Responding to all that I’ve written about Alfred McGowan Tampoe (Miscellany, April 22 and 29), I’m surprised no one recalled the signal role that he played in one of the most famous trials in 20th Century South India. It was only when I received a commemorative publication about his life brought out by Visvodaya — without comment from someone in Kavali College — that I discovered that he had been the presiding magistrate in what was called the Tinnevelly Conspiracy — or Ashe Murder Case. Ashe was the Collector of Tinnevelly (Miscellany, July 18, 2011) and Tampoe was the Headquarters Assistant Collector at the time, July 1911.

When Nilakanta Brahmachari was arrested in Calcutta for hatching the conspiracy and brought before Tampoe in his bungalow, Tampoe asked him to wash up, then served him tea and offered him a cigarette. He then asked the European Superintendent, who wanted to parade Nilakanta Brahmachari through the streets of the town, to take him to jail in a jutka. And it was in a jutka that this first accused in the case was brought to court every day during the two months of the trial when over 200 witnesses were heard. During that whole period of the trial, Tampoe and Brahmachari met every day for tea and cigarettes and discussions on everything under the sun. But that did not prevent Tampoe from committing him to trial before a three-judge Bench of the Madras High Court. When they had tea together that last day, Nilakanta Brahmachari wondered what would happen to him at the trial. “Ten years,” Tampoe predicted nonchalantly. In the event, it was seven years.

The sentence was later commuted to half because Brahmachari, while in jail, teamed with Tampoe to write a detailed history of the underground political movement in South India. This remains a standard work on the subject, from what I have been able to gather after hearing this tale of an extraordinary friendship that lasted for over fifty years from the time they first met, with one in chains and the other dressed immaculately in the manner of a Civilian of the Raj.

After he was released in 1919 Brahmachari took to robes and became Sri Sadguru Omkar. Tampoe was in the years that followed a regular visitor to Sri Sadguru Omkar’s ashram in the Nandi Hills and the sadhu often visited the Principal’s office at Kavali College where Tampoe sat. Tampoe called himself Sri Sadguru Omkar’s sishya, but the question remains how much of a role he played, during those regular interactions in jail, in making Brahmachari see that violence was not the way to salvation.

There is much more to the Tampoe story, a fascinating tale if ever there was one, but I’ll leave it with this recounting that must be the highlight of an extraordinary person’s life.

*****

A tsunami question

It was in the early 1950s, four of us, bachelors all, decided to explore Ceylon. Two of the quartet were photographers, I was the recorder and the fourth was the adventurous type who brought with him driving skills and super-efficient housekeeping. For a period of two or three years, we were out in an ancient Jeep almost every weekend, especially searching for places off the beaten track. And so it was that on the road from Anuradhapura heading northwest to Mannar — searching for the ancient seaport of Mantota — we landed up at a village about 20 miles from ancient Anuradhapura for a roadside kadai lunch. Chatting with the Grand Old Man who owned it, we found ourselves being urged — in between asking the younger members of his family to serve us more even faster — to visit a bit of jungle a few miles off the main road and see some wonderful rock carvings. And, so, we ‘discovered’ Tantrimalai that a decade or so later was to become a Buddhist pilgrim destination, but at the time we stumbled on it had probably been last visited by British Government archaeologists in the early 20th Century.

What a revelation it was. What we saw was a reclining Buddha and a seated Buddha in a rock-cut niche, two magnificent bits of sculpture, several other smaller sculptures, but most intriguing of all numerous other bits of stone-work left half-done, work stopped in mid-stroke. And signs of what must have been a prosperous settlement left to the elements after the area had been ravaged. By whom or what?

Twenty years later I was asking the same questions of Mamallapuram. There too were splendid sculptural work and carvings in rock-cut caves and niches. There too work had stopped mid-stroke. And there too the jungle had taken over and no one knew what treasures the greenery harboured till a couple of British officers found them in the late 18th Century.

