‘Maruthanayagam’ and Yusuf Khan

March 12, 2018 12:49 pm | Updated 01:33 pm IST

A researcher at the Adyar Library and Research Centre chatting the other day about it, marvelled how it had grown over a thousand-fold since the first books were placed in it in December 1886. The Theosophical Society’s library, started by one of the Society’s founders, Col Henry Olcott, began with 200 books in 24 languages, most of them his, but a few, including the first, from co-founder Mme. Blavatsky’s collection. That first book in what Olcott called “that child of my brain, that hope of my heart”, was Isis Unlimited , Blavatsky herself the author.

Today, a University of Madras centre for postgraduate research in Sanskrit and Indology, it has over 2,00,000 books and 20,000 palm-leaf and parchment manuscripts, with collections in almost every Asian language on subjects ranging from civilisations and philosophy to religion and mysticism. There are holdings in the library from translations and research on the Upanishads to The Lord’s Prayer in about 200 languages to a collection of detective novels gifted by former President GS Arundale.


Olcott was President of the Society when he started the Library and his dream was that “with the combined labour of the Eastern and Western scholars we hope to bring to light and publish much valuable knowledge now stored away in Eastern languages… still beyond the reach of the thousands of earnest students who are only familiar with the Greek and Latin Classics and their European derivatives.” And that the Library has certainly done! Especially with its Vasantha Press, started by another President, Annie Besant, its name deriving from the Sanskritised ‘Besant’.

 Col. Olcott with Madam Blavatsky; The Adyar Library and Research Centre with Col. Olcott’s bust facing it; Chandran Devanesan's grandfather M.L. Pillai and his daughter Thaiammal -- Chandran Devanesan's mother

Col. Olcott with Madam Blavatsky; The Adyar Library and Research Centre with Col. Olcott’s bust facing it; Chandran Devanesan's grandfather M.L. Pillai and his daughter Thaiammal -- Chandran Devanesan's mother

Given its roots, few associate the Library with a significant collection on 20th Century affairs, particularly the Freedom Struggle as spelt out in New India , the daily, and Commonweal , the weekly Besant edited. This is further strengthened with her political library, her press clippings, her wealth of Home Rule publications.

Listing the library’s best holdings can keep you going almost ad infinitum, but one must stop somewhere. And that’s with Olcott’s diaries and the tales they tell in some of them on his role in the Buddhist Revival in Ceylon – now taking a sad, sad turn towards bigotry.

Maruthanayagam and Yusuf Khan

I am truly floored by a letter I received after last week’s item on the Khan Sahib . I am sure there will be many others as flabbergasted by the letter I publish in its entirety below.

The letter is from Dr Dayalan Devanesen, the son of Dr Chandran Devanesen of Madras Christian College renown. But I need much more convincing that after 300 years of history the Devanesen family can irrefutably claim lineage from a Maduranayagam (sic) who is the same as Yusuf Khan. Dayalan Devanesen writes:

“Khan Sahib is actually a great, great, great grandfather of my father. The son he bore from the Portuguese Christian girl Maza or Marcia was named Srinivasagam. My father’s middle name is Srinivasagam! Chandran David Srinivasagam Devanesen. The name Srinivasagam is still carried by many of my relatives on my father’s side. The great lawyer ML Pillai (in picture) is a descendant of Maduranayagam (sic) and my father’s mother Thaiammal is his daughter.

“By an amazing coincidence you also wrote about Manohar Devadoss to follow up your article on Khan Sahib. Manohar is also a descendant of Maduranayagam and related to me.

“One of our family members has done a lot of research on Khan Sahib and traced the whole family tree. I could put him in touch with you. Maduranayagam and Yusuf Khan are the same person.”

I am quite prepared to accept that there was a Hindu or Christian family called Maduranayagam in the Pandya country (if Christian, very likely converted by Rev Friedrich Christian Schwartz), but how and why and when did he become Khan Sahib? There are no answers to that; local tradition, even when retailed by officials, provides no answers to the five Ws and the How.

Even more curious is that Yusuf Khan’s wife Maza (very plausibly Marcia) brought her son up as a Hindu or Christian, when her husband was buried as a Muslim in the Samattipuram dargah . That the tomb bears the name Maruthanayagam is a bit of renovation of tomb and dargah/pallivasal, after they started a revival of the legendary hero’s memory when talk of an epic film began.

And that brings me to my final question. When the film-to-be was so publicised, why didn’t the Devanesen family’s claim to kinship emerge at that time?

I – and many more I am sure – will need far more solid evidence of the Devanesen family’s kinship with Maduranayagam and Maruthanayagam and Yusuf Khan of the mid-18th Century if all are one and the same person.

Incidentally, Dr Chandran Devanesen in a memoir of his boyhood does not make this claim. He speaks of a grandmother who belonged to the family of the Tamil Christian poet, Vedanayagam Shastriar.

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes from today

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