India’s First Female Freedom Fighter

Kittur Rani Chennamma, the ruler of South Indian princely state Kittur, is largely overlooked. Yet Karnataka's “Joan of Arc” beat the British at least once.

Parth Vohra

September 17, 2019

India’s First Female Freedom Fighter
Kittur Rani Chennamma. (Kittar Utsava)

“The historian of India,” said Vincent Arthur Smith, a celebrated academic on ancient India, “is bound by the nature of things to direct his attention primarily to the North, and is able to give only a secondary place to the story of the Deccan plateau and the far South.” 

Most stories on India’s freedom struggle often involve North Indian figures, such as Queen Laxmibai (Jhansi Ki Rani), Bhagat Singh, and Mangal Pandey —  two movies on Laxmibai are coming out in just 2019 alone, and seven Indian movies have been produced on Bhagat Singh. English and Hindi textbooks aren’t better. 

Yet, the first Indian woman, maybe even the first person, to rebel against British colonialism actually hails from the South — Kittur Rani Chennamma, from the erstwhile princely state of Kittur in Karnataka.

Chennamma was born on October 23, 1778, in Kakati, a small princely state located near Belgaum in northwest Karnataka. Her parents wanted to raise their daughter as if she were their son because they didn’t have any. They enrolled her in Urdu, Farsi, Kannada, and Marathi classes. She was taught the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and music. Growing up, Chennamma was fond of putting on male attire. Her uncle, Kannagowda, taught her horse riding, fencing, swimming, and spear throwing. 

At 15, while hunting, Chennamma met Raja Mallasarja Desai, king of the neighboring Kingdom of Kittur. They argued over who had killed a nearby tiger. “It was I who shot the tiger first; you must have shot him after I did. Therefore the tiger belongs to me,” she said. Mallasarja, impressed with the girl’s courage, fell in love. The two got married and had a son.