Three surveyors who contributed to our knowledge of India

December 17, 2016 06:14 pm | Updated 08:52 pm IST

Colin Mackenzie

Colin Mackenzie

The Madras Literary Society, now busy trying to revive itself, is offering a series of monthly talks on historical and literary subjects. The most recent one was on three persons who, starting out from Madras, contributed significantly to our knowledge of India — namely, Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, William Lambton and Colin Mackenzie. I call them pioneering ‘surveyors’ because their work led to the Botanical and Zoological Surveys of India, the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India and the Survey of India. Leading from the talk, a story or two about each of the ‘surveyors’ found its way to me.

Dr. Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, generally known as Buchanan, began his assignment in South India after the final Mysore War with the mandate to gather botanical, agricultural and zoological information as well as knowledge about the soil and natural resources found in the area of his first survey. One of the things he ‘discovered’, I was told, was laterite in what is now Kerala. Buchanan called it “indurate clay” or “iron clay” and said this soft red soil which hardened on exposure to air and heat was ideal for building purposes, something long known in the area but first recorded for a wider audience, and given a name by him.

The mention of this ‘discovery’ was made in the context of a story related about another ‘discovery’, that of a monument to Buchanan and his ‘find’ in Angadipuram (near Malappuram) in Kerala where he first spotted the material. The monument, one of the 26 National Geological Monuments in the country, has inscriptions in English, Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil describing the material, and recalls Buchanan. The monument was recently ‘found’ while clearing the overgrown garden of the Government Rest House in Angadipuram.

The laterite-Buchanan monument in Anganwadipuram

The laterite-Buchanan monument in Anganwadipuram


Next came a question about William Lambton, ‘the Father of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India’ that led to the map of the India we know. It came with a picture of a bas relief/sculpture I was familiar with — a representation of a hat-wearing European on the Thanjavur Big Temple. The question followed a story about Lambton seeking peaks to place his half-ton theodolite on to take his measurements and, not finding a peak in the flat Tanjore country, taking it up to the top of temple gopurams in the area. But, when it was lifted up to the top of the Brihadeswarar Temple, it fell, damaging some of the sculptures on the gopuram. When the sculptures were repaired, was the European face introduced in memory of Lambton, was the question.

I hadn’t the faintest idea, but an answer suggested to me was that it was more likely to be that of the Rev. Christian Schwartz, who was close to the Tanjore Royal Family and even had been given permission to build a church near the Big Temple.

As for Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Engineers, I heard again the twice-told story of Wellesley who became Wellington. Being such a bad soldier, he, in the vanguard of his regiment on the way to the last Mysore War, lost his way, and Mackenzie, who was accompanying the regiment, had to search and lead him back on to the correct track. Whether it was because of this or not, Mackenzie was asked to lead the topographical survey of South India by Wellesley, who was put in charge of Mysore by his brother, the Governor-General, Lord Mornington.

The great job Mackenzie did with the survey led to him being appointed the first Surveyor-General of India, mandated with creating a Survey of India office. out of a department. These first offices were in Calcutta, before Everest moved it to Dehra Dun, where he had house and property. The methods and systems Mackenzie introduced remained in place till the modern era of satellite surveying came in — but still have their uses in some places. Few remember Mackenzie for his contribution to surveying and mapping India; most remember him for the 11,000 documents of the Mackenzie collection that are the nucleus of the Oriental Manuscripts Library in Madras.


On the trail of Manucci

I’ve at last been able to put a name to the Italian who was on the trail of Manucci (Miscellany, November 28). He is a Paris-based photographer who, at one time, used to visit Madras from time to time. But he, Antonio Martinelli, tells me, he as contacting me not on his behalf but on behalf of someone he is working with, Marco Moneta of Milan who is writing the book on Niccolao Manucci, that 18th Century resident of Madras.

Better informed than me about Manucci, they tell me that from the late 1690s to 1709, he owned a “palatial” house in St. Thomas’ Mount. They think it must have been “palatial” because he hosted Daud Khan there. But with no date mentioned by them, I wonder whether it was before or after Daud Khan became the Nawab of the Carnatic. Also, from what I’ve read of Daud Khan’s visits and sabre-rattling occasions, he seems to have spent time in San Thomé not the Mount. Be that as it may, if there was a ‘palace’ in St. Thomas Mount, as described by a Carmelite priest who wrote that he visited Manucci there, where was it?

