Muhammed Yusuf Khan

Muhammed Yusuf Khan

Muhammad Yusuf Khan (1725– 15 October 1764) or Maruthanayagam (Marudhanayagam) Pillai was born in Pannaiyur, Ramanathapuram District, Tamil Nadu, India in 1725. From humble beginnings, he became a warrior in the Arcot troops, later Commandant for the British East India Company troops. The British and the Arcot Nawab used him to suppress the Polygars (Palayakkarar) in the south of Tamilnadu. Later he was entrusted to administrating the Madurai country when the Madurai Nayaks rule ended.

Later a dispute arose with the British and Arcot Nawab, and three of his associates were bribed to capture Yusuf Khan; he was hanged in 1764 in Madurai.


Early years

Maruthanayagam (or Mathuranayagam ) alias Yusuf Khan was born circa 1725 in the village of Panaiyur, in Rammnad 'country' in a Hindu[1] farming family of the Pillai Vellala caste. Being too restless in his youth, he left his native village, and converted to Islam.[2][3] To make a living, he served as a domestic hand at the residence of the French Governor Monsr Jacques Law in Pondicherry. It was here he befriended another French, 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 now. He left Pondicherry, for Tanjore and joined the Tanjorean army as a sepoy (foot soldier).

Education & early career

Around this time, an English Captain named Brunton educated Yusuf Khan, making him a learned man well-versed in several languages. 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 just '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) girl named Maasa (?Marsha /?Marcia), and married her.

Carnatic wars

In 1751, there was an ongoing scuffle between Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah, (who was the son of the previous Nawab of Arcot Anwaruddin Muhammed Khan hence the rightful claimant) and Chanda Sahib his relative and a pretender, for the throne of Arcot. The former sought the help of British and the latter the French. Chanda Sahib initially succeeded and became the Nawab, forcing Muhammed Ali to escape to the rock-fort in Tiruchirapalli. Chanda Sahib followed and with the help of the French, besieged Trichy. Muhammed Ali and the English force supporting him were in a grim position. Ensign Robert Clive, (who had earlier joined the East India Company as a writer) with a small English force of 300 soldiers made a diversionary attack on Arcot to draw away Chanda Sahib's army from Trichy. Chanda Sahib dispatched a 10,000 strong force under his son Raza Sahib to retake Arcot. Raza Sahib was aided by the Nellore Army and Yusuf Khan as a Subedar must have been in this force. At Arcot, and later at Kaveripakkam, Chanda Sahib’s son was badly defeated by Robert Clive, and it was now Chanda Sahib's turn to escape to Tanjore where he was killed by Mankoji, a Tanjorean general. The English quickly installed Muhammed Ali as the Nawab of Arcot and most of Chanda Sahib's native forces defected to the English.

Establishment of military career

Yusuf Khan's military career started during the Carnatic Wars. He became a mercenary and fought alongside the French in the siege of Arcot in 1751. Robert Clive, impressed by the charges Yusuf Khan led against the battlements of Arcot, recruited him — and Yusuf Khan put his Nellore sepoys and cavalry at the disposal of the English.

Under Major Stringer Lawrence, Yusuf Khan was trained in the European method of warfare and his natural talent in military tactics and strategy blossomed to its full potential.

Over the next decade, as the Company fought the French in the Wars of the Carnatic, it was Yusuf Khan's guerrilla tactics, repeatedly cutting the French lines of supply, that did the French in, particularly during Lally's siege of Madras in 1758. Lally was to later describe the role of the Nellore Subedar's sepoys in these words: "They were like flies, no sooner beat off from one part, they came from another."

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 a fifty years later,"Yusuf Khan was by far the bravest and ablest of all the native soldiers ever to serve the English in India".

Control of Madurai

Going back to 1734, when the Madurai Nayak King Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha Nayak died in 1731, he was succeeded by his widow, Queen 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 Bangaru Thirumalai, the father of her adopted son, who pretended to have claims of his own to the throne of Madurai approached Safdar Ali Khan, the son of Dost Ali Khan, the Nawab of Arcot with a couple of millions, while the queen sought Chanda Sahib, Safdar Ali Khan's brother-in-law.

At this time the Madurai Nayak ruler was a feudatory to the Mughal emperor in Delhi, whose local representative was the Nawab of Arcot, and an intermediate authority was held by the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was in theory the subordinate of the emperor, but the superior of the Nawab. The treacherous Chanda Sahib after extracting a huge amount from the queen humbled Vangaru Tirumala and later murdered him. After a few years Chanda Sahib breached the agreement with the queen and assumed control of Madurai, keeping the helpless Queen Meenakshi under house- arrest in the rock-fort at Trichy. The haples queen soon consumed poison. After the death of Chanda sahib in the last of the Carnatic wars, Madurai kingdom came under Mohammed Ali's (the incumbent Nawab of Arcot) control, who in turn gave the tax collection rights of the whole Madura kingdom to the British, from whom he had borrowed huge sums of money.

