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The architect of Pudukottai

Pudukottai, the only princely state in Tamil Nadu, became part of the Indian Union in 1948. Its history goes back to the days of the Cholas and the Pandyas. It owes much to Dewan Sir A. Sashiah Sastri (1828-1904) who with his dynamism and vision, planned for its all round development in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. When Pudukottai merged with the Indian Union, it was well poised for further development and expansion.

THE origin of Tondaiman rule in the former Pudukottai State reads like a fairy tale. As Sri Ranga Raya, King of Vijaynagar, was on his way to Rameswaram in the 17th Century, one of his elephants ran amuck. Avadai Raghunatha Tondaiman of Karambakudi (near Pudukottai), a stronghold of the Kallar community, captured the elephant and brought it under control. The King of Vijaynagar honoured him with many insignias of distinction and conferred on him the long title in Telugu, Raya Rahutta Raya Vajridu, Mannida Raya. Raghunatha came to be called Avadai Raya Tondaiman. His son Raghunatha Tondaiman and his brother Namana helped Sethupathi of Ramnad in putting down his enemies and controlling wild elephants. As a reward for his service, a few territories, one of them being Pudukottai, under the domain of the Raja of Ramnad, were gifted to them. Raghunatha Raya Tondaiman thus became the first ruler of Pudukottai.

At different times over a period of ten years between 1879-80 to 1888, Pudukottai State was afflicted by famine and drought. Raja Ramachandra Tondaiman (the seventh in the Tondaiman line) who had a long stint as ruler (1839-86) was surrounded by evil influences and had involved himself in debts. The state was passing through a financially critical phase, thanks to the Raja's maladministration and extravagance. He forfeited the honour of the royal salute and the honorific "His Highness", which he had been enjoying from the British Government. Sir T. Madhava Rao, the then Dewan of Baroda, happened to visit Pudukottai. He sensed that "something was rotten in the state of Denmark" and felt that his schoolmate at Madras, Sashiah Sastri, was the right person to set it right. He recommended to the Madras Government the appointment of Sashiah Sastri as Sirkele (Minister) to stop the rot. It required the persuasion of Madhava Rao, and the entreaty of the political agent and the Rajah himself to make Sashiah Sastri accept the appointment. He first served as Sirkele (1878- 1886, the designation was changed to Dewan) and later as Dewan Regent (1886-94).

A. Sashiah Sastri was born on March 22, 1828 in the village of Amaravati in Thanjavur District. Even at the age of eight, he was taken by his uncle Gopala Iyer to be educated at Madras. His first English teacher was a Portuguese by name Francis Roderiguese who ran a private school. In April 1837, the Rev. John Anderson, a Scottish missionary, started the General Assembly's School that developed into the present Madras Christian College. Sashiah joined this school and had his grounding in several branches of learning. In 1839, Lord Elphinstone, Governor of Madras, initiated steps to form a University Board. The Board resolved to start a High School. But before the high school was started, a preparatory school was set up. Sashiah joined this school and from there he went to the High School in 1841 (It was this High School which grew into Presidency College, the mother of Madras University).

Sashiah and his schoolmates had the good fortune of being taught by E. B. Powell, the first Head Master of the school. Powell mingled with his students cordially. He helped Sashiah pay his school fees. After leaving college, Sashiah maintained a steady correspondence with Powell. In later years, as a mark of his affection and gratitude, Sashiah contributed Rs. 1000 towards the installation of the statue of Powell, (the first Principal of Presidency College) which adorns the main corridor at Presidency College. His uncle died and he found it hard to support himself financially. About this time he received a stipend from the Pachaiappa's Trust. As a token of gratitude, Sashiah Sastri gave Rs. 2000/- to the Pachaiappa's College to endow two prizes in his name - one for English elocution and the other for English essay. He thus owed his loyalty to three premier institutions in the city of Madras those days - Christian College, Presidency College and Pachaiappa's College. In May 1848, he took the Degree of Proficient in the First Scale of Honours, securing the first rank and received a gold ring set with emeralds.

Sashiah joined the Revenue Board as a junior clerk in 1849 and had a long spell of service in Andhra Pradesh. He was transferred to Thanjavur as Deputy Collector (1865-68). In 1868, he was appointed Fellow of the University of Madras. In 1869, he was transferred to Madras as Head Sheristadar, Board of Revenue, the highest post to which a native could rise under the British Government those days. In 1872, his services were made available to the Maharaja of Travancore as Dewan. After a five-year stint in Travancore, he settled down at Tiruchi for a long time. He was knighted in 1878. Famine was at its peak and he became the Secretary to the Famine Relief Committee at Tiruchi. It was at this time that the Government of Madras invited him to be the Dewan of Pudukottai to save the State from the crisis it was passing through.

On assumption of office as Dewan, Sashiah Sastri's priority was famine and drought relief. The tanks, Pudukulam and Pallavankulam which form the mainstay for protected water supply to the town, were drained, desilted and cleared of slush. The guinea worms that posed a threat to public health for years together were stamped out. He took preventive measures for the eradication of small pox by introducing vaccination. The land revenue system was improved leading to augmented revenue to the State. The judicial system was reorganised with the establishment of the Chief Court. The jail administration was improved and the prisoners were given training in skilled work. A girls' school was opened in 1883 and the English school started in 1857 was upgraded to a Second Grade College. A school for Muslims to learn Arabic was started. A combined Post and Telegraph Office was opened in 1884. Though the railway linking Pudukottai and Tiruchi came to Pudukottai in 1928, Sashiah Sastri initiated steps to have a survey conducted for this purpose. Pudukottai is one of the best laid-out towns with parallel roads and streets intersecting at regular points. The trunk roads to Tiruchi, Thanjavur and Madurai were improved. Town planning and town extension, improved sanitation, tank renovation, construction of spacious buildings to house the public offices, educational institutions, hospitals and the jail and laying the foundation of good administration were among Sashiah Sastri's major achievements. The infrastructure for the modernisation and further development of Pudukotti was thoughtfully built up by him.

When Raja Marthanda Bhairava Tondaiman, the eighth Tondaiman ruler was a minor, the State was administered by Sashiah Sastri who was designated Dewan Regent. In 1894, the Raja was invested with the powers of administration. Lord Wenlock, Governor of Madras paid encomiums to Sashiah Sastri on that occasion. "The inheritance upon which you are this day entering was twenty years ago financially and in every other respect in a most dilapidated condition. Every branch of administration has been more or less reformed, the revenue has improved, the roads are excellent, and the capital is adorned with modern public buildings. All these are due to the untiring energy and devotion to his duty of the Dewan Regent, Mr. Sashiah Sastri, one of that talented body, the Proficients of the High School (the reference is to Presidency College). Mr. Sastri became Dewan in 1878 and after serving your grandfather till his demise in 1886, has since then continued to work for the well being of the State of Pudukottai with great ability, remarkable fidelity and honesty of purpose. The result of his labours has been so successful that what was at the time of his accession to the office almost a wreck, is at the present moment a prosperous possession."

Sashiah Sastri was a "man of steel". With his integrity, sense of mission, dedication and vision, he accomplished his many-sided task. He is veritably the architect of Pudukottai.


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