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Polygar (also spelled as Palegara, Palaiyakkarar, Poligar, Palegaadu, Palegar, or Polegar) was the feudal title for a class of territorial administrative and military governors appointed by the Nayaka rulers of South India (notably Vijayanagara Empire, Madurai Nayakas and the Kakatiya dynasty) during 16th – 18th centuries.
The Polygars of Madurai Country were instrumental in establishing administrative reforms by building irrigation projects, forts and religious institutions. 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, Puli Thevar, Dheeran Chinnamalai, the Marudu brothers 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
Palaiyakkarar was the head of Palayam (Tamil), Paleya (Kannada) or Paalem (Telugu), a fortified district or military camp devised by the noted general Ariyanatha Mudaliar of the Madurai Kingdom. Some historians say that the Palaiyakkarar system might have originated from the Kakatiya dynasty's model by Prataparudra, who similarly divided his kingdom among 72 Padmanayakas.
Soon after the Vijayanagara kingdom was formed, it started expanding. The formation was in 1336 AD. By 1378, Kumara Kampana, the prince of Vijayanagaram had conquered the Madurai country. After that the whole of Tamil Nadu and then Kerala followed. By the end of the century, the whole of South India, south of the Krishna-Tungabadra rivers were under its rule. Vijayanagaram was a military state.
The country was divided into small territories under military governors called AmaraNayakkars. The territorial divisions were called 'Amara Nayakka Thaanam's.
Later on this system gave place to the Palayam system.
Dalavaay Ariyanatha Mudhaliar, the minister/general of Visvanatha Nayakkar of Madurai established 72 PaaLayams in the Madurai country. They were placed under the care of the PaaLayakkaarars.
This system outlasted the Madurai Nayakkars. Palayams like Sethu Nadu became kingdoms.
In the Vijayanagara empire, local chieftains called "palegar's" were allowed to rule with limited autonomy by their overlords. They had powers to collect revenue, maintain a small army and impose punishments. They numbered up to 200 during this period. However, they are supposed to have refused to come to the rescue of the empire at the Battle of Tallikota in 1565 AD, which marked the downfall of the Vijayanagara empire.
When the Vijayanagara empire of southern India weakened after the mid-16th century, the Vijayanagara Nayakas, or governors, became the independent rulers of large tracts of southern India. Of the prominent Nayakas were the Nayakas of Madurai (1549–1736), ruling from Madurai and Tiruchirapalli. The Tanjore Naickers opted for a conventional system of administration, while the other Vijaynagar offshoots, namely the Nayakas of Gingee, and other territories under the Aravidu line of later Vijayanagara kings based in Chandragiri – Vellore Fort, followed the Palayam or Palegallu system of administration.
The first Naicker king of Madurai Viswanatha Nayak (1559—1563); a shrewd administrator, assisted by his famous Dalavoy (Governor General) cum Pradhani (first citizen) Ariyanatha Mudaliar are credited with establishing "the polygar (palaiyakkarar) system” in Madurai Kingdom.
The Madurai kingdoms consisted of present-day Western Tamil Nadu with Coimbatore, Salem and Kollidam river forming the northern boundary barring Tanjore Kingdom and Western Ghats forming the western border and Kanniyakumari in the South. To make the territorial administration more efficient, Viswanatha Naicker and Ariyanatha Mudaliar apportioned the country into 72 palaiyams to 72 chieftains, some of them locals and the rest Telugu leaders of detachments who had accompanied Viswanatha Naicker from Vijayanagar. Most Palaiyams were dry tracts of land with scanty rainfall found in the western parts of Tamil Nadu.
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 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 south 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.
- Dheeran Chinnamalai
- Udayarpalayam Poligar
- Ariyalur Mazhavarayaar
- Madakari Nayaka
- Raja Venkatappa Nayaka
- Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy
Rebellions against British
With the downfall of Madurai Kingdom in 1736 anarchy prevailed in those regions. Starting in the 1690s the Madurai Kingdom became a feudatory under the Mughals, represented by the Nawab of Carnatic (The Nawab of Arcot) and after the 1750s the region came under the complete control of the Carnatic Nawab, who was the new overlord of the Polygars.
The Carnatic Nawab’s tax collection efforts often ended in small wars with the polygars, who refused to recognise his authority and considered him as a usurper. The Nawabs often expensive tax collection campaigns and lavish spending drove him to bankruptcy, resorting to huge borrowings from the British. In 1752 the old Madurai Kingdom was leased to a savage warrior Mohammed Yusuf Khan, and was backed with troops from the British and Carnatic Nawab to bring the Polygars into control. He immediately went around pillaging and damaging the country-side to subdue the Polygars, until he was killed by his overlords. But by the end of Yusuf Khan’s life he had bought many polygars under control with several of them killed.
Later in the late 18th century to compensate loans borrowed from British, the Nawab ceded his tax collection rights to the former, who in turn raised the taxes, irrespective of a regions agrian produce, enraging several Polygars.The Polygars saw the British as an unwanted intruder, still refusing to accept the weak Nawab.
