Female rulers in India have always been an inspiration to everyone in this country, especially women, but do we know who was the first to be the beacon light? The first woman independence activist of Bharat, one of the first female rulers to rebel against the British Empire was Rani Chennamma.
“She did not step back looking at the mighty army of British,but fought with great vigor, expert skill, and courage.”
Almost 56 years earlier than Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Rani Chennamma was born in Kakati (a small village in the north of Belgaum in Karnataka), on October 23, 1778. She was trained in archery, sword fighting, and horse riding and quickly became known for her bravery and skills. At the age of 15 years, she was married to Mallasarja Desai, the ruler of Kittur. 23 years later, in 1816, her husband passed away leaving her with a young son. Her son too died a few years later in 1824. After her son’s death, Chennamma adopted a boy named Shivalingappa and named him the heir to the throne. However, Chennamma’s adopted son was not accepted by the British East India Company on the grounds of the Doctrine of Lapse introduced by Lord Dalhousie. According to this doctrine, if the ruler of a state dies without a natural heir, the state would be ruled by the sovereign. Thus, the state of Kittur would be brought under British rule.
When notified of this, she wrote a letter to the Lieutenant-Governor of the Bombay Presidency, Mountstuart Elphinstone pleading her cause. However, the request was turned down and the British attacked Kittur with over 20,000 men mainly from the Madras Native Horse Artillery in order to confiscate the jewels of Kittur worth 15 lakh rupees. The queen was victorious in the first round of the war in October 1824. St John Thackeray, the collector and political agent in Kittur was killed while two British officers, Mr. Stevenson and Sir Walter Elliot were taken as hostages.
To avoid further destruction and loss, Rani Chennamma negotiated with British Commissioner Mr. Chaplin and the Governor of Bombay, under whose regime Kittur fell.Since the British promised the termination of the war, the hostages were released. However, the British forces continued to attack with more force. Humiliated by first defeat, the British fought with much larger forces this time. She and her lieutenant Sangolli Rayanna and Gurusiddappa. fought bravely. During this second round of war, the Sub-collector of Sholapur, Mr. Munrow, nephew of Sir Thomas Munro, was also killed. For 12 days, Chennamma and her soldiers relentlessly defended their fort, but yet again, Chennamma was made a prey to deceit. Two soldiers of her own army, Mallappa Shetty and Venkata Rao betrayed Chennamma by mixing mud and cow dung with the gunpowder used for the canons.
The Rani was defeated (1824 CE). She was taken a prisoner and kept in the fort of Bailhongal for life, where she spent her time reading holy books. With time her health began to deteriorate and she finally breathed her last on February 21st, 1829. Her struggle inspired her lieutenant who continued to fight against the British on her behalf. He too was subsequently caught and hanged by the British.
Every year, Kittur celebrates the Kittur Utsava from the 22nd to the 24th of October in Rani Chennamma’s name. As a mark of respect to the queen, erstwhile President Pratibha Patil unveiled a statue of her in front of the Indian Parliament Complex on September 11th, 2007. Two other statues were also installed in Bangalore and Kittur. A daily train between Bangalore and Kolhapur was named after the Rani as the Rani Chennamma Express. Her life was also captured on film in the form of a historical-drama film by B. R. Panthulu. The film is named Kitturu Chennamma.
Along with Onake Obavva, Abbakka Rani and Keladi Chennamma, she is much revered in Karnataka as an icon of bravery. On the martyrdom day of Rani Chennamma, we pay our obeisances to this great warrior. May her inspiration light the fire of bravery and courage in all of us and keep us motivated for the years to come.