The remarkable Dr. Balfour

He was most aptly named — Dr. Edward Green Balfour, who arrived in Madras in the 1830s and spent the next 40 years of his life pursuing a multitude of path-breaking activities. For, it was the green-conscious Balfour who, in the 1840s, stirred with his scientific writings, the Madras Government into initiating forest conservation measures. These efforts of his are less known than his roles in starting the Madras Museum and Madras Zoo. What I didn't know at the time and which I have just learnt is that this surgeon-administrator went far beyond flora and fauna during his years in Madras, and played key roles in trying to establish three institutions of learning for the Muhammadans of the city. Helping make that possible was this polyglot's fluency in Persian and Urdu.

It was in Persian that Balfour, 156 years ago (March 14, 1854), addressed 110 of the 250 leading Muhammadans in the city whom he and a couple of community leaders had invited to form a Society of Arts and Sciences. In his address, he referred to the great scholarship that had prevailed during the Abbasid Caliphate and pointed out that not only did “the English people take this knowledge from you”, but they improved on it so that now “you have to learn the same from the English people”. He then went on to urge them to form a Society of Arts and Sciences to develop as well as spread knowledge. Sadly, his efforts to have the Society formed ended in failure.

Balfour, however, had succeeded in two other ventures which he, while Government's representative in the Court of the Nawab of the Carnatic, had initiated to foster Muhammadan scholarship and quest for knowledge. In 1849, he persuaded a group of prominent Muslims in the city to open a scholarly library. And, in 1850, the Muhammadan Public Library opened its doors at the corner of Wallajah Road and Triplicane High Road, funded by the then Nawab of the Carnatic, and with Balfour contributing his mite. This library, with its invaluable collection, was closed in the early 1990s, and pulled down in 1994, but reopened on the same site in 2006.

The next major contribution Balfour made was to get the Nawab to convert the madrasa he ran into a school for the public, one that would teach the sciences and the local vernaculars. The changes were opposed by the orthodox, but Balfour, with the support of a more ‘modern-thinking' Muhammadan leadership not only made the madrasa expand its educational scope but, as the Madrasa-e-Azam, developed it into a high school, which still thrives.

A strong supporter of vernacular studies, which he felt should go hand-in-hand with Western-oriented education, he was one of the first, if not the first, European official to urge the teaching of allopathic medicine in Madras in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Here too, he failed to push through his proposal, but he left Madras a remarkable body of work on flora and fauna, institutions aimed at improving knowledge, modernising a community that had gone conservative, encyclopaedic writings and compilations of Persian and Urdu poetry.

The Pandit who became a Swami

Reading recently that Premier C. Rajagopalachari had served as an ordinary member of a Tamil Lexicon Committee established 75 years ago to compile scientific terms from English and that he had focussed on Physics while the person working on Chemistry terms had chaired the Committee, what struck me was that the Chairman was someone I had come across a few years ago in a totally different context.

At the time, I had Swami Vipulananda's name associated with the Ramakrishna Mission's activities in the Eastern Province of Ceylon, where he had established a school and an orphanage. Little did I associate him with Madras Province and Tamil scholarship. The recent reference to his leading role in the Lexicon Committee, therefore, had me searching for more about a Swamiji who, I learnt, had been a Pandit before he took to the robes.

Batticaloa-born S. Mailvaganam, born of one of those rare Northern and Eastern Province alliances in Ceylon, studied both Arts and Science, excelling in both, before going on to be the first from Ceylon to pass the Pandit Examination of the Madurai Tamil Sangam c.1915. It was while he was Principal of the Manipay Hindu College, Jaffna, that this staunch Saivite got interested in the teachings of Swami Ramakrishna. To pursue his interests further, he arrived at the Ramakrishna Mission in Madras in 1922. Two years later, he was initiated into the Order and took the name Swami Vipulananda. While with the Mission in Madras, he edited its Tamil and English monthly journals, Ramakrishna Vijayam and Vedanta Kesari, respectively. He also, during those years, began to delve deeper into Tamil language, literature and history, publishing prolifically on them in English and Tamil.

When a University Commission met in Madurai in 1926, Swami Vipulananda addressed it and urged the establishment of a Tamil University in the Tanjore-Trichinopoly area — an idea that was to become reality over 75 years later. Annamalai Chettiar (later to be titled Rajah Sir) was one of those who heard his plea, and after discussions with him, decided to establish Annamalai University in Chidambaram. In 1931, Swami Vipulananda was to become its first Professor of Tamil. When the University of Ceylon was established in 1937, he was appointed its first Professor of Tamil, but kept urging the establishment of a Tamil University in Nallur, Jaffna, the capital of the Arya Chakravarty dynasty.

The Tamil Swami-Pandit during all these years kept contributing significantly with his pen to the Ramakrishna Mission. Then the Mission beckoned — and after a spell in Calcutta in charge of education, he was sent to his birthplace, Batticaloa, to establish the Mission at a new frontier.

In 1945, giving evidence before the National Languages Commission in Ceylon, he advocated Swabhasha and a three-language formula — education from kindergarten to university in the mother tongue (Tamil or Sinhalese), with the other language and English, which he stressed, compulsory subjects. It's a dream that still awaits fulfillment.

When the postman knocked….

Readers continue to presume that this column has the answers to anything historical, and in that blind faith keep sending it the most fascinating questions. Unfortunately, there are so few answers I have; the only thing I can do is to publish the questions and hope better-informed readers have answers. I wonder who can help Eric Auzoux (who some years ago headed the Alliance Française in Madras). While reading Alice Albinia's Empires of the Indus, he was struck by a passage in a letter Sir Thomas Roe sent to the East India Company after the gifts that he had presented to the Mughal Court had been rejected. Roe wrote: ‘All those guilte glasses on paste, and the others in leather cases with handles are so meane besids so ill packd that no man will accept of them of guift not buy; they are rotten with mould on the outside and decayed within.'

He wants to know what those on guilte glasses on paste could have meant.

Ro(w)e, for the record, was an Oxonian and Barrister of the Inns of Court who started his career with Queen Elizabeth I. After failing in his search for gold in the Amazon basin and a brief stint in Parliament, he made his reputation with his embassy to the court of Jehangir in Agra where, between 1615 and 1618, he obtained permanence for the East India Company's factory in Surat. Evenings spent as drinking companion of Jehangir not only helped with this, but with other aspects of English diplomatic relations with India. He then served as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, later negotiated peace between Sweden and Poland, and played key roles in negotiating treaties of peace between several European kingdoms. When he later served as a Member of Parliament, his knowledge of foreign affairs was described as “unrivalled”.


Madras MiscellanyMarch 21, 2010

Madras Miscellany - A lasting contributionMarch 6, 2010

Swing high, swing low February 28, 2010

Madras MiscellanyFebruary 14, 2010

Madras MiscellanyJanuary 9, 2010