Did Chatrapati Shivaji slip into Madras incognito to offer prayers at a local temple in 1677? Historical records and local legend have different tales to tell…

The city of Madras was just 38 years old in 1677 when it faced one of the greatest challenges to its survival — an invasion by Chatrapati Shivaji no less. Details of the danger that loomed over the city are given in J. Talboys Wheeler's book, Madras in the Olden Time, published by Higginbothams in 1882 and it makes for an interesting tale.

The Great Maratha or the Mountain Rat, depending on whose point of view you took, his followers' or Aurangzeb's, was no stranger to the English, having twice attempted to lay waste the rich town of Surat where the East India Company had a factory. On both occasions, the first in 1664 and the second in 1670, Shivaji had plundered Surat but had not been able to penetrate the defences of the English in their factory. During the second attack a valiant resistance was put up in particular by Streynsham Master, a member of the Council at the factory. In 1665 Streynsham Master was asked to succeed Sir William Langhorne, Governor of Madras, as and when the latter's term ended. By 1667 Sir William had gone and Master had taken his place. Almost the first issue he had to deal with was Shivaji's visit.

Shivaji's progress through the neighbouring country — he was on his way to capture Vellore and Gingee — was followed by the English in Fort St. George and the natives in the small town of Madras with considerable nervousness. Their apprehension was not in any way lessened by the tales that Master could relate of Shivaji's prowess in battle. Consequently, on May 9, 1677, a resolution was passed by the Council to strengthen the defences of the city. As everyone waited with bated breath, Shivaji came close to the city and on May 14 sent a Brahmin and two others with a message asking the Council at Fort St. George for some “cordial stones and counter poisons”. He offered to pay for these. Deciding that it would be best not to press payment for “such trifles” the English sent what he wanted along with “such fruit as their gardens could afford” through a messenger. In addition, they also propitiated the Brahmin through gifts of three yards of broadcloth and some sandalwood. The thrifty English, however, noted mournfully in some detail that the total cost of the gifts came to 60 pagodas, for which, of course, no compensation could be asked.

A few days later the messenger was back, with a demand for more cordials and counter poisons and an offer to pay for the second consignment. The demands were complied with once more, the suggestion of payment being brushed aside again. A third demand soon came, this time for some English engineers. This was felt to be asking for too much and the Council politely declined to send any. Having done this, they braced themselves for an invasion but nothing happened. Shivaji had moved on. Having conquered Gingee and Vellore, he reappeared in the vicinity in 1678 and by August of that year his brother was camping near Kanchipuram with an army that was 1,500 strong. It was rumoured in Golconda and faithfully relayed to the English in Madras that Shivaji had given orders to his army to advance, conquer the fort at Poonamallee and then lay waste “Sadraspatam, Madraspatanam and Pulicat”. Once again there was an alert of an imminent attack but Madras was fortunate enough to escape. Shivaji abruptly decided to march on and after “some terrible engagements” with the Naik of Mysore went back to his own kingdom.

Shrouded in mystery

Wheeler's record has it that Shivaji never came to Madras proper and passed by its outskirts. Or did he? Local tradition has it that one night, unknown to anyone, the Great Maratha slipped into the city. It was entirely in keeping with his nature and his shrewd desire to assess enemy preparedness for war. It is said that he came and offered worship at the temple of Kalikambal on Thambu Chetty Street. It is a well-known fact that Shivaji was a worshipper of the Goddess Bhavani and perhaps he had a sudden urge to offer prayers at a shrine dedicated to the Goddess.

A portrait of Shivaji on horseback hangs at the temple even now and below it a board that commemorates the visit. It gives the date of the visit as October 16, 1677. Master was to remain Governor of Madras for four more years and fortunately did not have to face any further challenges of a similar nature. He is remembered more today for building the St. Mary's Church inside Fort St. George and the establishment of a High Court of Judicature. But if Shivaji had sacked Madras, would we not all be Marathi Manoos?

The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com