Caldwell’s Kodaikanal

Still intact: The house that Caldwell built.

Still intact: The house that Caldwell built.  

Missionary and scholar Robert Caldwell had a special affiliation with this hill station. S. THEODORE BASKARAN

ROBERT CALDWELL,(1814-1891) the missionary-scholar who through his book The Comparative Grammar of Dravidian languages or South Indian Family of Languages (1856) pointed out that Tamil and a few other languages in the South are distinct and belong to a group by themselves, inadvertently provided the intellectual resource for Dravidian Movement. He had a special affiliation with Kodaikanal and there are edifices associated with him in this hill station. It was quite by accident that I came upon them.

I was spending time at a school library in Kodaikanal, while my wife was at the board meeting. Thumbing through an old imprint Guide to Kodaikanal and its history by D.M.M. Lloyd published in 1909, I learnt that Caldwell had built a house here and named it ‘Roseneath’. The first question that arose in my mind was ‘Is the house still there?’

A quick visit to the post office and my former colleagues there assured me that it was indeed intact and, what is more, in occupation. We set out towards the house. In the old gateway was a stone with the inscription ‘Roseneath. The gardener, tending the plants, told us that the owner was at the club. When I contacted him, he called me over for a cup of tea and showed me around the house.

On foot to the Nilgiris

Robert Caldwell landed in Madras in 1838 as a young missionary of the London Mission Society and stayed on in the city for two years, learning Sanskrit from C.P Brown, who was the Postmaster General of the presidency and Tamil from Rev. Drew. He grew passionately interested in the study of languages, particularly Tamil. As part of the orientation training for missionaries, he had to proceed to Coonoor. Caldwell decided to walk all the way to Nilgiris. The idea was to get to know the land and people intimately. Setting out from Madras on foot with a few helpers, he passed through Pondicherry, Kumbakonam and reached Thanjavur where he spent some time with Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai, the writer. From there he resumed his journey and reached the Nilgiris through Tiruchi and Coimbatore. It was during his one-month stay in the hills that he was ordained. He then journeyed to his place of work, Idayangudi, walking of course. There he would spend nearly 43 years.

By the 1860s, Kodaikanal had been established as a hill resort for Europeans and Caldwell was fond of spending time there. Before the present road was laid, there was a mule track connecting Periyakulam with Kodaikanal, passing through Vellakavi hamlet. Caldwell bought a property at an elevated spot just where the path ended. Here he built a spacious house. Behind this is an old tiled house, which is pointed as the place where Caldwell stayed while his new house was under construction.

The glass-fronted, tiled house that Caldwell built has not been tampered with and is still as it was when he lived there. There is a lot of wood work, including the flooring. His writing desk and the candle stands are intact. A portrait of the scholar and another of his wife hang above his table. When it was built, it commanded a good view of the lake but now the eucalyptus trees that have been planted all over have hidden the scene.

After Caldwell became the Bishop of Tinnevelly, in 1883 the collector of Madurai allotted a prime piece of land in a spot known as Mount Nebo to build a church and even provided a grant. This is near Pillar Rocks, not far from Roseneath. On this site Caldwell planned and built for the Church of England, St. Peter’s Church, overlooking Periyakulam valley. Located on top of a cliff and constructed of granite blocks with a tiled roof, it was dedicated in 1886 with Caldwell delivering the first sermon.

From the main road the church is hidden from view. A winding drive leads to the place of worship. I found it in excellent preservation. The west facing edifice has a tiled roof. The stained-glass window behind the altar shone brilliantly. The rows of pews, the pulpit and the baptismal font remain in good shape through steady use.

When he retired in 1891, Caldwell decided to live in Kodai but passed away within a few months. His son Addington Caldwell, then working in Sydney as a doctor, was by his side in the last hours.. According to his will, his body was taken to Idayankudi (the Madras- Thoothukudi railway line had opened in 1875) where he lies buried beneath the altar of the church he had built.

When the DMK came to power in Tamil Nadu, they honoured Caldwell by erecting a statue for him, along with Beschi and Pope, in the marina in Chennai. His celebrated book is still in print. However, historian Thomas Trautmann, in his recent work Language & Nation: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial Madras, writes that the credit of pointing out to the world that Tamil belongs to a different language group altogether should go to F.W. Ellis, a civil servant and a Tamil scholar. The street that runs parallel to Anna Salai near round tana is named after this celebrated civil servant.

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