The “festival of lights” brings with it good vibes, good food and a sense of well-being. Diwali/Deepavali stands for the victory of good over evil and reminds us of how light dispels darkness. But for one community in Karnataka, Deepavali is a dark and unwelcome reminder of their tryst with a tyrant, Tipu Sultan. The Mandyam Iyengar community (a Brahmin sub sect) observe “Naraka Chaturdasi” as a day of mourning. It was on this day more than 2 centuries ago when the “Tiger of Mysore”, massacred close to 800 Mandyam Iyengar men, women and children in cold blood in the town of Melkote. Although the exact year of the massacre is not known, members of the community state that it occurred between 1783-1795.
Melkote is a small hill town located in Mandya district, Karnataka. Also known as Thirunarayanapuram, it is home to 2 famous temples – the Cheluvanarayana Temple and the Yoga Narasimha Temple. The Mandyam Iyengars are a sub-sect of the Iyengar community. Amongst the earliest followers of Sri Ramanujacharya, they settled in Melkote in the 12th century after being granted patronage by the Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana. Sri Ramanujacharya is said to have worshipped at the Cheluvanarayana Temple and subsequently renovated it. The Hoysalas eventually declined but the fortunes of the Mandyam Iyengar community saw an upward curve under the Vijayanagar Empire. The Vijayanagar kings were great patrons of the Cheluvanarayana Temple and made several generous grants both to the temple and the Iyengars of Melkote.
By 1565, the Vijayanagar Empire had almost disintegrated. The Wodeyars, who ruled over Mysore, were the vassals of the Vijayanagar Empire and declared independence. Under Raja Wodeyar I, the Mysore kingdom gradually expanded its influence. Over the next 150 years, the community prospered under the Wodeyars and occupied key administrative and religious posts. The Cheluvanarayana temple was also handed over to the Mandyam Iyengars.
However, by 1760, the Wodeyar family had ceded much of their influence and power to the Dalwai or the commanders-in-chief. While the throne was occupied by a Wodeyar, his presence was merely nominal. When Krishnaraja Wodeyar II passed away in 1763, the most influential amongst his commanders-in-chief Hyder Ali established himself as the undisputed ruler of the Mysore kingdom. This shift in power also thrust the Mandyam Iyengars into greater prominence. The community owed much of its prosperity and influence to the largesse of the Wodeyars.
This was repaid by a show of fierce loyalty. The dowager queen Lakshmammani’s efforts to place a Wodeyar back on the throne were ably assisted by the Mandyam Iyengars. At the forefront was the Pradhan of Mysore, Thirumalai Iyengar and his brother Narayan Iyengar. Talks were initiated to forge an alliance with the East India Company in order to dethrone Hyder Ali. The plot was uncovered by Hyder Ali and he imprisoned both the brothers and their extended family. Fearing persecution, several members of the community emigrated to the Madras Presidency. Interestingly, Hyder Ali retained other Mandyam Iyengars who were in important administrative posts.
When Hyder Ali died in 1783, he was succeeded by his son Tipu Sultan. Unlike his father, Tipu was quite wary of the relationship between the Iyengars and the Dowager Queen. After Hyder Ali’s death, Rani Lakshmammani intensified her efforts to sign a military alliance with the British. Shamaiah Iyengar, a minister in Tipu’s court secretly reached out to Lord George Harris, a high ranking Major General in the Madras Army. This correspondence was viewed as treason by Tipu Sultan and his response was to wipe out the entire Mandyam Iyengar community in Melkote.
On “Naraka Chaturdasi”, the day when Deepavali is celebrated by several south Indian communities, the army of Tipu Sultan rounded up the Mandyam Iyengar community living in Melkote. More than 800 people were slaughtered and Melkote was laid waste. The rest of the inhabitants abandoned the town. Melkote turned into a ghost town overnight. It is also instructive to note that Lord George Harris was subsequently appointed Commander of the Madras Army which participated in the 4th Anglo Mysore War with 2 other British armies and defeated Tipu Sultan.
To this day, the Mandyam Iyengar community does not celebrate Naraka Chaturdasi and observe it as a day of mourning, due to the actions of Tipu Sultan. The memories of the massacre have been seared into the collective consciousness of the community. In 2014, a paper about the massacre was presented by two research scholars belonging to the community – Dr.M.A.Jayashree and Prof.M.A.Narasimhan. Unfortunately, no other accounts of the massacre exist outside the Mandyam Iyengar community. The event has also been ignored by mainstream historians in India.
The question of whether Tipu Sultan was a religious bigot or not deserves a debate of its own. Any attempt to highlight massacres such as these will likely lead to accusations of “revisionism”. This is also in line with the current mood prevalent in certain academic circles. It is important that the trauma inflicted upon a small community is at least acknowledged. Deepavali is supposed to symbolize the victory of light over darkness but for the Mandyam Iyengars, it will forever remain a day when darkness descended upon them.
(This article has been written by Satish Viswanathan)