Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yatha ahu vairyo ... A brief look at the history of the Zoroastrian religion

As India's Parsis celebrate the Udvada festival between December 23 and 25, I thought of writing a blog post on the Parsi faith and its history. The post's title  Yatha ahu vairyo is derived from from the most sacred Zoroastrian prayer the Ahuna Vairya or Ahunwar which is as important to Zoroastrianism as the shahadah  or declaration of faith to the Muslims, Om mani padme hum to the Buddhists and the Gayatri Manthra to the Brahmans.

The text of the Ahuna Vairya reads

Yatha ahu vairyo, atha rathush
ashad kit hakha
Vangheush dazdha manangho
skhyothnanem angeush mazdai
Kshatremcha ahurai a
Yim dregubyo dadad vastarem

The shloka has been translated with different meanings by different scholars who have till  now not been able to arrive at a common consensus. but the most authoritative interpretation was given by Martin Haug

As a heavenly lord is to be chosen
So is an earthly master.
for the sake of righteousness, 
to be a giver of the good thoughts of the actions of life towards Mazda; 
and the dominion is for the lord (Ahura)
 whom he (Mazda) has given as a protector for the poor

Note the striking resemblance to the shlokas of the Gita. This is because these hymns are written in a language called Avestan, an Indo-European language that was used in Iran, two thousand and five hundred to three thousand years ago corresponding to the Sanskrit of the Hindus. Like Sanskrit, Avestan was never used for inscriptions or charters, the edicts of Achaemenid kings being written in a more simpler spoken language called Old Persian in a cuneiform script written left-to-right and probably adapted from Akkadian,  just like how kings like Ashoka used the different Prakrits and those of later kings, the Parthians and Sassanians inscribed in Middle Persian in a right-to-left script called Pahlavi derived from the Semitic Aramaic. The Avestan is named so because it is the language used in the Avesta, the holiest  book of Zoroastrianism, which is often mistakenly referred to as the Zend-Avesta. In fact, the true name of the book is Avesta and the Zend only denotes the commentary (usually written in Pahlavi, a Middle Persian language used from the 3rd to the 10th century AD) that accompanies the Avestan hymns. These commentaries brought the Avesta within the ambit of the common man to whom, the Avestan language was unintelligible. But various irregularities existed even in these commentaries due to the prevalent custom of using outdated Aramaic logograms for corresponding Middle Persian words. For example, the Persian would write malkan malka in Pahlavi script but read the same as shahenshah, its exact Persian equivalent meaning "king of kings".  

Born and brought up in a proud and orthodox South Indian city which had, but a sprinkling of Parsis tucked away in solemn prayer in an old, decaying quarter content with their cultural anonymity in an overwhelmingly alien society, I first heard of the religion from the television as a boy of eight or nine. That was when the famous pop singer Alisha Chinai revealed in an interview that she belonged to the faith and I soon caught a fascination for the noun. But this little nugget of learning was soon confined to the recesses and had to wait for years to be rediscovered. Actually I knew next-to-nothing about the Parsi dogma till early 2001, when I stumbled on the basics of the religion in an internet article called "Antiquity and Continuity of Indian history" by one Prasad Gokhale.  While Gokhale's article was remarkable for its lack of objectivity and dismissed outright by academics as revisionist Hindu right-wing propaganda nevertheless, there were still a few claims about Zoroastrianism and its historical relationship with Hinduism which intrigued me back then. For example, Gokhale writes that a Zoroastrian work called the Vendidad lists seventeen lands that were created by the Parsi God Ahura Mazda and that the sixteenth of the seventeen lands was India which was mentioned as Hapta-Hindu (which I found from neutral sources to be true). Excited, as if I had stumbled upon some little-known civilization, I waited till the end of my Matriculation board exams and then, downloaded the whole of the Vendidad from the internet followed shortly later, by the rest of the Avesta. Fortunately, my college had an excellent library and I spent all my time acclimatizing with Iranian history and discovering strange, pre-Islamic kings with names that you now typically associate with Islam (I later learnt that they were called the Sassanians) from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, when I should actually be reading programming languages and electronics. A few years later, social networking sites like Orkut cropped up and I was able to interact with expatriate Iranians living in the UK, US, and elsewhere, some of them, acclaimed scholars. So, that's how my interest in Zoroastrianism grew and it has been almost seventeen years since I had begun this fascinating and thoroughly satisfying journey.

