Kittur Chennamma, the Queen of Kittur, was one of the first Indian rulers to lead an armed rebellion against the British East India Company in 1824, against the implementation of the Doctrine of Lapse. She was born in 1778, 56 years before the 1857 revolt led by Rani Lakshmi Bai, thus becoming the one of the first women freedom fighters to have fought against the British rule in India.
Her rebellion against the British ended with her imprisonment, however, she became a celebrated freedom fighter in the state of Karnataka and a symbol of the independence movement in India. Since 1824, ‘Kittur Utsava’ has been organised every year in the month of October to celebrate the heroic rebellion of Rani Kittur Chennamma.
Kittur Chennamma was born on October 23, 1778, in Kakati, a small village in the present Belagavi District of Karnataka, India. She belonged to the Lingayat community and received training in horse riding, sword fighting and archery from a young age. She was well known throughout her village for her bravery.
She was married to Mallasarja Desai, the king of Kittur, at the age of 15 and became the queen of Kittur. She had one son from the marriage, who after the death of her husband in 1816, also died in 1824. As the queen of Kittur, Kittur Chennamma adopted Shivalingappa after the death of her only son with the aim of making him the heir to the throne of Kittur.
Defiance of British Rule
The British East India Company did not take lightly to Chennamma’s act and ordered Shivalingappa’s exile from the kingdom. This was done under the pretext of the Doctrine of Lapse, according to which adoptive children of native rulers were not allowed to be named their successor and if the native rulers did not have children of their own, their kingdom would become a territory of the British Empire. The Doctrine of Lapse was officially codified between 1848 to 1856 by Lord Dalhousie.
Kittur Chennamma, however, defied the British order to expel Shivalingappa from the throne. She sent a letter to the Governor of Bombay to plead the cause of Kittur but Lord Elphinstone turned down Chennamma’s request. The state of Kittur came under the administration of Dharwad collectorate in charge of Mr. Thackeray, and Mr. Chaplin was the commissioner. Both men did not recognise Chennamma as the regent and Shivalingappa as the ruler and apprised Rani Chennamma to surrender her kingdom, but she again defied the British order. This led to the breakout of a war.
War against the British
The British attempted to pillage Kittur’s treasures and jewels, which valued around 15 lakh rupees, but were unsuccessful. They had attacked Kittur with a force of 20,000 men and 400 guns, which came mainly from the third troop of the Madras Native Horse Artillery.
In the first battle between the British and Kittur, on October of 1824, British forces faced heavy losses. St. John Thackeray, the British collector and political agent, was also killed during this first battle by the Kittur forces. Rani Chennamma’s lieutenant, Amatur Balappa, was mainly responsible for Thackeray’s death and the losses faced by the British forces. Two British officers, Sir Walter Elliot and Mr. Stevenson, were also taken hostages by Rani Chennamma’s forces.
To avoid further destruction and war, Rani Chennamma negotiated with the British Commissioner Mr. Chaplin and the Governor of Bombay, under whose regime Kittur fell. She released the hostages owing to the British promise that the war would no longer be continued. However, the promise turned out to be only an act of deception. Humiliated by their first defeat at the hands of a small Indian ruler, Mr. Chaplin treacherously returned with much larger forces from Mysore and Sholapur to attack Kittur once again.
Rani Chennamma fought the second battle fiercely with the aid of her lieutenant Sangoli Rayanna and Gurusiddappa. During this second round of war, the Sub-collector of Sholapur, Mr. Munrow, nephew of Sir Thomas Munro, was also killed. For 12 days, Chennamma and her soldiers relentlessly defended their fort, but yet again, Chennamma was made prey to deceit. Two soldiers of her own army, Mallappa Shetty and Vankata Rao, betrayed Chennamma by mixing mud and cow dung with the gunpowder used for the canons.
Ultimately, Kittur Chennamma and her forces were outnumbered by the large strength of the British forces. Rani Chennamma was defeated in her last battle and captured by the British, who imprisoned her at the Bailhongal Fort for life.
Her loyal lieutenant Sangoli Rayanna continued the guerrilla war even in her absence up to 1829, but in vain. He wished to install Shivalingappa, Chennamma’s adopted son, as the ruler of Kittur, but he was captured and hanged by the British. Shivalingappa was also arrested by the British forces.
Imprisonment and Death
After being captured, Rani Chennamma spent the last five years of her life in imprisonment at Bailhongal Fort reading holy texts and performing pooja. She took her last breath at the Bailhongal Fort on February 21, 1829.
Rani Chennamma’s samadhi (burial place) is in Bailhongal taluk, under the care of Government agencies. However, sadly, the burial place of this valiant queen lies neglected, in a state of poor maintenance. The only time the place is looked after is during the ‘Kittur Utsava’ and ‘Kannada Rajyotsava‘.
Kittur Rani Chennamma is still remembered for her valour. Even though she couldn’t win the war against the British, she became an inspiration for India’s freedom fighters and a lesson for the British government that Indian rulers will not accept their enforced laws without a good fight.
During the freedom movement, her brave resistance against the British forces became the theme of several inspirational plays, folk songs (Lavani) and stories. Rani Chennamma’s first victory against the British forces is still honoured annually in October during the ‘Kittur Utsava’, held in Kittur.
A historical-drama film called Kitturu Chennamma was produced and directed by B. R. Panthulu about the life and times of Kittur Rani Chennamma. A popular daily Indian Railways train that connects Bangalore and Kolhapur was also named after her as Rani Chennamma Express.
On September 11, 2007, Rani Chennamma’s statue was unveiled at the Indian Parliament complex in New Delhi by the first woman President of India, Smt. Pratibha Patil. The statue was donated by the Kittur Rani Chennamma Memorial Committee and was sculpted by Vijay Gaur. Two other statues of Rani Chennamma were also installed at Bangalore and Kittur.