The centenary being celebrated this year of the opening of the Pamban Bridge on February 24, 1914 brings back childhood memories of travelling over it at least 25 times. I wonder how many others are around that remember those journeys on the South Indian Railway’s (SIR) ‘Boat Mail’.

The Boat Mail was a train that started out from Madras on the night of Day 1 and took you to Pamban Bridge, which linked Mandapam on the mainland with Pamban on Rameswaram Island, and then, clank-clanking over it, you reached the tip of the island, Dhanushkodi Point, shortly after Tea on Day 2. Either of the SIR’s two ferries, Irwin and Goschen in my time, small steamers, in fact, waited to take you the 21 miles across the Palk Strait to Talaimannar on Mannar Island just off the Ceylon mainland on the evening of Day 2. And there would be waiting the Ceylon Government Railway’s (CGR) version of the Boat Mail, much more comfortable than the SIR’s, to take you overnight to Colombo, reaching there on Day 3 morning.

The best things I remember about those trips was counting the rocks of Adam’s Bridge just beneath the water’s surface on either side of the bridge and the rail tracks as they crossed water and the food from Spencer’s on the Indian side and from Victoria’s on the Ceylon side; Victoria’s was owned by J.R.D. Victoria of Manapad, later Sir Donatus and a Senator in the Ceylon Upper House. However, another memory is of those delicious meals having a sad fate during the choppy two-hour sea-crossing. Now all that discomfort could have been saved if the original plan for those 21 miles had been gone through.

Ever since the tea and rubber plantations opened up in Ceylon in the 19th Century they were dependent on Indian labour from the southern districts of the Madras Presidency. To move these kangany-recruited workers across quicker, and with enormously fewer deaths during the sea crossings in flimsy boats and on the trek through jungle from the coast to the hill country, the British planters began petitioning the Madras Government as early as 1895 for better transport. In 1907, they met the Chairman of the SIR and subsequent discussions led to the SIR and the CGR extending their tracks to Dhanushkodi and to Talaimannar respectively. A survey was then agreed on to link them by an elevated railway on a causeway that was to be built.

The estimated cost of the project was around Rs.110 lakh and when this was felt to be too high, the ferry option was decided on. This option too started out with a plan to use train-ferries which would carry a whole train from point to point, but this too was given up and passenger-carrying steamers were decided on by the time the route was inaugurated on February 24, 1914.

Though it is stated that the centenary celebrations this month are for the unique Pamban Bridge which opens up to allow ships to pass through, they are in fact for the opening of the Indo-Ceylon rail link. The Scherzer Bridge (as it is called by technical-minded persons, giving it the name of its American designer) had been completed sometime earlier to link the rail track from Mandapam to Pamban and enable it to extend to Dhanushkodi.

If only that link had been taken further, with the proposed railway track building bridges across the waters of the Palk Strait through a Rameswaram-Mannar ‘merger’ and supplemented with a road link suggested a couple of decades ago, would history have been different?

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Little-known beginnings

Worth rather more space than normal is this information that the postman brought me from Bhaskarendra Rao about Queen Mary’s College (Miscellany, January 27). He sends me newspaper accounts that state that when the Education Department drew up plans for the Women’s College in Madras it announced that only female lecturers would be appointed in the College. If they were not available, “aged male lecturers” would be appointed!

The Government of Madras was also thinking of appointing two women teachers from England. It had sought the permission of the Government of India for this. (I wonder why.) The English recruits were to be paid rather more than locally hired teachers. The salary scale suggested for them in 1914 was 400-20-500-25-750.

The College opened on July 14 with 34 students, eight Brahmin girls, three Malayalee Hindus, and the rest Indian Christians and Anglo-Indians. The students included the daughters of Srinivasamma, the acting Inspectress of Girls’ Schools; Rao Bahadur Nemali Pattabhirama Rao, ex-Dewan of Cochin; S Narayanswamy Iyer, retired Director of Education, Pudukkottai; R.A. Srinivasa Iyengar, Executive Engineer; J. Paul, Superintendent, Bangalore Central Jail; and Y. Ponayya, advocate, Bangalore.

Miss De la Hey, the Principal, a graduate from Oxford University, taught Ancient and Modern History. She was assisted by a Miss Myers who taught English. The other subjects taught were the South Indian languages, Latin, Sanskrit, French and Logic. Those wanting to study Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology had to go to neighbouring Presidency College for lectures while lecturers from Presidency came to teach Logic, Malayalam and Sanskrit. F.C. Namasivaya taught Tamil.

Students came from as far as Bandar (Machilipatnam), Secunderabad, Bellary and Yercaud to join the College which started with classes for the first year Intermediate. Second year Intermediate classes were to start in 1915. The College became a First Grade one in 1916. College hours were from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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The Jesuit sannyasi

Roberto de Nobili whom I mentioned last week as the object of Eric Auzoux’s search was the pioneer of the Indianisation of the Roman Church. But much of what he attempted to do was the subject of considerable controversy, only a Papal decision settling matters to an extent. But even that has not warranted greater recognition of what he tried to achieve in India, say scholars like Auzoux. Even his last resting place in India, in Mylapore, where he died on January 16, 1656, is not only not known but has never really been searched for, for a memorial to be raised.

de Nobili, an Italian Jesuit, arrived in Goa in 1605 as a 28-year-old. He was to spend the next 51 years of his life in South India after he was sent to the Fisheries Coast to minister to the Paravar (Bharathas) who Francis Xavier had converted. The Madurai Mission, established in 1594 by Gonsalo Fernandes, seeking new converts in the heart of Tamizhagam and seeing no need for anyone to work with the already converted, transferred de Nobili from the coast to the heartland. In Madurai, he found that the Mission had not made a single convert and was ministering only to the Paravar, Portuguese and Indo-Portuguese established there, mainly in business. Wondering why the Mission had failed to make even a single conversion, de Nobili learnt from a Hindu schoolmaster that the Hindus felt the Parangis (foreigners) were considered unclean by Hindu standards, being eaters of meat and drinkers of wine, being casteless, and for ignoring the customs of local tradition.

To break with Parangi practices, de Nobili saw as the only way to reach out to the caste Hindus. He shaved his head, except for a tuft, became a vegetarian and teetotaller, began wearing sandalwood paste on his forehead, donned saffron robes and clogs, and wore the three-string thread which he said represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity. He learnt Tamil and Sanskrit and as the “Teacher of Wisdom” began his journey through Thamizhagam preaching Christian thought in Vedic terms even as peers in the Church condemned him in the loudest voices. Eventually, in 1623, Pope Gregory XV accepted de Nobili’s views and urged others doing the Church’s work to be more sensitive to Indian feelings.

De Nobili’s wanderings eventually took him to Mylapore where he spent his last years in the shadow of the Mylapore temple. There are so many gaps in his story: I hope Eric’s book will fill them.