Rani Chennamma and the Mystery of the Queen’s Room in Dharwad

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    The buildings and monuments we sometimes blindly pass by are such objects which boast of interesting anecdotes of history and make one raise eyebrows when they are explored.

    The majestic British era bungalow in Dharwad city of Karnataka and today serving as the official residence of the deputy commissioner is one among the vestiges of the colonial period. This grand old building with a delicate touch of landscaping has been the cynosure of all eyes since it was raised in 1820. While everyone is familiar with this structure, not many are aware of an interesting slice of history that this bungalow has hidden in its womb.

    Amazing as it may sound, there is a tiny room in this bungalow that shares a strange but interesting link with the legendary queen Rani Chennamma of Kittur, the first Indian queen to cross swords with the mighty British opposing their attempts to usurp her kingdom.

    It was in this room that Rani Chennamma was lodged as a prisoner for a few days. She was held captive after losing the second battle of Kittur to the British. She was brought here to face court proceedings and later shifted to Bailhongal prison to serve life imprisonment.

    Kittur, which today is the headquarters of a taluk by the same name in the Belagavi district is located at a distance of 30 km from Dharwad. It was one of the important principalities ruled by the Lingayat Desai family. This dynasty flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries owing to their close association with the Maratha Empire. Its ruler Mallasarja was defeated and taken prisoner by Tipu Sultan during the hostilities between Mysore and Marathas in 1785. Later, he was released and restored to the throne of Kittur. Post Maratha Empire, Kittur maintained cordial relations with the British.

    This otherwise nondescript principality shot into fame when it dared to take on the mighty British opposing their unjust expansionist policies. Hostilities began brewing up when Mallasarja died without a legal heir in 1824. His son too had died by that time forcing Chennamma to adopt a boy. However, John Thackeray, the British political agent in Dharwad refused to recognise the adopted child as the legal heir to the chieftaincy and ordered surrender of the treasury valuing Rs 16 lakh cash and jewellery. However, the dowager queen Chennamma refused to adhere to the orders issued by Thackeray leading to a political crisis. Thackeray marched against Kittur to take forceful possession of the fort and treasury but had to face stiff opposition. The result was the first battle of Kittur in October 1824. While Thackeray was killed on the battlefield, two other British officers Walter Elliot and Stevenson were held captive.

    The entire region was up in arms against the British and the queen has emerged as an icon of anti-colonial policies. However, the British dispatched more forces to Kittur and in the ensuing battle in December 1824 the queen was defeated and held captive. She had to face defeat despite igniting the spirit of freedom among the local people who joined her voluntarily to fight the foreigners.

    One can gauge the gravity of the situation from the fact that the British had to dispatch the contingents of over 20,000 men to quell the rebellion. Her defeat is also attributed to the treacherous role played by one of her own men Mallappa Shetti by mixing cow dung and mud into the gunpowder used for canons. Even to this day, the name of Mallappa Shetti stands synonym to a treacherous person in this region.

    Afterward, the queen was brought to Dharwad to face court-martial and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. She was lodged at this bungalow while facing court proceedings.

    But the intriguing part of the story is that this room, which at a corner of the main building abetting to the extended portion has been left untouched as it was some 196 years ago. This despite the timely repair and renovation works carried out over the years in other parts of the building. The flooring, ceiling and even the walls have been left as it was. The reason for this is a mystery. Neither this room that can accommodate two-three persons is used for any other purpose even today. However, unlike in the olden days, it is not kept locked and daily cleaning and maintenance are done.

    Senior IAS officer Darpan Jain, who is a former deputy commissioner of Dharwad had told this author on an earlier occasion that the room had been preserved in memory of Rani Chennamma.

    Although the story has not been historically authenticated, R.M. Shadaksharaiah, senior research scholar and former professor of Karnatak University, says that it was thought that the queen, and her relatives Veeramma and Janakibai, were kept in captivity here before she was sentenced to life imprisonment at Bailahongal. However, there are hardly any clues as to why the room has not been touched, he added.

    Elderly people in Dharwad say that this room was kept locked for long for some obscure reasons and one reason being attributed is that it is haunted. It was only after independence that it was opened. Now it is not considered a haunted spot. Later, a portrait of the queen had been hung against the wall and the tradition of the incumbent Deputy Commissioner offering tributes on Independence Day has been in vogue for a long. On that day the Deputy Commissioner offers tribute to the portrait of Chennamma in a symbolic ceremony before proceeding to the main function.

    Strange as it may appear that till this day historians have not made up their mind to take up detailed studies in this connection, even as much has been writing about Chennamma and her life. A detailed investigation including visiting the archives may shed more light on the subject and clear the mystery once and for all. New findings may also add a new chapter to the history of our struggle for freedom.


    Dinesh Nayak is an independent journalist and author based in Hubballi, Karnataka.

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