The polygar system had evolved with the extension of Vijayanagar rule to Tamil Nadu by the Nayaks. It was the brain-child of Aryanatha Mudaliar (Thalavaai Mudaliar), the celebrated Tamil general and prime minister of Viswanatha Nayak, the first Nayak ruler of Madurai. The country was divided into provinces or Palayams (pronounced Paalayam). Each palayam usually consisting of a few villages, was placed under the control of a Palayakkaran (Polygar or Poligar as mentioned in the English records) who was expected to provide in return, an annual tribute and military service to the Madurai ruler. Given their numerical strength, extensive resources, local influence and independent attitude, the Polygars came to constitute a powerful force in the political system of south India. They regarded themselves as independent, sovereign authorities within their respective Palayams. The early struggle between the southern Polygars and the East India Company, although essentially a battle over tax collection, had a strong political dimension. The English perceived the polygars as a rival power and treated them as their inveterate enemies, allowing their hostility full expression in their accounts. The East India Company, eager for revenue, opposed the manner and scale in which the Polygars collected taxes from the people. The issue of taxation, more specifically, who was to collect it, the traditional rulers or the rapacious new collectors from overseas —lay at the root of the subsequent uprising.

The Polygars from Tirunelveli, Madurai regions and Sivaganga and Ramnad, were unwilling to pay taxes (kappam or Kist) to Mohammed Ali, a weak Nawab, nor ever recognized the British in the guise of tax collector. In 1755 the Nawab and British having valid reasons to quell these rebellious Polygars dispatched a huge army to the south under Col. Heron and Arcot Nawabs brother Mahfuz Khan, accompanied by Yusuf Khan as bodyguard. Mahfuz Khan and Col. Heron burnt several villages and razed down several temples, then ransacked and looted lot of towns, melting several rare statues from Hindu temples. This infuriated Yusuf Khan, who lodged a complaint with the British. Later Col. Heron was courtmarshalled.

During this time the French under Thomas Arthur Lally surrounded the British fort in Madras. Yusuf Khan during the night launched a surprise attack on the French troops packing them away.

Sent to Madurai

In 1756, March Yusuf Khan was sent to Madurai to collect taxes and restore order. But during that time Madurai was under control of one Barkadthullah of Chanda Sahib days, with the support of Hyder Ali of Mysore. During this time an old Fakir climbed the top of the Madurai Meenakshi Temple and was preparing to build a dargah for himself, which angered the locals. Barkadthullah justifying the Fakirs attempts further added fuel to the fire. During this time Yusuf Khan arrived with little as 400 troops to take control of Madurai, showing his brilliance in defeating Barkadthullah’s large army, with Barkadthullah fleeing to Sivaganga Zamin and the Fakir, got whacked out of the town.

After assuming control of Madurai, the results were small. Disturbances still prevailed every where, the Kallars ravaged the country in every direction, the Hyder Ali, the soldier of fortune, who was in Madura and was with difficulty beaten off, and no revenue worth mentioning could be collected. The British tried in vain to induce the Nawab of Arcot to recall his brother, Mahfuz Khan, who was undoubtedly the cause of all the trouble, and soon afterwards to meet their needs elsewhere; compelled them to withdraw Muhammad Yusuf. His departure was the signal for wilder anarchy than ever. The company's garrison in Madura could only just collect, from the country directly under its walls, enough revenue to support themselves; on the north the Kallans, and in the south Mahfuz Khan had thrown himself into the arms of the principal Polygars and was beyond the reach of argument or reason.

Once again in Madurai

The Company accordingly sent back Muhammad Yusuf to the country, renting both Madura and Tinnevelly to him for a very moderate sum of five lakhs annually. By then the Maduari Meenakshiamman temple was in dire straits, with the temple lands occupied and plundered by hoodlums; looting and dacoity rampant in countryside. Yusuf Khan immediately restored the lands back to the Temple, and by the spring of 1759 he began by teaching the Kallans a wholesome lesson. Cutting avenues through their woods, he shot them down without mercy as they fled, or executed as malefactors any who were taken prisoners. He went on to reduce the rest of the country to order, and soon had sobered by various methods all the polygar and made himself extremely powerful. Also he renovated the tanks, lakes and forts damaged by Hyder Ali, restoring law and order. By now whatever he did increased revenue to the Nawab’s and British coffers.

Controversial wars with Palayakkars

During this time Yusuf Khan battled with Puli Thevar, (pronounced Pooli Thevar) a polygar of Nerkattumseval(Original Name was Nelkettaanseval) , a small town to the south-west of Madurai. Puli Thevar was rebelling against the Nawab and the British. Yusuf Khan(marudhanayagam) quickly separated Travancore Raja from Puli Thevar's group after entering into an agreement. Also to be remembered is that the Travancore Raja’s were long time feudatories of the Madurai Nayak kings, naturally becoming a feudatory to Delhi.

