Madras miscellany Metroplus

The Swami of Nandi Hills

The Swamiji’s temple and his tomb beneath the tin sheet in front of it. Photo: Special Arrangement  

It was at his talk on Sir Albion Banerjee that Siddharth Raja mentioned in passing that Banerjee was a batch-mate of Robert Ashe (Miscellany, July 18, 2011), the Collector of Tinnevelly who was assassinated in 1911. But I pricked up my ears when I heard that the chief conspirator had later settled in the Nandi Hills and become an ascetic. I had heard of, and even mentioned in this column before, Neelakanta Brahmachari who became Omkarnath Swami. Now I wanted to know more — even if the story was taking me some distance from Madras.

Related before has been the fact that the Brahmachari had been sentenced to seven years R.I. for his role in the murder and how one of the High Court judges, Alfred Tampoe, a Civilian of Ceylon Tamil descent, had befriended him while he was in gaol. Together they wrote an account of the underground revolutionary movement in South India. The publication earned Brahmachari a remission of his sentence. Out of gaol, the transformation of the revolutionary that had begun there became complete when his friendship with Tampoe blossomed. Neelakanta Brahmachari became the ascetic Sri Sadguru Omkar of the Nandi Hills where Tampoe visited him often to participate in intellectual discussions.

It was in 1919 that Omkar Swamy established a small ashram in the foothills of the Nandi Range, about 60 km from Bangalore. It is in a township there that Siddharth Raja now lives and commutes to Bangalore for work.

Raja writes that the ashram is now a small, rather nondescript, temple astride a rocky ridge on a small hillock. In front of the temple, sheltered by a tin sheet roof, is a simple grave coloured red with a rather stark headstone stating in Kannada: “Here lies the revolutionary who fought for Indian independence, Shri Omkar Swamiji. Death: 4th March 1978. Sultanpete.”

The temple ashram is looked after by the villagers of the area, but is kept locked most of the time. Within it is a photograph of the Swamiji taken in his later years. Siddharth Raja writes about the picture alongside: “This is the best shot I could get considering the angle through a shuttered door and the poor lighting.”

Few people today know of the Pondicherry Conspiracy that was led by Neelakanta Brahmachari and resulted in the better remembered Ashe Murder Case. But fewer people in India tend with greater care the last resting places of the ‘heroes’ of yesteryear than the villagers of Sulupet. Writes Siddharth Raja: “The whole compound here is well cared for.”

A fellow-exile of Neelakanta Brahmachari and a fellow-traveller with the revolutionaries was Subramania Bharati, certainly better remembered. Vanchinathan Aiyar who had fired the shot that killed Ashe is remembered in the name of the Maniyachi railway station and there is a memorial to Ashe in Tuticorin. To recall Brahmachari, we need to go to the sylvan Nandi Hills.

A name posing a poser

Celebrating its 300th year is St. Paul’s School in Vepery. Founding it as the Malabar Charity School (‘Malabar’ in those days being the word for ‘Tamil’), Vepery, was, according, to all reports, a German missionary called Grundler. I presume the Grundler referred to was Johann Ernst Grundler who arrived in Tranquebar in 1709 and died there in 1720. In biographical notes about him I can, however, find no mention of any time he spent in Madras or of starting a school there.

What the records say is that Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, head of the Danish Tranquebar Mission, visited Madras in 1716 and agreed to set up two charity schools there — one for the Portuguese in Fort St. George and one for the Malabars (Tamils) in Black Town. Ziegenbalg was apparently accompanied by, these records state, a fellow German, Johann Radewitz, who set up the Portuguese School. The only other trace of Radewitz I have been able to find is a Schools’ Inspector in Tranquebar of that name, but an Otto and not a Johann. The records, however, also mention Johann Grundler’s arrival in Madras to set up the schools for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. So, was Radewitz a mistaken recording for Grundler?

What is better known about Grundler is the immense work he did on Tamil, particularly Siddha, medicine and tropical herbology. This decade of research led to a treatise titled Malabar Medicus (Tamil Doctor). Details of diagnoses, dosages etc were all noted by him.

Grundler was a teacher in Halle, Germany, before he decided to become a cleric and was sent out as the third missionary of the Danish Mission, after Ziegenbalg and Plutschau. On arrival, Grundler virtually fell in love with Tamizhagam. He wrote home: “I have a great desire to live in this country… Do not make any plans about my return because… I have permanently decided to devote (my) life to the service of the mission here…” But like all the Halle missionaries the commitment to mission work became secondary to the acquisition of knowledge about the land they had come to.

To learn Tamil and more about the people he had arrived amidst, Grundler moved from Tranquebar to a nearby village, Poreiar, and began to live, eat and dress like his neighbours. He started a school for the village children. And he got down to studying indigenous medicine, both from records on palm leaves as well as through discussion with the vaidiyar-s. He translated all this into German and, together with the palm leaf bundles, sent them all to Halle.

Though, unlike Ziegenbalg, Grundler did not work on Tamil grammar and lexicology, he wrote back to Germany, “Tamil, which is the most important and literature-rich of all the Dravidian languages…, is worthy of being taught in European Universities…”

Midst all this focus on the study of Tamil and indigenous medicine in Poreiar, there is no mention of Grundler’s contribution to the charity school he was sent to start in Madras. I wonder why.

Footnote: Grundler’s medical studies owed much to the palm leaves he borrowed in the Tranquebar area, promising to return them. They, however, went to Germany and found a place in the Francke Museum in Halle. Dare we hope that they find their way back here?

When the postman knocked…

* My question on March 28 about why schools already in existence in Madras were not elevated to high school status and a new High School felt necessary had M. Solomon wondering what schools were in existence before the birth of the Government’s creation. There was the St. Andrew’s Church school in the Fort which even an educationist like Glyn Barlow thought was the fore-runner of St. Mary’s in Armenian Street and St. Patrick’s which moved to Adyar. Then there was St. Mary’s Charity School in the Fort that led to today’s St. George’s. And there was the Malabar Charity School that led to St. Paul’s in Vepery. There may even have been others with 18th Century roots (St. Andrew’s dates to the 17th Century). Why were they not elevated, is a question I have long wondered about.

* Why did the Governors of Madras give up Government House in what is now Omandurar Government Estate and move to the present Raj Bhavan, asks A. Mahajan. The last British Governor of Madras, Sir Archibald Nye, who continued into the first years of Independence, volunteered to move into what is now Raj Bhavan. It was felt that in Independent India Governors had little to do with day-to-day administration and governance and there was therefore little need to stay close to the seat of Government, that, in the case of Madras, being Fort St George.

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