Relentless fighter Tamil Nadu

Oomai Durai’s reward for ‘purest patriotism’ was to grace the gallows

A stone relief of Oomai Durai.

A stone relief of Oomai Durai. | Photo Credit: N. Rajesh

Though he was a most capable leader and a fierce fighter, he was overshadowed by the personality of his no less mighty elder brother – as it sometimes happens in history.

When the life of Veerapandiya Kattabomman was made into a film, with thespian Sivaji Ganesan in the lead role, the character of Oomai Durai, his brother, was relegated to the sidelines. But both the records of the British and southern ballads accord him a pre-eminent position as the one who continued the rebellion with even greater fervour after Kattabomman was captured and hanged.

Colonel James Welsh, the British officer, who waged the war against the Poligars or Palayakarars in South Tamil Nadu, in his book Military Reminiscences says, “He [Durai] at last doomed to grace a gallows, in reward for the most disinterested and purest patriotism.”

In the fourth chapter, which ends with the capture and hanging of rival Palayakarars, Welsh writes of Oomai Durai that he “cannot close this account of horrors, without a few words, in memory of one of the most extraordinary mortals I ever knew, who was both deaf and dumb.”

Jagaveerapandiyanar, an author of recent years, hails Oomai Durai in glowing terms in his book Panchalankurichi Veeracharithiram, writing, “He knew no fear. If Panchalamkurichi is still known by Oomiyanseemai, it bears testimony to his political and administrative skills.”

He also contends that since he stammered a lot, he chose to remain silent generally and was affectionately dubbed Oomai Durai – he had been named Thalavai Kumaraswamy by his parents. He was the younger brother of Kattabomman, the Palayakarar of Panchalankurichi, but Welsh refers to him as a cousin or a near relation.

“It is well-established that they were brothers. I do not know why Welsh had chosen to describe him as a near relative. A study of ballads, field works and British records clearly establishes that he is the younger brother,” said V. Manickam, a retired professor of St. John’s College, who studied the ballads on Kattabomman for his Ph.D. thesis.

Welsh conjures up an image of a tall, slender lad, highly energetic, though of sickly appearance, for reasons not clear. “The Oomee was adored; his slightest sign was an oracle and every man flew to execute whatever he commanded. No council assembled at which he did not preside; no daring adventure was undertaken, which he did not lead,” reminisces Welsh.

It so happened that when the much-admired leader lay wounded on the battlefield, a mother was searching for her son who had also been felled. She did manage to locate the boy, but when she set about removing him for treatment, he told her weakly but firmly, “Oh mother! let me die, but try to save the life of Swamy (Durai), who too was wounded and lies near me.” And she obeyed and shifted the ‘Swamy’ with the help of some others to a safe place, evading the enemies along the way by claiming he had been infected with small pox.

Mr. Manickam explained that the British were very particular in subduing Panchalankurichi because it was the richest Palayam. “Its revenue was equal to that of six Palayams.” Obviously because fertile regions like Attur, Arumugamangalam, Alwarthirunagari and Srivaikuntam, where paddy was cultivated, fell under the Panchalankurichi subdivision.

Welsh vividly portrayed how Oomai Durai mobilised his people in the campaigns against the British.

“His method of representing the English was extremely simple: he collected a few little pieces of straw, arranged them on the palm of his left hand to represent the English force; then, with other signs, for the time, he drew the other hand across and swept them off, with a whizzing sound from his mouth, which was the signal for attack; and he was generally the foremost in executing those plans, for our annihilation,” says Welsh.

First, Major Bannerman overwhelmed Kattabomman with his cannon and had the leader hanged in 1799 in Kayathar. The younger brother was detained in Palayamkottai prison along with 14 other rebels. They were in jail for almost a year while Oomai Durai hatched a plan for escape.

His supporters, entered Palayamkottai in disguise, stormed the jail and released all the detained comrades. They fled to Panchalankurichi, which is 30 km away, where Oomai Durai succeeded in rebuilding Kattabomman’s fort that had been razed. They accomplished this formidable task in under five days. The shell-shocked British resumed attacks on Panchalankurichi after reinforcements arrived. Many sepoys of the East India Company perished in the clashes at the time, and they had to sue for peace. Welsh himself acknowledges the generosity of Oomai Durai, who unconditionally accorded permission to the British to collect and bury the mutilated bodies of their soldiers. But Oomai Durai’s victory proved short-lived.

The Panchalankurichi fort was destroyed a second time, but Oomai Durai managed to escape again. “He escaped and joined the Marudu Brothers, who gave him asylum which, predictably, infuriated the British. Hostilities became inevitable, and the Marudu brothers too were duly vanquished, but the Cat, as Oomai Durai was called, was not. He took refuge in Virupachi hills and continued to fight. Unfortunately, though he was plagued by a lack of food supply and also by diseases among his ranks and had to give in. At the end, he was hanged at the cannon tower in Panchalankurichi,” Mr. Manickam said.

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Printable version | Aug 26, 2022 2:08:45 pm |