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Madras miscellany: Besant-Malviya partnership

Records before cleaning  

The award of the Bharat Ratna this year was to two persons who well-deserved the honour, Atal Behari Vajapayee and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. I mention the two names that are not on my beat because the mention of Pandit Malviya reminded me of his association with Annie Besant, in her later years very much a Madras personality and an even more forceful driver of the freedom movement. Surely a posthumous award of the Bharat Ratna to her should be on a few minds? Or have the seeds she sowed in establishing the Central Hindu College, helping found the Home Rule League, and making New India a pioneering voice calling for the first steps to freedom been forgotten?

This stormy petrel, an Irishwoman from London, arrived in 1893 in Banaras and forged a friendship with Pandit Malviya and others who saw that better education was the need for “a national awakening” that would lead to freedom. To this end she started the Central Hindu College in 1898 in Banaras and had it affiliated to Allahabad University. It was an institution that also paid great attention to Hindu philosophy. Pandit Malviya was of great help to her, not least in collecting funds to allow the College to expand.

In 1907, Besant sought a Charter from the Government of India to expand the College into a university. Pandit Malviya was again a staunch supporter. But when there was no response to her plea, he began thinking of setting up a separate Hindu-oriented university. She offered the College as the nucleus of the university which Pandit Malviya began planning from 1911. In 1916, the Banaras Hindu University, managed by the Hindu University Society, opened its doors, incorporating the College. What had been the College had by 1915 become the Central Hindu School and a feeder school to BHU, which it continues to be.

While still maintaining close ties to Banaras and education, Besant moved on — into politics and Theosophy. She helped start numerous schools or colleges in different parts of India. She showed the way to women’s rights and Scouts movements. She began the Home Rule crusade in 1911 by founding the All India Home Rule League. She joined the Indian National Congress in 1914 and in 1917 was elected its President. And in New India, her voice on the steps needed to be taken towards freedom, was loud and clear — even in not agreeing with the Gandhian view.

Differences there may have been, but Gandhi and she were one when it came to a thought she expressed in New India: “So long as I can serve India, I shall continue to do so. I love the Indian people as none other.”

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The Dutch on the Coromandel

A much-appreciated New Year gift was The Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) in India — A heritage tour through Gujarat, Malabar, Coromandel and Bengal. A pictorial history by Bauke van der Pol, who has been visiting India since 1974, it focuses on the Dutch settlements in India which he has been paying special attention to from 2009. The book was released in the Tamil Nadu Archives a few months ago with the participation of the Dutch Embassy, but only passing mention was heard of the book that was released at the function. That it was released in the Archives, however, was most appropriate, for the Dutch Government had funded the digitisation and preservation of the Dutch records in the Archives — and those are virtually the entire records of the Dutch, all-India. The work started several years ago but was completed only shortly before the release of the book.

The book’s written in a chatty, tourist guide style — which in its own way is welcome. The author, having led several Dutch tourist groups to India, laces his narrative with breezy story-telling as he leads readers to the main Dutch settlements in the four parts of India where the VOC was active. Today, we follow here van der Pol on the trail on the Coromandel Coast.

In Pulicat we learn that Fort Geldria was named after Gelderland, the province from where its founder Wemberich van Berchem came and who by 1610 had the fort up-and-running. It was Pulicat textiles and saltpetre that drove the Dutch trade in spices in Ceylon and the ‘Spice Islands’ they were to make the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). In 1687 the Dutch moved their headquarters on the Coromandel Coast from Pulicat to Nagapatnam but when the latter was seized by the English in 1781, Pulicat became the Chief Settlement again till June 1, 1825 when the Dutch transferred all their settlements to the English.

From Pulicat, Vogelberg (‘Bird Mountain’, officially Tirukazhikundram) is the next stop on this trail before reaching Sadras(apatnam). Long before reaching the peak, where vultures occasionally stop to feed around noon, is a 7th Century Sivan Temple. In the temple, etched deep into its pillars, is the Dutch presence, the holiday-makers from 1662 to 1818 no different from today’s graffiti writers. The last of these writers is van Braam who began the negotiations with the British for the transfer of the Dutch possessions.

Fifteen kilometres away is Sadras Fort from where these weekenders used to come. First visited by the Dutch in 1612, the settlement began to take shape by 1654 and between 1711 and 1749 a fort rather similar to Fort Geldria was built. Walls and bastions of the fort here have not been brought down by the British as they have been in Pulicat. The cemetery here is also in much better shape.

On to Porto Novo, a trading post from 1608 till 1780 when the Dutch began winding it down before its transfer to the British in 1825. There remain here today only two Dutch tombstone-covered graves. There are many more in Nagapatnam, which the Dutch captured from the Portuguese in 1658. The Portuguese fort there was reconstructed as a smaller fort by the Dutch and called the Vijf Sinnen Fort. The old Dutch graveyard, an ASI-protected site, restored after the tsunami, and the unkempt new cemetery of St. Peter’s Church probably have the largest number of Dutch tombstones on this coast. The church itself was first raised in 1774 but rebuilt in recent times. It however contains several relics of the Dutch era, not least evidence of a connection with a school for ‘Eurasians’, undoubtedly Indo-Dutch students. The Dutch connection in the Anglo-Indian community is hardly recognised today.

van der Pol’s final destination is on the Fisheries Coast, Tuticorin, also captured from the Portuguese in 1658. Nearby Punyakayal, Kayalpatnam and Manappad, however, were earlier Dutch trading posts. All of them came under the Dutch Governor of Ceylon and not Pulicat or Nagapatnam. The 1750 Dutch church, now called, in somewhat restored form, the Holy Trinity Church, a Dutch warehouse now used by the Customs, and vestiges of gravestones in the Dutch cemetery brought van der Pol’s journey on India’s southeastern coast to an end.

Perhaps a study of the book will give Tamil Nadu Tourism thought to develop a tourist trail targeting the Dutch. After all, the places van der Pol visited have much more heritage sites than only Dutch ones — and most importantly they have beaches. For years I have been talking of a Europe-focused trail comprising Pulicat, Madras, Pondicherry, Tranquebar, Nagapatnam and Tuticorin. Perhaps a more focused Dutch trail will be quicker to get off the ground, especially because the Dutch Embassy has shown interest in this part of India.

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The Norton role

My reference to that leading lawyer Eardley Norton owning Dunmore House ( >Miscellany, December 15) had a reader reminding me that he was this paper’s first columnist. His ‘Olla Podrida’, which he wrote under the nom-de-guerre ‘Sentinel’, first appeared on April 1, 1889. Its sly digs at local European and Indian society proved too much for one of the owners of the paper, M. Veeraraghavachariar, and the column came to an early end. Veeraraghavachariar’s attitude towards Norton during these years was one of the reasons for his falling out with his fellow-owner and Editor, G. Subramania Aiyer, a close friend of Norton and a supporter of his political ambitions. That friendship had begun when the paper had made some comments against the Coroner of Madras, Norton at the time, and he had sued the paper, the first-ever defamation case against the paper. When Subramania Aiyer as Editor apologised, a warm friendship was born. But it was to lead, to some extent, to the parting of the ways between Veeraraghavachariar and Subramania Aiyer. The last straw was when Veeraraghavachariar wrote a letter to the paper — which it published under his name — stating that Norton was not a fit candidate for a Corporation seat he was contesting. When Norton won, the Editor wrote an item congratulating him!

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 8:47:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/madras-miscellany/article6799290.ece

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