The Madurai Nayaks or Nayak Dynasty of Madurai were rulers, from 1559 until 1736, of a region comprising most of modern-day Tamil Nadu, India, with Madurai as their capital. They were from the Telugu speaking Kamma community. The Nayak reign was an era noted for its achievement in arts, cultural and administrative reforms, revitalization of temples previously ransacked by the Delhi Sultans, and inauguration of a unique architectural style.

The dynasty consisted of 13 rulers, of whom 9 were kings, 2 were queens, and 2 were joint-kings. The most notable of these were the king, Tirumalai Nayak, and the queen, Rani Mangammal. Foreign trade was conducted mainly with the Dutch and the Portuguese, as the British and the French had not yet made inroads in the region.

The Nayak Dynasty (1559—1736)

In 1559, the famous Nayak dynasty of Madurai was founded by Viswanatha Nayadu of Kamma caste. It held the country for nearly two centuries, until in a chaotic situation Muslims took it in 1736 for a brief period, and finally the British took it during the 1780s.

Origins

At the close of Vitthala Raja’s administration the
Chola ruler Veerasekara Chola invaded the Madurai country and dispossessed the Pandya king Chandrasekara Pandyan. The latter appealed to the court of Vijayanagar, and an expedition under Kotikam Nagama Nayaka was sent to his aid. Nagama easily suppressed the Chola ruler and took Madurai, but then suddenly he threw off his allegiance and declining to help the Pandya, usurped the throne. The Vijayanagar emperor demanded that someone cure the defection: Nagama’s own son, Viswanatha Nayak, volunteered, and the king sent him with a large force against the rebel. Interestingly, Viswanatha is also recorded as a ceremonial betel bearer for the king. Viswanatha defeated his father, placed him in confinement and at length procured for him the unconditional pardon which had been the object of his action from the beginning.

Viswanatha obeyed the orders of the Vijayanagar king nominally, in that he placed the Pandya on the throne. But both secret policy and his own interests deterred him from handing over the entire government of the country to the old and feeble dynasty. He set out to rule on his own account. This was in 1559.

Viswanatha Nayak (1559—1563)

Viswanatha Nayak was the Vijayanagara viceroy to Madurai in south India during the 16th century. He later became the ruler of Madurai after the fall of the Vijayanagara empire. He is the founder of the Nayak dynasty of Madurai.

Viswanatha Nayaka became the first ruler of the Nayak dynasty. Viswanatha is said to have set himself immediately to strengthening his capital and improving the administration of his dominions. He was supported by his general Ariyanatha Mudaliar who led Viswantha Nayak's army became second in command and took power along with the latter in Tirunelveli in southern India. He demolished the Pandya rampart and ditch which at that time surrounded merely the walls of Madurai's great temple, and erected in their place an extensive double-walled fortress defended by 72 bastions; and he constructed channels from upper waters of the Vaigai river to supply the kingdom with water— perhaps the Peranai and Chittanai dams owe their origins to him.

Viswantha Nayak was then succeeded by his son Krishnappa Nayak who along with his father's able minister Ariyanatha expanded the Madurai Kingdom under the Nayaks and brought most of the ancient Pandyan territory under its rule.

Introduction of the polygar (palayakkarar) system

In his administrative improvements Viswanatha was ably seconded by his prime minister Ariyanatha Mudaliar  (or, as he is still commonly called, Ariyanatha), a man born into a poor Vellala family in Meippedu village, Tondaimandalam (the present day Kanchipuram district)who had won his way by sheer ability to a high position in the Vijayanagar court. When the Vijayanagara empire fell, he became the Delavoy(General) and the second-in command to the Vijayanagara viceroy Viswanatha Nayaka of Madurai.

Ariyanatha Mudaliar founded the palayam or poligar system which was widely used to govern the Nayak kingdom during the late 16th centuries. The system was a quasi-fedual organization of the country, which was divided into multiple palayams or small provinces and each palayam was ruled by a palayakkarar or a petty chief. He organized the Pandyan kingdom into 72 palayams and ruled over the 72 dry-zone poligars chiefs for over fifty years. The feudal chiefs of southern Tamil Nadu continue to be specially attached to his memory to this very day. Each was placed in charge of one of the 72 bastions of the Madurai fortifications. They were responsible for the immediate control of their estates. They paid a fixed tribute to the Nayaka kings and maintained a quota of troops ready for immediate service.

The Aiyaram Kaal Mandapam, or Thousand Pillared Hall, in the famous Meenakshi Temple was constructed by Ariyanatha Mudaliar in 1569. At the entrance of the Mandapam, we can still see his statue; the majestic pose of Ariyanatha Mudaliar seated on a beautiful horse-back which flanks one side of the entrance to the temple. The statue is still periodically crowned with garlands by modern worshippers. He lived until 1600 and had great influence upon the fate of the Nayaka dynasty until his death.

Ariyanatha Mudaliar was not only the pre-colonial military man but also enjoyed a cult status in southern Tamil Nadu and became a tutelary patron figure amongst some of the region's cattle-keeping predator groups[6].

