Madras miscellany History & Culture

Mulberries in Madras


The young miss from Calcutta via Jawaharlal Nehru University and her parents suddenly turned up the other day at my doorstep to invite me to her wedding. It took me a moment to recognise her. The last time I had seen her she was growing up from two to four and had been a neighbour who promptly turned up the moment she spotted me reading the day’s news on the balcony. A plump little thing, she’d waddle up the steps, bang on the door, exchange words with Valli and come out to the balcony to say “Hello”, survey the world and insist on “Sing”. And so would begin the nursery rhyme routine I’d forgotten very many years earlier. Her favourite was ‘Round and Round the Mulberry Bush’ and that’s what came to mind the moment I recognised her. And back it came as a trigger when I sat down to write this week’s column. Mulberry bushes would have been very much part of her life if only Dr. James Anderson’s 19th Century experiments had been sustained in Madras.

Dr. Anderson, appointed Physician-General of Madras after considerable differences of opinion between the East India Company’s Directors and their Council in Madras, was permitted to carry out various botanical experiments that, it was thought, would benefit the Presidency. He started out with the Cochineal insect which thrived on the Nopal cactus and was granted land in Saidapet, where Lushington Gardens was later built. (Still later, Lushington Gardens became the Collector of Saidapet’s residence.) ‘The Hon’ble Company’s Nopalry’ was formalised in September 1788 and Dr. Andrew Berry, Anderson’s nephew, was appointed its Superintendent, though from all accounts he tended it under the supervision of his uncle. In 1791, Anderson announced that the Nopalry was ready to receive the best kinds of Cochineal insects from Mexico, “where alone they can be found”. In the end, all this was in vain; artificial dyes soon began taking the place of Cochineal dyes.

There were, however, several strings to Anderson’s bow. The one he put his greatest effort into after Cochineal was Mulberry. As early as the 1770s he had planted Mulberry “trees” in the garden of his home, Pycroft’s Garden, and the surroundings. Over the next dozen years this grew into the 111-acre Botanical Gardens that Anderson developed in this Nungambakkam area. And here too were cultivated Mulberry bushes on which flourished silk-worms whose eggs had been imported from Bengal.

When “the Lady Governess directed the Plantation of Mulberry Trees at the Female Asylum,” several of the European elite in Madras followed suit in their gardens. Mulberry was planted in the gardens of the Public Rooms ( The Pantheon, now the Museum-Library campus), the Play House on the Choultry Plain (somewhere between Pantheon Road and Cathedral Road), old Mackay’s Garden that had become the Nawab of the Carnatic’s property across the road from where the Thousand Lights mosque now is, and several gardens in Vepery and San Thomé. There were over 500 Mulberry trees in these gardens. There were also several other gardens in the Choultry Plain and in Black Town where Mulberry trees were being nurtured by knowledgeable owners. Anderson now urged Government to appoint Robert Corbet, who “possessed Italian experience”, to inspect these trees and the silk-worm rearing that had begun on them.

This success made Anderson next write in 1891 to Government wondering whether the whole experiment could not be taken further and developed into “a silk industry.” He wrote, “Could the Governors and Governesses therefor of this (Female Orphan) Asylum be persuaded to forego the idea of Educating Ladies-maids, you might consider this Charity as a sufficient establishment for the Filature of Madras and its environs, conformable to the practice in Italy; and the young women would thus acquire the possession of an art that would be sufficient to preserve them independent through life.”

Government reacting to all of Anderson’s appeals ordered its Collectors to allocate in each district “a small portion of ground in a suitable situation” for the cultivation of Mulberry trees. Whether this happened or not I have not been able to trace nor have I been able to find out why the attempt to establish a silk industry in Madras failed. Maybe someone will give me an answer one of these days.


Marking a tercentenary

When I was recently handed a copy of the Annual Report of the Roja Muthiah Research Library Trust for the year 2012-13, I was struck by the cover. The publication, which I was told was designed in-house, featured on its cover a bit of early printing in Tamil that I had not seen before. I was told it was selected to mark the 300th anniversary of printing and publishing in Tranquebar, 1712 being the rebirth of both after its beginnings with the Portuguese on the west coast in the mid-16th Century and its fading out in the early 17th Century.

The earliest printing at the Tranquebar Mission Press was done in 1712, a few small publications being done in Portuguese using a printing machine and type sent out by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, and a soldier from Madras who had worked in a printery in England. The next year, three German printers arrived in Tranquebar, sent out by the Francke Foundation in Halle, Germany. They brought with them Tamil type cut in Halle but found the type of a size that devoured paper. Nevertheless, they used it to print the Tranquebar Mission’s first Tamil publication in October 2013. Whether the publication featured here (see picture of the title page) was that first publication or a year or two younger, I’m not sure. But it was certainly brought out no later than 1715, by when the chief of the German printers, Johann Gottlieb Adler, had designed and cast smaller type and begun using them for the Mission’s publications.

Akkiyanam is the name of the book whose title page is featured here; the book itself is in the Francke Foundation Library in Halle. I would be delighted to receive an English transliteration and translation of this page from a reader. But beware! the dot over letters has not been used in it!


The Maldives and the Pallavas

The Maldives is very much in the news today. It’s news I’ve followed with some interest as I’ve visited the islands a few times and know something of their history. But the paper I caught up with recently, one presented by an academician at a history conference some time ago, rather stopped me in my tracks.

That the islands had an ancient ship-building tradition I had heard of, but what brought me up short was reading that the Maldives was a stronghold of the Pallavas who built ships for themselves as well as other kingdoms there. This information is attributed to an Arab merchant called Sulaman who is described as trading in these waters in the 9th Century C.E. The author deduces from this that when Rajaraja Cholan conquered the Maldives, he benefitted from the ship-building techniques of the ‘Pallavas’ of the Maldives.

I’d be delighted to hear from any reader who knows more about the ‘Pallavas’ of the Maldives, but am disappointed that the paper offers no citation for Sulaman or this information. Academic conferences deserve better, especially when rare information is provided, but without sufficient back-up.

That the Pallavas were a naval power there is little doubt. The early Pallavas date from around 300 CE to around 600 CE and there is nothing I can find in their history during this period that would indicate naval power. But during the era of the later Pallavas, from around 600 CE to 900 CE, there are records that positively point to a Pallava navy.

Skandavarnam III (c.480-500 CE) provided sanctuary to Moggallana of the first Anuradhapura kingdom in Lanka and then sent an expedition to restore him to the throne his brother Kassappa I, the patricide, had usurped and ruled over from the heights of Sigiriya Rock. Moggallana I (491-508 CE), it is stated, was a cultured ruler who encouraged Pallava cultural practices in his kingdom, including the introduction of the Grantha script that was, in time, to influence the Sinhala script.

The Anuradhapura Kingdom was to see a second influx of Pallavas when Manavamma seized power in 684 CE with the help of a second Pallava expedition to the island. That Manavamma remained in power till 718 CE had much to do with the support the Pallavas had under Narasimhavarman II (Rajasimha) (691-728 CE) provided him.

That the Pallavas could send out two all-conquering expeditions to Lanka during these 200 years bespeaks of a fleet that could help mount an invasion. This fleet, it is said, sailed from Mamallapuram. The other great port of the Pallavas was Mylapore. The Vayalur Pillar Inscription refers to Rajasimha’s large kingdom including “the thousand islands” (Lakshadvipa). Could this also mean it included the Maldives?

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2017 9:15:50 AM |