Polygar War

Polygar War

Polygar War or Palayakarar Wars refers to the wars fought between the Polygars ("Palayakarrars") of former Madurai Kingdom in Tamil Nadu, India and the British colonial forces between March 1799 to May 1802. The British finally won after carrying out long and difficult protracted jungle campaigns against the Polygar armies and finally defeated them. Many lives were lost on both sides and the victory over Polygars made large part of territories of Tamil Nadu coming under British control enabling them to get a strong hold in India.

First Polygar War 1799

The war between the British and Kattabomman Nayak of Panchalankurichi Palayam in the then Tirunelveli region is often classified as the First Polygar war. In 1799, a brief meeting (over pending taxes) between Kattabomman and the British ended in a bloody encounter in which the British commander of the forces was slain by the former. A price was put on Kattabomman head prompting many Polygars to an open rebellion.

After a series of battles in the Panchalankurichi fort with additional reinforcements from Thiruchirapalli, Kattabomman was defeated but he escaped to the jungles in Pudukottai country. Here he was captured by Pudukottai Rajah (after an agreement with the British) and after a summary trial Kattabomman was hanged in front of the public in order to intimidate them, near Kayattar Fort, close to the town of Kovilpatti and in front of fellow Polygars too who had been summoned to witness the execution.

Subramania Pillai, a close associate of Kattabomman Nayak, was also publicly hanged and his head was fixed on a pike at Panchalankurichi for public view. Soundra Pandian Nayak, another rebel leader, was brutally done to death by having his head dashed against a village wall. Kattabomman’s brother Oomaidurai was imprisoned in Palayankottai prison while the fort was razed to ground and his wealth looted by the troops.

econd Polygar War 1800-1802

Despite the suppression of the First Polygar War in 1799, rebellion broke out again in 1800. The Second war was more stealthy and covert in nature. The leaders operated more cohesive and united with people from Kerala and Mysore taking part. Also it marked the joining of entire west Tamil Nadu, Malabar and south Mysore regions (which was under British domain after the death of Tipu Sultan).

The Palayakarar army initially made surprise attacks in night to the British barracks causing heavy damage but went into a full scale war after the death of Tipu Sultan. The war often classified as guerilla warfare in nature made the British troops difficult to suppress.

The Palayakarrars were all in control of their forts, had artillery and even had a weapon manufacturing unit in Salem and Dindigul jungles. They also received clandestine training from the French in Karur areas.The confederacy of the new forces consisted of Marudhu Pandian Brothers of Sivaganga, Gopal Nayak of Dindigul, Kerala Verma of Malabar and Krishnappa Nayak and Dhoondaji of Mysore.

The rebellion broke out when a band of Polygar armies bombed the British barracks in Coimbatore in 1800. The British columns were exposed throughout the operations to constant harassing attacks; and had usually to cut their way through almost impenetrable jungles fired on from undercover on all sides. The Polygars often had artillery and resisted stubbornly and the storming of their hill-forts proved on several occasions sanguinary work.

By May 1801, it had reached the Southern provinces where Marudu Pandian, Melappan and Puttur provided the leadership. Oomathurai, the brother of Kattabomman Nayak emerged as a key leader. In February 1801, Oomathurai and two hundred men by a clever tactic took control of Panchalamkuriclli Fort, in which Oomathurai's relatives were imprisoned. Its fort now re-occupied and reconstructed by rebel forces Panchalamkurichi became the nerve centre of the uprising.

British dismay was boundless. As one eyewitness put it: 'to our utter astonishment, we discovered that the walls which had been entirely levelled were now rebuilt and fully manned by about fifteen hundred Poligars'.

Three thousand armed men of Madurai and Ramanathapuram dispatched by Marudu Pandiyan Brothers joined up with the Panchalankurichi forces.


The British finally won after a long expensive campaign that took more than a year. However, the superior British military who had recently defeated the powerful Tipu Sultan of Mysore quickly asserted itself. The British had better artillery compared to the Polygar troops who had country-made gunfire artillery, barring a few proper ones received from erstwhile Tipu Sultan's army. The war being regional in nature, the British forces could easily mobilize additional forces from other regions.

The Polygar forces based at Panchalankurichi were crushed and by the orders of the colonial government, the site of the captured Panchalankurichi Fort was ploughed up and sowed with castor oil and salt so that it should never again be inhabited.The colonial forces quickly overpowered the remaining insurgents. The Marudu brothers and their sons were put to death, while Oomathurai and Sevathaiah were beheaded at Panchalankurichi on 16 November, 1801. Seventy-three of the principal rebels were sentenced to perpetual banishment. 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 Polygar rebellions of 1799 and 1800-1801 resulted in the liquidation of the influence of the chieftains. Under the terms of the Carnatic Treaty (31 July, 1801), the British assumed direct control over Tamil Nadu. The Polygar system which had flourished for two and a half centuries came to a violent end and the Company introduced a Zamindari settlement in its place.

Later day folklore

In subsequent years, a good deal of legend and folklore would develop around Kattabomman and the Marudu Pandiyan Brothers. Long after Kattabomman's execution, Kayattar, his place of death, remained a place of political pilgrimage.


* N. Rajendran, National Movement in Tamil Nadu, 1905-1914 - Agitational Politics and State Coercion, Madras Oxford University Press.
* M.P. Manivel, 2003 - Viduthalaipporil Virupachi Gopal Naickar (Tamil Language), New Century Book House, Chennai
* Prof. K.Rajayyan M.A., M.Litt, A.M. Ph.D., A History of Freedom Struggle in India
* Prof. K.Rajayyan M.A., M.Litt, A.M. Ph.D., South Indian Rebellion - The First War of Independence (1800-1801)

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