Madras Miscellany | History & Culture

The ballad of the Khan Sahib

One explanation for Kamal Haasan launching his political party in Madurai was that his hero was Maruthanayagam Pillai, soldier, rebel and valiant son of the district. It was about this hero that he wanted to make a film extraordinaire several years ago. I was on the fringe of the project as, coining a term, the factioneer, engineering fact with fiction. Part of the fiction is the name Maruthanayagam. More factual is the name Yusuf Khan, and it’s as Yusuf Khan he’s a military hero of mine. Much has been written about this soldier of fortune, but the Tamil ballad Khan Saibu Sandai (The War of Khan Sahib) offers much more personal detail. In it Maruthanayagam finds no mention; who it sings of is “the hero who belongs to the Alim family”. Adding, “…let me sing the story of the brave warrior of Sikkandar Sahib”.

Whatever his lineage, it is agreed he ran away from Panaiyur in the Pandya heartland and worked with Jacques Law in Pondicherry c.1744, where, possibly, he learnt his soldiering. Then we hear of him with a troop of Nellore lances-for-hire teaming with Chanda Sahib and the French to besiege Robert Clive in 1751 at Arcot. Seeing him in action, Clive bought over the Nellore Subedar, as he called Yusuf Khan, who the next year helped Clive win at Kaveripakkam. Later, after action near Srirangam, Clive was told by a friend, “Your Nellore sepoys are glorious fellows, their Subedar as good a man as ever breathed. He is my sole dependence.”

Next, when the French besieged Nawab Wallajah and his British protectors in Trichy, Yusuf Khan lost not one food convoy from Madras over three months. Stringer Lawrence, ‘The Father of the Indian Army’, wrote, “He is an excellent partisan… brave and resolute, but cool and sensible in action – in short, a born soldier, and better of his colour I never saw … He never spares himself, but is out on all parties…” All this led to Lawrence recommending Yusuf Khan being made “Commandant of all the Sepoys” in 1754 and for a gold medal from the Company.

With the Nawab and the Company unable to collect revenue from the southern districts they had won, Khan Saheb who had been responsible for the gains was appointed Governor of Madurai. Over the next three years, he subdued the local chieftains, collected revenue and earned a reputation for outstanding administration. But Yusuf Khan could never get away from soldiering. When Lally besieged Madras in 1758-59, he failed, because Yusuf Khan, racing up from Madurai, cut almost daily over two months Lally’s supply lines. Lally was to say, “They were like the flies, no sooner beat off from one part, they came to another.” Yusuf Khan was a master of guerilla warfare.

With such praise, Yusuf Khan began growing more ambitious. When he found revenue he collected going mostly to Wallajah from the English, he decided to rebel. He hoped for support from Hyder Ali (which never came) and from the French, who supplied a few hundred mercenaries led by a Marchand. From August to November 1763 the English besieged Madurai, constantly shelling it, but unable to breach Yusuf Khan’s defences. They then withdrew to regroup. In February 1764, they recommenced the siege, but without significant progress. Yusuf Khan sent them a message early in April 1764: “As long as I have a drop of blood in my body I shall never render the place to nobody.” English attack after attack was beaten back, many a British officer, once his comrades, killed. A British officer wrote: “You’ll easily form an idea of Yusuf Khan’s abilities from his being able to keep together a body of men of different nations, who with cheerfulness undergo the greatest miseries on his account; wretches who have stood two severe sieges, one assault and a blockade of many months.”

By September 1764 Yusuf Khan was prepared to negotiate surrender terms. The English insisted on unconditional surrender. And Marchand and his ilk, impatient with the negotiations (or heavily bribed), acted, arresting Yusuf Khan and surrendering Madurai on October 15, 1764. The Company wanted Khan Saheb brought to trial in Madras, but Lawrence ordered him given to the Nawab who immediately hanged him and desecrated the body. He was buried where he was executed, two miles west of Madurai, his tomb at Samattipuram a dargah to some, a pallivasal (mosque) to others, but venerated by all in the Pandya country.

Footnote: A dissertation by Dr Asadulla Khan, then of New College, discusses Yusuf Khan’s family. It would appear that he married a Christian girl, Maza, c.1759; father, very likely Portuguese or French, her mother, possibly, a Maravar, a community which she often interceded for with Khan Saheb. They had a son, Mohammed Sultan, born c.1762. As a young man he joined Hyder Ali’s army. Mother and son, it is suggested, sought refuge in Mysore after fleeing Madurai.

The boats on the Canal

It was a lively presentation that Manohar Devadoss made recently at the Madras Literary Society on his life with books, most he’d illustrated. One striking illustration at the presentation is what I feature today; a boat in full sail on the Buckingham Canal. Mano says he saw this long country boat near Pulicat in 1966 and thought it “an artist’s delight”. His sketch became the first subject of “our heritage greeting card project,” ‘our’ being wife Mahema, who used to write the text for the illustrations he did for greeting cards they sold for charities. Mahema concluded that year: “These boats are very picturesque, with sails billowing in the breeze. When there is no breeze, the boats are sometimes dragged by the boatmen from along the banks, their bare bodies glistening in the sun. As the boats approach the city, the sails are lowered so that they could pass under the numerous bridges. The men then punt the boats in rhythm to their melodious folk songs.” Taken up as he was with them, Mano did his first oil painting that year, based on his sketch, and several water-colours in later years, one of which I feature.

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Printable version | Mar 24, 2020 3:24:02 AM |

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