Now, Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith which stresses upon the importance of harboring good thoughts, speaking good words and indulging in good deed (Humata, Huktha and Huvarashta, in the sacred tongue of the Zoroastrians, the prefix hu- meaning good and mata meaning thought being cognate with the I-E word mann or mind and Pendar-i-nek, Goftar-i-nek and Kardar-i-nek in modern Persian. These are the three principal tenets of Zoroastrianism and hence, central to the faith). But Zoroastrianism itself has not for long been a monotheistic religion; in fact, it started as a polytheistic religion like Hinduism  before the teachings of Zoroaster or Zardusht reformed the faith removing the intermediation of the Kavis or saint-seers (who like the great bards of Celtic Britain) and thus recasting it in a dualistic mould. (There are even many who question the suitability of the name "Zoroastrianism" instead suggesting that the religion should actually be named Mazdayasnism or "worship (yasna being cognate with the Sanskrit yagna) of Mazda"). Thus, Zoroastrianism was revived and not founded by Zoroaster, who played a role akin to Jesus and Muhammad by opposing the powerful clergy of the land. But unlike Jesus and Muhammad, the religion Zoroaster founded did not vanquish the prevalent pagan faith instead absorbing it completely. (Ironically, Zoroastrianism which was purpotedly founded  as a protestant faith would also fall prey to a powerful clergy within a generation of Zoroaster's death and superstitions that were condemned by him would make their reappearance in a different form. Strangely, the part played by religion and the clergy in Iranian politics is nothing new and has been in vogue for upwards of two thousand years). Among the many deities of the pagan faith that were adopted by Zoroastrianism was Mithra who became an angel or yazata (Mod. Pers. yazd). Mithra travelled westwards as part of the cultural exchange that accompanied the expansion of the Roman Empire and spearheaded a fast-growing cult which rivalled that of the Egyptian god Isis in its heyday that lasted four centuries.

Let us trace the antecedents of this great land and its unique religion back in history. Ironically, the origins of a people whose self-designation means "the Aryan" in English could be traced back to a 5,000 year old civilization which is believed by scholars to have spoken a Dravidian tongue.  The Elamite second person singular ni, and second person plural num resemble the Dravidian ni-. The oldest known form of the Elamite language has come down to us from the Behistun inscription of Darius the Great. Given the fact that the Elamite civilization thrived in exactly the same region where the Persians lived a thousand years later, I find no reason why the Persians should not be their lineal descendants though they did use an Indo-European language in their inscriptions and edicts. To support my claim, I would like to quote the example of the Medes of North-western Iran who founded the first historically-attested Iranian kingdom by wresting control of the eastern provinces of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC.   The post of Zoroastrian high-priest maubad or magus  has always been hereditary and drawn exclusively from this tribe thereby indicating that they were the original heirs to Zoroaster and that the people of Persia proper had a status not much superior than that of a conquered people. Traditions  identify the birthplace of Zoroaster in the vast thinly-populated region between Media and the Afghan city of Balkh (where a Buddhist temple and a Zoroastrian fire altar survived side-by-side till the 9th century AD; the importance given to Balkh in Zoroastrian religion texts is so high that it could have very well been the "Mecca" of the Parsi faith); legends also assert that the Iranians emerged millenia ago from a sacred homeland Airyanem Vaejo (which became Iran-Vej in Middle Persian consequently giving rise to the name of the country Iran) which the holy books usually located in  Northern Iran-Southern Turkestan., Mede hegemony, however, did not last long and like the non-Aryan natives of India who began asserting themselves a few centuries later, the sea-dwelling Persians overthrew Median rule under their king Cyrus the Great (Kamil V. Zvelebil, the renowned linguist, made a controversial suggestion that the ancestors of present-day Dravidians, too, might have  emerged from the mountains thereby contradicting the established view held by historians and archaeologists like Iravatham Mahadevan, who have repeatedly argued in favour of a coastal origin based on the aru-min legend depicted in the Indus seals. He cites the example of the Brahuis and observes that many prominent Dravidian linguistics groups had the self-designation "mountain-people" even deriving the Persian word for mountain koh with the Dravidian root kunru.)

