In 1682, Queen Mangammal (d. 1704) of the southern Indian kingdom of Madurai Nayak did the unthinkable: she abstained from becoming a Suttee–a widow immolates herself during or after her husband’s funeral. Instead of burning herself during or after her husband’s funeral, she took over his kingdom.
Mangammal’s father had been a high ranking officer in the army of Chokkanatha Nayak, the ruler of the Madurai Nayak kingdom. To honor his service, Chokkanatha chose Mangammal as one of his wives; she became his principal wife after his attempts to marry the daughter of a neighboring ruler failed.
Chokkanatha died in 1682, and the son he’d had with Mangammal ascended the throne. However, their son’s reign was short-lived; he followed his father to the grave in 1689, leaving behind an infant son as his heir, and a widow who would become a Suttee against the wishes of her mother-in-law.
To Mangammal–a widowed, former principal wife left alone with her grandson, the infant heir to the throne–the next logical step was to appoint herself as the Queen Regent. So, she did.
She faced many challenges as she took up the throne, especially as a woman who had shirked the traditions expected of a woman of her Brahmin status. Indeed, her subjects were quite resistant to her rule as she took up the throne, but as time went on, she proved herself to be a brilliant ruler and diplomat, and won her subjects over with the many temples and roads she built in order to improve the kingdom’s infrastructure.
External challenges, however, could not be dealt with through road building. Due to the positioning of the Madurai kingdom between the vast Mughal Empire and many other small kingdoms, she had to be an excellent diplomat in order to ensure the continued security and sovereignty of her kingdom. In this too she was successful. In fact, she was such a skilled politician that she actually regained some of the power and prestige the Madurai Nayak kingdom had lost over the last 30 or 40 years. Mangammal also served as an extremely competent commander-in-chief during times of war.
However, when her grandson came of age in 1704, Mangammal, like many a brilliant female regent before her, refused to abdicate. Her grandson responded to this by, with the help of his generals, locking her in the palace prison and slowly starving her to death. Hardly an end befitting such a brilliant, trailblazing woman.
She remains the most remembered and beloved of the Nayak rulers, and the temples she built are still in use today. One of her temples is currently home to the Gandhi Museum.