Honouring the Kurinji

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Lady Ramanathan  

It was in 1820 that the first American missionaries came to South Asia, establishing a mission in Ceylon. In the 1830s they moved to Madras before moving into the Arcots and Madura, establishing in one, in due course, a hospital now with an international reputation, and American College, another outstanding institution, in the other. But with the heat of Jaffna, Madura and Vellore rather overwhelming them, six weeks in the hills is what they sought. Ooty of the British was too snooty for them. Sirumalai near Madurai was not cool enough to prevent the toll of summer heat and the diseases it brought with it. Then they ‘discovered’ Kodaikanal, raising in 1845 the first two houses there, Sunnyside and Shelton . And so South India got its second hill station, a less formal one for the times. Telling that story and detailing Kodaikanal is an eponymously titled book compiled by INTACH Kodaikanal, with Pradeep Chakravarthy, Anil Choudhury, Jayashree Kumar, Girija Viraraghavan and a host of photographers playing leading roles.

With Pradeep involved, it is no surprise that we go to ‘Kodai’s’ beginnings in inscriptions and beyond, the Mahabharata . During the Pandava-Kaurava battles, Arjuna decided to take a break and headed for the Palani Hills. There, he laid down his bow and arrows in a forest and took a nap — and Vil(bow)patti village, gateway to Kodai, was born. And when the Pandavas and Kauravas gambled at dice, it was at Dolphin’s Nose aka Joothadumparai (joothum = dice, adum=playing, parai=rock). Fortunately for me there was much of the present in the pages that followed, particularly the stories of houses and institutions. And when I came to the Kurinji Andavar temple, a long forgotten connection suddenly dawned on me.

The temple was built as the Sri Kurinji Easware temple in 1936 by Lady Ramanathan. Now, Lady Ramanathan was an Englishwoman who was born in Australia where her father was into gold mining. All references to her maiden name record her only as R.L. Harrison. She, as a young woman, had been attracted by the Theosophical Movement in Australia and, searching for further spiritual enlightenment, arrived in Ceylon where Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan became her guru.

Ramanathan, an outstanding personality in South Asian history, was a leading advocate in the Island who was honoured by the Inns of Court with the rare distinction of ‘ Barrister honoris causa ’, worthy of being called a barrister despite not having sat for any exams of Inns of Court dinners in England. He went on to become, in 1879, the youngest nominee, at 28, to the Ceylon legislature, representing the Tamil-speaking constituency. A decade later, his were the first steps that were to lead Ceylon into independence when he founded the Ceylon National Association and, in 1890, petitioned the British Parliament seeking greater rights for the Island’s people. This led to the Donoughmore Reforms and universal franchise. Ramanathan, who had given up law (he was the Island’s first Ceylonese Solicitor-General and even acted several times as Attorney-General) and politics for spiritualism, was persuaded to return to politics and contest the first universal elections in South Asia, when Ceylon polled on December 13, 1911. And he won in a canter, the first Ceylonese Member to be elected to the reformed Legislative Council. He was described as “the fittest person to be elected to the Ceylonese seat.”

He was to have a magnificent tenure in the Council, but outside it his commitment to spiritualism never wavered after Arulparanandha Swamigal of Tanjore came into his life. Thereafter, Ramanathan became a regular visitor of Tanjore and, in time, a leading interpreter of Saiva Siddhanta. His erudition on the subject took him to America on a year-long lecture tour in 1906, for which he gave up his seat in the Legislative Council after serving it for 13 years. He was, to many, the Swami Vivekananda of Ceylon.

As his Secretary on this tour went his disciple R.L. Harrison. After the tour, she married Ramanathan who had been a widower for many years. She became a Hindu and took the name Leelavathi. After the reformed Council years, they spent much of their time in Kodaikanal where they had three houses, Ammanadi , Sivanadi , and Muruganadi . When Sir Ramanathan died in 1924, she took to wearing the white of a Hindu widow, built the temple in her husband’s memory, overlooking the Palani shrine of Lord Muruga and the slopes that would be covered with kurinji flowers, and would worship there every afternoon.

The Ramanathans’ only child, a daughter, married S. Natesa Pillai, the grandson of Ramanathan’s Tanjore guru and they settled in Ceylon. After Lady Ramanathan’s death, her daughter handed over the temple to the Palani Devasthanam. And there it stands as memorial to a Western-oriented Jaffna statesman who became an ardent preacher of Saiva Siddhantha and his English wife who became a devoted Hindu and who honoured with a temple not only her husband’s memory but also the flower of the Palani Hills.