There have been disputes over the date of Zoroaster with many even asserting that he was a purely mythological character who  never existed.  The dates given range from 1700 BC to 500 BC but scholarly consensus leans towards the latter date, which, I too feel is the most likely making him a near contemporary of the Buddha and the Mahavira. An apocryphal tale describes how an Indian sage named Changrachanchah journeyed his way to Iran to have a theological disputation with Zoroaster and conceding defeat embraced the new faith. It is not known who this Changrachanchah was but fanciful theories link him to the Shankaracharya as both the names sound strikingly similar. The chronological lists of the Kanchi mutt too place Adi Shankara in the 5th century BC. In any case, the tale of Changrachanchah is likely an innovation of a much later date and the Kanchi mutt's chronology has been discredited by historians.

The most sacred book of Zoroastrianism is the Avesta. The Avesta is not a revealed book but a compilation prepared over a long period of time though much of it is indeed made up of the revelations from Ahura Mazda, the Supreme God to Prophet Zoroaster.   But a significant portion of the Avesta is also made up of hymns in the sense that though Zoroastrianism is often  treated in the same vein as Abrahamic religions like Islam and Christianity, the book is in fact more closer to Hindu holy texts like the Mahabharata. Consider for example the case of Vendidad. Vendidad is the only one amongst the 21 Nosks making up the Avesta that has survived in its entirety. In its structure, the Vendidad most closely resembles the Atharva Veda. Much of the text is made of charms, spells and incantations and a small though significant portion on the wills and whims of Ahura Mazda. As the various hymns of the Avesta vary in nature and style, they also vary in age. It has been universally accepted amongst scholars that the portion of the Avesta that is called the Gathas is trhe oldest with some liberal estimates dating these verses based on their language, to the 15th century BC. Do these verses belong to a time anterior to that of Zoroaster? Cannot say for sure! But they, indeed, depict the earliest form of the Zoroastrian religion. The core of the Avesta, on the other hand, belongs roughly to the 6th or 5th centuries BC when the two of the greatest monarchs in the world, Cyrus II and Darius the Great were ruling over Iran.  Proof! No, I don';t have any! But it is just an assumption based on the fact that the most complete book of the Avesta - the Vendidad lists Hapta-Hindu or the Punjab among the sixteen nations created by Ahura Mazda. This is not quite possible unless North-West India itself was a part of Iranosphere while these were being written and only Persian Emperor in the millenia before Christ to stamp his authority over these parts was Darius the Great.

Some parts of the Avesta could be far younger; there are allusions even in the Vendidad to the solemn, self-mortifying cult of the Mazdakids who recommended regular fasting in stark contrast to Zoroastrianism that prescribed  for its adherents a happy, joyous and bountiful life and according to whom, austerity was taboo  According to these hymns, "the ungodly Ashaemaogha who does not eat" was an ally of Angra Mainyu , the Zoroastrian Satan (who is known as Ahriman today). The Mazdakite cult was founded by a godman named Mazdak and reached its apogee in the beginning of the 6th century AD when the Sassanian king Qobad I became Mazdak's disciple and embraced the new cult. But its dominance lasted only a generation. At the end of Qobad I's reign, his son Khusro (Yeah, the same Khusro Noushirvan, the most famous king of the Sassanian Dynasty and in whose court, the Panchatantra was translated into Persia and chess adopted and adapted from India. Noushirvan or Anushirvan finds some space in Nehru's Discovery of India and was even the subject of a tribute from Prophet Muhammad who considered himself fortunate to have been born in the reign of such a just king), then a young prince, got Mazdak murdered and brutally suppressed the nascent religion.  But, Mazdakism is only the second of the major heresies of the Sassanian period. There was the Christian-Zoroastrian syncretist Mani of the 3rd century AD who suffered the same fate. No direct references to him are found in the Avesta but veiled attacks and curses found here and there and Mani is generally considered the intended recipient. One mobed  or high-priest named Kertir went a step further and authored an inscription boasting of the killing of Buddhists (the Persian word for idols but probably derives from the Buddha), Christians, Manichaeans and Hindus (?) in the kingdom under the patronage Sassanian Emperor Bahram II. His predecessor Bahram I was also a devout follower of Kertir and it was probably at Kertir's insistence that Mani was flayed alive and his skin displayed on the gates of the palace at Ctesiphon. (But Manichaeism displayed amazing resilience and adaptability and survived the death of its founder by many centuries. It remained a minority religion in Iran often confused by the authorities with Nestorian Christianity till the Islamic invasions drove it eastward towards Central Asia and China. By the 13th century, Manichaeism was finally believed to be dead but it again resurfaced in the eastern China in the 16th century AD where it was again confused for a sect of Nestorian Christianity. Manichaeism is regarded to be well and truly dead now but doubts still remain). And again, the allusions themselves are not unambiguous! What if the Ashaeomaogha hymns were actually a reference to the Jain practise of sallekhana. Certainly not improbable! There has been a strong Persian influence in north-western India from the time Darius the Great conquered the region and many Sassanian kings led expeditions into Punjab and the Sindh.   But some of the worst curses are reserved for Iskandar or Alexander the Great who is described as the "accursed" and "ally of the evil one".  Alexander sadistically persecuted Zoroastrian priests, burnt their scriptures and destroyed their fire-temples probably because the tenets of monotheistic Zoroastrianism were dead opposed to Greek polytheism of which Alexander was an adherent. But on the whole, Alexander's treatment of the non-religious Iranian and the landed gentry were generally liberal and there were many intermarriages of Greek soldiers into Iranian aristocratic families. But unfortunately, Zoroastrian scriptures only remember Alexander as an oppressor.

