I’ve always maintained that I learn something new every day and never has it been truer than on one recent day when the Department of Civil Engineering, IIT-Madras, celebrated World Heritage Day. I was delighted to discover that the Department was celebrating the day with the first of what it intended to be an Annual Lecture series and that it planned to establish before long, a section that would focus on methods to conserve heritage structures. That first lecture, from which my new learning came, was delivered by Prof. R. N. Iyengar who is, appropriately, given the disastrous state our heritage structures are in, titled the Director of the Centre for Disaster Mitigation, at the Jain University, Bangalore!

What was, however, a bit sad to see on the occasion was that, given a student strength of 800 in the Department and a faculty strength of 50, there were only around 75 persons in the audience. Is that a reflection of interest (or lack of it) in heritage or learning?

But those who were fortunate enough to be present were sure to have discovered, like I did, a couple of off-repeated theories turned on their head. I had just finished repeating what I have said at various fora, namely that there has been no recording of ancient Indian engineering techniques in raising buildings such as the Brihadeeswarar Temple or of the ancient techniques of manufacturing materials used in such buildings, like what is called Madras/Chettinad ‘cement,’ when Dr. Iyengar pointed out that while this was, by and large, the case, there had, in fact, been some recording. And two of these records were the focus of his lecture.

He first presented a detailed description of the “Method of Making the Best Mortar of Madras in East India.” This was reported in an article that appeared in a publication of the Royal Society, London, in 1731-32 and had been written by Isaac Pyke, Governor of St. Helena, in a letter to Edmund Halley, ‘the comet man.’ But while the five-page letter is full of detail, it is short of quantities in some places. And this has been the problem over the years.

Artisans who have successfully plastered buildings with this mortar 100-200 years ago, have not passed down scientific formulas of its mixing. Those who have followed them to this day have only vague ideas about the formulas they had been told about and, working by trial and error, produce mortar that neither gives the same mirror-finish as in the past nor can they get it to last for more than 5-10 years. Now here at last is a recorded formula that perhaps the IIT students could, through research, get to work as Madras /Chettinad cement has in the past. In the formula is a ‘secret’ ingredient that I had not come across in other versions of it that maistries have orally spoken of or recorded in interviews and that is ‘toddy’ (presumably palmyrah toddy, but, again, fermented for how long?).

The other surprise that Dr. Iyengar sprang was the information that a Swiss Indologist-cum-researcher-cum-artist who had lived in Benaras from 1936 till 1978 had found olas (palm leaf manuscripts) with considerable details of the raising of the Konarak Sun Temple built c.1250 and records about many who worked on it, from the Superintendent of Works and Chief Sthapathi down to the humblest carpenter, mason and helper. A complete drawing of the temple has been done in NINE olas! These olas are in the Alice Boner Gallery of Benaras Hindu University’s Bharat Kala Bhavan at present.

‘Now the question arises, if such scribed recording had been done in the 13th Century, they could very well have been done for the Brihadeswara Temple, Srirangam and other major shrines. What happened to all those records? What a debate the answer to that question would make! Dr. Iyengar stated, “In India, the climate rapidly destroys anything remotely perishable, and over the course of centuries much of what did not succumb to climate was intentionally destroyed during the various foreign invasions and endless strife between local contending kingdoms.” Is that the answer?

The I.C.S. educationist

On the main highway from Madras to Calcutta, in northern Nellore District and midway between Nellore and Ongole, is a town called Kavali that I’ve just discovered is a major centre of education and a supplier to the U.S. of a considerable amount of Andhra talent. It is also a major textile centre. And Potti Sreeramulu was from the town.

Its roots in the education field were sunk, I’m told by reader S.B. Prabhakar Rao, by Alfred Tampoe (Miscellany, April 22) among others. He was a brilliant English teacher and a much-loved Principal, recalls Prabhakar Rao who had been one of his students. Tampoe was one of the founders of an NGO called Visvodaya that was established in 1952 to focus on education. Others in the founding group were Justice P.V. Rajamannar and Debi Prasad Chowdhury of the Madras School of Arts and Crafts. Chowdhury was a particular friend of Tampoe and did three ‘heads’ of him, according to my correspondent, who adds that one of them is still in the College of Arts. Visvodaya took over Kavali College, founded the year before, and named it Jawahar Bharati College. Tampoe became its Principal in 1954. He is remembered there in the college library that is called the Tampoe Library.

Tampoe, who was Principal till 1962, came to it from government service after he had resigned as Education Secretary, following differences with Chief Minister Rajaji, recalls Prabhakar Rao. He also remembers visiting Tampoe in his Rundall’s Road home and, later, Chamier’s Road flat.

I’ve also discovered that Tampoe wrote two books. Life Negation: A Study of Christ was published in the U.K. in 1939 and reprinted in 1950. The Problem of Good was published in 1961. I’m now waiting to discover what his differences with Rajaji could have been other than, possibly, two highly principled and disciplined personalities each sticking to his own convictions.

When the postman knocked

Bharati's complete works (Miscellany, April 15) were published in three volumes in January 2004, reader K.V. Ramanathan tells me. Varadhamanan Padippagam of T.Nagar issued them as Bharati’s stories, Bharati’s essays/articles and Bharati’s poetry, pricing each volume at Rs.60. A companion volume published at the time was Va Raa’s Mahakavi Bharatiar, a biographypriced at Rs.20. Even at those prices, I wonder how many copies sold in this State where politicians daily sing of pride in the language. Adding a footnote to my wondering how many really remember the great poet and patriot, reader Mani Nataraajan tells me a senior advocate of the Madras High Court, K. Ravi, has, for the past 15 years, been organising a three-day meet every December to keep alive the memory of Bharati. The meet is held under the aegis of Vanavil Panpaattu Maiyam, a cultural group started by Ravi. And so we find one more in the city trying to keep the memory of Bharati and his work alive. I wonder how many others there are.

Reader T.M. Sundararaman tells me that Kalki had in Ponniyin Selvan written all about the grant of the village of Anaimangalam for the upkeep of the Buddhist vihara in Nagapattinam and mentioned the copper plates recording the grant (Miscellany, April 15). All this, however, sheds no light on how these plates got to Leiden in Holland. Did the Dutch find them in Nagapattinam, which was capital of the Dutch Coromandel from 1660 to 1781?

There have been several calls and letters wondering whether Shobhaa Dé had been fair by the Seths of the world in titling her latest novel Sethji (Miscellany, April 15). But the most anguished letter has come from Umrao Singh Sethia who writes, “My family bears the title ‘Sethia’ which was bestowed on our ancestors by Akbar the Great and my great-great-grandfather was titled ‘Sethji’ by Maharajah Takat Singhji of Marwar (Jodhpur).” He wants to, therefore, protest against the way Shobhaa Dé has used the name ‘Sethji.’ “May our voice (a family website is to be started shortly, he tells me) not remain a voice in the wilderness.”


The lawyer as a writerMay 5, 2013

An album of memoriesMay 12, 2013

Another promise of restorationMay 19, 2013

The forgotten magistrateMay 26, 2013