Yusuf Khan captured several of Puli Thevar's forts which were earlier tried unsuccessfully by the British. Later in a battle Puli Thevar was captured by Yusuf Khan, however Puli Thevar escaped in Sankarankovil (Is believed to be disappeared in Sankarankovil Gomathi Ambal Sanathi) where he was planned to be hanged. Puli Thevar remains a legend in the area and no further details about him is available.(Puli Thevan is today recognized by the Government of Tamil Nadu as a freedom fighter). Also during this time the Dutch captured the town of Alwartirunagari, to which Yusuf Khan retaliated and chasing them back to their ships.

Alagumuthu Kon, another rebel leader was also captured at Perunaalli Forests by Yusuf Khan and mercilessly killed by blowing him from the Mouth of cannon. AlaguranmuthuDevar cane to limelight in 1962 through a Communist magazine”Thamarai”(Lotus), and in 1995 his statue was opened at Egmore, Chennai.These brutal and savage acts instilled fear among other Polygars, who naturally pacified before the British. He even, had the audacity to make war on the king of Travancore without the knowledge or consent of the company.

Start of the dispute

Reports of Yusuf Khan's brilliant victories now filled the Arcot Nawab with jealousy and alarm that he might depose him. Yusuf Khan by now instructed all the traders to render taxes directly to Yusuf Khan, while the Arcot Nawab wanted to have taxes routed through him. The British Governor (by now the British were good enough to have one) “Lord Pigot”,diplomatically advised Yusuf Khan to do as per Arcot Nawab’s order, also some British traders supported the same citing Yusuf Khan as Nawab’s employee. To make matters worse the Nawab’s brother Mahfuz Khan started planning to poison Yusuf Khan, with the whole hearted support of the Nawab.

In 1761, and again in 1762, he offered to lease Tinnevelly and Madura for four years more at seven lakhs per annum. His offer was refused, and whether he was enraged at this, or whether he thought himself powerful enough to defy his masters, he shortly afterwards threw off his allegiance and began to collect troops in an ambition to be the lord of Madurai.

Around this time some British traders reported (or rumored), to the Nawab and the Company, on Yusuf Khan” as encouraging people with anti-British sentiments, spending vast sums on his troops”.Nawab, in turn with the British sent Capt. Manson with orders to arrest Yusuf Khan.

Meanwhile Yusuf Khan sent a note to Sivaganga Zamindari reminding them on their pending Tax arrears.Sivaganga’s Minister and General came to meet Yusuf Khan in Madurai, and after not getting their expected respect, got a rude warning, citing annexure of certain territories for the failure of arrears. The enraged Sivaganga Zamindar, immediately ordered Yusuf Khan to be “captured and hanged as like a dog”. Meanwhile and Ramnad Zamin’s general Damodar Pillai and Thandavarayan Pillai met the Arcot Nawab in Trichy,complained on Yusuf Khan’s plunderings of Sivaganga villages, his cannon manufacturing plant in association with a certain French Marchaud, whom he a befriended earlier, with plans for a war against the Nawabs.

Arcot Nawab and the British quickly acted by amassing a huge army. For a start they aroused Travancore Raja against Yusuf Khan (As by now the Travancore state fell smoothly into British charms).In the ensuring battle the Travancore raja was defeated and the British flags in his domains were chopped and burnt, and joined hands with the French and also hoisted the French flag 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 regions. While Arcot Nawab along with the British was hell bent on finding a reason to capture and kill Yusuf Khan.

Tide against Yusuf Khan

Having turned the tables against most of them, Yusuf Khan had enemies lurking around him everywhere. Earlier working for the Arcot Nawab and British he earned the wrath of Mysore, and had slaughtered most of all rebellious Polygars who were anti-British, and the remaining were on the prowl. Now the Tanjore, Travancore, Pudukkotai, Ramnad, Sivaganga kingdoms joined with the British and the Arcot Nawab to attack Yusuf Khan, who by this time had proclaimed himself independent ruler of Madurai and Tirunelveli. 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 citing Monsoons.

Meanwhile the Nizam Ali of Hyderabad once again proclaimed Yusuf Khan as the Rightful governor, while the Arcot Nawab and the British issued death sentence for Yusuf Khan as “to be captured alive and hanged before the first known tree as like a dog”.

Final Battle

In 1764 again the British troops surrounded the Madurai Fort, this time cutting supplies to the fort. Hence Yusuf Khan and his troops went without food and water for several days inside the fort (surviving on Horse and Monkey meat according to European sources) but held on with great energy and skill, renovating and strengthening the fort at great expense, and repelling the chief assault with a loss of 120 Europeans (including nine officers) killed and wounded. At the end of that time little real progress against him had been made, except that the place was now rigorously blockaded.