These men did much for the country in those days, founding villages, building dams, constructing tanks and erecting temples. Many of them bore the title of Nayakkan, and hence the common "nayakkanur" as a termination to the place names in this district. They also brought with them the gods of the Deccan, and thus we find in Madurai many shrines to Ahobilam and other deities who rarely are worshipped in the Tamil country. Their successors, the present zamindars of the district , still look upon Ariyanatha as a sort of patron saint .

Visvanatha added the fort of Trichinopoly to his possessions. The Vijayanagar viceroy who governed the Tanjore country had failed to police the pilgrim roads which ran through Trichinopoly, to the shrines at Srirangam and Ramesvaram, and devotees were afraid to visit those holy places. Visvanatha exchanged that town for his fort at Vallam, in Tanjore. He then improved the fortifications and town of Trichinopoly, and the temple of Srirangam, and he cleared the banks of the Cauvery river of robbers.

Visvanatha had difficulty with some of the local chieftains, who resisted his authority in Tinnevelly, but after vanquishing them he improved that town and district. Visvanatha died aged and honoured in 1563. He still is affectionately remembered as having been a great benefactor of his country.

Kumara Krishnappa (1563—1573)

Viswanatha Nayaka was succeeded by his son, Kumara Krishnappa (1563-73), who is remembered as having been a brave and politic ruler. A revolt occurred among the polygars, during his reign, but its leader was captured and the trouble was quenched.

Joint Rulers

Kumara Krishnappa was succeeded in 1573 by his two sons, who ruled jointly and uneventfully until 1595, when they in turn were succeeded by their two sons, one of whom ruled until 1602.

Muttu Krishnappa (1602—1609)

These were followed by Muttu Krishnappa. He is credited with having founded the dynasty of the Setupatis of Ramnad, the ancestors of the present Raja of that place, who were given a considerable slice of territory in the Maravar country on condition that they suppress crime and protect pilgrims journeying to Rameswaram. These were the beginnings of Ramnad zamindari.

Muttu Virappa (1609—1623)

Muttu Krishnappa was succeeded by Muttu Virappa. He began the construction of the Dindigul Fort at Dindigul on the Hill, along with the Temple on it, which later was completed by Tirumalai Nayak.

Fall of the Vijayanagar Kingdom, 1565

In 1565 the Muslim rulers of the Deccan defeated Vijayanagar, the suzerain of the Nayaks, at the battle of Talikota. Vijayanagar had to abandon Bellary and Anantapur, flee their capital, and take refuge at Penukonda in Anantapur, then at Vellore, and then at Chandragiri near Tirupathi, which later granted land to the British East India Company to build a fort at the present day Chennai. Finally they settled at Vellore in North Arcot. Their governors at Madurai, Gingee and Tanjore still paid them tribute and other marks of respect; but in later years, when their suzerainty became weak, the Nayaks ruled independently.

Tirumalai Nayak (1623—1659)

Muttu Virappa, mentioned above, was succeeded by the great "Tirumalai Nayak", the most powerful and best-known member of his dynasty, who ruled for thirty-six eventful years. Please see the article devoted to him and his reign at Madurai.

Muttu Alakadri (1659—1662)

Tirumala was succeeded by his son Muttu Alakadri, whose first act was to shake off the hated Muslim yoke. He tried to induce the Nayak of Tanjore to join the enterprise, but the move backfired: the Tanjore ruler disclaimed all connection with his neighbour’s aspirations and attempted to conciliate with the Muslims. The Muslim invaders moved against Trichinopoly and Madurai, spreading havoc, while Muttu Alakadri remained inactive behind the walls of the fort. Fortunately for him, the enemy soon had to retire, for their devastations produced a local famine and pestilence from which they themselves suffered terribly. They made a half-hearted attempt on Trichinopoly and then permitted themselves to be bought off for a very moderate sum. Muttu Alakadri did not long survive their departure, but gave himself over to debauchery with an abandon which soon brought him to a dishonoured grave.

Chokkanatha (1662—1682)

Tirumala was succeeded by his son Chokkanatha, a promising boy of sixteen. Please see the separate article devoted to him at Chokkanatha Nayak.

Rangakrishna Muthu Virappa (1682—1689)

Rangakrishna Muthu Virappa, who succeeded Chokkanatha was a spirited boy of fifteen. He tried to revive the diminished fortunes of the kingdom. He made a name for himself by ignoring Aurangazeb with courage, but little enough of his territories remained to him to rule. The greater part of them was held by Mysore, some by the Maravans, some by the Marathas of Gingee, and some by the Marathas of Tanjore. At first, the country was subject to anarchy and pillage, foreign enemies occupied all the forts, and robber chiefs were masters of the rural areas and carried on their brigandage there with impunity.

Matters slowly improved, with Mysore soon distracted by a war with the Marathas of Gingee, and both the Setupathis of Ramnad and the Marathas of Tanjore occupied by wars within their own countries. Emperor Aurangzeb in 16861687conquered the kingdoms of Madura’s old enemies, Golconda and Bijapur, and he was for many years engaged in an exhausting war with the Marathas. Moreover the young Nayak of Madurai, though imbued with a boyish love of fun and adventure which endeared him to his countrymen, also had a stock of sound sense and ability which evoked the admiration of his ministers, and he took advantage of his improving prospects.

