Madras Miscellany - The Tamil Lexicon

Coja Petrus Uscan's tombstone at St. Matthias' Church, Vepery. Photo: S. Thanthoni   | Photo Credit: S THANTHONI

A centenary deserving of note this year is that of the decision by the Government of Madras to get work started on an official Tamil Lexicon. This was the positive response to the proposal forwarded to the Government by a person few would have heard of, an American named J.S. Chandler of the American Mission and resident in Kodaikanal.

The genesis of this proposal was the need to revise the Winslow Tamil-English Dictionary, considered the best in the second half of the 19th Century. This dictionary was based on Dr. Johann Rottler's, which itself had drawn inspiration from Johann Fabricius' work in the mid-18th Century. The Rev. Dr. Miron Winslow was sent out to Jaffna and then transferred to Madras by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. He had worked on his dictionary with Arumuga Navalar — with whom he later parted ways — in both towns. It was published by the American Mission Press in 1862 and contained 67,452 words, the most of any Tamil dictionary up to the time.

The copyright belonged to the American Ceylon Mission, which, when it became necessary to revise and reprint it in the early 20th Century, had no money to do so, the fund it had nurtured for the work having sunk with the Arbuthnot Bank. It then turned to the Madras branch of the Christian Literature Society for help, enticingly pointing out that, “We have not… any scholar here who could be entrusted with the work; for that we must look to India.”

Around this time, Dr. G.U. Pope, who had retired to Oxford to work on the Tamil Classics, stated, when he heard of these plans, that he had “great stores of material for an exhaustive Lexicon of the Tamil language”, and suggested an editor be sent out to Oxford to help him work on a “really useful re-issue of Dr. Winslow's book.”

The Government of Madras and the University of Madras showed interest in Dr. Pope's suggestion, but before any concrete decision could be taken, Pope died in 1907.

A couple of years later his son came out to Madras with his father's papers and gifted them to the Oriental Manuscripts Library, and gave permission for the material to be used for any new Tamil dictionary.

Eventually, the Government acted in January 1911, reacting to Chandler's 1910 proposal and the Pope collection it had. It appointed a five-member Lexicon Committee comprising a representative each from the Government, the University, the Madras Tamil Sangam, and the missionary bodies of Ceylon and South India, the representative of the latter being Chandler, who was asked to work full-time as Editor of the project.

After two years of discussions on the details, the University of Madras was appointed supervisors of the project and Rs.1 lakh was given it for the five years it was expected the work would take.

Work started on January 1, 1919. Three pundits, three clerks and two typists were appointed. The scholars included a Tamil pundit, a Sanskrit pundit and one familiar with the other Dravidian languages and Urdu. The leader of the team was a Tamil vidwan, M. Raghava Iyangar of Ramnad. Interestingly, the Tamil typewriter, with a keyboard developed by Yost of the American Mission, was the first to be ever used in an office in India.

By 1922, when Chandler retired at the age of 80, 81,000 words had been compiled and a few more were added by the time the Lexicon went to press in 1924. The printing of the work to which copyright had been granted to the University by the Government was entrusted to the Diocesan Press, Madras (now CLS Press) which, as the American Mission Press, had printed the Winslow Dictionary.

But, work dragged on and the Lexicon finally came out only in 1936 with S. Vaiyapuri Pillai acknowledged as the Editor. An additional 20,000 words collected for the Lexicon were published in 1939 and a concise Lexicon was brought out in 1954.


The English Church

Reacting to my query about Ritherdon Road, Vepery, last week, D.B. James thinks that the road and others in the vicinity, such as Rundall's, Jeremiah, and even Hunter, all owe their names to priests of St. Matthias' Church, the Church which is said to be the second-oldest Anglican Church in Madras (after St. Mary's in the Fort). I'd be glad to receive confirmation of the fact from the current parish priest, particularly as it would tell me that I was wrong about Hunter Road, whose name I have been attributing to the founder of the College of Arts and Crafts, Dr. Alexander Hunter.

