Chennamma: Rani of Keladi Who Fought Bravely against Mughals and Gave Shelter to Shivaji’s Son
She was a Lingayat, a devotee of Lord Shiva. She belonged to a merchant family from Kundapur, Karnataka. She was beautiful, pious, and virtuous. With a pearl-like complexion, broad forehead, curly hair, and bright eyes, an aura of divinity emanated from her. She was Chennamma.
She was married to Somashekara Nayaka, king of Keladi, Karnataka in 1667 CE. After the king’s death in 1677, Chennamma took the reins of the kingdom in her hands. She ruled efficiently for 26 years. During her rule, she fought several battles to victory. She fought bravely against Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s forces. It was the enemy Mughal forces who withdrew, sensing defeat and begged for a treaty. It was for the first time that the Mughals proposed peace accord with an Indian ruler! She defeated the Sultan of Bijapur and the ruler of Mysore.
Somashekhara Nayaka became the king of Keladi in 1664. The Keladi kingdom during his reign stretched along the entire seacoast from Goa to Malabar. He was known far and wide for his handsome features, his efficient ruling, virtue, religious mindedness, power and wealth. Many a king from near and far kingdoms wished to make him a son-in-law. Somashekhara Nayaka turned down every marriage proposal that he received.
The king once went to the Rameshwara fair. His eyes fell on Chennamma, the daughter of Siddappa Shetty, who happened to visit the Rameshwara temple along with her friends. It was love at first sight for the king. He decided that if at all he married, he would marry her.
Somashekhara Nayaka sent his Chief Minister to the abode of Siddappa Shetty with a marriage proposal. The latter advised him that she wasn’t from the royal blood, that the kings of Keladi married only royal princesses. But the king did not pay heed to his advice. The wedding took place in the king’s palace located in the capital city of Bidanur. It was the year 1667.
Chennamma’s Role in the Affairs of Keladi
Chennamma started learning the art of warfare after she became the queen of Keladi. In no time she became an expert in the use of weapons. King Somashekhara Nayaka gave her complete support. Soon she became well versed in politics and statecraft. She also started learning music and literature and mastered both the subjects. She established a colony and facilitated settlement of scholars from near and far off states to spread knowledge of ancient wisdom in her kingdom.
The king sought the wise and witty Chennamma’s advice in administrative affairs and the judiciary. Her advice never went wrong. Soon the people of Keladi started banking upon the queen. She helped the king punish the wicked and protect the virtuous and aided in efficient ruling of the kingdom.
Chennamma as Ruler of Keladi
Chennamma became a widow after 10 years of her marriage, i.e. in 1677. The ailing king was murdered by Bharame Mavuta, the foster father of the royal court dancer named Kalavathi. An expert in black magic, Bharame Mavuta and Kalavathi had made the king their puppet. The king thereby failed in his duty of kingship. Due to the king’s deteriorating health and childlessness, many nobles had by then already begun to hatch conspiracies to usurp the throne. But Chennamma managed the affairs of Keladi with an iron hand. She appointed only trusted people as ministers. She adopted Basappa Nayaka as her son and geared up to train him in the art of warfare and the affairs of the kingdom.
Battle against Sultan of Bijapur
Bharame Mavuta conspired with the Sultan of Bijapur. News of a huge army of the Sultan approaching towards Bidanur reached the queen’s ears. Two robust forts, one in Bidanur and another in the thick jungles of Bhuvanagiri were Keladi’s strengths. As the queen wasn’t prepared for a fight against a huge force at that moment, she followed her ministers’ advice of transporting the throne of the kingdom, wealth of the royal treasury and all other valuables to Bhuvanagiri fort. When the enemy forces entered the Bidanur fort, they found it empty with no treasury or people.
At Bhuvanagiri, queen Chennamma assembled her forces. Meanwhile, few of Keladi’s commanders and ministers who did not support her at the beginning and left her arrived in Bhuvanagiri to take part in the battle against the enemy forces. Meanwhile, the Sultan’s forces marched towards Bhuvanagiri. A battle ensued between the two forces in the midst of a thick forest and a narrow pass. The Sultan’s army was badly defeated.
Battle against the Ruler of Mysore
When Chennamma became the ruler of Keladi, Chikkadevaraya Wodeyar was the ruler of Mysore. He declared war against Keladi, as he was driven by the notion that he could easily defeat a woman ruler. The chieftains of Sode, Sirsi and Banavasi also declared war on Keladi. But the Queen managed to defeat them all.
Three wars in total took place between Keladi and Mysore. Chennamma emerged victorious in the first and last. She treated the prisoners of war with honor and respect and set them free. Due to this act of the queen, Chikkadevaraya Wodeyar started respecting her. This was followed by a treaty of friendship between the two kingdoms.
Shelter to Son of Shivaji
Rajaram Raje Bhonsle, the younger son of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji, was crowned at Raigad as the Maratha chief after the death of his half brother Sambhaji. It was 12 March 1689. On 25 March 1689, the Mughals started laying siege to the region around Raigad. The Marathas fought with the Mughals and managed to let Rajaram escape through Kavlya ghat to Tamil Nadu. He was to seek refuge in the fort of Jinji. Rajaram reached the fort of Keladi in disguise and sought refuge from queen Chennamma and asked her help for her safe passage and escape to Jinji fort. The queen knew that if she gave shelter to Rajaram, the robust Mughals would certainly attack her kingdom. Yet she wasn’t bothered.
Battle against Aurangzeb’s Forces
Aurangzeb sent a messenger with a letter along with diamonds and precious stones to the Keladi court asking Rani Chennamma to hand over Rajaram to him. By the time the messenger reached her court, the queen had already facilitated Rajaram’s safe escape to Jinji fort. The queen replied that handing over Rajaram was impossible. Aurangzeb had already sent his son Azamath Ara with a huge army to invade Keladi.
Queen Chennamma was fully prepared for the war. The brave Keladi soldiers led by the queen waylaid the huge Mughal army in Keladi through a thick jungle amid downpour. They started butchering the Mughal soldiers, which started declining at a fast pace. Azamath Ara had defeated many kings, but now the very thought of getting defeated in the hands of a woman troubled him, as defeat was for sure. Keladi forces captured a large number of horses and considerable war material of the Mughals. More than half of the Mughal forces were killed.
Meanwhile, Azamath Ara received a letter from Aurangzeb to leave Keladi and proceed towards Jinji fort to attack Rajaram. An elated Azamath Ara begged for a peace treaty. The generous Rani Chennamma instead of crushing the rest of the forces or taking Azamath Ara prisoner, agreed for peace. Had Aurangzeb’s letter not reached Azamath Ara and had the Mughal prince not begged for peace, defeat of the Mughals was for certain!
Rani Chennamma built the Mirjan fort. She ruled Keladi until her death in 1696.
Salute to Rani Chennamma! India will remember her valor and courage for eternity.
1. Keladi Chennamma by Shantadevi Malwad (Author) and Susheela Padiyar (Translator)
Featured image courtesy: Alchetron.