The Zoroastrian religion was almost wiped out of existence by the persecutions of Alexander the Great and it  recovered only in the middle of the Parthian period. Vologasses I (Valkhash) who reigned from 51 to 78 AD commissioned the first compilation of the Avesta laying the seeds for a Zoroastrian revival. We know that this monarch had a brother (Tiridates) who was a mobed or Zoroastrian high-priest. Priests now began a frantic search for books and fragments that had escaped Alexander's orgy of destruction. The work took centuries to complete and the sequence of events eventually culminated in the rise of Ardeshir I who founded the Sassanian Empire in 226 and declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Iran. Ardeshir's inscriptions proclaimed him to be a champion of Zoroastrianism and portrayed the Parthians, ironically, as the villains.   Under Ardeshir and his immediate successors an orgy of intolerance and persecution was let out on religious minorities - probably a spontaneous self-defence approach adopted by a still insecure Zoroastrianism. But once Zorostrianism had scuttled all rivalry and silenced opposition, it entered its most glorious phase. This was when the legendary mobed Adarbad Mahraspandan lived. According to legends, his faith was tested with molten bronze being poured upon  his chest and the mobed emerged unscathed and instantly became a celebrity.  According to pseudo-prophetic Zoroastrian hymns called Yashts, the faith was overthrown thrice and restored thrice - first by Alexander the Great and restored by Ardeshir I, the founder of the Sassanian Dynasty, then by the prophet Mani before being restored by Adarbad Mahraspandan and lastly, by the Arabs, it will be restored  by Saoshyant who shall come at the end of time just like the Kalki Avatar of the Hindus and the Buddhists.

