She escaped to Virupakshi in Dindigul vowing to return to Sivaganga to avenge her husband’s death and reclaim the kingdom…writes Arun Lakshman
Kuyili, the commander-in-chief and personal bodyguard of Rani Velu Nachiyar of Sivaganga, is the epitome of sacrifice in the annals of the independence movement. Her name, sadly, is lost in the footnotes of history.
The queen and Kuyili had valiantly fought against the East India Company much before the first War of Independence in 1857. They not only challenged the new rulers, but also pulled off a historic win, saving the honour and pride of the Sivaganga kingdom. And Kuyili also went down in history as India’s first suicide bomber.
When the King of Arcot attacked Sivaganga with the support of the Company, Sivaganga’s king, Muthuvaduganatha Peria Oodaya Thevar, put up a fight and British and died a valiant death. His wife, Queen Velu Nachiyar, who was a polyglot fluent in English, French, and Urdu, in addition to Tamil, escaped along with their one-year-old daughter, Vellachi, and her trusted Kuyili.
She escaped to Virupakshi in Dindigul vowing to return to Sivaganga to avenge her husband’s death and reclaim the kingdom.
Kuyili’s father, Periyamuthan, a farmer, doubled as a spy of the Sivaganga King and this enabled his daugther to enter the inner circle of Queen Velu Nachiyar. She had even saved her queen’s life on a number of occasions when the king was alive.
Kuyili found out, for instance, that the queen’s Silambam (martial art) teacher was a spy who was planning to kill his royal student. This information saved the queen’s life.
In another instance, Kuyili injured herself while saving the queen when she was attacked in the night by an unknown person. After these two instances, the brave retainer was made the commander-in- chief of the women’s army and bodyguard of Queen Velu Nachiyar.
In the few accounts available about her, Kuyili is addressed as Veerathalapathi (Brave Commander) and as Veeramangai (Brave Woman), though she came from the less privileged Dalit Arunthathiyar community.
After being made the Commander-in-Chief of the women’s army, Kuyili started startegising about getting back the lost kingdom after her queen aligned with Hyder Ali of Carnatic. She knew the enemies with their superior military power could easily defeat them.
Kuyili took advantage of the fact that only women were allowed entry into the Sivaganga fort during the Navaratra period for the Vijaya Dashami celebrations at the Rajarajeswai Amman temple.
She entered the fort with her fellow women soldiers with baskets of flowers, their weapons hidden inside the flowers, and then mounted a surprise attack on the British.
The enemies stored their arms and ammunition in the fort and what she did next was truly one of the greatest acts of courage lost in the cobwebs of history. Kuyili asked her fellow soldiers to pour ghee over her and then she went into the magazine and set herself on fire, destroying all the weapons that the British possessed.
The sacrifice of Kuyili enable Queen Velu Nachiyar and her forces reclaim the Sivaganga kingdom. A memorial to Kuyili still stands at Sivaganga — an ode in stone to a brave young woman who died so that her queen could get back her kingdom that the East India Company tried to snatch away from her.