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Marudhanayagam Pillai alias Muhammed Yusuf Khan
Born 1725
Died October 15, 1764(1764-10-15)
Military career
Allegiance Mughal Empire
Service/branch Nawab of Arcot
Rank Sepoy, Ispahsalar
Battles/wars Carnatic Wars

Maruthanayagam Pillai (1725 – 15 October 1764) a.k.a. Muhammad Yusuf Khan was born in a Hindu Saiva Vellalar family, in Panaiyur in British India, in what is now Ramanathapuram District of Tamil Nadu. He later converted to Islam to enlist in the British army. He became a warrior in the Arcot troops, and later a commandant for the British East India Company troops. The British and the Arcot Nawab employed him to suppress the Polygar (a.k.a. Palayakkarar) uprising in South India. Later he was entrusted to administer the Madurai country when the Madurai Nayak rule ended.

A dispute arose with the British and Arcot Nawab, and three of Khan's associates were bribed to capture him. He was captured during his morning prayer (Thozhugai) and hanged on 15 October 1764 at Sammatipuram near Madurai. Local legends state that he survived two earlier attempts at hanging, and that the Nawab feared Yusuf Khan would come back to life and so had his body dismembered and buried in different locations around Tamil Nadu.

Early years[]

Maruthanayagam Pillai (alias Muhammed Yusuf Khan) was born c. 1725 of the Vellalar caste, in the village of Panaiyur, in what is now Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, India.[1] Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield – who was in the service of Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah, the Nawab of Arcot, for three years – mentions in his Genuine Memoirs of Asiaticus that Yusuf Khan was of royal extraction and high descent.[2] 2nd ed, 1785, page 160 The Scots Magazine (1765, page 264) tells of a letter written by a gentleman in the East Indies to a friend in Scotland, from the military camp before Palamcottah, dated 22 October 1764 (a week after his hanging), where in Yusuf Khan is said to be 'descended from the ancient seed of that nation'.[8] According to an ancient Tamil manuscript Pandiyamandalam, Cholamandalam Poorvika Raja Charithira Olungu, the Pandiyan dynasty in Madurai was founded by one Mathuranayaga Pandiyan (Mathuranayagam).[9] Yusuf Khan was believed to be his descendant.[by whom?]

Being too restless in his youth, Yusuf Khan left his native village, and later lived with the company of his martial arts master and converted to Islam.[3][4] He served the French Governor Jacques Law in Pondicherry. It was here he befriended another Frenchman, Marchand (a subordinate of Jacques Law), who later became captain of the French force under Yusuf Khan in Madurai. Whether Yusuf Khan was dismissed from this job or left on his own is unclear. He left Pondicherry, for Tanjore and joined the Tanjorean army as a sepoy (foot soldier).

Education and early career[]

Around this time, an English captain named Brunton educated Yusuf Khan, making him proficient in English. From Tanjore he moved to Nellore (in present-day Andhra Pradesh), to try his hand as a native physician under Mohammed Kamal, in addition to his career in the army. He moved up the ranks as Thandalgar (tax collector), Havildar and finally as a Subedar and that is how he is referred to in the English records ('Nellore Subedar' or 'Nellore'). He later enlisted under Chanda Sahib who was then the Nawab of Arcot. While staying in Arcot he fell in love with a 'Portuguese' Christian (a loose term for a person of mixed Indo-European descent or Luso-Indian) girl named Marcia or Marsha, and married her.

Carnatic wars[]

In 1751, there was an ongoing struggle for the throne of Arcot, between Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah, who was the son of the previous Nawab of Arcot Anwaruddin Muhammed Khan, and his relative Chanda Sahib. The former sought the help of British and the latter the French. Chanda Sahib initially succeeded, forcing Muhammed Ali to escape to the rock-fort in Tiruchirapalli which was put under siege. Ensign Robert Clive led a small English force of 300 soldiers on a diversionary attack on Arcot, and Chanda Sahib dispatched a 10,000-strong force under his son Raza Sahib, aided by the Nellore Army of which Yusuf Khan was a Subedar. At Arcot, and later at Kaveripakkam, Chanda Sahib's son was badly defeated by Clive, and Chanda Sahib withdrew and was killed. The English quickly installed Muhammed Ali as the Nawab of Arcot and most of Chanda Sahib's native forces defected to the English.

Under Major Stringer Lawrence, Yusuf Khan was trained in the European method of warfare and displayed a talent for military tactics and strategy. Over the next decade, as the British East India Company continued to fight the French East India Company in the Carnatic Wars, Yusuf Khan's guerrilla tactics, repeatedly cutting the French lines of supply, greatly hampered the French efforts.

