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Updated: March 6, 2010 19:05 IST

Madras Miscellany - A lasting contribution

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Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg
Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg

It was about ten years ago that the Rev. Dr. Andreas Gross, a church historian and a pastor, arrived from Germany to teach church history at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, Kelly's. It wasn't too long after that that I met him and forged a friendship based on a mutual regard for the contribution Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and the Halle Mission had made both to India and to German knowledge of India starting from 1706. Last week, Andreas and Christina and their three children, two born in Madras, said farewell to India, he to take up a pastorate in Berlin. But what he has left behind, besides knowledge of church history passed on to several hundred students, is a monumental work that has, sadly, not received the attention it deserved. And that is a three-volume book titled Halle and the Beginning of Protestant Christianity in India, looking at the Danish-Halle and English-Halle Missions' heyday, from 1706 till the middle of the 19th Century.

Comprehensive as the three-volume work is, providing a wealth of information, much of it little or not at all known even in Church circles, it virtually reveals only the tip of an iceberg that significantly contributed to South India and beyond. Gross himself writes, “It does not offer a history of the mission and neither does it claim to give an exhaustive analysis of any particular aspect of the mission undertaking. It tries to show the spectrum of possible themes, to give basic information, and to enable and guide further research.” It does this in nearly 100 articles that offer even more themes for study and research, in fields as diverse as religion, mission activities, Indology, social and political history of parts of South India, linguistics and science, besides a host of other areas.

A couple of things, however, strike me about this contribution published to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the Halle Mission in India (1706). I had always thought of the Halle Mission as one mission. The book emphasises that it operated on two levels, as the Danish-Halle Mission, focussed initially on Tranquebar and then to a degree on Serampore in Bengal, and the English-Halle Mission, which worked in Madras, Cuddalore and Tinnevelly with Francke Foundation-recruited missionaries who worked for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London. Though the latter maintained connections with Tranquebar, it was nevertheless more closely linked with London and the Council of Fort St. George.

The second point that struck me was a rather over-emphasis on, besides the pioneering Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau, Christian Schwartz, Benjamin Schultze and Christoph John. Several others, like Johann Grundler, Christoph Walther, Johann Fabricius, Johann Geister, Christian Gericke, and Johann Rottler, could have done with greater attention. So could their learning in India as well as of many of their fellow Pietists, who sought knowledge in the Age of Enlightenment. But by even paying them the slightest attention, Gross' contributors have provided a starting point for future researchers. And for those who want to follow up on all this, there is Gross' second significant contribution in Madras: Helping to organise the archives at Gurukul and adding to it much material from the Francke Foundation.

Tale from the past

The one major discovery I made in Andreas Gross' early history of Protestant Christianity in India was that of Raja (or Royal) Clarinda of Tanjore and Palayamkottai. It's a name I had heard of only in connection with a book of fiction titled Clarinda, written by A. Madhaviah and published in 1915, but I never made the connection with a real-life, 18th Century trailblazer till this historical compendium devoted a chapter to her.

Born Kohila in a Maratha Brahmin family in the employ of the Maratha ruler of Tanjore in the first years of the second half of the 18th Century, she lost her husband when she was very young. Romantic legend has it that she was rescued from the pyre of her husband, in true Job Charnock style, by a Col. Lyttleton. She remained his concubine till his death, during which period she became a Christian even though Schwartz refused to baptise her as he considered her to be living in sin. In due course, Lyttleton was transferred to the garrison town of Palayamkottai, just outside Tinnevelly, and there he passed away c.1778. After his death, she again requested Schwartz to baptise her — and this time he did.

She now gathered around her a number of converts to Christianity from various castes and strived to form a casteless Christian community in an area where caste was a major factor. For her flock, she — benefiting from Lyttleton bequeathing his entire estate to her — began building in 1783 a small stone church, still called Clarinda's Church, where worship still continues. The church was consecrated by Schwartz in 1785. And Clarinda became known as the ‘Mother' of the Palayamkottai congregation. In more academic terms, researcher Eliza F. Kent of Hamilton, New York, describes her as “the patroness of an emerging, multi-caste religious community.”

In 1780, her congregation comprised 40 members from 13 castes. The sole Vellalar member was the Tinnevelly poet Devasagaham Pillai. His son was the musical prodigy Vedanayagam Pillai, who still remains a major figure in the world of South Indian classical music, renowned for his lyrics and musical compositions. Just as Vedanayagam was to have differences with the Anglican missionaries after they replaced the Halle missionaries in the SPCK in Tamizhagam, Clarinda was to have her differences with the Tranquebar missionaries, including Schwartz. Here is one of the many areas mentioned in Gross' compilation which warrants the further study he had urged.

From my point of view, I wonder whether there is a picture anywhere of this fascinating woman and information about her adopted son Henry Lyttleton.

When the postman knocked…

Dorothy da Cunha wants to know whether there is any building or organisation in Madras named ‘Wellington'. There are several institutions in Madras named after Lord (or Lady) Willingdon, who in his time was Governor of Bombay, then of Madras and, finally, Viceroy of India. But many — including those in authority and who should know better — call them all ‘Wellington'. To the best of my knowledge, nothing in Madras was named after the Duke of Wellington, of Waterloo, who is, however, remembered in an Ooty township's ‘new' name, Jackatala being its original one. The Duke was Col. Arthur Wellesley when he was learning his soldiering in Madras and the house in which he lived in the Fort is still called Wellesley House. This derelict house, one of the ASI's protected monuments, cries for restoration. This ‘Willingdon'-‘Wellington' confusion is akin to the mix-ups over Edward and Robert Clive and Admiralty House and Government House.


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