none other than Dhulagappagouda Desai’s daughter Chenamma! When Mallasarja returned to Kittur after a successful expedition, he brought home a new wife, his new queen who would go on to stand by him, shoulder to shoulder and put up a brave front to the events that would unfold.
No, this is not a happily ever after fairy tale…….
Kittur is a small town equidistant from Hubli and Belgaum. It was ruled continuously by 12 rulers from 1585 to 1824 when two brothers Hiremallashetty and Chikkamallashetty were gifted this piece of land for their loyal service to the Adil Shahi rulers of Bijapur. Originally their capital was in Sampagaon near Belgaum. The 5th ruler Allappagouda Sardesai shifted the capital to Kittur in 1682 and built the fort and palace in Kittur. Good governance and great political skills exhibited by the rulers helped the small kingdom remain independent.
So it is no surprise that by the time Mallasarja became king at the age of 17 in 1782 it was a small yet prosperous kingdom and Mallasarja ensured that things only got better. His rule is considered as one of the most glorious with impetus given to agriculture, industry, and the arts. Trade and commerce flourished.
When Mallasarja brought home his new wife, it is said that Rani Chenamma received a warm welcome from Mallasarja’s first wife, Rani Rudramma who was a good administrator herself. On her part, Rani Chenamma made every effort to deserve the warmth and welcome both from the palace and the people. She was known for her quick thinking and decision making. Under her Kittur achieved even more economic success.
Everything was going smooth until the Peshwas decided that the land was more valuable than Mallasarja’s loyalty to them. He was captured and imprisoned for a couple of years which caused ill-health that only deteriorated with time. He was succeeded by his son Shivalingarudra Sarja who was more interested in the arts than in governance. Chenamma was by now involved in the day to day running of the kingdom. Shivalingarudra Sarja succumbed to ill-health in 1824. Before he died, he had made arrangements to adopt a young boy, Shivalingappa, who would succeed him. This of course did not go down well with the British who were refusing to recognise the adoption. Rani Chenamma tried to make her case with the Lieutenant-Governor of the Bombay Presidency only to be turned away.
When she remained stubborn and did not budge, the British decided to attack Kittur. The first war on 23rd October 1824 went in favour of Kittur where they managed to take hostage two prominent British officers Stevenson and Walker Elliot who were the assistants of the Principal Collector and Political Agent Thackeray. In fact Thackeray was killed in this battle. The British were too shocked to react quickly and did not expect such a fierce opposition from Rani Chenamma who herself led the army into battle. In the meanwhile Kittur celebrated the coronation of Shivalingappa on October 27, 1824.
While negotiations were on for the release of the two British officers (Rani Chenamma agreed to their release on the condition that Kittur did not have to cede to the British which of course was unacceptable to the British), the British used most of November to put together their troops from nearby places such as Mysore, Chitradurga, Arcot, Madras, Bombay, Poona, Sholapur and Vengurla. The 25000-strong army would be no match for Kittur. On December 1, 1824 Rani Chenamma agreed to release the two officers as the British had promised not to wage war. Once the officers were released the British went back on their word and attacked Kittur on December 3, 1824.
Fierce fighting took place for two days. Kittur and Rani Chenamma did their best to resist the assault. Both sides lost many lives. Rani Chenamma was caught and held prisoner with her daughters-in-law. She died in prison on 2 February, 1829.
The ‘Doctrine of Lapse‘ ring a bell? In 1848, Lord Dalhousie is credited with coming up with a law that required kingdoms without a male heir cede to the East India Company. There have been instances when this rule was applied even before 1848 to annex small princely states. Annexation of Kittur from Rani Chenamma was probably the earliest occurrence. She is also credited to being the first female ruler to stand up to the British. To this day, the people of Kittur revere her and have kept her alive in their folk songs, stories and plays.
Ruins of the palace and fort can be visited. The British carried away all valuables and destroyed the palace. The ruins lay under overgrowth for a long time and the guide told us that people used to be afraid to venture into the ‘unknown’. During its heyday, it was a grand 3-storey palace with a large porch (100feet x 30feet), teak pillars and a dining hall that could seat a 1000 people. The fort wall is visible in parts.
Trivia: In 2015 Bangalore’s main City Railway Station was renamed Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna Railway Station. Sangolli Rayanna was one of Kittur Rani Chenamma’s commander who was also held captive after the war of December 1824. He managed to escape and carried out continuous rebellion against the British for about 4 months and tried very hard to reinstate Shivalingappa on the Kittur throne. However he was caught and hanged.