By 1760, Yusuf Khan had reached the zenith of his career as the 'all-conquering' military commandant. (A few years earlier he had been given the rank of 'Commandant of Company's sepoys'). His greatest supporter during this period was George Pigot, the English governor in Madras. Yusuf Khan was held in very high esteem even after his death by the English and in their opinion he was one of the two great military geniuses India had ever produced (the other being Hyder Ali of Mysore). Yusuf Khan was regarded for his strategy and Hyder Ali for his speed. Major General Sir. John Malcolm said of him almost fifty years later, "Yusuf Khan was by far the bravest and ablest of all the native soldiers that ever served the English in India".

Control of Madurai[]

When Muhammed Ali was installed as the Nawab of Arcot, he owed huge debts to the British East India Company, to whom he gave the tax collection rights of the Madurai kingdom. This brought the British into conflict with the Polygars, influential feudal administrators who were unwilling to pay taxes to the weak Nawab and refused to recognize British tax collectors. In 1755, to quell the rebellious Polygars, the Nawab and British dispatched an army to the south under Col. Heron and the Nawab's brother Mahfuz Khan, accompanied by Yusuf Khan as bodyguard. Mahfuz Khan and Heron burnt several villages, razed several temples, then ransacked and looted towns, melting several rare statues from Hindu temples. This infuriated Yusuf Khan, who lodged a complaint with the British. Heron was later court-marshalled.

In March 1756, Yusuf Khan was sent to Madurai to collect taxes and restore order. Madurai was then under control of Barkadthullah (with the support of Hyder Ali of Mysore), who had angered the locals by allowing an old fakir to prepare to build a dargah (Islamic tomb) for himself atop the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. Yusuf Khan arrived with as little as 400 troops, defeating Barkadthullah's large army, forcing him to flee to Sivaganga Zamin with the fakir likewise expelled.

Disturbances continued to prevail in Madurai. The Kallars ravaged the country; Hyder Ali was with difficulty beaten off, and little revenue could be collected. The British failed to convince the Nawab to recall his brother, Mahfuz Khan, who may have been the cause of the trouble. Soon after, to meet their needs elsewhere, they compelled the withdrawal of Yusuf Khan. His departure was the signal for wilder anarchy, and company's garrison in Madurai could only collect taxes from the country directly under its walls in order to support themselves.

The Company later sent Yusuf Khan back, renting both Madurai and Tinnevelly to him for five lakh (500,000 rupees) per annum. Yusuf Khan restored lands to the plundered Meenakshi temple and by the spring of 1759 began cutting roads through the woods to pursue bands of armed robbers plaguing the countryside. Through the relentless pursuit and execution of criminals, he brought the country to order and the Polygars into submission. He also renovated the temple tanks, lakes and forts damaged by Hyder Ali. All of these actions increased revenue to the Nawab and British, and made himself extremely powerful.

Controversial wars with Palayakkars[]

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|date= }} During this time Yusuf Khan battled with Puli Thevar, a Polygar of Nerkattumseval (a.k.a. Nelkettaanseval, a small town to the south-west of Madurai), who was rebelling against the Nawab and the British. Yusuf Khan first convinced the Raja of Travancore to make an alliance with the Nawab, breaking his alliance with Puli Thevar. Yusuf Khan then captured some of Puli Thevar's forts where Mohammed Ali had failed. However, in 1760, Yusuf Khan suffered a humiliating defeat against of Puli Thevar.[Clarification needed] According to local legends and folk songs, Yusuf Khan's forces were driven from Nerkattanseval to the outskirts of Madurai by Puli Thevar and his forces. In 1761, when about 10,000-strong infantry along with more advanced military weaponry of the British East India Company were employed against Puli Thevar's 2,000-strong infantry equipped with lances and swords, Puli Thevar was captured after a brutal fight which inflicted severe casualties over the Nawab and Company forces. Upon capture, Puli Thevar was sent to Sankarankovil to be hanged. However, Puli Thevar later escaped from Sankarankovil and disappeared. (Puli Thevar is today recognized by the Government of Tamil Nadu as a freedom fighter.)

Also during this time, Yusuf Khan retaliated against the capture of the town of Alwartirunagari by chasing the Dutch back to their ships anchored at Tuticorin.

