Monday, February 11, 2008
Rani Chennamma of Keladi
Amongst the warriors of India’s medieval times and whom the Hindu civilisation is greatly indebted to is Rani Chennamma, who ruled the small kingdom of Keladi (which is in the present day Indian state of Karnataka) for 25 years from 1671-1696. She was very beautiful and hardly looks like a hardy warrior, but indeed she fought like an incarnation of Shakti, administered her kingdom well and took decisions that few others had the courage to take.
She was not from royal lineage, but the king of Keladi, Somashekhara Nayak met her and fell in love with her, hence she became queen. Queen Chennamma looked after the subjects of her kingdom and the servants of the palace with great love as if they were her children. She was not only a wife to Somashekhara Nayaka but also an adviser and trusted minister. If the government did any injustice, those who suffered, being afraid to go to the King, would make their appeals to the Queen. The Queen would speak to her husband and ensure justice. She was an inspiration to her husband to punish the wicked and protect the virtuous. The people of Keladi looked up to the Queen and were very devoted to her.
However this idyllic situation was not to last. Once, during the Dashera festival, the famed dancer Kalavathi of Jambukhandi gave a performance before the royal couple. This beautiful woman enchanted Somashekhara Nayaka. The King who was pleased with her excellence in dancing, gave her much wealth. Kalavathi became the dancer of the royal court. Her mother and her foster-father, Bharame Mavuta, lived with her. It is believed that Bharame Mavuta was a master of lower mysticism (black magic), secret medicines and intrigue. Bharame Mavuta developed an intimate friendship with Somashekhara Nayaka. Gradually the king began to live with Kalavathi herself. He became a puppet in the hands of Bharame Mavuta. He forgot his beloved Chennamma and stayed away from the palace. He used to take all sorts of potions and drinks that Bharame Mavuta gave him and as a result became half-mad with intoxication. Various diseases began to eat him up. Even the ministers and respected officers had to go to the dancer's house to discuss matters of the State.
Chennamma felt very sad that the husband who once loved her so deeply never came to the palace now. She was always in tears. Once all the subjects felt happy that it was their good fortune they had such an ideal King. But now he had no thought for the kingdom.
Because of the King's indifference there was chaos in the kingdom. The news of his ill-health spread all over the kingdom. The King had no children. What if he died suddenly? In such a pass, naturally, many persons began to hatch conspiracies to usurp the throne. The Sultan of Bijapur (a Muslim kingdom) who had often been defeated by the kings of Keladi when they had tried to cause trouble, now attacked the kingdom.
There was only one way, thought Chennamma, for the kindgom to continue and the dynasty to survive; she herself should rule the land and also hold the sword. Trusting God, the young Queen took this crushing burden on her tender shoulders. The clever and heroic Queen also took the counsel of her father Siddappa Shetty. She enlisted the help of trustworthy commanders. Delicate hands adorned with bangles now brandished the sword, and succesfully repulsed the enemy.
Soon enemies within the kingdom began to appear. Opportunists believed that she could be intimidated and manipulated for their profit. One day the Chief Minister, Thimmanna Nayaka of Kasaragod, went to her with Subnis Krishnappa and said to her, "You must adopt as son Veerabhadra Nayaka, the son of the Commander-in Chief, Bhadrappa Nayaka. It is only then that we shall support you. Or else, we will unite the people against you and crown him." The same threat was held out by another minister, Narasappayya and a senior officer, Lakshmayya. Queen Chennamma heard them all patiently. On one side, Bharame Mavuta had the King under his thumb and was eager to take over the kingdom. On another side, all the ministers and other important men were ready to bring some one whom they liked to the throne and perpetuate their own positions. The Queen could not approve of either of these options. She had no child; so she decided that she should adopt a boy who was virtuous and would herald the welfare of the State. She chose a boy by name Basappa Nayaka. She decided to give him the proper type of training so that the kingdom survived and the people were made happy.
Keeping an eye on the developments in Keladi, the Sultan of Bijapur thought that with a well planned strike he could swallow up the kingdom. He sent a representative by name Jannopant to the Queen for negotiations. Close on the heels of Jannopant the Sultan also sent a big army under the command of Muzaffar Khan. Rani Chennamma saw through the trick and raised an army of the common people, invoking the glory of their ancestors. The army repulsed Bijapur’s forces.
In peace time too the Rani ruled very well, and patronised arts and learning. She had an 'Agrahara' - an entire street with houses on either side - formed, and invited scholars to settle down there. It was named 'Somashekharapura'. Day and night Chennamma toiled for the welfare of the state. She expanded the army and strengthened security at the borders. After her work for the kingdom, Chennamma spent whatever leisure she had, in meditation and in acts of charity and kindness. She gave gifts of lands to rishis and religious institutions.
Perhaps the most famous aact of Rani Chennamma is her unparalleled bravery in giving refuge to Rajaram, the 2nd son of the great Shivaji, when he was on the run from Moghul forces who were trying to crush the fledgling Hindu kingdom after the death of Shivaji. Fearing the wrath of the Moghuls, who were at that time the greatest force in India, not many kingdoms were willing to give refuge to Rajaram. One day Rajaram turned up at Keladi and explained his requirement for refuge. Rani Chennamma agreed to house him, with the rationale that Shivaji had greatly turned the tables for Hindus in India, and that to house Shivaji’s son was duty for a Hindu. Yet several ministers and leaders of Keladi such as Commander Bhadrappa and Minister Narasappayya amongst others were of the opinion that it was not worth the risk, because the Maratha kingdom that Shivaji has set up was doomed and it was not worth getting in trouble over a doomed dynasty. Rani Chennamma was adamant.
Aurungzeb did learn that Rajaram had taken shelter in Keladi and he dispatched an army to punish them. Under Rani Chennamma’s leadership the attacks were successfully repulsed – a great achievement at a time when the Moghuls were very powerful. The treaty that followed caused Aurungzeb to be forced to recognise Keladi as a separate kingdom.
It cannot be emphasised how much the Hindu nation are indebted to Rani Chennamma for her defence of the Marathas. The Maratha kingdom later went on to reduce the Moghuls to a virtual non-entity within a few decades after this. If Rani Chennamma had not taken the timely decision of giving her protection, at her own risk, who knows where we would be now?