Known as Kodagu in Kannada, Coorg is a picturesque hill-country forming the Southern tip of Karnataka. It forms the border between Karnataka and Kerala, and is in many ways, the gateway to the Malabar region in Kerala. Today it is primarily known for its scenic beauty and spectacular views of thickly-forested mountain ranges, valleys, waterfalls, and sprawling coffee estates.
Although it is difficult to accurately trace the antiquity of Coorg, we have definite historical records from 9th century CE. Until the British colonization of India, Coorg had always been a principality under powerful dynasties of Karnataka like the Kadambas, Chalukyas, Gangas, Cholas, Rashtrakutas, and the Vijayanagar Empire. The Kodavas (people belonging to Kodagu) had pretty much been a warrior race for much of their existence and often lent their best warriors to fight in battles on behalf of the monarch they owed allegiance to. In fact, this martial heritage is still visible. Thousands of Kodava homes have continued to preserve guns, swords, machetes, and knives of considerable antiquity.
In the 18th century, Coorg was ruled by a descendant of the Ikkeri Nayakas of Bidanur. When Hyder Ali brutally took over Bidanur in 1763, he decided to annex Coorg as well. In 1765, he sent a considerable force to Coorg but it was easily repelled. Five years later, a succession dispute broke out in Coorg between Devappa and his uncle Lingaraj. Lingaraj sought Hyder’s help, and Hyder, the master-schemer was glad that opportunity had itself knocked on his door. He promised to help Lingaraj and marched with a considerable force and reached the capital, Madikeri (or Mercara). Devappa fled but was captured and thrown in the jail at Srirangapattana where he died. However, Hyder did not take Coorg without brutality. According to Lewin Bowring,
…on his first appearance on the [Coorg] frontier, Haidar offered a reward of five rupees for the head of every Coorg [Kodava] which was brought to him, and that 700 heads were in consequence delivered.
However, Hyder couldn’t hold Coorg for long. A serious insurrection broke out in the region and the capital Madikeri itself was besieged. However, Hyder quickly marched in with a strong force, put down the insurrection and executed every single leader who had led the rebellion. However, even this effort did not last long. Coorg erupted in rebellion yet again.
This time however, Hyder Ali decided to attack it from the South. He dispatched his army via Hunsur. The Kodava army was unable to catch the enemy’s scent until it was too late. Hyder’s forces had reached Balale near Ponnampet and laid a siege. At night, Hyder’s army launched a surprise attack and massacred about 700 Kodavas. Memory of this episode has still been preserved by the local folk legend. However, the Kodava warriors fought back heroically. The details of this battle are mentioned in an inscription at Hunsur. The inscription records how “the black-vest wearing warriors descended upon the enemy like black bees.” But then, the outnumbered Kodava soldiers were no match for Hyder Ali’s force, which proceeded to hack every Kodava, soldier and citizen alike. When he saw the dismembered head of a beautiful face, Hyder Ali ordered his army to stop the killing. Coorg finally fell into his hands in 1780 in this manner.
However, by the time Tipu assumed power, Coorg was leaderless with all its ruling princes languishing in the Srirangapattana prison. But nothing could shake the courage and the fierce spirit of independence of this proud race. In June 1783, they wrote a letter to a British agent stationed in Srirangapattana requesting protection from Tipu. The letter contained an appeal to the British to send about 6,000-7,000 men “by the way of Heggala Ghat…in the West, where I would myself join the English troops and fall upon Periyapattana, which place reduced, we could immediately march to Srirangapattana…which would soon be in our possession.”
This letter is a testimony to the foresight of the Kodavas, who had accurately estimated the kind of monster that Tipu was and foresaw the horrors that Tipu would unleash. It was signed by one Utha Nayak. To his credit, the British agent James Sibbald, quickly assessed the situation of the Kodavas. Besides, he had already been working on Coorg for some time now, and had sent a detailed report to the Supreme Government of the East India Company in May 1783 describing the immensely strategic value of Coorg. However, the East India Company Government had ignored it for the time being owing to a misplaced sense of honouring the Treaty of Mangalore. As we shall see, Sibbald’s report would later prove enormously useful to the British.
The British ignorance proved enormously tragic for the Kodavas in the interim. Indeed, Coorg experienced its worst ever fate and underwent its most humiliating period during Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s rule.
Buoyed by the success of the Treaty of Mangalore, Tipu marched into Coorg in 1785 and declared that they were guilty of polyandry. He cautioned them to discard the practice or face the fate of becoming Ahmadis.
Coorg Reduced to a Wasteland
In 1788, he actually implemented his threat. In a letter to the Nawab of Kurnool Runmust Khan, Tipu gloats about how gloriously he accomplished this vicious task:
…the exciters of sedition in the Coorg country, not looking to the consequences [of such conduct]… raised their heads, one and all, in tumult. Immediately on our hearing of this circumstance, we proceeded with the utmost speed, and, at once, made prisoners of forty thousand…Coorgs, who, alarmed at the approach of our victorious army, had slunk into woods, and concealed themselves in lofty mountains, inaccessible even to birds. Then carrying them away from their native country we raised them to the honor of Islam, and incorporated them with our Ahmadi corps. As these happy tidings are calculated, at once, to convey a warning to hypocrites… (Emphasis added)
There was another angle to Tipu’s unprovoked aggression against Coorg.
Among other things, Tipu was obsessed with building overseas ties through trade and diplomacy. However, the British had scuttled him at every step. The British intelligence network was unparalleled, and their tact for building strategic alliances with powerful local kings was equally unmatched. And so, Tipu decided that using the sea route was the best method to accomplish his objective. He found that the Malabar Coast was ideal for this. He hit upon a plan that would give him access to the Malabar Coast. Part of this plan was the complete conquest of Coorg, which connected Mysore to Kerala. Although Hyder Ali had already subdued Coorg, it was still only nominally a feudatory of Mysore.