Dispute with Arcot Nawab[]

As Yusuf Khan's victories accumulated and his reputation grew, the Arcot Nawab became jealous and feared that he might be deposed. To reduce his power, the Nawab ordered that taxes for the region be paid directly to his administration instead of that of Yusuf Khan. British Governor Lord Pigot advised Yusuf Khan to heed the Nawab's wishes, and British traders supported this as they viewed Yusuf Khan as the Nawab's employee. Meanwhile, a scheme was planned by the Nawab and his brother Mahfuz Khan to poison Yusuf Khan.

In 1761, and again in 1762, Yusuf Khan asked to continue leasing Madura and Tinnevelly for an additional four years at seven lakhs (700,000 rupees) per annum. His offer was refused, and shortly afterwards he began to collect troops in an ambition to become lord of Madurai. Some British traders reported to the Nawab and the Company, on Yusuf Khan as "encouraging people with anti-British sentiments, spending vast sums on his troops"."Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". March 2019.  In response, the Nawab and British sent Capt. Manson to arrest Yusuf Khan.

Meanwhile, Yusuf Khan wrote to Sivaganga Zamindari reminding them of their owed taxes. Sivaganga's Minister and General came to Madurai to meet Yusuf Khan, and was rudely warned that certain territories would be annexed for failure of payment. Zamindar immediately ordered Yusuf Khan to be "captured and hanged like a dog"."Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". March 2019.  Meanwhile, Ramnad Zamin's general Damodar Pillai and Thandavarayan Pillai complained to the Nawab that Yusuf Khan had plundered Sivaganga villages and begun a cannon manufacturing plant in association with a French Marchaud.

The Nawab and British quickly amassed an army. They brought the Travancore Raja to their cause, and in an ensuing battle, the Travancore Raja was defeated and the British flags in his domains were chopped and burnt, with the French flag hoisted on the Madura Fort.

When Governor Saunders in Madras (now Chennai) called Khan Sahib for a meeting, he refused evoking the wrath of the East India Company. By now, Delhi's shah and Nizam Ali of Hyderabad – the Arcot Nawab's overlords – proclaimed Yusuf Khan as the rightful legal governor of Madurai and Tirunelveli. This left the Nawab and British seeking some legitimacy to capture and kill Yusuf Khan.

Defensive actions and downfall[]

Yusuf Khan proclaimed himself the independent ruler of Madurai and Tirunelveli, but had enemies lurking around him. His previous allegiance to the Nawab and British had earned the wrath of Mysore, and the remaining Polygars sought a return to prominence. The Tanjore, Travancore, Pudukkotai, Ramnad, and Sivaganga kingdoms joined with the British and the Arcot Nawab to attack Yusuf Khan. In the first siege of Madurai in 1763, the English could not make any headway because of inadequate forces and the army retreated to Tiruchi due to monsoons. The Nizam Ali of Hyderabad reaffirmed Yusuf Khan as the rightful governor, while the Arcot Nawab and the British issued a warrant for Yusuf Khan "to be captured alive and hanged before the first known tree like a dog".

In 1764, British troops again besieged the Madurai Fort, this time cutting supplies. Yusuf Khan and his troops went without food and water for several days (according to European sources, surviving on horse and monkey meat[citation needed]) but held on while strengthening the defences, and repelled the chief assault with a loss of 120 Europeans (including 9 officers) killed and wounded. Little progress against him had been made, except that the place was now rigorously blockaded.

The Arcot Nawab consulted Sivaganga General Thaandavaraaya Pillai, along with Maj. Charles Campbell, hatching a plot to bribe three of Yusuf Khan's close associates: Dewan Srinivasa Rao, French mercenary captain Marchand, and Khan's doctor Baba Sahib. While Yusuf Khan was offering his morning prayers in his house, they quietly captured him, binding him with his own turban. Yusuf Khan's wife rushed to the scene with the house guards but they were overwhelmed by the well-armed mercenaries. Under cover of darkness, Marchand brought Yusuf Khan to Campbell, with most of Yusuf Khan's native forces unaware of what had happened.

The next day, on the evening of 15 October 1764, near the army camp at Sammattipuram on the Madurai–Dindigul road, Yusuf Khan was hanged as a rebel by Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah, the Nawab of Arcot. This place is about 2 miles (3.2 km) to the west of Madura, known as Dabedar Chandai (Shandy), and his body was buried at the spot.[citation needed]

Legends of his death[]

One legend is that he was hanged three times before he finally died. The brief story is that the first two attempts at hanging failed as the rope snapped and only the third attempt was successful. The superstitious Nawab of Arcot Muhammed Ali ordered the body of Yusuf Khan to be dismembered into many parts and buried in different parts of his domain. As the story goes, his head was sent to Trichy, arms to Palayamkottai, and legs to Periyakulam and Tanjore. The headless and limbless torso was buried at Sammattipuram Madurai. In 1808, a small square mosque was erected over the tomb in Samattipuram, on the left of the road to Theni, at Kaalavaasal, a little beyond the toll-gate, and is known as Khan Sahib's pallivasal.