The house in St. Thomas’ Mount, I am told, had two gardens, in one of which Manucci grew herbs and plants for his ayurvedic-allopathic medical practice. After he sold this house to a Frenchman, Pierre Andree Prevostiere in July 1709 (possibly in an exchange of properties), Manucci moved to Pondicherry till he was granted a house by the East India Company in Madras in 1712, for services rendered. Presumably for being a bridge with the Nawab.

Recorded better is the house in Black Town, whose lease he inherited from his wife Elizabeth, the widow of Thomas Clarke.

 William Lambton and the European on the Big Temple gopuram in Thanjavur.

William Lambton and the European on the Big Temple gopuram in Thanjavur.


This was granted to him on perpetual lease by the Council of Madras on January 14, 1712. He lived there till at least 1719, according to the researchers who say they have found his last testament (“impossible to read because the paper is disintegrating”) that was written in Madras.

But going on to the matter of most concern to Antonio and Marco, when and where did Manucci die and where was he buried, I don’t think an answer is likely to be found. The earliest Catholic church in Madras was St. Andrew’s in the Fort (1642) run by the French Capuchins. The church had a cemetery in its precincts but when both were razed in 1749 — for its priests allegedly cooperating with the French during the Occupation — both tombstones and records are likely to have been reduced to dust. The second Capuchin church was built in 1658 on what is now Armenian Street by the side of a second Capuchin cemetery. By its side was built a Portuguese Church a little earlier with its own cemetery. Both were razed in due course to make way for what is now St. Mary’s co-cathedral. Manucci, who moved with the elite of Madras, is unlikely to have worshipped in either of these churches meant for poor whites, the Portuguese, and the Eurasians.

There may be the faintest of chances that the Portuguese church records of the 16th and 17th Centuries have survived and could be found in the Diocese’s archives in San Thomé, but certainly not the Capuchin records. The Capuchins, who listened only to the diktats of their Order, were at odds with the Portuguese Catholics who listened only to what Rome decreed. Their records are hardly likely to be saved by a diocese owing allegiance to Rome.

Living and learning

We live and learn every day. Trite, but it’s something that struck me the other day when flipping through Meera Raghavendra Rao’s new book, Madhwas of Madras . Two-thirds of the book is a listing of prominent members of the community and I’ll come to them in a minute. But one name that caught my eye was that of R. Balaji Rao whom I had mentioned in Miscellany on December 5. I’d said at the time that he was a Maharashtrian and, so, now wondered what he was doing in this book. I’d always thought that Madhwas were from South Kanara, the Udupi area. Bu,t I was set right by the book which related the spread of Madhwacharya’s philosophy, dating to the 13th Century, by his disciples in North Kanara and southern Maharashtra. Writes Meera, “Marathas annexed Tanjore from the Naiks and it was with them for the next 200 years. With the result a lot of Maharashtrians converted as Madhwas.” There are also Tamil- and Telugu-origin Madhwa Brahmins, she adds.

Among the many eminent Madras Madhwas she lists are these 10:

• Prof B. Hanumantha Rau, the first graduate from the Kumbakonam Government College who went on to become the first President of the Indian Mathematical Society.

• Dr. M.A. Govinda Rau, who pioneered the field of Chemical Engineering in India and went on to become the first Director of A.C. College of Technology.

• Dr. S.S. Badrinath, founder of one of the largest eyecare facilities in the country.

• Dr. U. Mohan Rau, the youngest FRCS in the country.

• C.S. Krishnaswamy Rao Sahib, who served as Cabinet Secretary and recommended the Integrated Guided Missile Programme.

• N. Vittal who played key roles in the Information Technology and Telecommunication sectors in their nascent stages and was a much-lauded Central Vigilance Commissioner.

• Kandadale Krishna Rao who made Udupi cuisine world-famous and whose Woodlands hotels started the first drive-in restaurant in India.

• K. Seetharama Rao, founder of the Dasaprakash Group, who made the dosa legendary.

• N.S. Bhat, first Indian head of one of the earliest British business houses in the country, Binny & Co.

• N. Subba Rao Pantulu, one of the founders of The Hindu , later a member of the Imperial Legislative Council and a general secretary of the Indian National Congress.

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