MADRAS MISCELLANY History & Culture

Madras miscellany: The ‘Essential Buddhist'

06mp_Muthiah   | Photo Credit: mail pic



B. Ramesh from Tiruvanmiyur bowled me yet another of those googlies I receive from time to time. I had never heard of the subject of his questions, Prof. Pukala Lakshmi Narasu, so, answering the questions raised by him I can only leave to readers who may have something to contribute. I did, however, find out a bit about Prof. Narasu, as he, apparently, was popularly called. And for that I'm indebted to the Madras Christian College history by Joshua Kalapati and Ambrose Jeyasekaran.

Narasu was 20 years old when he graduated in Physical Sciences from MCC. Six years later he was in charge of Physics and Chemistry for B.A. students, almost unheard of for someone so young. In 1894 he was made Assistant Professor, but reading between the lines it would appear that his openly expressed rationalistic views did him little good with his superiors and he sought pastures new. Ramesh says he moved to Bishop Heber College, Trichinopoly. We later find him as Professor of Physics at Pachaiappa's College in 1909. He was subsequently appointed Principal of the College and retired in 1924. None of this, except perhaps his commitment to Rationalism, his interest in wireless telegraphy then in its infancy and his knowledge of Dynamics, was reason enough for him to become well-known. But well-known he became — because of his interest in Buddhism and, in the view of many, the influence he had on B.R. Ambedkar.

What Ambedkar described as “the best book on Buddhism” was Prof. Narasu's The Essence of Buddhism, published in 1907. It was several years before Ambedkar caught up with the book, but when he did he was responsible for having the third edition published in 1948 and he contributed a significant foreword to it. Ambedkar called Prof. Narasu “a great iconoclast and social reformer”, keeping in mind the way Narasu had fought the caste system. Narasu's other major work was A Study of Caste (1922).

Prof. Narasu visited Ceylon and became a Buddhist there long after he had been drawn to the rationalism of the faith. He and another leading Tamil Buddhist, Pandit Jyothi Thass, spoke on many platforms on the greatness of Lord Buddha's teachings. And just as he had crossed words with the missionaries, he debated Swami Vivekananda on various aspects of Advaita. Narasu is also reported to have been one of the founders of the Mahabodhi Society in 1909.

But to get back to Ramesh's search on behalf of a friend in Germany. Apparently Prof. Narasu carried on a regular correspondence with Ernst Mach, a German philosopher-scientist, and it is Mach's letters to Narasu that the German researcher is looking for. If they survive, are they in some library or with a member of Narasu's family? He also states that Nobel Prize winner C.V. Raman's father was a contemporary of Narasu's at Bishop Heber College, had an extensive library and was also in touch with Mach. Is that library with any member of the Raman family and, if so, is there any material from Mach in it?

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Knighted sportsman

A planter from Malabar chides me saying, “Surely having written a history of UPASI (the United Planters' Association of Southern India) you should have remembered another knight who was an active sportsman even in his declining years, Sir Fairless Barber.” And I must admit that memory had failed me when I wrote last week about the knighted sportsmen who competed in Madras sport.

E. Fairless Barber had started his career in coffee in Ceylon and moved to the Nilgiris in the 1890s. “When planters' cricket was at its best in Ooty,” according to him. Of that period he once wrote, “As his own master, once he had got his crop harvested and in the hands of the Coast Agents, the Coffee Planter felt himself a free man (and possibly was, except for a load of debt) and then Ooty was his Mecca.” Recalling those early years, he adds, “…the old ground, up at the north end of the race course…there can have been few better (than it).” Even as the Ooty season tails off as I write these lines, I wonder how many today consider cricket being a part of it.

Barber became Planting Member in the Madras Assembly c.1916 and captured the headlines on two occasions in the next couple of years. The first was when he protested to the Chief Secretary in the best Blimpish manner against the release from custody of Annie Besant in 1917 and the second was when he was knighted in 1918, the first South Indian planter to be so honoured.

And it was as a belted knight that he turned out for Calicut for the first time in 1927 in the annual Wynaad-Calicut fixture that dated to 1910 and was always played in Calicut. He was well past his prime — when this Old Marlburian was considered one of the best planter batsmen ever — but was “still a useful player who must have spread his cricket in India over a longer period than anyone else”. Over the next few years he did much to promote West Coast cricket and in the early 1930s raised a West Coast side of Presidency calibre that toured Kolar, Bangalore and Madras.

The next year, E.A. Cowdrey turned out for Calicut — and promised to eclipse Barber's reputation as a batsman. Certainly his son made a better mark than both. In 1929, Sir Fairless made another contribution to the game; ‘Pug' Barber became the first woman to play in the series, turning out for Calicut. A daughter, was she?

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When the postman knocked…

*S. Balasundram writes to say that besides the Rameswaram Temple stamp (Miscellany, May 23), there were other stamps issued in pre-Independence India featuring Indian themes, but they were not issued in British India. The French Indian settlements issued a set of 18 stamps that were in blocks of three, one block featuring an apsara and the other five a particular village deity in each. The stamps in each block were of three values and three colours. The whole made an attractive presentation. French India also issued a stamp featuring Brahma, one on a Kali temple near Pondicherry, and another with the Chidambaram temple. The last-listed was withdrawn when it was discovered that Chidambaram was not part of French Indian territory! The stamps, issued between 1892 and 1954, were valid for international use but were available only in post offices in Pondicherry, Karaikal, Yanam, Mahé and Chandernagore. The Travancore State too issued stamps featuring Indian scenes. A stamp with Kanniyakumri depicted was issued on March 29, 1937 to mark the Temple Entry Proclamation, Cape Comorin and the Pechiparai Reservoir featured in two stamps issued on November 9, 1939, to mark the 27th birthday of the Maharaja, and his 29th birthday was marked on October 10, 1941 with the issue of a stamp with the Aruvikkarai Falls depicted. All the scenes on these Travancore stamps were of places in today's Kanniyakumari District.

*I have read somewhere that when Thomas Parry, who founded Parry & Co., landed in Madras he was “run from ship”; was he a deserter, asks A.L. Sravanan. No, he was not a deserter. A person who worked on a ship for his passage to a particular destination was, in those days (the 18th Century), said to have “run from ship” when he signed off and left the vessel at his destination. Parry, in addition to having got free passage by working as a seaman, also collected £3 12s 8d for the work he had done during the three months and 19 days' voyage.


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