Valari and the Early Uprising against East India Company: A Brief History
Valari or Valai thadi (translates to Bent Stick) or throwing stick is a sharp crescent-shaped weapon, which was an ancient hunting weapon of the Tamil people. The weapon might have come into existence by the ‘Sangam Age’ (a vital period in the history of South India – constitutes between 300 BC and 200 AD). The weight of this curved weapon (usually made of wood or iron). is balanced in the middle and men trained in using Valari held it by the lighter end. It is then hurled with great force to bring down predators threatening the cattle or to hunt small game (animal hunted for food) in one stroke. Valari is often compared with hunting boomerang of the Australian aborigines. In Edgar Thurston’s ‘Caste and Tribes of Southern India’, the deadly weapon is said to be vital part in the household of Southern Tamil Nadu’s Kallan and Maravan tribes. The name ‘Valari’ has however become obsolete or forgotten, after the total dominion of British colonial forces. In 1801, British brought arms act which banned the use of weapons like Valari. The ban came into existence, especially after the British forces witnessed the deadly nature of these weapons in the Polygar or Palaiyakkarar Wars. The Palaiyakkarars, experts in throwing Valari, stood up to the gun-toting colonial forces. The weapon thrown from quite a distance whizzed at breakneck speed like missiles, bringing down slew of English men.
Colonel James Welsh of British East India Company has given detailed account of the Poligar wars in his journal ‘Military reminiscences: A journal of nearly forty years’ active service in the East Indies’. He mentions ‘Chinna Maruthu’ (famous ruler of Sivaganga), ‘an affable man’ and as the first man to have shown him how to throw the spear and Valari. James Welsh visited Chinna Maruthu (he writes down the name as ‘Cheena Murdoo’) in 1795 and few years later, he was part of the forces which had a single goal to hunt him down (‘This same man (Maruthu), I was afterwards destined by the fortune of war, to chase like a wild beast’ writes James Welsh). Many British colonels who served in the Polygar wars and other historians considers ‘Valari’ as significant or surprising part of this early Indian revolt against the British forces. Let’s now take a brief look into the historical background of Polygar wars.
The Madurai Nayak dynasty, which came under the rule of Vijayanagara Empire, succeeded the ancient Tamil kingdom known as ‘Pandya Dynasty’ and after brief dominion of Sultan dynasty. The rule of Madurai Nayaks is said to have commenced around 1529. The Nayak dynasty was well renowned for administrative reforms, resurgence of ancient Temples (Madurai Meenakshi Temple partly destroyed by the Mohammedans was re-constructed in 1569), and for its unique architectural style and artistic achievements. The Nayaks, later appointed a class of military and administrative people, known as ‘Palaiyakkarar’ or ‘Polygar’ or ‘Poligar’. Those appointed rulers between 16th and 18th century in southern Tamil Nadu paid fixed tributes to Nayak kings and reserved special troops for immediate military services. The Polygars expanded the irrigation projects, forts, etc, initiated by the Pandya kingdom.
The reign of Nayaks faced decline between the early and mid 18th century [by 1693 Madurai became feudatory for the emperor of Delhi – the Mughals, and later in 1752 the city was leased to Mohammad Yusuf Khan aka Maruthanayagam Pillai; this warrior was supported by British and Arcot Nawab to suppress Polygars, which resulted in small wars. He administered Madurai County for small period until a dispute with the colonial rulers. Marudhanayagam was hanged on 15 October, 1764 in Madurai by the British].
Even after the end of Madurai Nayaks, the Polygars stood their ground against British East India Company. Veerapandya Kattabomman, Uyyalawada Narsimha Reddy, Dheran Chinnamalai, and Puli Thevar were some of the notable Polygars who revolted against the colonial forces. By March 1799, the Polygars of the former Tirunelveli Kingdom (in South Tamil Nadu) – led by Kattabomman Nayak of Panchalankurichi Palayam – openly rebelled against the British. The Polygar Wars extended up to 1805 and it was the first large-scale rebellion against British control. It predates the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 (or the Indian Rebellion of 1857). And, it is pretty evident that historians have always given less importance to the Polygar Wars. After grueling battles in the jungles and fort, British eventually won over the Polygars and brought huge chunks of Tamil Nadu territories under its total control. The British hanged renowned Palaiyakkarar Kings and shunned many others to notorious Andaman Island prisons (the brutal end to Polygar system was later replaced with the Zamindari system).
‘Valari’ is now seen as one of the symbols, eulogizing the stiff resistance of South India against British East India Company. After banning this weapon in 1801, British government announced incentives for those who handed over the weapons and took stiff determined to abolish the weapon. At least 15,000 valaris were said to be confiscated. Most were immediately destroyed and few were transported to British museums (Liverpool, Fitzwilliam museums, etc). Tamil writer Venkatasan (of the Sahithya Academy Award winning historical novel ‘Kaval Kottam’), one who has done researches on this weapon, mentions in a Tamil article that he discovered hundreds of Valaris in a temple in Kovilankulam (a village near Madurai). The weapon is offered to the local deity (one of the last reminiscent of the ancient Tamil Culture).