Velu Nachiyar and her commander-in-chief Kuyili were two exceptional women who fought the British long before the first war of independence. This historic war is considered to be one of the first movements against the oppressive Britishers, in India.
Velu Nachiyar was the princess of Ramanathapuram. She was the only child of King Sethupathi. The king treated her no less than a son. She learned the martial arts form of Valari, horse riding, archery, and sword fighting. She also learned multiple languages including Tamil, Sanskrit, and even French and English. Being a coastal state, her father wanted to have a healthy trade relationship with the Europeans. Velu often represented her father at business meetings and dealings with foreign traders.
Velu Nachiyar married the king of Sivagangai, Muthuvaduganathaperiya Udaiya Thevar. The kingdom of Sivagangai was of special importance. It guarded the route between India and Sri Lanka. Both the British and the French wanted control of this kingdom. The British sided with the Nawab of Madurai, Hyder Ali, and attacked Sivagangai. The British’s modern equipment and weapons and Hyder Ali’s men were no match for Sivagangai. King Udaiya Thevar lost both his life and his land in the battle. Velu Nachiyar escaped to the village of Virupakshi.
Velu wanted to avenge the death of her husband. But a widow refuge queen couldn’t stand against the mighty East India Company. She opted to play the long game. She taught her spies the English language and planted them inside the camp of the British as translators. Soon she came to know about the rift between Hyder Ali and the British. She wrote a letter to Ali offering an alliance against the British.
Eight years later, after thorough planning, Velu was ready to take her kingdom back. She wanted to use the element of surprise to have an upper hand. She appointed her trusted commander-in-chief Kuyili for a secret mission. The mission aimed to destroy a huge portion of the British firepower that was held inside the Sivaganga fort. Since it was their old fort and they knew every nook and corner of it.
On the night of Vijayadasami (also known as Dussehra), Kuyili along with a group of spies entered the fort in disguise. Vijayadashami is a night of festivity and decoration. The group entered with weapons hidden inside their flower basket. They took down guards at the armoury. Then they drenched Kuyili in ghee and set her on fire. Kuyili, on fire, ran into a room filled with powdered phosphorus and sacrificed her life for her queen and kingdom. The entire armoury was destroyed within seconds.
Taking the blast as her clue, Velu charged the fort. The British were surprised by the attack and had no armoury to defend them. The blast had also broken the wall allowing enemy troops to come in. The army of Hyder Ali and Velu were attacking from two different sides. The disguised spies were killing soldiers from the inside. Nothing went wrong for Velu that night and within two hours of the attack, she had recaptured the fort.
When the British officers came to know about this perfectly executed plan, they vowed not to meddle with the queen anymore. She went on to rule her kingdom for ten more years. Later, she passed the throne to her daughter. Velu Nachiyar is aptly remembered by the name Veeramangai (brave women) in Tamil folks.