No history of Madurai is complete without highlighting the trials and tribulations of Rani Mangammal, a woman of tact, political skill, and great sagacity. According to the traditions and customs of the Madurai’s Nayaka kingdom (present-day Madurai, Tamil Nadu), only men were permitted to become rulers. Very little importance was given to the role of women in public administration and governance, which were typically perceived as being a man’s exclusive domain. It is in this context that we discuss Rani Mangammal (1689-1706 A.D.), who was a regent on behalf of her grandson in the Madurai Nayaka kingdom towards the last quarter of the 17th Century and early decade of the 18th Century.
Historian S. Rajagopal describes her as being a ‘visionary queen’ who wasn’t just an excellent administrator but also extremely popular among her subjects. She is remembered even today as the maker of roads and avenues, palaces, temples and tanks, some of which still exist. During her rule, she both fought multiple wars and maintained diplomacy with powerful rulers such as the Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb’s general Zulfikhar Ali. She was indeed a versatile military genius living in a time when women in politics were rarely seen, if not entirely absent.
Rani Mangammal was the daughter of Tupakula Lingama Nayaka, a general of then-Madurai ruler, Chokkanatha Nayaka. In 1682 A.D, Chokkanatha Nayaka died and his son, Muttu Virappa Nayaka-III became the 10th Madurai Nayaka ruler at the age of fifteen.
Muttu Virappa Nayaka-III, however, lived a short life and unfortunately died of smallpox in 1689 A.D., at the early age of twenty-two. His only wife, a young widow, Mutthammal was pregnant and insisted upon committing Sati on his funeral pyre. With great difficulty, Rani Mangammal, Mutthammal’s mother-in-law at that time, convinced Mutthammal to wait until her child was born. Mutthammal agreed to this proposition, and when she gave birth to a boy, she followed through with her promise and ended her life. Under these circumstances, Rani Mangammal made her grandson, Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha the heir of the throne at the age of only three months old. Since then she ruled Madurai on behalf of her grandson as regent till 1705 AD.
Queen’s Military Expeditions
As a ruler, Rani Mangammal faced threats from neighbouring kingdoms, which included the Marathas, the Mughal Army with the Deccan Sultans, and the Thanjavur Kingdom. The first major problem that Rani Mangammal had to face was the imminent threat from the Mughals.
Zulfikhar Ali Khan, the general of Aurangazeb, had sent an army to the south to demand submission from Thanjavur. Rani Mangammal carefully analysed the situation and discovered that because the Maratha Kings (Shaji of Thanjavur, Chikka Deva Raya, and King of Mysore) sent their tribute to Zulfikhar Ali, she too followed suit and sent her tribute, thus, saving Madurai from violence and bloodshed. She eventually developed friendly relations with the Mughals and when Zulfikhar Ali came back to the southern region in 1697 A.D., Rani Mangammal sent him very costly gifts to maintain diplomacy. Eventually, this form of diplomacy worked in her favour because with Mughal general Zulfikhar Ali’s aid, Rani Mangammal eventually recovered some encroached territory from the Thanjavur kings.
In 1697 A.D., Rani Mangammal sent an expedition to Travancore to punish its ruler, Ravi Varma, who had attacked and destroyed an army sent from Madurai to Travancore. Rani Mangammal’s next war was against Shaji, the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur. Rani Mangammal’s greatest trial and biggest military failure, however, was her expedition against Raghunatha Sethupathi. This ended in a defeat for Madurai and the death of Rani Mangammal’s efficient general in battle. After this harsh military loss, the Madurai kingdom never recovered again. Rani Mangammal died in about 1706 A.D. and was succeeded by her grandson Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayaka.
Social Welfare Measures
Rani Mangammal did not neglect civil administration, trade and industry during her rule as queen. She paid special attention to irrigation and communications. Many irrigation channels were repaired, new roads were constructed and avenue trees planted. She built a dam across the river Cauvery so that adequate supply of irrigation water would be available for Thanjavur and the northern part of the Madurai Kingdom. This, unfortunately, washed away due to a heavy flood in Cauvery. She also constructed the Tamukkam Palace (which is now called the Mahatma Gandhi Museum in Madurai), the Magammmal Chataram (Choultry) in Madurai, the Royal entertainment elephant fighting ground in Madurai, and the Rani Mangammal Palace Darbar Hall in Tiruchirappalli (now called the Government Museum, Tiruchirappalli) during her rule.
Although she was a devout Hindu, Rani Mangammal treated all religions with tolerance and respect. She donated jewels and made other endowments to several temples in her kingdom, including the Madurai Meenakshiamman Temple. She is also said to have endowed mosques and made village grants to the Muslim Dargah. She was also friendly with Christian missionaries and rendered all possible help to both them and their converts. She opposed Sati and refused to self immolate herself even after Chokkanatha’s death in 1682 A.D because, according to her, the affairs of the state were too important to be cast aside.
Rani Mangammal’s death is still a mystery, yet her reign as queen still holds deep reverence in the hearts and minds of many people who live in the rural areas of Madurai. According to folklore, it is said that when Managammal’s grandson, Vijayaranga Chokkanatha, came of age, the queen refused to make way for him as king. As punishment, she was sent to jail, where she is said to have slowly starved to death. Her suffering was said to have been aggravated with horrible cruelty by the periodical placing of food outside her prison bars in such a way that she could see and smell the food, but not reach it. These are, however, conjectures that till date remain unproven.
All said and done, there remains a unique bond between Rani Mangammal and Tiruchy. She made Tiruchy the capital of her kingdom and left several buildings for posterity in the city. However, with poor maintenance, these monuments have since begun to disintegrate and are on the verge of extinction, bringing an end to their rich history as well.
M. Muthuvelan, a 74-year-old resident from Palayakottai village of Manapparai block where a few Chathirams (food inns) are situated, said, “My grandfather used to say that the three Chathirams were built by Rani Mangammal to provide food and rest to weary travellers. During times of war, her horses were kept in the Chathirams in Palayakottai village. Now, however, all the Chathirams are on the verge of destruction.”
As highlighted before, the history of Madurai can never be complete without mentioning Rani Mangammal’s name. Moreover, history does not provide too many instances of ruling queens in Tamil Nadu, which is why sharing her story is even more important. Though it was considered that women were not fit to rule, Rani Mangammal shines in almost solitary eminence as an individual who challenged that notion by questioning patriarchy long before that term was even coined! The Rani was skilled, bold, charming, wise and a great humanitarian and till today is greatly revered and respected.
4. Social Life and Military Career of Regent Queen Mangammal Of Madurai Nayaka-a Study by S. Rajagopal (2019)
Featured Image Source: Indiathedestiny.com