Polygar (also spelled Palegara, Palaiyakkarar, Poligar, Palegaadu, Palegar, or Polegar means a chieftain) was the feudal title for a class of territorial administrative and military governors (petty kings) appointed by the Nayaka rulers of South India notably Kakatiya Empire, Vijayanagara Empire, and the Madurai Nayakas during the 16th–18th centuries. In Karnataka, ‘Poligar’s became prominent during and after the reign of Vijayanagara kings. A few Polygars did exist even before that. For instance, Gummanayakana Palya was established by Bedar Nayaka chief Narasimha Nayaka in 1243 A.D. In an exception Bahmani Sultanate and the kings of the Adil Shahi dynasty also allowed the chieftains to blossom under their control. Nayakas of Shorapur are the prominent Polygar's under Bahmani sultans.
The Polygars of South India were instrumental in establishing administrative reforms by building irrigation projects, forts and religious institutions and also in protecting Hindu religion from invaders after the fall of Vijayanagar Empire. The Polygars who worshipped the goddess Kali did not allow their territory to be annexed by Aurangzeb. The Venkateswara Temple, of Tirumala was also untouched by the invaders because of these Polygars.
In present Tamil Nadu region their wars with the British East India Company after the demise of the Madurai Nayakas is often regarded as one of the earliest struggles for Indian independence. The British hanged many and banished others to the Andaman Islands. Veerapandya Kattabomman, Maveeran Alagumuthu Kone, Puli Thevar, Dheeran Chinnamalai, Maruthanayagam Pillai,the Marudu brothers, Raja Venkatappa Nayaka and Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy were some notable Polygars who rose up in revolt against the British rule in South India. The war against the British forces predates the Indian rebellion of 1857 in Northern India by many decades but is still largely given less importance by historians.
Name and origins
Polygar was the head (chieftain) of Palayam (Tamil), Paleya (Kannada) or Paalem (Telugu), a fortified district or temporary military camp. These chieftains stayed in tents erected outside the capital city whenever they visited the Kings. Consequently, they were called ‘Paleyagar’s. These chieftains collected revenue from their subjects and were responsible for law and order. They had their own armies and rushed to support whichever King they owed their allegiance at a given point whenever the need arose. Some of them like the Nayakas of Keladi, Nayakas of Chitradurga, Nayakas of Madurai, Wadiyars of Mysore became very powerful and established their own dynasties. Another interesting point to be noted is that these Polygars were neither Kshatriyas nor Brahmins. They belonged to a number of landowning communities and nomadic tribes. As most of the Polygars of South India are either from Bedar Nayaka caste (Boyar (caste)/Ramoshi/Bhil/Nishad) or from it's sub-castes, Bedar Nayaka's are often referred as Palegars, Palaiyakkarars and Nayakas. However, they were more or less eliminated almost in South India (especially in Karnataka) during the rule of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. Some historians say that the Polygar system might have originated from the Kakatiya dynasty's model by Prataparudra, who similarly divided his kingdom among 72 Padmanayakas.
Role of a Polygar
The Polygar's role was to administer their Palaiyams (territories) from their fortified centres. Their chief functions were to collect taxes, maintain law and order, run the local judiciary, and maintain a battalion of troops for the king.
They served as a regional military and civil administrators. In turn, they were to retain ¼ of the revenue collected as tax and submit the remaining to the King's treasury. The Polygars also at times founded villages, built dams, constructed tanks and built temples. Also, the rulers taxed regions according to the cultivable and fertility of the land. Often several new rainwater tanks were erected in the semi-arid tracts of western and southern Tamil Nadu.
Their armed status was also to protect the civilians from robbers and dacoits who were rampant in those regions and from invading armies which often resorted to pillaging the villages and countryside.
The Polygar Wars were a series of wars fought by a coalition of Polygar's against the British between 1798 and 1805. The war between the British and Veerapandiya Kattabomman is often classified as the First Polygar war (1799), while the Second Polygar War 1800–1805 against the British was fought by a much bigger coalition over the whole of western Tamil Nadu headed by Dheeran Chinnamalai and Maruthu Pandiyar brother of the Sivaganga. In Karnataka, Sarja Rangappa Nayaka of Tarikere (1831) and Raja Venkatappa Nayaka of Shorapur (1858) were the two prominent Polygars who revolted against Britishers.
The Polygars often had artillery and stubbornly resisted the storming of their hill forts. The British columns were exposed throughout the operations to constant harassing attacks and had usually to cut their way through almost impenetrable jungles while being fired on from undercover on all sides. It took more than a year to suppress the rebellion completely.
After a long and expensive campaign, the British finally defeated the rebelling Polygars, of whom many were beheaded and hanged while others were deported to the Andaman Islands. Of the Polygars who submitted to the British, some of them were granted Zamindar status, which had only tax collection rights and disarmed them completely.
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