In Tamil Nadu, as in other parts of India, the earliest expressions of opposition to British rule took the form of localized rebellions and uprisings. Chief among these was the revolt of the Palayakkarars (Poligars) against the East India Company.
The Palayakkarar system had evolved with the extension of Vijayanagar rule into Tamil Nadu. Each Palayakkarar was the holder of a territory or Palayam (usually consisting of a few villages), granted to him in return for military service and tribute. In most cases, the Palayakkarars gave little attention to perform their duties and were interested in increasing their own powers. With their numerical strength, extensive resources, local influence and independent attitude, the Palayakkarars came to constitute a powerful force in the political system of south India. They regarded themselves as independent, sovereign authorities within their respective Palayams, arguing that their lands had been handed down to them across a span of sixty generations. Such claims were brushed aside by the East India Company.
Among the Palayakkarars, there were two blocs, namely the Western and the Eastern blocs. The Western bloc had Marava Palayakkarars and the Eastern bloc had Telugu Palayakkarars. Puli Thevar of Nerkkattumseval headed the former and Kattabomman of Panchalamkuruchi led the latter. These two Palayakkarars refused to pay the kist (tribute) to the Nawab and rebelled.
Many of the neighbouring Palayakkarars put up certain pretexts and did not pay the tribute. Mahfuz Khan, with the assistance of the British army under Col. Heron undertook an expedition to suppress the revolt in March 1755. Puli Thevar and the Marava Palayakkarars of the Western bloc stood firm against the British. Col. Heron decided to deal with the Maravas firmly.
Col. Heron tried to change the mind of Puli Thevar by diplomatic moves and by show of force. But he failed in his attempts. Puli Thevar proceeded to consolidate his position by organising the Marava Palayakkarars of the West into a strong confederacy. He also attemp-ted to get the support of Haider Ali of Mysore and the French against the British. The British approached Ramnad, Pudukottai and the Dutch for help. Haider Ali couldn't help Puli Thevar due to a Mysore-Maratha struggle. Yusuf Khan (Khan Sahib) was entrusted by the British with the duty of tackling Puli Thevar and his allies.
Puli Thevar attacked Madurai and captured it from Mahfuz Khan. Puli Thevar's military success had no parallel. The native ruler triumphed against the British. It is a clear demonstration of the Marava might and the heroism of the patriots. But Yusuf Khan recaptured Madurai. With the help of the Palayakkarars of the Eastern bloc and the king of Travancore, Yusuf Khan had many victories. After fierce battles, Nerkkattumseval was attacked in 1759. In 1767, this city was captured by Col. Campbell. Puli Thevar escaped and died in exile without finally fulfilling his purpose of checking the growth of the British influence. Although his attempt ended in failure, he leaves a valiant trail of a struggle for independence in the history of South India.
Vira Pandya Kattabomman became the Palayakkarar of Panchalamkuruchi at the age of thirty on the death of his father, Jagavira Pandya Kattabomman. The Company's administrators, James London and Colin Jackson had considered him as a man without education but of peaceful disposition. Yet, several events led to the conflict between Kattabomman and East India Company. During this period the collection of tribute served as a cause of friction. The Nawab of Arcot who had this right surrendered it to the English under the provisions of the Karnatac Treaty of 1792.
Therefore, the chief of Panchalamkuruchi, Kattabomman had to pay tribute to the English. In September 1798, the tribute from Kattabomman fell into arrears.
Collector Jackson in his characteristic arrogance and rashness wrote letters to Kattabomman in a threatening language. There is a tradition to indicate that Kattabomman declared : ' It rains, the land yields, why should we pay tax to the English?' By the 31 May 1789, the total arrears of tribute from Kattabomman amounted to 3310 pagodas. Though Jackson wanted to send an army against Kattabomman, the Madras Government did not give permission.
Hence, on the 18 August 1798 Jackson sent an order to Kattabomman to meet him at Ramanathapuram within two weeks. In the meantime, Kattabomman went with arrears of tribute to meet Jackson. Kattabomman was humiliated twice by Jackson when theformer wanted to meet him at Tirukuttalam and Srivilliputttur. But he was told that he could meet the collector only at Ramanathapuram. Despite this humiliation, Kattabomman followed Jackson for twenty three days in a journey of 400 miles through the latter's route and reached Ramanathapuram on the 19 September.
An interview was granted by Jackson and Kattabomman cleared most of the arrears leaving only 1090 pagodas as balance. During this interview Kattabomman and his Minister, Sivasubramania Pillai, had to stand before the arrogant collector for three hours together. Still he did not permit them to leave the place, but directed them to stay inside the fort. Kattabomman suspected the intensions of Jackson. Hence, he tried to escape with his minister and brother Oomathurai. At the gate of the fort there followed a clash, in which some people including Lieutenant Clarke were killed. Sivasubramania Pillai was taken prisoner. But Kattabomman escaped.
