From the first two to tomorrow's

C.W. Thamotharampillai  


The University of Madras has made a welcome move in agreeing to start degree classes in the camps for the internally displaced in Sri Lanka's north. It is to be hoped that Sri Lanka will give permission for this educational measure sooner than later. Apart from seeing this offer of free higher education to a deprived people as a most generous one, this column sees it, as is its wont, in a historic context. The first two graduates of the University of Madras were from Jaffna, C.W. Thamotharampillai and D.C.W. Visuvanathapillai, both sent up by the American Mission's Batticotta Seminary, Vaddukoddai near Jaffna, now known as Jaffna College. They received their B.A. degrees in 1858, both with Second Classes, but with Thamotharampillai securing higher marks he was placed first and is recognised as the first graduate of the University.

Thamotharampillai stayed on in India and in due course became a Judge and a well-known figure in the world of Tamil letters. While at the Seminary (a description to be taken in the secular sense), he had been taught by Visuvanathapillai who had joined the institution as an instructor in mathematics after finishing the higher education course it offered, which might be described as the old ‘Intermediate', or F.A. (First in Arts). Visuvanathapillai, while studying at the Seminary, became a Christian and took the name Daniel Caroll Vyramuttu (his father's name) Visuvanathapillai. At the Seminary, he studied English, Tamil, Sanskrit, Mathematics, Logic, Astronomy and Saiva Siddhanta philosophy. While at Vaddukoddai, he wrote the first book in Tamil in Ceylon on Algebra — Visa Kanitham. He also edited a journal on Astronomy.

When the American missionaries in 1841 started an English-cum-Tamil newspaper called The Morning Star, he began contributing to it and in a couple of years became its Editor, a post he held till he came to Madras in 1857 to complete that long-awaited degree. It was after his return from Ma that he got into a heated debate, in written and spoken word, with C. Arumukam, later renowned as Arumuga Navalar, over Lord Subramania and Saivism.

By 1870, however, Visuvanathapillai had second thoughts on what he had written and wrote a rebuttal of his own book. He also visited Chidambaram, where he did penance in repentance for the vituperative words he had used against Navalar and returned to Jaffna as a Saivite and a follower of Navalar. This led to Arumuga Navalar getting him associated with Myron Winslow on his Tamil-English dictionary. With Arumuga Navalar ailing, Visuvanathapillai took over many of his speaking arrangements and proved an orator of merit.

Visuvanathapillai passed away in 1880, just a year after Arumuga Navalar. He was one of the several Tamil scholars in 19th Century Jaffna who kept close contact with Madras, spending much time in the Province interacting with Tamil scholars.

A rather different case was that of Chirupitty Wairawanathar Thamotharampillai who registered himself under that name when he arrived at the University of Madras in 1857. No one in India knew he had been baptised Charles Winslow Kingsbury, though known to all at home as Thamotharam. Visuvanathapillai and others kept mum about Thamotharampillai being the son of one of the first converts of the American Mission, Cyrus Kingsbury, a pastor. Thamotharampillai's kinsmen in recent years included the late Neelan Tiruchelvam and that other peace activist, Ranjan Hoole.

It is said that his interest in Sangam literature made Thamotharampillai change his name so that he would have no problems in accessing the original palm-leaf manuscripts in the various maths. This access in later years was to make him a significant figure in the resurrection of that literature.

Thamotharampillai, after graduation, joined the Madras Government Service as an auditor, then qualified as a lawyer, getting his law degree in 1871, and switched to the Pudukottai principality's legal service where he retired as a judge of the State's High Court in 1890. During his judicial tenure, he received the Rao Bahadur title, and as the State's Chief Justice served as Regent. In retirement, he was able to concentrate fully on the restoration of the olai manuscripts.

Of Thamotharampillai's contribution to the field of Sangam literature, Tiru Vi Ka wrote: “The credit for editing and publishing much of Sangam literature and the five great epics — Sivagachinthamani, Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Valayaapathi and Kundalakesi — goes to U.V. Swaminatha Aiyar. In this endeavour, it has been rightly observed that Arumuga Navalar laid the foundation. Thamotharampillai raised the walls and Swaminatha Aiyar built the superstructure.”

The least known of them today is Kingsbury-Thamotharampillai.