Kittur Rani Chennamma

On 11th September 2007, a statue of Rani Chenamma was unveiled at the Parliament House Complex by President Pratibha Patil. It seemed fitting that India’s first woman President should inaugurate the image of the first Indian woman who fought against the British governance  - and even managed to win a victory. The statue sculpted by Artist Vijay Gaur was donated by the Chennamma Memorial Committee.  Most of those who read the story and saw the photograph of the statue in the newspapers,  probably had no idea who Rani Chennamma was, but it took me back many years, to a rather close brush with this brave monarch.  

Delhi was preparing for the Republic Day Parade and on 26th January 1973, I met Karnataka’s heroine, popularly known as Kittur Rani Chennamma at 5 am!  With frozen fingers I shook hands with Shandrila Naidu, a spirited young actress from Karnataka, who was taking part in the Republic Day Parade and I had the pleasant task of managing her wardrobe and dressing her as the valiant Kittur Rani Chennamma. Resplendent in a crimson silk sari, a thick gold necklace round her neck, shield strapped on her back, sword in hand and riding a horse with royal trappings, she had miraculously been transformed into Kittur Rani Chennamma. It was unbelievable how similar she looked to the paintings and the statues I had seen, of this brave monarch! But the best part was yet to come.  She was one of the two Queens scheduled to ride on horses in the parade and received thunderous applause as she saluted the President with her sword as she rode by – her two loyal lieutenants on horses behind her.  She looked so splendid,  that the better known Queen of Jhansi, paled in comparison.

But who was Rani Chennamma? Born 56 years before the 1857 rebel Rani of Jhansi, she was the first woman to fight against British governance. Rani Chennamma was the Queen of Kittur, a princely state in Karnataka and history confirms that she was the first to ignite the fire of the freedom struggle - and is among the earliest rebels to fight against British Rule. In Karnataka, tales of her heroic deeds continue to be passed down from one generation to another.

Chennamma was born into a Lingayat family, on 23rd October 1778 in Kakati, a small village in the Belagavi District of Karnataka. It would appear that she was destined to a leader and was trained in horse riding, sword fighting and archery, from a young age. In 1793, at the age of 15 she married Raja Mallasarja, of the Desai family. Unfortunately Rani Chennamma’s husband died in 1824 leaving her a widow of 31 years with a young son.  Soon after her husband’s death, her son also died and it became necessary for Rani Chennamma to find a successor. She adopted the young Shivalingappa, and made him heir of the throne.

However this move by Chennamma, did not suit the British East India Company, who refused to accept Shivallingappa and ordered his expulsion.  They used the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ which is based on the idea that in case the ruler of an independent  state dies childless, the right of ruling the State reverted or ‘lapsed’ to the sovereign. The state of Kittur came under the administration of the Dharwad collectorate and its Commissioner Mr. Chaplin, chose not to recognise the new ruler and regent and notified Kittur to accept British regime. Chennamma defied the order and sent a letter to Lord Elphinstone, Lieutenant-Governor of Bombay Presidency, to plead the cause of Kittur. But he turned down the request, leading the state to face an all out war. 

The British were keenly interested in the gold and jewels in the Kittur treasury, said to be valued at around 1.5 million rupees and tried to confiscate them. But appear to have failed.  They then attacked with a force of 20,000 men and 400 guns, mainly from the third troop of Madras Native Horse Artillery, they attacked Kittur. In the first round of war during October 1824, the British lost heavily and two British officers, Sir Walter Elliot and Mr Stevenson were captured and taken hostage, by the Kittur army.

Rani Chennamma, who essentially had no interest in holding on to the hostages, released them after a promise from the British that the war would end. Instead the war continued with yet more soldiers.  Chennamma fought valiantly with the aid of her loyal lieutenants Sangolli Rayanna and Gurusiddappa, but was ultimately captured and imprisoned at Bailhongal Fort. 

Rayanna, continued a guerrilla war with the British - his aim was to fulfil Rani Chennamma’s dreams and install her adopted son Shivalingappa, as the ruler of Kittur. He was unable to achieve this and was caught and hanged in 1829. Rani Chennamma who had spent her years in prison praying for her dreams to be fulfilled after hearing about Rayanna’s death, gave up all hope and died soon after. Her burial was in Bailhongal taluk, a place visited by many who offer flowers at her ‘samadhi’. The surrounding park however lacks maintenance and is in a rather neglected state. Her samadhi and a statue are located at a park appear to be a testimony of this neglect, as neither Rani Chennamma’s date of birth nor her achievements are mentioned as expected near or at the base of the statue.

The Kittur Fort, despite being an important archaeological site is in ruins. There are many who feel that this brave queen has not been given ‘a fitting tribute’.  After all, we cannot take away the fact that the Fort stands as a symbol of bravery – and is definitely worth visiting. Two cannons in the garden that surrounds the Fort, stand as mute spectators of a war waged by a brave Queen.  These cannons are said to have been captured during her victory with the British troops. In recent years the Fort has attracted more visitors, especially during the 3-day Kittur Utsav held every year between October 22nd and 24th to commemorate the legacy of Kittur Rani Chennamma’s victory.  This is when, the Durbar Hall which is now defined only by its pillars,  turns into a stage for performances from all over Karnataka.

Shona Adhikari