Constantine Joseph Beschi, a missionary, Tamil scholar, and Chanda Sahib’s Dewan

The Nawab of the Carnatic also gifted the Italian Jesuit, known as Veeramamunivar, four villages in Tiruchi district, which yielded a revenue of ₹12,000 a year. He also conferred on him the surname, Ismattee Sannyasi, indicating his excellence as a religious devotee, and presented him with a palanquin used by his grandfather

November 14, 2023 10:43 pm | Updated November 15, 2023 03:19 am IST

Many roles: When Chanda Sahib was arrested after the Maratha army besieged Tiruchi, Veeramamunivar went to Manapadu and died there in 1742.

Many roles: When Chanda Sahib was arrested after the Maratha army besieged Tiruchi, Veeramamunivar went to Manapadu and died there in 1742.

The Jesuits, or members of the Society of Jesus, are driven by the motto: “Walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice”. But Constantine Joseph Beschi, the Italian Jesuit missionary and Tamil scholar, known as Veeramamunivar, had also maintained a close friendship with Chanda Sahib, the Nawab of the Carnatic. He had even acted as his Dewan.

While views differ on the subject, the first biography of Veeramamunivar in Tamil written by A. Muttusami Pillei, manager of the College of Fort Saint George and Moonshee (secretary) to the Tamil Translator to Government, confirms the friendship. Though Muttusami Pillei had begun his work on the biography in 1822, it was published only in 1843, three years after he died.

“On his [Veeramamunivar] first visit, Chundah Saib conferred on him the surname, Ismattee Sannyasi, indicating his excellence as a religious devotee, and presented him with a palankeen [palanquin] inlaid with ivory, in which his grandfather, Sadoolah Khan, used to write,” according to the book, of which English translation was released by Emerald Publishers recently.

The book has been compiled by K. Subashini and Anand Amaladass, two scholars on Veeramamunivar and his works.

Chanda Sahib also gifted Veeramamunivar four villages — Bokalur, Malwav, Arasur and Nullur — north of the Kollidam in Tiruchi district, yielding a net revenue of ₹12,000 a year. He also appointed him to the office of Dewan.

Pomp and pageantry

“Whilst in that office, he retained the habit of a religious devotee, and on his circuits assumed all the pomp and pageantry with which Hindoo gurus usually travel, along with the civil Mahomedan honours, such as cheddars, horsemen. drums, fifes, caparisoned state horses, hurcarrahs, daloyets, nowbut, tents, etc,” writes Muttusami Pillei, who made a field visit before writing the biography.

The book, he said, was commissioned by British officials Benjamin Guy Babington, who possessed an extensive and profound knowledge of Sanskrit, and Richard Clarke, skilled in the dialects of Tamil language and a distinguished faculty member of the Madras College. He has also acknowledged the help from F.W. Ellis, the British civil servant and a scholar in Tamil and Sanskrit, who had classified Dravidian Languages as a separate family of languages even before Robert Caldwell.

In writing the biography, Muttusami Pillei made use of manuscripts and oral narrations collected by Viduvan Saminada Pillai about Veeramamunivar, who arrived in Goa in 1700. As their missionary work demanded a thorough knowledge of the language of the area where they were assigned, Veeramamunivar also studied Sanskrit, Telugu, and Tamil assiduously and became a master of these languages, especially Tamil. Thembavani, Sathurakarathi and other works speak for his scholarship in Tamil. He was known as Thairiyanathaswamy and its translation reads as Veeramamunivar.

From the time of his arrival, Veeramamunivar abstained from the “use of flesh and fish” and employed two Tamil youths to dress his food according to the Hindu custom, partaking of it only once in a day. He dressed like a Hindu sanyasi and travelled in a palanquin with a tiger skin to sit upon. “Two persons attended on either side of the palankeen to fan him, a third person carried a purple silk umbrella, surmounted with a golden ball, whilst two others carrying a bunch of peacock feathers proceeded in front, and whenever he alighted from the palankeen, he sat down upon the tiger’s skin,” writes Muttusami Pillei.

Claim disputed

Though Léon Besse, a French Jesuit and the author of Father Beschi of the Society of Jesus: His Times & His Writings, disputes Muttusami Pillei’s claim on the friendship between Chanda Sahib and Veeramamunivar, Fr. Amaladass, who has edited the book with Ms. Subashini, says the version of Muttusami Pillei was true. It should be viewed from the political and social circumstances of the time when Veeramamunivar was doing his missionary work at Elakurichi in Tiruchi.

German missionary Johannes Walter also confirms Veeramamuniver’s friendship with Chanda Sahib in his letters. “Veeramamunivar considered Chanda Sahib as the ruler of the banks of the Cauvery. As per the guidelines of the missionary works of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), he found Chanda Sahib a good source for his work. It was the general belief of the Jesuits that the support of the king would make the missionary work smooth,” says Fr. Amaladass.

To reiterate his point, Fr. Amaladass has recalled a similar relationship between Roberto de Nobili, another Italian Jesuit, and Hema Chetti, a Telugu nobleman. Through him, he received favours from the Nayak rulers. The Marudu brothers, the rulers of Sivaganga, donated land to James Rossy, a Jesuit, and a copper plate confirms the gift.

Even though he was engaged in state affairs, Veeramamunivar continued his study of the Hindu sciences and the composition of several useful works. His principal efforts were directed towards the conversion of the Idolaters. He delved deep into Tirukkural, Naladiyar, Civaka Cintamani, and other celebrated Hindu works.

According to Muttusami Pillei, Veeramamunivar held the office of Dewan in Tiruchi till 1740. When Chanda Sahib was arrested and made a prisoner after Tiruchi was besieged by the Maratha army under Nather Singh, Veeramamunivar went to Manapadu and remained there in the service of the church and died in 1742.

Murmur among missionaries

Even during his time, Veeramamunivar’s way of life had caused a murmur among other missionaries. Muttusami Pillei explains that “men of sense will at once perceive that the Jesuits did not display such worldly splendour to improve their income, or to enable them to support their families, for family they had none, and therefore no one can say that they took pains for such purposes, but purely with a view to getting the people of the country to embrace the Christian religion.”

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