Karnataka Goddess of Courage - KITTUR RANI CHENNAMMA

  • By Dr S. Srikanta Sastri
  • April 27 2019
  • Kittur was a small principality near Belgaum ruled by the Sardesais from 1585.
  • This is the story of heroic struggle of Kittur against the British. Rani Chennamma defeated the British but was captured later.

With the disappearance of the two most formidable opponents of the British, the Marathas and the rulers of Mysore, Haidar and Tipu, the way for the consolidation of British power became clear by about 1820 A. D. The East India Company found itself in a position of paramount importance and proceeded to enforce a new Rule of Law, caring little for the sentiments and aspirations of the people.

The history of the British in India has been divided into five periods by Michael Edwards. First, there were the Elizabethan Adventurers who established precarious trading stations with the favour of the Moghul emperors and local rulers. Then came the period of interference in the affairs of the local rulers trying to eliminate the French and other European powers. This lasted down to about 1820 A. D. Next the pretence of trading was given up and also the policy of neutrality in religion. An evangelical revolution was inaugurated and freedom was given to various Christian missions to convert the people. This culminated in the Mutiny of 1857. After 1857 down to 1908 there was conscious imperialism, Victorian capitalism and exploitation. And lastly the forces which the British themselves had invoked resulted in the long-drawn-out struggle for national independence.

The Mutiny has been termed as the first war for national independence or as essentially a religious revolt, as a slave revolt against tyranny, etc. There were various contributing factors but it is an acknowledged fact that the ‘greased cartridges’ touched off the incidents at Meerut.

Cornwallis began the policy of estrangement of the Indians. The Charter Act of 1813 removed the ban on missionary activities. The evangelical revolution began with Bentinck’s reforms in 1830. The English imagined that they had acquired a moral mission. The Evangelicals thought that the Government could be both imperial and Christian. This attitude changed completely after 1857 when the imperial interests alone became paramount.

The Mutiny of 1857 was neither a revolt of all the people of India nor a revolution. It was not a fight for democratic principles. Revolutions are made by a determined minority, well-disciplined and organised, exploiting the blind resentment and hate. Even in Europe nationalism became a conscious force in the middle of the 19th century only. It is however true that there was a general resentment against foreign rule shared alike by the princes and the peasants. Dalhousie’s deliberate policy of annexation of States throughout India, without caring for the sentiments of the people, had created general alarm. The Sepoys took the initiative in North India and all the Nawabs, Talukdars and princes who had been reduced to impotence, after great hesitation, joined the mutineers in a desperate bid to recover their lost power and prestige.

But there was no premeditated planning nor a central organised body to plan and conduct the campaign. Even the whole Indian army was not on the side of the mutineers nor all the Indian princes. South India was practically untouched. Mysore, Travancore, Hyderabad, Madras and Bombay had been reduced to abject surrender and helped the British. Nana and Tantiya Tope flying from the pursuing British armies could find no refuge in the Maratha country and had to escape to the Himalayas.

Mysore was under the rule of the Commissioners. The Maharaja had long been deprived of executive authority. Even so, after the mutiny was suppressed and the British ordered an inquiry, the Maharaja was so nervous of being implicated in the “All-India Conspiracy” theory that he hastened to placate Queen Victoria and the members of Parliament. One Sitaram Baba, a Bairagi, was examined by H. B. Devereux, the Judicial Commissioner of Mysore and Captain J. L. Pearse from 18th January to 25th. Sitaram alleged that even 20 years earlier a conspiracy had been started by Baija Bai of Gwalior and later Nana with the help of Gulab Singh of Jammu, Seth Lakshmi Chand of Mathura and Jang of Hyderabad sent the “chappatis” to all the princes including the Maharaja of Mysore. After investigation, Canning dismissed this story of an all-India conspiracy.


Among the Karnataka rulers who had been the subordinates of the Peshwas were the Sardesais of Kittur, a place near Belgaum. When Cornwallis made a treaty with the Marathas in the last war against Tipu in 1799, it was agreed that the Paleygars of Kittur, Bellary, Chitradurga, Harapanahalli, Raydurg, Anegondi, etc., who had been deprived of their possessions by Hyder and Tipu, should be re-established in their territories. Tipu after his treaty with Nana Phadnis in 1785 had treacherously seized Nargund and Kittur. In 1787 Tipu was compelled to cede Badami, Kittur and Nargund to the Marathas.

The rulers of Kittur from about 1585 had been ruling the principality for about ten generations. The British policy of annexation on the lapse of direct heirs led to the confiscation of the Paleypat but not before a spirited struggle by Chennamma. The story of Kittur Chennamma has been preserved in many Kannada works which have been collected and partly published by the Itihasa Mandala of Bail Hongal. “Kitturu Bandaya”, “Mallasarja Kavya”, “Kitturu Rajyadays”, “Chennamma Rani Charita”, Persian and Marathi documents, folk songs or Lavanis, Kaifiyats and Bakhars have been published.

