Some statues, some ruins, and a vivid coat-of-arms in Panchalankurichi brings Kattabomman to life for us

Tracing the life of Veerapandiya Kattabomman begins at his end in the small town of Kayatharu. We are cruising down NH7, on the way to his erstwhile kingdom, when the car suddenly comes to a screeching halt. “We'll stop here first,” our driver says, ushering us into the Kattabomman Memorial built by actor Sivaji Ganesan. Soon, we're facing a towering statue of the king, his ebony head held high while his coat-of-arms gleams in the middle of the memorial pole.

Kayatharu or ‘bitter river' is a small town in Tuticorin district, about 25 km from Tirunelveli. This was where Kattabomman was hanged from a tamarind tree by the British in 1799. The place is now preserved as a memorial, with granite slabs etching out in detail the events that led to the execution. There isn't much else to see, though the place itself is well-maintained and seems to serve as a picnic spot, with tables and chairs sitting lazily below tall, shady trees.

Soon we are heading towards Panchalankurichi, about 3 km from here. The road is lined with seven arches, each named after a prominent general in Kattabomman's army and one named after the family goddess Jakkammal. The sun is at its scorching best and we find ourselves drinking ‘pathaneer' out of a palm leaf, trying hard to keep it from spilling. The sweet aftertaste stays on till we spot the sloping roof of the Panchalankurichi fort.

Traditionally recognised as one of the 72 palayams of Madura, this fort came under the rule of the Kattabomman family around the time when the Nayak Polygars were chieftains of these villages.

The story of a king

A red brick wall, the remains of the original fort, houses a memorial built in 1974 by the government. The pagoda-style roofs and leaf-shaped windows with exposed bricks carry a confluence of cultures while the Kattabomman coat-of-arms wraps itself around the main frame like a thin belt. Inside the fort, the walls bear the story of the king from birth to death in the form of vivid, colourful paintings.

A guide takes people around the fort and later settles them down in the middle, by a statue of Kattabomman, to narrate his tale with much vigour.

On the other side is the Jakkammal Temple, where the Kattabomman family have been praying for many generations. The temple has been refurbished and looks startlingly bright and colourful against the clear afternoon sky. The gates and entranceways all bear the family emblem, two swords crossed against a shield.

Behind the temple are the remains of the old fort, protected by the ASI. There are large concrete slabs, said to be the ruins of the darbar and marriage hall. “This is where the king would hold court,” says the guide, pointing to one slab, “the white coating on the slab is made of medicinal herbs, which is why it remains cool even when it's so hot outside.”

We also spot the remains of the queen's chamber, the Andapuram, which seems to have been surrounded by a pond or pool. “There is a small way here,” says the guide, pointing at the ground some distance away, “which used to be a secret passage. It's closed now but in the olden days it was said to lead right up to Tiruchendur.” There are other relics too; an old ‘ammi kal' and smaller statues of “their ancestors”.

We circle the fort once again before a crowd of tourists begins pouring in, cameras out and ready. As we walk out, we get goose bumps when we hear one of them whisper, “Just imagine, this is the same soil that Kattabomman stood on a few hundred years ago.”