There are no accounts of Yusuf Khan's wife Maasa and his son of 2 or 3 years following the hanging. According to local tradition, Maasa died soon after her husband's demise and the little boy was brought up in strict secrecy by Srinivasa Rao (Yusuf Khan's Dewan) in Alwarthirunagari.[citation needed] Srinivasa Rao might have felt that the little boy had better chances of surviving where the people were kindly disposed towards Yusuf Khan for repelling a Dutch invasion. As per Maasa's last wish, and to maintain secrecy, Srinivasa Rao named the boy Mathuranayagam (the original Hindu name of Yusuf Khan) and brought him up her the Christian faith.[citation needed] Yusuf Khan's descendants later moved to Palayamkottai.[citation needed]

The descendants of Baba Sahib, Yusuf Khan's physician, live around Krishnan Koil in Virudhunagar District. They still practise native medicine and bone-setting.

The Madurai fort,[5] which Yusuf Khan had defended from sieges in 1763 and 1764 was demolished at the end of the nineteenth century. His lodgement, according to the French map,[6] was inside the Main Guard Square (Menkattu Pottal in Tamil; Menkattu is a corruption of main guard), a quadrangle bounded by West Avani Moola Street, Netaji Road and West Pandian Agil (Agali) Street. Yusuf Khan lived in the main bastion of the ancient Pandian fortress, also known in Tamil as the Moolai Kothalam (main corner tower; moolai in Tamil means corner) at the angle formed by the West Avani Moola Street and the South Avani Moola Street. The four Avani Moola Streets, the North, the West, the South and the East were situated just inside the ancient Pandian fortress, which was almost a square. Just outside the fortress walls was the ancient moat, which had been filled by the Nayak rulers and the site of the moat can only be guessed by the names of the streets running near or perhaps on the moat itself, like the West Pandian Agil Street (agil is a corruption of agazhi). King Viswanatha Nayak extended the city limits further and the new fortress walls were built outside the Masi Streets. The ancient Pandian city of Madurai had the early Meenakshi Amman Temple at its centre; surrounding it were twelve concentric ring roads, each named after a Tamil month. The innermost ring road was Chithrai and the outermost Panguni. As the temple underwent periodic expansions over the centuries, the street adjacent to the temple premises retained the name Chithrai Street. Now, only three of the ancient twelve streets can be identified; Chithrai, Avani and Masi.

The fort in Palayamkottai,[7] which he used during his wars with the Polygars, was dismantled in the mid-nineteenth century. Only parts of the western bastion, (now housing Medai Police Station), the eastern bastion (now housing the Tirunelveli Museum) and a few short segments of the eastern wall remain.[8]


Tradition has many stories to tell of Yusuf Khan, said to be a scion of the ancient Pandiyan dynasty, who started his life as an ordinary peasant and by his military genius rose to the pinnacle of royal power when he became the ruler of the land, only to fall by the treachery of his comrades.

In Tinnevelly and Madura his whole administration denoted vigour and effect. His justice was unquestioned, his word unalterable; his measures were happily combined and firmly executed, the guilty had no refuge from punishment. Wisdom, vigour and integrity were never more conspicuous in any person of whatever climate or complexion.|author=Col. Fullerton|source=A view of the English interests in India (1785)[9]}}

In popular culture[]

Indian actor Kamal Haasan in 1997 started shooting the movie Marudhanayagam portraying Yusuf Khan in English, French, and Tamil languages. Its filming was stopped soon after, due to financial constraints and political problems.


  1. [1] Yusuf Khan: The Rebel Commandant by S.C.Hill-1914,[2] History of Tinnevelly by Caldwell)
  2. Genuine Memoirs of Asiaticus
  3. Yusuf Khan: the rebel commandant By Samuel Charles Hill
  4. B.C. Law volume By Devadatta Ramakrishna Bhandarkar, pg. 231
  5. [3]
  6. [4]
  7. [5]
  8. [6] to see a plan of the original fort in Palayamkottai, see the map between pages 466 and 467.
  9. [7]

External links[]

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