The woman who fed hundreds during the Madras famine

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into limelight the selfless service of several men and women, who are feeding the abandoned and homeless to ensure their sustenance. Stories of such noble souls who fed the underprivileged during crises are not new to Madurai.

One such person who fed hundreds of people during the famine of 1876- 1878, which struck the then Madras State, was a devadasi. A detailed account of her service finds mention in Kaval Kottam, the Sahitya Akademi winning novel by Su. Venkatesan, who is also the Madurai MP. Since there is no record of her name, despite the then Collector acknowledging her philanthropy, Mr. Venkatesan gave her the name Kunjarathammal. She had huge wealth and owned two big bungalows at North Aavani Moola Street.

It was during the second week of the famine when Kunjarathammal was moved by the sight of hundreds of people starving and dying due to the famine. So, she started preparing porridge at her home to feed the poor.

“The news of her distributing porridge spread like wildfire across the town. Initially, around 20 people lined up in front of her residence. Soon, the numbers grew and crowds swelled at North Aavani Moola Street,” said Mr. Venkatesan.

It was a haunting image to look at hundreds of emaciated people lined up in front of her bungalow. With protruding bones, these hunger-stricken people stood in long queues, along with their children. For those who wanted to outlive the starvation, North Avani Moola Street was their only option. The demand for her porridge reached unimaginable levels. But, this did not affect Kunjarathammal who continued cooking with firewood to feed the poor.

It was only during the sixth week of the famine when the Collector inaugurated the distribution of porridge to the people. This helped in reducing the crowd in front of Kunjarathammal’s residence to an extent.

“However, the Collector took advantage of the situation. Those who were fed by the administration, were in return asked to work for laying railway track between Madurai and Thoothukudi. Hundreds of these people toiled through day and night to have a cup of porridge,” added Mr. Venkatesan.

In contrast, Kunjarathammal continued to feed hundreds everyday without expecting any returns. She sold her valuables including gold and silver jewellery, so that she could continue feeding the poor.

Following the cries of the people urging her to continue nourishing them, Kunjarathammal sold her two bungalows. She finally settled at a small tiled house behind her bungalow.

Two months after the end of the famine the health of Kunjarathammal started deteriorating and she died. As the news spread, hundreds thronged her small residence, such that the North Aavani Moola Street was swelled with people. For all these people Kunjarathammal’s death was an irreparable loss.

“According to the Collector’s record, the crowd which was witnessed during this incident was the highest gathering of the people in Madurai, barring temple festivals,” said the MP.

“She was like a mother to all those people who were hunger-stricken during the famine,” said Mr. Venkatesan.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 2:56:22 AM |

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