Where hot dunes turned an education hub 

G.U. Pope lived at Sawyerpuram for eight years and did missionary work

Updated - June 03, 2022 02:47 pm IST

Published - June 02, 2022 10:43 pm IST

The house where G.U. Pope lived at Sawyerpuram.

The house where G.U. Pope lived at Sawyerpuram. | Photo Credit: A. SHAIKMOHIDEEN

Watch | George Uglow Pope’s legacy at Sawyerpuram

The air was hot in the morning. A group of students were sweating it out on a sprawling football ground at the Pope’s College at Sawyerpuram in Thoothukudi. When missionary and Tamil scholar George Uglow Pope arrived here 180 years ago, the area was nothing but acres of sand dunes; for a European, it would have been a burning furnace. Driven by zeal, Pope, who later translated Tirukkural, Thiruvachagam, Naladiyar, Purananuru (selected verses) and Manimekalai (incomplete) into English, lived here for eight years and did missionary work.

“In summer, he beat the heat by placing a table and a chair in a huge well [a bath tub]. He would read and write by sitting in the water,” writes K. Meenakshisundaram, the author of The Contribution of European Scholars to Tamil.

Two huge wells constructed by Pope are still in the seminary started by him at Sawyerpuram. But they lie derelict. The bath tub used by him is also there in the Bungalow where he lived.

Sawyerpuram was created on 150 acres purchased by Samuel Sawyer, a merchant of the Portuguese East India Company.

“Sawyer transferred the area to the Society for Promotion of Christian Knowledge to create settlements for those who were persecuted after their conversion to Christianity. The land was distributed to them in 1814,” said A. Wellington Francis Prabagar, Professor of Tamil Department, Pope College.

It was Pope who created Sawyerpuram and another missionary, Robert Caldwell, in his writings referred to him as its founder. Pope, a newly wed arrived here, in 1842 when he was 22. His wife, Jane Mary Anderson, was 18. Before his arrival, he had learnt Tamil literary works from Suryanarayana Sastry, Ariyangavu Pillai and Ramanuja Kavirayar in Madras (Chennai).

“In fact, his Tamil and Sanskrit lessons had started even in England. He had spent eight hours a day reading on the ship itself. By the time he reached Chennai, he had prepared a Christian message book in Tamil,” said Mr. Prabagar, who has penned a biography of Pope with S. Jacob Rajan and Rev R. Samuel Jeyaseelan.

“You must learn not only to think in Tamil but also to feel in Tamil, if you are to be intelligible and useful among the Tamil people,” he later wrote in his preface to the Tamil translation of Thiruvachagam.

His love for Tamil is explained in a letter to J.M. Nallasami Pillai, the editor of Siddantha Deepikai, in which he had said that after his death, the inscription on his headstone should be ‘A Tamil Student’.

Pope decided to set up a seminary at Sawerpuram as there were only two of them in Tamil Nadu. The construction started in 1844, and was completed in 1846.

“Pope became the first principal of the seminary. It was the seminary that drew the world’s attention and Oxford University extended financial assistance for opening a library,” said Mr. Prabagar and others in the book. A few buildings that were part of the seminary are still in the Pope Memorial Higher Secondary School at Sawyerpuram.

Pope was a strict disciplinarian and the motto of the seminary was, ‘Read well, eat well, beat well and pray well’. He held a book in one hand and a cane in the other. He was said to have announced a reward to those who helped find students who had run away from the seminary. There were also chains to tie students to prevent them from escaping. His discipline irked many, including the missionaries.

“Dr. Pope was virtually driven out of Tinnevelly [Tirunelveli] in the midst of his usual career by the complaints of missionaries of that time, but he has never had a successor possessed of anything like that same energy and efficiency till Mr. Sharrock appeared on the scene,” wrote Caldwell.

Pope’s wife died in 1845 during the delivery of their second son and it took a heavy toll on his physical and mental health. There was also a suggestion that he could be sent to England to restore his health and mind. He left Sawyerpuram in 1849.

He came to India again in 1850, but was sent to Thanjavur and not to Sawyerpuram. In Thanjavur, he furthered his Tamil knowledge with the help of Vedanayagam Sastri. From there, he went to Udhagamandalam and later to Bangalore where he became the principal of the Bishop Cotton School.

After 42 years in India, he returned to England in 1882 and taught Tamil and Telugu at Oxford University. He delved deep into Tirukural, Manimekalai, and Thiruvachagam and translated them into English.

“I date this on my eightieth birthday. I find, by reference, that my first Tamil lesson was in 1837. This ends, as I suppose, a long life of devotion to Tamil studies. It is not without deep emotion that I thus bring to a close my life’s literary work,” he wrote in 1900, in his preface to the translation of Thiruvachagam.

James Reynold Daniel, former Principal of Scot Christian College, Nagercoil, said that in his last days, Pope was a mature Saiva Siddhanti, with his faith as ever rooted in Chiristianity.

Writing about his last sermon in 1907, he said, “In the heart of this my last sermon lie truths that harmonise with all that is best in Tiruvachagam and Siva-nyanam [Siva-gnana bodham].” He died in 1908.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.