Tipu marched into Coorg with a large force and launched a savage attack on the pretext of suppressing a rebellion. Indeed, there’s some grain of truth about the rebellion, and it has everything to do with a despotic officer named Zein Ul Abiddin Khan. He was Tipu’s faithful Faujdaar (commander) in Coorg. Here’s how Tipu’s arch-sycophant cum historian Mir Hussein Kirmani, describes Zein Khan:
The Faujdaar extended the hand of lust to the women of the peasantry, and compelled them to submit to his will and pleasure. In consequence of this tyrannical conduct, the whole of Kodagu advanced into a field of enmity and defiance. The people there rose up in rebellion when Tipu himself entered Kodagu through Periyapattana and Siddapur. He threw himself like a raging lion into the midst of that frightful forest…the Kodagu country…
It’s pretty clear that Tipu’s objective was to punish the oppressed Kodavas, and not to alleviate their suffering. Equally, it also served as a convenient pretext to achieve his political objective of taking control of the Malabar region.
If Hyder Ali gave a direct fight to the Kodava army, Tipu chose to launch a brutal attack on the most defenceless aspects of the Kodavas—innocent citizens, their way of life, their ancient culture, their religion, and their temples. He hit small towns and villages, often razing them to the ground or burning them down. Instead of battling the Kodava army, he targeted unarmed and innocent citizens. And he attacked, looted and destroyed temples.
Here’s Mir Hussein Kirmani again giving us a sample of Tipu’s savagery in Coorg.
The conquering Sultan now…dispatched his Amirs and Khans with large bodies of troops to punish those idolaters and reduce the whole country (Coorg) to subjection. Troops under M. Lally…Abbedin [the same tyrannical Faujdaar] and Hussein Ali were sent to Thalakaveri and Kushalpura…attacked and destroyed many towns with 8000 men, women and children taken as prisoners…collected an immense crowd like a flock of sheep or herd of bullocks…while the Sultan pitched his tents to the South of the Thalakaveri hill…giving them orders to pursue the rebels and capture their chiefs.
Already a thinly-populated country, Tipu’s brutal raid followed by large-scale prisoner-taking depopulated Coorg of its original inhabitants. However, that did not seem to bother him. Instead, being the Islamic zealot that he was, Tipu sought to Islamize it with Muslim settlements. He transported about 7,000 Muslim families belonging to the Shaikh and Sayyid sects to Coorg from elsewhere.
The intensity of Tipu’s raid was so terrifying that hundreds of temple priests fled to Mangalore along with their families. Worship came to a permanent halt in several temples. Some temples were covered with leaves in order to conceal their presence. The Maletirike Bhagavati temple at Virajpet is a good example of this. The Omkareshwara temple in Madikeri—arguably the most well-known temple in Coorg—faced mortal danger. The ruler at Madikeri realized that Tipu wouldn’t spare it and removed the existing tower (Kalasha) of the temple and replaced it with a dome so that it appeared like a mosque from afar. The Omkareshwara temple continues to retain this mosque-like appearance even to this day.
Some historians claim that he killed about 40,000 Kodavas and converted an equal number (a fact borne out by his own letter to Runmust Khan). The converted Kodavas were since known as Kodava Mapilas. Also, the fact that there were hundreds of such converted Kodavas in Tipu’s Ahmadi unit is a testimony to this historical truth. It also bears repetition that thousands of such captured Kodavas were transported to Ganjam (near Srirangapattana), forcibly converted, and made to join the Ahmadi unit.
Remnants of the savagery that Tipu inflicted upon the hapless Kodavas are visible even today.
In his raid of Napoklu near Madikeri, Tipu destroyed the temples in the surrounding villages of Betu and Kolakeri. He set fire to the house of the Biddatanda family. Forty members of this family were captured as prisoners and transported to Ganjam. After a few years, two members of this family escaped from Ganjam and returned to their hometown. One of them was a warrior named Appanna. However, the people in his hometown decided that he had now become a Mapila (Muslim), and excommunicated him. Appanna built a hut near the town-lake and spent the rest of his life there. This lake was in existence till recently, and was known as the Appannajja Lake.
To this day we find the descendants of these Kodavas, who were forcibly converted in Tipu’s time. These Kodava Mapilas till recently used to celebrate native Coorg festivals, built houses (called ain-mane) like the non-Muslim Kodavas, bore the same arms, wore the same kind of jewelry, and carried similar surnames. We have surnames like Alira, Cheeranda, Chimma Cheera (this surname is shared by non-Muslim Kodavas), Duddiyanda, Kaddadiyanda, and Kolumanda in Virajpet. In the Devanageri village, we have Muslim family names like Puliyanda and in the regions surrounding Virajpet, we have Muslim family names like Kuvalera, Italtanda, Mitaltanda, Kuppodanda, Kappanjeera. Similarly, in the Madikeri taluk, we have Kalera, Chekkera, Charmakaranda, Maniyanda, Balasojikaranda, and Mandeyanda. Intriguingly, in the Hoddur village in Madikeri taluk, there is a Muslim family with the surname of Harishchandra!
There’s also a curious contemporary fact that has a historical connection to Tipu. Even today, street dogs in Coorg are contemptuously called “Tipu,” a measure of how intensely he is reviled there.
To the Kodavas, Tipu’s bigoted dance of death in their homeland remains a wound that will never heal.
This is an extract from the author’s book Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore.