SOS: Save Our Schools: Augusta Blandford, founder of the Zenana Mission School was also a prolific writer, who painted in words, vignettes of life in the city in the late 19th century

Augusta Blandford, the founder of the Fort Zenana Mission School, has left behind not only a school that thrives even today, but also chronicles micro-history of the city. She wrote about her missionary work in a number of publications in 1870s-1900s.

In the August 1881 issue of the magazine India’s Women, she paints a “picture in words” (that is how the editor prefaces it) of the school and city life. She describes a walk (or a ride in a cart or pony, as we can gather from many of her writings) into East Fort one fine morning (of 1881). What she describes tell us about the mannerisms and customs of people, the social order and even minute details such as what the street vendors were selling. “The streets of the Fort are pleasant in the early morning. The sky is blue, but not cloudless; nimble grey squirrels, favoured by Rama, according to the legend, and bearing the impress of his fingers in three black stripes on their backs, chase one another over the tiled roofs of the houses, and play hide and seek in the curiously carved gables; the black and white robin stops in his search for food to trill forth a note of gladness and praise; and contented-looking cows and calves walk about where they please…We meet a party of women of different ages, followed by an attendant carrying dry clothes and towels, evidently on their way to the large tank [Padmatheertham] where they will enjoy their morning bath, in a corner by themselves, but in sight of men performing their ablutions. We go a little further and see the street well surrounded by a group of graceful women dressed in clothes of shaded browns, reds, or plain dark blue, and covered with jewels. They are merrily laughing, chatting, and drawing water, while perhaps into the midst of the happy group comes a widow, distinguished by having one end of here cloth drawn round her shaven head. At the tank during the bathing hour incessant noise is heard, loud talking, sounds of merriment, muttering of munthrums or prayers, and the monotonous thud of beating their cloths against stones for the purpose of washing them.

Street vendors are there, hawking their wares; a woman with a large pot of buttermilk, which she ladles out to all who call her to their doors; a young boy with Brant and May’s matches [this is a rare record of the advent of matches in Thiruvanathapuram], shouting ‘Thi-pe-thi-i-I’ with all his might, and a man with a round basket on his shoulders containing bread, which he announces by lusty cries of ‘Kau-thumb-roti’ [Wheat Bread].

Missionaries in Travancore worked among select social groups. While the downtrodden were the major choice of most missionaries, Blandford worked among Brahmin and Nair girls and women. We get rare insight of the inhuman treatment of Brahmin child widows from her writings.

She writes: Brahmin girls are very bright and intelligent, fond of learning for the most part, but much interrupted by religious festivals and marriages, which, together with the early age at which they leave school, prevents their studying for public examinations. They are married very young, and, even if children, at the time of the husband’s death are condemned to perpetual widowhood. The case of child widows is, however, very different, and I have grieved much and long over bright, intelligent Brahman girls, happy at lessons and play on one day, and the next struck down with the terrible news of the death of the young boy, a husband only in name, to whom they were betrothed. No more lessons; no more merry fun; feeling herself to have caused by her own fault, deep sorrow to her mother and other relatives who now cannot bear her embraces; despised by her neighbours; forbidden to attend marriage feasts lest she should bring bad luck with her; considered by some to be a vile, polluted thing; our poor little afflicted one drags on her miserable life without change till she becomes of marriageable age. Then, on an appointed day, the barber comes, and amid deeply-felt grief and loud wailing, shaves her head; her jewels are torn off, an old garment wraps her round, and she is consigned to life-long misery, with no hope of alleviation. I remember a case where the screams of the poor girl so touched the tender heart of the enlightened English taught uncle that he sent the barber away and would not allow the doleful ceremony to proceed.

She writes on the plight of the daughters of T. Madhava Rao, the progressive Dewan who enabled the opening of her school (who incidentally wrote a book in Malayalam on how to bring up children, addressed to fathers). My school was opened on November 3rd, 1864, with a daughter and niece of the good Diwan and two little Malayali girls of the Nayar caste, who were my only scholars up to the following May. The elder, Cavary Bai, was living with her husband; the younger, Ambu Bai, a sweet girl often, was married, but still in her father’s house. I taught them both English, drawing, and needle work five days in the week, to which music was added as soon as a piano had been purchased. Elder daughters of the Diwan then came in to share the music lessons and to chat and laugh. We soon began to understand each other and became great friends; but a very real affection sprang up between Ambu Bai and myself, and I was very sorry when she was suddenly withdrawn to go and live in her husband’s house two years afterwards. She sent me her eldest daughter Suckoo Bai, who attended the Fort School for some time and was a great favourite. Now, alas! Dear Ambu Bai has become a widow, and suffers greatly from rheumatism. I have not been allowed to see her for some years. Her companion in study, Cavary Bai, lost her husband, Annaji Rao, soon after the birth of her second son, and deep was my grief when I first saw her afterwards with shaven head and sad face worn with fasting and tears. Her husband, a good English scholar, well-read and of courteous manners, had now and then called on me and expressed great interest in her studies, but now her books and work must be laid aside, and nothing but privation and misery were before here. Her two baby sons would, I thought, be solace and induce her to try and live for their sake, but her health had always been delicate, and she could not bear up against the overwhelming grief and self-inflicted austerities. She drooped and died two years afterwards.

Blandford was successful in establishing a rapport with the women of the Travancore royal family, beginning with Lakshmi Ammachi. The first palace to open its doors to me was that of H.H. the First Prince, who afterwards reigned for five years. His Lady, Lakshmi Ammachi, as she was called, was then (1865) a young girl of eighteen who had been married at eleven years of age.

She not only read the Bible to them, but watched the intrigues in the palace with curiosity. We can find reference to petty royal fights of those days, such as the banishing of Kerala Varma Valia Koi Thampuran, which resulted in a literary ‘Sandesha kavyam’. About the wife of Kerala Varma, Lakshmi Baye ICI, Senior Ranee of Travancore, she mentions: Twenty-six years ago, her husband, although an enlightened, clever, scholarly man, fell under the displeasure of reigning Maharajah and was banished from Trivandrum with no hope of a return to his former station. At length her trial ended by the death of this Sovereign and the restoration of her husband, after five years’ absence, by his successor. Her late Majesty, our beloved Queen-Empress, on learning this incident from the Duke of Buckingham, then Governor of Madras, sent Her Highness the Order of the Crown of India, a distinction never before granted to any Rani of Travancore. The Investiture took place in open durbar on June 17, 1881, and was an occasion of public rejoicing.

Of the king’s demise, Blandford narrates a superstitious act of those days. The Maharajah died at half-past one on the morning of May 31st [1881]. It was a great shock to be awakened from sleep before daylight by the bugle, tattoo, and gong of the Nayar Brigade announcing the decease. During the Maharajah’s illness, a most touching ceremony was performed, which bears some resemblance to the Jewish institution of the scapegoat. A man was found willing for a consideration (Rs.10,000) to bear the responsibility of the Rajah’s sins; he was brought into the royal presence, and, after the performance of certain ceremonies by the Brahmans, was tenderly embraced by the sick man, and then conducted out of Travancore into the Tinnevelly district with a charge never to return.

Blandford witnessed and recorded minor and major events that caught her attention through her writings spread over about 40 years. This contribution to the history of the city is as important as her contribution to women’s education and reform.

(The second part of a four-part series on the Fort Mission High School)

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