Mamallapuram is dated to the 7th-8th Centuries. So is Tantrimalai. And travel down the Coromandel or Fisheries Coasts of Tamil Nadu, and you hear the same stories of a part of Mamallapuram and a part of Poompuhar that was Kaveripoompattinam and a part of Kayal, another ancient seaport that the Greeks and Romans had come to, that had all vanished leaving traces of unfinished work. What happened?

I was reminded about all this reading about what a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore, had reported recently. Carrying out research in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the scientists reported that they had found evidence of “a major tectonic event accompanied by regional sea flooding that happened sometime between 770 and 1040 A.D.” Whatever happened left its imprint on the coasts of Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and Sumatra, they stated. And what that was, was very likely a tsunami of the size of the 2004 one, if not bigger.

With both Mamallapuram and Tantrimalai likely to have been abandoned in the 8th Century, it was more likely a tsunami than any invasion that led to work being left unfinished in mid-stroke. I would think this was a bit of history that archaeologists would spend more time on researching. But after a British exploration off Mamallapuram a few years ago — which reported finding evidence of the remains of construction under the sea off the Shore Temple — no one seems to be in any hurry to trace the history of the tsunamis of the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean.

*****

Major Maitland’s School

Did a Major Maitland play some role in the start of the Madras Engineering College, asks Dr. A. Raman, that regular correspondent of mine from New South Wales. Yes and No, I’d be inclined to answer from the little information I have been able to gather about this military engineer associated with the Gun Carriage Factory that was on Poonamallee High Road opposite St. Andrew’s Kirk. Major Maitland was the Superintendent of the factory and in 1842 he set up a school on his own to train ordnance artificers and apprentices.

Being a well-run institution that offered sound training in mechanical skills, it was felt in 1849 that Maitland’s school would well-serve the Survey School if they were amalgamated. Major Maitland thought it was a good idea but the Military Board did not think so. It urged that a technical college be started, stating, “A master workman must know his trade and know it well, but a Civil Engineer has a craft of his own; his skill is his science, his tools are his formula and his surveying and mathematical instruments; his labours are for the most part those of the mind; and he must therefore be one of a very different class and status in society as well as of totally different attainments from those of the mechanic, whose labours he had to direct.” The Public Works Commissioners endorsed this view and a Civil Engineering College was proposed.

Nothing, however, happened till 1855 when Alexander Arbuthnot — to whom Madras owes much, as regular readers of this column will remember — presented, as Director of Public Instruction, a proposal to establish an Engineering School or College with three departments and a workshop. The Government approved the proposal in 1856 but insisted that every student had to master one trade or craft in Major Maitland’s School — where, in fact, many a student had on his own gone for training in one skill or another.

In 1857, Lt. Geroge Winscom was appointed Principal of the Survey School which, after the changes he wrought, was named the Civil Engineering School in October 1858. In September 1859 it was renamed the Civil Engineering College and, later that year, the Engineering College. The subjects taught were: Surveying, Plotting, Planning and Estimation, Costume Engineering (perhaps a reader will explain that to me), Mechanical Engineering, Hydraulics, Elementary Mathematics, Tamil, and Telugu. Significantly, for practical training in Mechanical Engineering the students continued to go to Major Maitland’s School. They also went to the Grand Arsenal (in Fort St. George, just south of what is now generally called Clive House) for practical training, presumably in the kind of strength walls had to have to withstand different kinds of ammunition.

Indeed, till 1894 when the College became the first in India to offer a Mechanical Engineering stream for a degree, Maitland’s School was the training school where the students of the Civil Engineering School/College honed their mechanical skills. Maitland’s School for Carnatic Ordinance Artificers and Apprentices therefore had not only a signal role in supplementing the knowledge of the students of the Civil Engineering School/College for over 50 years but also sowed the seeds for a Mechanical Engineering degree in India. It was also, I would like to think, the forerunner of today’s ITIs.