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Madras miscellany

March 31, 2013 07:33 pm | Updated 07:33 pm IST

Elihu Yale with his son-in-law-to-be James Cavendish.

Elihu Yale with his son-in-law-to-be James Cavendish.

The Charter of Rajendra Chola

A reader from abroad sends me information about a Chola treasure held by the Leiden University Library in Holland and tells me that visitors to Europe this summer might like to view it at the Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden, where it will be on display till June 30. This remarkable holding is the ‘Charter’ of King Rajendra Chola I (r.1012-1042 C.E.)

How this invaluable ‘document’ got to Holland is a story I would like to hear one day. But today’s story is a description of it sent by my correspondent who says it is unique from the point of view of “weight, form and material.” The ‘Charter’ has been meticulously engraved on 21 copper plates and they are held together by “a massive bronze ring…that has been closed with the impressive seal of the King…” The exhibit weighs 30 kg!

The text scribed on the copper plates is in Sanskrit and Tamil. The use of Sanskrit might disappoint Tamil purists just as the lineage of the Chola dynasty which the language records might those who have no time for the Gods. In drawing up the family tree of the Chola dynasty, the Sanskrit text attributes its beginnings to Lord Vishnu! The Tamil text, on the other hand, raises no questions. It begins with a narration of the achievements and good deeds of Rajendra Chola’s father, Rajaraja Chola I (r. 985-1012 C.E.). Included in this is a story related in this column some time ago (Miscellany, February 6, February 13, and March 12, 2012). That story related how Rajaraja Chola donated the revenue of a whole village to the pagoda he had permitted a Buddhist king of Sri Vijaya (Sumatra and peninsular Malaya) to build in Nagapattinam, a port Sri Vijayan sailors regularly visited.

Rajendra Chola’s relationship with Sri Vijaya was, on the other hand, much more stormy. In 1025, his fleet captured several ports of Sri Vijaya and its capital (where Palembang in Sumatra is today) and, after sailing further east, returned to Chola Nadu laden with booty. This is only one of the many treasures that the Leiden University Library has from South and Southeast Asia. The Leiden University, taking its name from the town in which it is, is one of the oldest universities in the world, having been established in 1575. It is an institution that should not be confused with another collection with a similar sounding name that we have in our Oriental Manuscripts Library. The Madras collection takes its name from the rather differently spelt ‘Leyden.’ The Madras collection belonged to Dr. John Leyden, who served in Madras (1803-1811) and focussed on Mysore as well as Tamil, Telugu and Kannada (Miscellany, January 21, 2008).


The Bingham connection

I recently came across a cutting that I had put away last year meaning to write something on it, but then got overtaken by other recollections. When I looked at it again the other day, I noted that it was still about 100 years ago that the story in the clipping had its beginnings. And as I relate it below, I wouldn't be surprised if all my readers wondered what on earth it had to do with Madras. Patience …

It was on July 24, 1911, that an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, came upon Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca citadel dated to around the mid-15th Century. Bingham later returned to this wonderland in Peru, leading two expeditions, one in 1912 and the other in 1915. The expeditions resulted in Bingham shipping back to his alma mater, Yale University - temporarily, he said - tens of thousands of ceramic and stone fragments from what had become one of the world’s major archaeological sites. After an agreement was signed by Yale University and the Peruvian Government in 2010, all the Machu Picchu holdings that Yale had long held, were shipped back to Peru in three lots, in 2011-2012, each consignment comprising over 100 boxes. The agreement was the culmination of an international law suit and an international campaign that archaeological treasures should be returned to the source country.

Now, what has all this got to do with Madras? The easy - and obvious - answer is the Yale connection, the university getting its name from Elihu Yale, one of the early Governors of Madras. The little known answer is that the only full-length biography of Elihu Yale that I have come across was written by Bingham and was published in 1939. Bingham himself says in his Preface, “While every historian of Yale College has given a few pages or paragraphs to the life of the patron saint, and Yale’s chief historiographer, the late Franklin B. Dexter, published a twenty page essay on Governor Yale, the twenty-seven years Elihu spent in India has been referred to as ‘the obscure portion’ of his life. Yet that occupies three-quarters of my text.”

That text was the result of a long search about which Bingham wrote, “Before the War (the Great War) it was exciting to go and find behind the ranges of the Andes, the white temples of Machu Picchu and the palace of the Last of the Incas. Recently, it has been just as exciting to find behind the ranges of monumental archives in the India Office in London a journal kept by Elihu Yale in southern India and hundreds of his letters and minutes; to find…in the musty files of the little newspapers of the time of George I, scores of notices of the forty days of auction sales of the incredible “collection of Elihu Yale, Esq., (late Governor of Fort St. George)” with its hundreds of paintings, including examples of Rembrandt, Van Dyke…; to locate in the heart of England a charming family portrait of the great Nabob enjoying a pipe and a glass of Madeira with his son-in-law (-to-be), Lord James Cavendish, and the Duke of Devonshire; to discover in a quiet churchyard in the lovely valley of the Char the last resting place of his ‘Wicked wife’; and finally to find a copy of his will, hidden away in the Minutes of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.”

The Yale Collection which Bingham, a millionaire himself, lists with some awe, comprised more than 10,000 items that were auctioned in 3600 lots at seven sales held over 40 days! It included about 8,000 paintings and, in the words of Bingham, “it is fair to say that the Nabob of Queen Square had one of the most extraordinary private collections of works of art that has ever been seen in England.” All that paid for it came from the money Yale made in Madras, particularly in the diamond trade.


When the postman knocked…

Several readers have taken me to task for using too small the map with last week's column. “Your focus was on the streets of Fort St George, but we couldn’t read a single street name in the map you published with the item in response to my query,” says a rather annoyed M. Subburaman, who had got me started on the subject with his inquiry. “I hope it will be published again, big enough so we can read the street names,” he adds, echoing the view of several others. I hope The Hindu obliges, is all I can say.

A former planter, K.V.S. Krishna, reacting to my introductory line to the tea story last week, wherein I had mentioned that environmentalists felt that forest cover had been sacrificed for plantation crops, writes that quite a number of environmentalists are not likely to know several salient facts about plantation crops. He points out that while Indian forests absorb two tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year, plantation crops “like tea, rubber, coffee and coconuts” absorb more than 30 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year. In fact, he says, there are reports from Africa that one hectare of tea absorbs as much as 69.35 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year! He goes on to add a couple of bits of more technical information: “Tea plants release 69.5 per cent of carbon dioxide as oxygen into the atmosphere, improving the atmosphere much more than forests do. One kg of biomass absorbs 1.45 kg of carbon dioxide.” Shorn of the jargon, it would appear that reader Krishna feels that the plantations have done more for the environment than our forests.

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