Meanwhile the Arcot Nawab consulted Sivaganga General Thaandavaraaya Pillai, along with Major Charles Campbell, hatching a treacherous plot to bribe Yusuf khan’s Dewan Srinivasa Rao, Marchand the captain of the French mercenaries and Khan’s doctor Baba Sahib. One morning, when Yusuf Khan was offering his prayers inside the fort, Marchand, Srinivasa Rao and Baba sahib went in quietly and pinned Yusuf Khan to the ground and tied him up using his own turban. Hearing this commotion, one youth called Mudali, close to Yusuf Khan, raised an alarm. He was quickly caught and cut down. As the news of the coup reached Yusuf Khan's wife, she rushed to the scene with a small posse of troops. But they were helpless against the well armed French and other European mercenaries, standing guard around the fallen ruler. Under cover of darkness and an even darker veil of secrecy, Marchand whisked away Yusuf Khan out of the fort and handed him over to Major Charles Campbell, who commanded the English among the besiegers. Unfortunately, the major part of Yusuf Khan's native forces remained totally unaware of the fateful drama that had been enacted inside his house, that morning.

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

What motives forced the three main conspirators, who were Yusuf Khan's close confidantes, to betray him? It is said that Yusuf Khan had once flogged Marchand with a whip (the first time a European officer had been whipped by a native ruler) and so he was waiting for an opportune time to take revenge. It is also possible that extreme misery of the people and soldiers inside the fort (because of the prolonged siege) might have forced the Dewan Srinivasa Rao and Baba Sahib, the physician of Yusuf Khan to decide that handing Yusuf Khan over to the English, would make them lift the siege and relieve the people of their intense agony and suffering. They might have imagined that Yusuf Khan would be sentenced to brief imprisonment and/or fine as punishment and let off later on.

Legends of his death

Local legend is that twice the noose broke down and he fell down alive, for which Yusuf Khan ordered the troops to remove a Neck brace before hanging. A sepoy guarding the Body of Yusuf Khan previous night reported to the Arcot Nawab, that Yusuf Khan appeared in his dream intending to return on the third day after his death and capture Madurai. The agitated Nawab ordered his men to chop his body into several parts and place them all over his domains. As went his Head to Trichinopoly alias Tiruchirappalli alias Trichy, arms to Palayamkottai, legs to Tanjore and Travancore for public viewing later buried at Periyakulam city near Madurai, to instilling caution and fear, later buried there. The remaining body was buried at Madurai.

In 1808, a small square mosque was erected over the tomb in Samattipuram, in Madurai, which exists to this day on the left of the road to Dindigul, a little beyond the toll-gate, known as 'Khan Sahib's pallivasal'.

At the time of his death, Yusuf Khan had a son, who must have been 2 or 3 years old. Yusuf Khan's wife Maasa and the little boy vanished from history after the hanging. They might have escaped to Tirunelveli (?Alwarthirunagari) or Travancore.

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, which Yusuf Khan had defended so passionately during the two sieges in 1763 and 1764 was pulled down in end of the nineteenth century. His lodgement according to the French map, must have been on, what is now called, Khansa Mettu Street (Khan sahib mettu theru is converted as Khansa Mettu theru).

The fort in Palayamkottai, he had repaired and used so well during his earlier wars with the poligars, was dismantled in the middle of the 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 are remaining.


Tradition has many stories to tell of this remarkable man, who started his life as a peasant and by his military genius rose to the pinnacle of royal power when he became the ruler of the land, only to lose it all after a couple of years by the treachery of his comrade-in-arms. His executive ability is sufficiently indicated in the report (see below) from Colonel Fullerton - dated March, 1785 and entitled 'A view of the English interests in India'--which was republished in Madras in 1867. This says that 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.' It concludes by saying that 'wisdom, vigour and integrity, of no climate or complexion have surpassed his.'


Veteran Tamil actor Kamal Haasan some years back started shooting the movie Maruthanayagam portraying this character in English, French, and Tamil languages. But the film was stopped for the time being or almost dropped mainly because of the protest from sangh parivar since Yusuf Khan sahib is a muslim freedom fighter.


  1. ^ Yusuf Khan: the rebel commandant By Samuel Charles Hill
  2. ^ Yusuf Khan: the rebel commandant By Samuel Charles Hill
  3. ^ B.C. Law volume By Devadatta Ramakrishna Bhandarkar, pg. 231
  • Yusuf Khan - The Rebel Commandant by S.C Hill (Samuel Charles Hill)
  • History of Tinnevelly by R.Caldwell (Bishop Robert Caldwell)
  • Madura Country - A Manual by Nelson

External links

For the above mentioned three books, go to the website, click 'catalogues',and see under 'History, Archaeology and Antiquities'

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