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Updated: October 27, 2012 16:34 IST

Madras miscellany

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A page from the Rottler dictionary. Photo: Special Arrangement
The Hindu
A page from the Rottler dictionary. Photo: Special Arrangement

The German lexicographers

As expected, several of the events during Madras Week provided grist for this column's mills. And one which provided a wealth of material was the exhibition of the old Tamil books it holds by the Roja Muthiah Research Library. The earliest books on display were the first Tirukkural and Naladiyar texts published. This was by Gnanaprakasam in 1812 and printed at the Masadinacaritai Printers in Madras. Karunamrutha Sagaram, a musical treatise by Abraham Pandithar in 1916, was the oldest musical work exhibited. But what grabbed my attention was an original first edition copy of Rev. Johann Peter Rottler's Dictionary of the Tamil and English Languages, published by, and printed at, the Vepery Mission Press (today's C.L.S. Press). This dictionary was the basis of the University of Madras's Tamil Lexicon referred to in Miscellany on March 28, 2011.

Rottler's dictionary, however, had its roots in the efforts of several others. Compiling Tamil words and phrases and their meanings started with the founder of the Tranquebar Danish Mission, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg. Between 1706 and 1708 he compiled a prose lexicon of 20,000 Tamil words after reading a hundred scholarly Tamil books. The collection grew to 40,000 words and phrases by 1712. Simultaneously, he compiled a Tamil poetical lexicon that included 17,000 words. Ziegenbalg's dictionary provided every Tamil word with a transliteration in Latin letters to give readers an idea about how it should be pronounced and its meaning in high German.

Ziegenbalg's lexicographical work was added to by other German missionaries such as Schultze, Walther, Sartorius, Geister and Obuch. From these efforts was distilled, by the missionary who was to become known as ‘The Master of Tamil', Johann Philip Fabricius, A Malabar (Tamil) and English Dictionary with 9,000 well-defined words. The dictionary, printed in 1779 (the first Tamil-English dictionary to be printed), is considered the roots of the Tamil Lexicon of today. Rottler expanded Fabricius's work to 36,000 words and this was published in two parts in 1834, the first part being what was displayed at RMRL. Winslow (Miscellany, March 28) took the word count to 67,000.

Dr. Rottler arrived in Tranquebar on August 5, 1776 and spent 27 years there before moving to Madras in 1803 to take charge of the SPCK, or Vepery Mission. He was to remain there till he passed away in January 1836. He had spent 60 years in India. The first two parts of his dictionary, 410 pages in all, on which he started work in 1830, were published two years before his death. The third part was revised by Rev. James Taylor and brought out in 1839 and the fourth part, on which both Taylor and T. Venkatachala Moodelly worked, in 1841.

Botany too claimed Dr. Rottler's attention and this was a field in which he became internationally known. He sent specimens of South Indian plants to several Western and Central European botanical gardens and universities and many of them began their tropical Asian collections with these flora. Lord North, the first British Governor of Ceylon (1795), invited him to accompany him to the island where he collected numerous plants and sent them to the herbarium of King's College, London. These were later (1873) transferred to the Kew Gardens. Rottler was the inspiration for the great British botanists of South India who blazed an indelible trail.


The historian of Mysore

It was at another exhibition, this one organised by the Madras Heritage Lovers' Forum in the Padma Seshadri School in K.K. Nagar, that a visitor buttonholed me and promised to send me more information about Mark Wilks, who wrote the first history of Mysore (Miscellany, August 22). Apparently, my interlocutor tells me, Wilks owed much of his information to Dewan Purniah and his assistant Bachche Rao who also gave him access to documents dating to as far back as c.1700.

Through Purniah too, I am told, Wilks learnt much about Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan. He later expressed some candid views about them, views that had him rating Hyder higher than Tippu. Two quotes sent to me state: “Hyder was an improving monarch and exhibited few innovations. Tippu was an innovating monarch and made no improvements. Hyder was seldom wrong and Tippu seldom right in his estimate of character.” And “Hyder was born to build an empire, Tippu was born to lose it.” Perhaps not the fairest of comments if you are to go by later assessments of both, but they need to be valued, coming as they do from a man who had possibly met Tippu and was a friend of a man who was a close adviser to both.


What's behind the names?

Travelling around Madras rather more than usual these past couple of weeks, I suddenly spotted a road sign — and Madras's latest road signage is visually pleasing as well as crystal clear even if it is rather overboard with its spellings; imagine ‘Shevalia' for ‘Chevalier' and ‘Bugs' for ‘Pughs' (which should be pronounced ‘pews'!) — which made me wonder whether we had two roads with the same name. And it appears that we indeed do. The Binny Road sign I had spotted was next to Stella Maris (which many insist on spelling Mary's) College and the other fronts the Connemara Hotel. And then it suddenly dawned on me. There was indeed reason for two Binny Roads.

The older one, by the Connemara, recalls John ‘Deaf' Binny, the founder of the B in the ABP of pre-Great War Madras trade, commerce and industry, Binny & Co. (the other two were Arbuthnot's and Parry's), who lived in a house on the Nawab of Arcot's property that became the seed of the Connemara Hotel. The other road was a much later creation, designating the road that led to the bungalows of the Directors of Binny's in what was then Pugh's Gardens. The names of the houses were Waterton, the MD's, Greystoke, Westbourne, Hornton and Halsboro. They have all vanished after the sale of the property for about Rs.3.5 lakh in the 1950s, the area swallowed up by the up-market development in what is called ‘Poes/Poys Gardens'.

The other road I was reminded of during the Week was Brewery Road in Aminjikarai. Was this named after a United Breweries facility that may have existed in what was then suburban Madras, its odour far-removed from the city? I'm told that a Scot, Thomas Leishman, bought five South Indian breweries and merged them under the banner of United Breweries Limited, an entity he created on March 15, 1915. He was the firm's first Managing Director. And it was he who popularised locally brewed beer, barrels of them being literally carted by bullocks to the local taverns and saloons.

And a third road whose name cropped up during the Week was when someone asked me about Five Furlongs Road in the Guindy area. A ‘furlong', I know, was, once upon a time, 220 yards and there were eight furlongs to the mile. But what did five furlongs refer to?


MetroplusJune 28, 2012

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