The story of the fall of Kittur is one of heroic but futile struggle, without a definite plan of sense of unity. Mallappa Sarja, the eleventh ruler of Kittur, had served under the Peshwa Baji Rao II and had received the title Pratapa Rao. The Peshwa sent his Karbhari Manikeswar to bring the Desai to his court at Poona. But Malla Sarja suspecting the motive of Baji, refused to go. Baji Rao under the pretext of visiting Kartika Swami of Sondur came with Madhava Rao Raste and the Patwardhans and at Pandarapur was joined by Chintaman Rao, Appa Sahib, the Desai of Nippani, received Baji Rao near the Nanadi River and the whole army moved to Ghodgeri and Hongal. From Hongal, Baji Rao went to Sondur, worshipped the God Kartikeya and prayed for a son. Then he went back by way of Gudur, Kampili, Hosapet, Bagalkot and Badami and Gurl Hosur.

Mallappa Sarja could no longer evade meeting Baji and having entrusted the administration to his mother-in-law Nilavva and his eldest son Bapu Sahib, proceeded with his younger son, Virappa, to Hongal. But Baji Rao had meanwhile passed on to Marihal and Edur. There he enquired of the Desai of Sengunisi why Mallappa Sarja had not met him. Allappa Gowda of Sengunisi gave an account of the Kittur Desai. Baji Rao ordered that a list should be made of all the dues from the Kittur Desai, which came to six lakhs of rupees. Allappa Gowda stood security for the amount. Allappa Gowda forced the Kittur Desai to go to Poona. The Deshpandes of Bailur and other places complained about the exactions made by Kittur Desai and the Peshwa ordered that the Desai should be imprisoned in Mudholkar house. Malla Sarja made many attempts to secure his release and sent his agent Virasangappa to the Peshwa but was refused an interview.

Malla Sarja was languishing in prison and his mother-in-law Nilavva died of grief. Malla Sarja also became ill and sent Ramalingappa to his second wife Chennamma with a letter giving Desagat to his eldest son, the Bapu Sahib, Tigadi and Hongala to his brothers. On Kartika Suddha 12, the Peshwa was celebrating Tulasi Puja and ordered that all the Desais should attend. When he found that the Kittur Desai was absent because of illness, he permitted the Desai to go home. The Desai left Poona and came to Edur. He sent for his family and they met at Durdundi. They came back by way of Hongala and Bolwadi to Kittur. But the Desai was already unconscious and soon after passed away. Sivalinga Sarja succeeded as the Desai.

Meanwhile the British had put an end to the Maratha Kingdom. Munro on July 28, 1818, Fasli 1228, had given to Sivalinga Sarja Pratap Rao, Samsher Jung Bahadur, the Sardesai and Sarnadgowda, Mamle Hubli vagaire, a Samnad. Kittur had to pay the British army expenses of 1,75,000 rupees for the possession of 14 Karyatas (taluks) and Hale Hubballi, including 286 villages and 72 Koppalas. The English gave to Kittur as Ahera 3,955 Shahpuri rupees. The total income of Kittur came to about 36 lacs of rupees.

No Heir

This Sivalinga Sarja died in 1824. Before he died he had adopted the son of Mastamaradi Gowda. Malla Sarja had four wives — Rudravva, the mother of Sivalinga Sarja, Chennamma, Nilamma and Sivalingamma. It was this Chennamma who had been entrusted with the government by Malla Sarja. She had looked after Sivalinga Sarja and before his death brought about the adoption.

The Political Agent Thackery refused to recognise the adoption as it was alleged to have taken place after the death of Sivalinga Sarja by his widow Viramma. Mallappa Setti and Venkata Raya are said to have gone to Thackery and offered to surrender Kittur to the British. Thackery proclaimed, that until the matter was settled by the Governor-General, the properties should be sealed and controlled by a British agent. The Civil Surgeon also gave a decision that the adoption was false and could not be recognised by the British.

Chennamma resolved to oppose the British and in many skirmishes some European children were taken prisoners. But Chennamma looked after them carefully and restored them safely. Thackery, touched by the generosity of Chennamma, came forward with a flag of peace.

But unfortunately Chennamma resented the demand to surrender the fort and fought with the British on October 22, 1824. Thackery was killed by a shot from Amatur Syod Bala Saheb and the Political Agent Elliot and Stevenson were taken prisoners. Chennamma also defeated a contingent from Dharwar.

The news of this defeat compelled the British to send Commissioner Chaplain and Lieutenant-Colonel Deakon with a large army against Kittur. The British army consisted of cavalry, artillery, Madras Native Sepoys and Bombay Native infantry.

On December 2, the attack was made on the fort and a secret path was betrayed to the British. Chennamma fought to the last but was persuaded to escape. But she was captured by the British and imprisoned at Bailhongal for six years. Sangolli Rayanna, Bichugatti Chennabasappa, Gajavira and Balanna maintained contact with Chennamma and created disturbances.

The British captured Sangolli Rayanna and hanged him. Chennamma died on February 2, 1830, in prison. In the year of the Mutiny, 1857 Sivalingappa, adopted by the last Desai of Kittur, attempted to revolt in Samogaon and Bidi but was easily suppressed. The heroic story of Chennamma and Sangolli Rayanna is even now sung in Karnataka.


Author Dr S. Srikanta Sastri, M.A., D. Litt (1904-1974) was renowned historian and a polyglot, who contributed profoundly to the world of historical study and research. To read his impressive and full profile.


Article was first published here. Visit Dr Sastri's impressive site https://www.srikanta-sastri.org/. eSamskriti has obtained permission to share.


Also read about other great queens of India


1 Ahilyabai Holkar of Maheshwar

2 Warrior Queen Rani Durgawati and Naikidevi

3 Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi

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