Muthu Virappa recovered his capital in 1685, and he gradually reconquered large parts of the ancient kingdom of his forefathers and succeeded in restoring the power of the Nayaks of Madurai. Unfortunately he died of smallpox in 1689, at the early age of 22. His young window Muttammal — the only woman, strange to say, whom he had married — was inconsolable at his loss and, though she was far advanced in pregnancy, insisted upon committing sati on his funeral pyre. His mother, Rani Mangammal, with great difficulty persuaded her to wait until her child was born, solemnly swearing that she could then have her way. When the child (a son) arrived, she was put off with various excuses until, despairing of being allowed her wish, she put an end to her own life.

Rani Mangammal (1689—1704)

Mangammal, the mother of the late Nayak, acted for the next fifteen years as Queen-Regent on behalf of her grandson. She was the most popular of all the Nayaks.

Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha (1704—1731)

Her grandson Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha, starting on a bad note, enjoyed a long but apparently dull reign of 26 years, paving way for the demise of the dynasty. He was vain and weak-minded, and unfit to govern either himself or others. His reign was distinguished by the ill-regulated and extraordinary munificence of his gifts to Brahmins and religious institutions. The injustice of his rule caused a serious riot in Madurai, the mutiny of his troops, and incessant disturbances.

His only warfare was over the succession to the throne of Ramnad, in 1725. Of the two claimants, one was supported by Tanjore Marathas and the other by Madurai and the Tondaiman of Pudukkotai. The Tanjore troops won a decisive victory and placed their protege on the throne. A year or two later the Tanjore king deposed this very protege, and divided Ramnad into Ramnad and Sivaganga, which became independent Marava powers.

Queen Meenakshi, Chanda Sahib, & the End of the Nayaks (1731—1736)

Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha died in 1731, and was succeeded by his widow Meenakshi, who acted as Queen-Regent on behalf of a young boy she had adopted as the heir of her dead husband. She had only ruled a year or two when an insurrection was raised against her by Vangaru Tirumala, the father of her adopted son, who pretended to have claims of his own to the throne of Madurai. At this juncture representatives of the Mughals appeared on the scene and took an important part in the struggle.

Since 1693, Madurai nominally had been the feudatory of the emperor of Delhi, and since 1698 the Carnatic region north of the Coleroon (Kollidam) river had been under direct Muslim rule. The local representative of the Mughal was the Nawab of Arcot, and an intermediate authority was held by the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was in theory both a subordinate of the emperor, and the superior of the Nawab.

How regularly the kings of Tanjore and Madura paid their tribute is not clear, but in 1734— about the time, in fact, that Meenakshi and Vangaru Thirumala were fighting for the crown — an expedition was sent by the then-Nawab of Arcot to exact tribute and submission from the kingdoms of the south. The leaders of this expedition were the Nawab’s son, Safdar Ali Khan, and his nephew and confidential adviser, the well-known Chanda Sahib.

The invaders took Tanjore by storm and, leaving the stronghold of Trichinopoly untouched, swept across Madurai and Tinnevelly and into Travancore. On their return from this expedition they took part in the quarrel between Meenakshi and Vangaru Tirumala. The latter approached Safdar Ali Khan with an offer of three million rupees if he would oust the queen in favour of himself. Unwilling to attack Trichinopoly, the Muslim prince contented himself with solemnly declaring Vangaru Thirumala to be king and taking the bond for the three millions. He then marched away, leaving Chanda Sahib to enforce his award as best he could. The queen, alarmed at the turn affairs now had taken, had little difficulty in persuading that facile politician to accept her bond for a crore of rupees (ten million) and declare her duly entitled to the throne.

Queen Meenakshi required him to swear on the Koran that he would adhere faithfully to his engagement, and he accordingly took an oath on a brick wrapped up in the spledid covering usually reserved for that holy book. He was admitted into the Trichinopoly fort and Vangaru Thirumala — apparently with the good will of the queen, who, strangely enough, does not seem to have wished him any harm — went off to Madurai, to rule over that country and Tinnevelly.

Chanda Sahib accepted the crore of rupees and departed to Arcot. Two years later, in 1736 he returned, again was admitted into the fort, and proceeded to make himself master of the kingdom. Meenakshi soon was little but a puppet: she had fallen in love with Chanda Sahib and so let him have his own way unhindered.

Chanda Sahib eventually marched against Vangaru Thirumala, who still was ruling in the south, defeated him at Ammaya Nayakkanur and Dindigul, drove him to take refuge in Sivaganga, and occupied the southern provinces of the Madurai kingdom. Having now made himself master of all of the unfortunate Meenakshi’s realms, he threw off the mask, ceased to treat her with the consideration he hitherto had extended to her, locked her up in her palace, and proclaimed himself ruler of her kingdom. The hapless lady took poison and ended her life shortly afterwards.