After his return to Panchalamkuruchi, Kattabomman appealed to the Madras Council submitting the facts. The Madras Government directed Kattabomman to appear before a Committee. Meanwhile, the government released Sivasubramania Pillai and suspended the Collector, Jackson. In response Kattabomman decided to submit. He appeared before the Committee, with William Brown, William Oram and John Casmayor as members. The Committee found Kattabomman not guilty. S. R. Lushington was now appointed Collector in the place of Jackson, latter was eventually dismissed from service.
Thus the English removed the source of grievance to Kattabomman. Yet, the humiliation suffered by Kattabomman affected his self-respect. During this time, Marudu Pandyan of Sivaganga organized the South Indian Confederacy of rebels against the British. The Tiruchirappalli Proclamation was made. He sent missions Panchalamkuruchi. Thus a close association between Kattabomman and Marudu Pandyan established. The events now moved to a crisis. In August 1798 the son of the Palayakkarar of Sivagiri and his adviser visited Panchalamkuruchi and held consultations. Kattabomman decided to establish his influence in Sivagiri with the aid of the son of the Palayakkarar. As the Palayakkarar of Sivagiri was a tributary to the Company, the Madras Council considered this move as a challenge to its own authority and ordered war against Kattabomman.
In May 1799, Lord Wellesley issued orders from Madras for the advance of forces from Tiruchirappalli, Thanjavur and Madurai to Tirunelveli. Major Bannerman, armed with extensive powers, assumed the command of the expedition. On the 1 September, 1799 the Major served an ultimatum directing Kattabomman to surrender and attend on him at Palayamkottai on the 4th. Kattabomman replied that he would submit on a lucky day.
Bannerman considered this reply as evasive and decided on military action. On 5 September Kattabomman's fort was attacked. On the 16th reinforcements reached from Palayamkottai. In a clash at Kolarpatti the Palayakkarar troops suffered heavy casualty and Sivasubramania Pillai was taken prisoner. Kattabomman escaped to Pudukkottai. The ruler of Pudukkottai captured Kattabomman from the jungles of Kalapore and handed him over to the British.
Bannerman brought the prisoners to an assembly of the Palayakkarars and after a mockery of trial sentenced them to death. Sivasubramania Pillai was executed at Nagalapuram on the 13th of September. On the 16th of October Vira Pandyan was tried before an assembly of Palayakkarars, summoned at Kayattar. In an assertive tone and with contempt for death he admitted the charges levelled against him. Thereupon, Bennerman announced death penalty. On the 17th of October Kattabomman was hanged to death at a conspicuous spot near the old fort of Kayattar. Vira Pandyan faced the last moments of his life with the pride of a hero.
Despite the exemplary repression of Palayakkarars in 1799, rebellion broke out again in 1800, this time in a more cohesive and united manner. Although the 1800-1801 rebellion was to be categorized in the British records as the Second Palayakkarar War, it assumed a much broader character than its predecessor. It was directed by a confederacy consisting of Marudu Pandian of Sivaganga, Gopala Nayak of Dindugal, Kerala Verma of Malabar and Krishnappa Nayak and Dhoondaji of Mysore.
The insurrection, which broke out in Coimbatore in June 1800, soon spread to Ramanathapuram and Madurai. By May 1801, it had reached the northern provinces, where Marudu Pandian and Melappan provided the leadership. Oomathurai, the brother of Kattabomman emerged as a key leader. In February 1801, Oomathurai and two hundred men by a cleverly move took control of Panchalamkuruchi Fort.
The fort now re-occupied and reconstructed by rebel forces, Panchalamkuruchi became the centre of the uprising. Three thousand armed men of Madurai and Ramanathapuram, despatched by Marudu Pandian, joined up with the Panchalamkuruchi forces. However, British forces quickly asserted itself. The Palayakkarar forces based at Panchalamkuruchi were crushed. By the orders of the government, the site of the captured fort was ploughed up and sowed with castor oil and salt so that it should never again be inhabited.
The British forces quickly overpowered the remaining insurgents. The Marudu brothers and their sons were put to death. Oomathurai and Sevatiah were beheaded at Panchalamkuruchi on 16 November, 1801. Seventy-three of the principal rebels were sentenced to transportation. So savage and extensive was the death and destruction wrought by the English that the entire region was left in a state of terror.
The suppression of the Palayakkarar rebellions of 1799 and 1800-1801 resulted in the liquidation of the influence of the chieftains. Under the terms of the Karnatac Treaty (31 July, 1801), the British assumed direct control over Tamil Nadu. The Palayakkararr system came to a violent end and the Company introduced the Zamindari settlement in its place.