History & Culture

Footprints on the sands of time

Gautamasrama - Parthasarathy Iyengar's house in Triplicane. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

I must have passed by the house many times, on my way to the Parthasarathy Swamy temple in Triplicane. I would never have given it a second glance, for how was I to know that history was made within the walls of this house, once upon a time? My interest was kindled when I learnt that living in the house was a nonagenarian, with the mental agility of a 20-year-old, who could narrate dates and facts faster than one could absorb them. The 140-year old house on Peyazhvar Koil Street is called Gautamasrama, and it is here that I meet 93-year-old Parthasarathy Iyengar, who amazes me with his memory.

If a building could speak, this building could hold the listener enthralled, with many tales from the past. Parthasarathy Iyengar talks about Gautamasrama - his family home - and about his family. He comes from a family that has left giant footprints on the sands of Time, with its contributions to Hindu philosophy and to the freedom movement.

Scholars from the family used to be royally appointed pandits in Krishnadevaraya’s court. Later they became Pradhans (Chief Ministers) under the Mysore Wodeyar Kings. When Hyder Ali and later Tipu Sultan consolidated their hold over Mysore, Rani Lakshammanni sent her Minister Tirumal Row to negotiate with the British, to restore her territory.

“I am a descendant of Pradhan Tirumal Row through his daughter,” says S. Parthasarathy Iyengar. (Row is anglicisation of a title similar to ‘Rao Bahadur.’) Tirumal Row’s mission wasn’t successful initially, but he was given the post of Collector of Coimbatore. When the Wodeyar dynasty came back to power many years later, the British, according to a signed agreement, were to restore the post of Pradhan to Tirumal Row, but they reneged on their promise.

Tirumal Row came back to Madras, and lived in a house in Triplicane, provided by the British. To the North of this huge house was South Tank Square Street, and to the West was Hanumantharayan Koil Street. The house was known locally as ‘peria aham’- the big house. Later, many years after the descendants of Tirumal Row moved out of this house, it was divided into smaller houses and let out for rent. In one of these lived mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

As for Tirumal Row, although he was not given the post of Pradhan, he was paid the salary of chief minister. Every month, officials of the Mysore court would bring his salary over to Madras, and hand it over to Tirumal Row at the ‘peria aham,’ to the accompaniment of nagaswaram and thavil!

Tirumal Row’s daughter Vedamma was given in marriage to a scholar, Kundalam Srirangapatnam Krishnamacharya, who was the author of the first modern work on Kannada grammar - ‘Hosagannada Nudigannadi.’ Vedamma’s son, Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar, was born in 1840, and his contribution to Hindu philosophy was matched later by the contributions of his family to the freedom movement. (Krishnamacharya, Thirumalacharya and Parthasarathy were some of the names repeated in every generation of the family, until recent times.)

Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar was among the first batch of students to graduate from Madras University in 1859, and was one of the first to graduate from the Madras Law College in 1862. His brother Tirumalacharya was already practising as a vakil.

(Before Indians took to legal studies, one could practise as an advocate in Hindu law, if one were certified to have sound knowledge of Sanskrit and the Hindu sastras. Thirumalacharya qualified on these grounds.)

A tiled house in Peyazhvar Koil street was bought by Thirumalacharya in 1860. It was demolished and the house in which I meet S. Parthasarathy Iyengar, was built in 1870, with a few additions in 1880. The name Gautamasrama was given later, by Thirumalacharya’s son, who had great regard for Buddha’s teachings. On either side of a long corridor in the house, are two rooms, which Thirumalacharya and his brother Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar used as their office rooms.

The Nawab of Carnatic, who was a family friend, gifted six carved wooden pillars when the house was being constructed, and these beautiful pillars are on either side of the corridor. When Thirumalacharya died, the Nawab gave the family 10,000 rupees as his contribution towards funeral expenses. The house with Madras terracing, high ceiling, arches and a courtyard is the sort of graceful building fast disappearing from the Chennai landscape.

A little further away, also on Peyazhvar Koil Street, is the Saraswathi Bhandaram Bungalow bought by Thirumalacharya’s family, at the same time as Gautamasrama. This is a ten ground property that has fifty houses, some of which retain the period look.

Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar was a student of the Madras Christian College, and a favourite of principal Miller, because of his brilliance. When Miller was asked to suggest someone to represent Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions, he suggested Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar, who was proficient in Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, English and French. But Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar, for reasons of orthodoxy, wouldn’t cross the sea, and so turned down the offer.

Around this time Vivekananda was in Trivandrum, where a nephew of Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar met him. Later when Vivekananda visited Madras, this nephew and another nephew Alasinga Perumal attended Vivekananda’s discourses. When Vivekananda decided to go to Chicago, Alasinga Perumal collected money to pay for his passage, and also went to Bombay to see Vivekananda off.

Vivekananda wrote many letters to Alasinga Perumal from Chicago. When Vivekananda needed money while in Chicago, again it was Alasinga, who borrowed money and sent it to Chicago, along with his own salary. Although Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar did not go to Chicago, his paper on Vaishnavism was read out in the conference.

Upon the suggestion of Swami Vivekananda, Alasinga and his brothers started an English journal, Brahmavadin, to spread Vivekananda’s philosophy. The Brahmavadin Press was located in Popham’s Broadway. Alasinga and Dr. Nanjunda Rao began the journal Prabuddha Bharata, also at the instance of Vivekananda.

In 1861, Sir Colley Harman Scotland was appointed the first Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, a post he held until his retirement in 1871. Sir Adam Bittlestone was also appointed a judge of the Madras High Court in 1861, and he was also acting Chief Justice of the Court for sometime. Both these judges learnt Hindu scriptures from Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar. They gave him 2,000 rupees, with which he stared the Thirumalachariar’s Scotland and Bittlestone Prize Committee to award prizes to two Vaishnava scholars annually.

The members of this committee constituted the Saraswathi Bhandaram Committee, with Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar as secretary. He put in a great deal of effort in collecting manuscripts of works on Visishtadvaita and publishing them in the Saraswathi Bhandaram Press, located in the Saraswathi Bhandaram Bungalow. The cost involved in printing Tiruvaimozhi alone was Rs. 40,000. A lecture hall and a shrine for the Vaishnavite Acharya Nampillai have now been built in the place where the Saraswathi Bhandaram Press functioned.

Later Yogi Parthsarathy Iyengar bought land in Ayodhya, where he built a Rama temple. He breathed his last there, and after his death, his wife carried on his good work, giving discourses in Ayodhya. The people, who referred to her respectfully as Ammaji, even gave the Rama temple built by her husband the name Ammaji Mandir. And that’s how it’s known even today. It’s a South Indian style temple, which is managed by the Saraswathi Bhandaram Trust.

In the mid 19th century, Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar’s family had property worth seven lakhs! While Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar spent his share of the fortune on publishing books on Hindu philosophy, another branch of the family spent what was left on the freedom movement.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 8:27:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/Footprints-on-the-sands-of-time/article16269075.ece

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