Karnataka has not only produced heroic kings like Mayura Verma of Kadambas, Pulakeshi of the Chalukyas of Badami, VishnuVardhana of the Hoysalas, Krishna Deve Raya of the Vijayanagars but also equally brave and heroic queens like Abbaka Devi, Chennama of Kittur and another queen of the same name-Chenamma of Keladi.
While many have heard and read about Kittur Rani, only a few known about Chenamma of Keladi. This Chenamma was not only a brave warrior but she also provided shelter to one of the sons of Chatrapathi Shivaji. What is more heroic is that she took on the might of Aurangzeb and forced him to come to terms with the small principality.
Chenamma of Keladi did not belong to any royal lineage. She was a commoner who caught the fancy of the Keladi ruler, Somashekara Nayaka who had been crowned King in 1663.
The Vijayanagar empire had been extinguished and several small principalities had asserted their independence. In Karnataka, the Palegars and Nayakas had become independent much like the Wodeyars.
Karnataka then was in transition and the Adil Shahis were strong in north Karnataka, while Wodeyars were asserting their supremacy in the southern parts. The Nayakas of Keladi in Shimoga had asserted their independence and they ruled the present Shimoga district with Bidanur as their first capital which was subsequently shifted to Nagara, also in Shimoga.
However, the founding of the Keladi kingdom goes back to 1498 when Chowdappa Nayaka set up the Keladi principality. It was during the time of Shivappa Nayaka (1645-1660) , that the Keladi principality shot into prominence.
Chenamma was the daughter of a trader Kotepura Siddappa. Though both lived happily, a dancer came in the life of Somashekara and he fell for her guile. Somashekara died in 1671 and Chenamma ruled Keladi from 1671 till 1696. She was the 11th ruler of the Keladi dynasty.
Many rulers thought that they could overcome Keladi. How wrong they were.
Chenamma, who by now had taken over the reigns of the kingdom decided not to give in to the Adil Shahis. She shifted her capital along with the treasury from Bidanur to Bhuvanagiri. The Adil Shahis entered an empty city. Though they tried to storm Bhuvanagiri, they could not.
The Adil Shahi army was defeated when they tried to move towards Bhuvanagiri. The thick forests and the narrow passes through which the Bijapur Army had to move provided the Keladi Army with an advantage that they used to the fullest. Chenamma and the Keladi army came back to Bidanur and the people welcomed them back.
After the Adil Shahis, it was the turn of the Wodeyars to take on Chenamma. Chikka Deve Raja Wodeyar sent an army to annex Keladi but the Wodeyars were defeated. Chenamma treated the captured men with respect and this earned the admiration of Chikke Deve Raja Wodeyar.
One day, while giving alms to the people, Chenamma came across four persons dressed in the robes of monks. The first of the monk saluted Chenamma. The Queen immediately knew that they were no monks as monks blessed people and did not give any salute.
She asked the first monk who he was and what he wanted.
She was startled when the monk said he was Rajaram, the youngest son of Chatrapathi Shivaji.
Chenamma looked impressed and wanted to know why he had come to her kingdom. She had heard of the exploits of the brave Shivaji and she recalled his services in establishing a Hindu kingdom.
True to her courteous nature, she seated Rajaram said then enquired about the reason for his present disguise. Rajaram truthfully told her that the Mughal Emperor had wanted to extract revenge. “After killing my brother Sambhaji, he wanted to kill me. I managed to escape to Gingee (now in Tamil Nadu) and I had to travel through Karnataka to reach the destination. During the course of my wandering I came here. Can you afford to give me shelter for a few days”, Rajaram asked.
Continuing the story of his escape from the Mughals, Rajaram said no king or kingdom dared to give him shelter. None, he said, wanted to risk the wrath of Aurangzeb and his powerful army. Chenamma was bewildered by the tale. She wanted to know how any king could refuse shelter to a son of a great Hindu King. She instantly took a decision and asked Rajaram and his three companions to stay back at Keladi.
Rajaram was stunned by the turn of events. Here was a queen of a small principality who was ready to risk her life and the very existence of the kingdom to give shelter. This was in stark contrast to other rulers who forced Rajaram to go away from their territories.
Rajaram was a noble son of a noble father. He asked Chenamma not to take any decision in haste. Consult your nobles and courtiers before coming to a decision, he advised the Queen.
Realising the merit in the arguments of Rajaram, the Queen summoned her officials for a discussion on the issue. None of them, including her father, wanted her to harbour Rajaram. All of them had only one advice. Ask Rajaram to go forthwith. We cannot risk a battle with the Mughals.
The Queen, however, had made up her mind. She spoke in the open court and recalled the services of Shivaji. She also pointed out that Keladi had never a tradition of turning away anyone who came for help. Chenamma’s speech enthused the young men of the court and they decided to support the Queen. The older people, however, advised caution.
Meanwhile, Rajaram and his companions were asked to rest at the State guest house where they were given royal treatment. She once again called Rajaram and asked him to stay on at Keladi. She then prepared for war.
The news soon reached Aurangzeb. Surprised at the show of defiance by the queen of a small state, he wrote to Chenamma asking het to surrender Rajaram. He warned her that she would have to face the Moghul army if she did not comply.
By the time the letter reached Chenamma, the son of Shivaji was already on way to Gingee. Chenamma then decided to reply to Aurangzeb’s letter. She extended her hand of friendship to Aurangzeb and said Rajaram was not in Keladi. She said Rajaram was already enroute to Gingee.
Before the letter reached Aurangzeb, he had ordered the huge Moghul Army under his son Azmath Aga to march to Keladi.
The Mughal army reached Keladi and very soon they learnt that fighting a war in the forests is much different from fighting on the plains. The Mughals could not make any headway and were losing men and equipment.
The Malnad rains started and the Mughals were at their wit’s end. They had absolutely no training in fighting in such conditions. When all seemed lost to the Mughals, Aurangzeb wrote to Azamath Ara that Rajaram was in Gingee.
Aurangzeb asked his son to immediately proceed to Gingee and capture Rajaram. A much relieved Azamath abandoned the campaign against Keladi and marched towards Gingee. He decided to enter into a treaty with the Keladi Queen.
Aurangzeb too recognized her fighting spirit and called her a female bear. Meanwhile, Rajaram sent a letter to Chenamma thanking her for providing food and shelter.
Rajaram died in 1700 and his wife Tarabai ruled the Maratha kingdom as a Regent. She continued the fight against the Mughals.
Deep down south, Chenamma went from strength to strength. She entered into trade pacts with the Arabs and Portuguese. She also maintained friendly relations with the Wodeyars.
Chenamma led a military expedition and captured Hulikere near Basavapattana. She rebuilt the fort. Basappa Nayaka who came to the throne after Chenamma, renamed it as Chennagiri.
Chenamma died in 1696 and she was buried in the Koppalu monastery in Bidanur.