St. Matthias' Church goes back to another church on this site dating to the 1730s. This was the Chapel Nossa Senhora de Milagres (the Chapel of Our Lady of Miracles), the private chapel of Coja Petrus Uscan, the leading Armenian merchant of the time and a devoted friend of the English. His defiance of the French during their occupation of Fort St. George from 1746 to 1749 resulted in all his property being confiscated. However, after the English received back Fort St. George, he was one of the few Roman Catholics in Madras to be entertained by the English.

Though the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, then being manned in Madras by German priests from the Danish Tranquebar Mission — British missionaries not being allowed into Madras at the time — had asked for Uscan's chapel to be handed over to it, the English continued to allow Uscan to retain and use his church, and it was in its garden that he was buried when he died in January 1751. It was only after that, that the property was handed over to the SPCK. Worship in it was thereafter led by Lutheran priests from the Tranquebar Mission, till, in 1826, the Rev. Richard William Moorsom was appointed its first British parish priest. It now became popularly called ‘The English Church', to distinguish it from the time when French priests conducted Roman Catholic services in it during ‘The Occupation'.

By 1823, the condition of the building was in a poor state and though the Government Engineer, Major Thomas Fiott de Havilland, felt it could be restored, a decision was taken to build a new church. John Law, an Anglo-Indian, submitted a design (that was accepted) and an estimate of Rs. 31,000 that had the parishioners scrambling for funds.

The SPCK eventually agreed to contribute Rs. 20,000 and the Government agreed to give the rest — provided the Church conducted Anglican services. And so, Madras got its second Anglican Church.

During its construction, Lady Munro took a great deal of interest in the work. The Church was completed in 1828, but it was consecrated only in 1842. Ritherdon and others mentioned above are believed to have served the Church after this period.


Where was ‘The Willingdon'?

* C. Nagendra Prasad bowled me a googly the other day. He said he remembered a club called ‘The Willingdon' which had been founded by Lord Willingdon in an 187-ground property off Marshall's Road to get Europeans and Indians to meet socially on common ground. He remembers a beautiful old building where he had attended various parties and receptions. He also remembers a ladies' club on the same campus. He wonders to whom and when the whole property was sold. I was stumped by much of this and wonder whether any reader could shed any more light than the little I offer below.

In the first place, I don't see that there was any necessity for a club to get Europeans and Indians to meet each other socially, as the Cosmopolitan Club had been formed for just this purpose in 1873.

Described as “the best Indian Association in the whole of India,” it was founded “to (introduce) Europeans… to the principal residents and thereby (afford them) some insight into Indian Society.” Originally founded in Club House in Moore's Garden, Nungambakkam, the Club built its home — a handsome Classical mansion that it still uses — in the 13-ground site on Mount Road where Simpson's first carriage works used to be, and moved in, in 1882.

Indian officialdom, which found this club of the Indian elite too stuffy, went on to found the Presidency Club in 1929. With the Cosmopolitan Club around, Willingdon need not have bothered. But, he was responsible for founding Bombay's Willingdon Sports Club — often called ‘The Willingdon' — for this very purpose in 1917.

It is quite possible that Lady Willingdon encouraged the formation of the Lady Willingdon Ladies' Recreation Club in this off-Marshall's Road location during her stay here as First Lady from 1919 to 1924. I've, in the past, tried to trace the history of that club but without success. I'm not even sure whether it still exists, here or elsewhere.

I, however, do recall that it was around in the 1970s but nowhere as busy as I remember it as a child in the late 1930s when it served great teas on its lawns and I watched in wonder as ladies in nine-yard saris bounded about on its tennis courts to return the volleys of their opponents in brief, divided skirts.

As for the sale of the grounds, it was bought, I was told while trying to trace the fortunes of the Ladies' Club, by S.Rm.M. Annamalai Chettiar who was a friend of the Willingdons. Annamalai Chettiar was knighted in 1923, during Willingdon's tenure. In 1929, he was made Rajah of Chettinad. Lord Willingdon went on from Madras to become Governor General of Canada and then, in 1931, Viceroy of India, an office he held till 1936.

In the grounds that could well be called ‘Willingdon Estate' there are today several buildings belonging to the Rajah Annamalai Chettiar family and the Annamalai University, ranging from wedding halls to hostels and study centres. But when the land was bought and from whom and whether there was a ‘Willingdon Estate', I have no idea — but look forward to readers providing the answers.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 5:55:48 PM |

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