One of the earliest to rebel against the British -Carnatic Nawab combine was Puli Thevar, a polygar of Nerkattumseval in the mid 18th century. Nerkattumseval is Palaiyam near the Western Ghats of Madurai region. Puli Thevar Puli Thevar, initially a good ally of Carnatic Nawab, came into conflict with Maruthanayagam Pillai alias Muhammed Yusuf Khan, over payment of dues, erupting into a war. After a prolonged campaign of three years, Maruthanayagam Pillai alias Muhammed Yusuf Khan born in Panaiyur, Ramanathapuram District, Tamil Nadu defeated and captured Puli Thevar and the later's end is uncertain.
The most famous of all Polygars, was Veerapandiya Kattabomman, ruler of Panchalankurichi in present-day Tuticorin district in the late 18th century. Veerapandiya Kattabomman came into conflict with the British who now posted a Tax collector.Kattabomman’s war against the British is often classified as the First Polygar War, later he was captured in an act of betrayal and hanged by the British in 1799. See the separate page of Veerapandiya Kattabomman.
One of the first and popular Palaiyakkarar, was the Kongu chieftain Theerthagiri Gounder, widely known as Dheeran Chinnamalai. He was the main leader in the Polygar Wars and commanded a vast army made up of mostly Kongu youths, notabely in the second Polygar War between 1800–1805. Maveeran Dheeran Chinnamalai rose up in revolt against the British East India Company. He was captured in an act of betrayal and hanged by the British.
The Polygar Wars were a series of wars fought by a coalition of Palaiyakkarar'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.
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 under cover 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 Zamindari status, which had only tax collection rights and disarmed them completely.
Modern historians credit the Polygars for their massive re-structuring work (following the 14th century mayhem), which provided a massive fillip to economic and agricultural growth and helping in restoring order, leading to formation of many new towns and villages (pettai and palaiyam suffixes found in Tamil Nadu today).
Incidents do point towards some disorderly polygars, who took things in their hand, becoming mini tyrants and corrupt, earning the wrath of their citizens. Some accounts were often exaggerated by the chroniclers of English East India Company to justify their occupation over these regions. But such were the nature, often found in any administration including the administrative officers in English East India Company officers, the Deccan Sultans and the Jahirs of the Mughals.
The region after the downfall of Madurai Kingdom was marked by a complete confusion, mayhem and disruption of general life, exacerbated by severe droughts in 1782, 1783,1807,1823,1833 and 1854.
The revision and collection of the tax by the British East India Company, who were ill-suited or inexperienced for the purpose (as they were British traders and Military officers rather than administrators), resulted in growing resentment between the Polygars and the British.
When the districts of Rayalaseema were ceded to British rule, the local palegars refused to share the revenue with the British. The British collector in Rayalaseema, Thomas Monroe, ordered the arrest of the palegar of Koikuntla, Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, who was hanged publicly. After that, however, the British allowed the palegars to remain. They numbered around 80 in the region and were permitted to conduct their own courts. For example, Dosakayala Venkata Subba Reddy would hold court every day at 10 am and judgments delivered by him had no appeal. In some areas palegars encouraged their private armies to indulge in dacoit activities and took a share of the booty.
Until the 1960 release of a movie about Veerapandya Kattabomman, the acts of the Palaiyakkarars were recognised through folk songs and ballads in western Tamil Nadu and often ignored elsewhere. Today, Puli Thevar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Dheeran Chinnamalai and the Marudu brothers all are honoured with monuments by the Government of Tamil Nadu.
Historic sites and landmarks
- Madurai Bastion office – The remaining structure of the Polygar Bastion near Periyar Bustand in Madurai is one of the remaining 72 structures.
- Panchalankurichi – Kattabomman’s re-erected fort reproduction in Tutucorin district.
- Sankagiri Fort – Deeran Chinnamalais’ fort in Coimbatore Salem highway
- Sivagangai – Marudhu Brothers Monument in Sivaganga town
- Dindigul Fort – Fort built by Nayak but later strengthened by the Mysore ruler Hyder Ali, served as a prison for all captured Polygars.
- Singampatti Palace Fort
- Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1998). "Reflections on State-Making and History-Making in South India, 1500-1800". Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient,. 41 (3).
- Rao, Velcheru Narayana, and David Shulman, Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Symbols of substance : court and state in Nayaka period Tamil Nadu (Delhi ; Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1998) ; xix, 349 p.,  p. of plates : ill., maps ; 22 cm. ; Oxford India paperbacks ; Includes bibliographical references and index ; ISBN 0-19-564399-2.
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- Balendu Sekaram, Kandavalli, 1909–. The Nayakas of Madura by Khandavalli Balendusekharam (Hyderabad : Andhra Pradesh Sahithya Akademi, 1975) ; 30 p. ; 22 cm. ; "World Telugu Conference publication." ; History of the Telugu speaking Nayaka kings of Pandyan Kingdom, Madurai, 16th–18th century.
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- D. Sreenivasulu, "Palegars or factionists, they call the shots in Rayalaseema", The Hindu (online) 24 January 2005.