Much of what we know about  Zoroastrianism has come to us from the period following the Islamic invasions. The oldest surviving copies of Zoroastrian religious texts date from the 4th to the 10th century AD and are written in the Pahlavi script. The oldest complete hagiography of Zoroaster the Zardusht-Namak dates from the 12th or 13th century AD when Iran was under Mongol rule and Zoroastrianism was almost extinct. Of some works, the oldest extant copies that we know of are Gujarati manuscripts from 15th century India. By then, the numbers of adherents was already dwindling due to jizya and other taxes. There was a national and cultural revival when Firdausi wrote his magnum opus Shah-nameh  in the 10th century AD but by then, the damage had been done and it was impractical to expect Zoroastrianism to oust Islam considering that apostasy in an Islamic country was punishable by death. Still, while Iran could not revert to Zoroastrianism, it celebrated Zoroastrian heroes like Rustam and Jamshed as its national symbols. There were rebellions both by Zoroastrian as well as Muslim Iranians who hated Arab domination. The three and half centuries from the time of Arab conquest to the rise of Mahmud  Ghazni saw a great deal of cultural interchange between the Semitic and the Indo-Iranian world. Soon after the conquest, Zoroastrianism was proscribed and Iranians were disparagingly referred to as "Ajam" meaning "babblers", a reference to the error-ridden Arabic that the new coverts from Zoroastrianism spoke. But when the Umayyadas were displaced by the Abbasids conditions improved. The Abbasids captured power with the help of an Iranian convert named Abu Muslim, shifted the capital from Damascus to the former Sassanian citadel of Baghdad (Baghdad or Bagdat, in Persian meant "given (datha) by the gods (Bagha)"; Bagha  here is cognate with the Sanskrit Bhagavan  and survived into Modern Persian in the form of the masculine title Baig or Beg (Lord) and the feminine title Begum and the Turkish Bey) and even invited the Barmak (pramukh??) of the Buddhist monastery of Navavihara near Kabul who converted to Islam and became the Prime Minister of the state under the name Khalid. It was during this period that chess and Indian numerals made their way from Iran into Arabia and many important Persian texts were translated to Arabic. By the 9th century, however, the Caliphate was on the decline and local Iranian dynasties started to assert their independence. A Turkic dynasty established itself at Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan, conquered the whole of the Iranian plateau to the west and took Islam eastwards into India through seventeen bloody invasions. But while Mahmud Ghaznavi, the greatest king of this dynasty is reviled in India, attitudes in Iran differ. He is hailed as a champion of Iranian culture and a fervent patron of Persian literature. Firdausi dedicated his Shahnameh to him thereby evoking comparisons with the legendary Rustam, the hero of the epic.  In fact, a cult of Rustam seems to have thrived during this period, he being variously identified with Rostam Farrokhzad, the Sassanian general who made a valiant stand against the Muslims and died fighting, the 1st-century Parthian general Surena who inflicted a crushing defeat on the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae and eventually succumbed at the height of his power to palace intrigue and even with Babak Khorramdin, a tribal chieftain from the Elbruz Mountains who fought the Arabs in the 9th century. The etymology of Rustam and other heroes from the later parts of the Shahnameh are all foreign to Iran proper and could be traced to tribal legends of Sistan and Afghanistan thereby indicating a shift in  popularity towards an eastern epic cycle as opposed to the western epic cycle of Darius I.This would be Zoroastrianism's last stand before it would be delivered a death blow by Ilkhan and Mongol invasions and centuries of anarchy that would only end with the rise of the Safavids.  But Zoroastrian concepts and Persian folklore managed to sneak in into Persian poetry composed by the Sufis just before the Mongols ushered in a period of gloom. And the dominance of Eastern Iran was not limited to the epics and folklore alone. As Islamic sultanates expanded eastwards into Central Asia, Afghanistan and India, they took with them their languages - usually Persian with a smattering of Arabic and Turkic and a variety of Persian mixed with local prakrits established itself as the lingua france of the Muslims of Northern India (including present-day Pakistan) about the 13th century. This was the dialect spoken in Khorasan - the vast arid desert that extended from Media almost upto the hills of central Afghanistan. Both Dari, the official language of Afghanistan and the Urdu spoken across Pakistan and Northern India use the Khorasani diction.

Today, Zoroastrianism has few adherents in India and Pakistan apart from migrant communities in the UK, USA, Australia, Europe, South-East Asia and Africa. In  Iran, it is almost dead and even among the few who are officially counted as Zoroastrian, various tenets of the faith remain forgotten due to intense institutionalized persecution. But in reality, pre-Islamic beliefs have retained a tangible though barely recognizable presence underneath the veneer of  Islam and we can say that not just Iranians but Muslims across Central Asia, Turkey, Afghanistan and even Pakistan, actually practicize a Zoroastrianized variety of Islam. That this underlying influence is a living reality can be highlighted by the fact that words used by most Muslims today for matters so intimately connected with faith such as religion (Deen), God (Khoda) and prayer (Namaz) are all of Zoroastrian origin (The word Namaz is derived from Old Persian Nemase which is found in a Zoroastrian prayer Hoshbam; the word is cognate with the Indic Namaste). Probably, even the Islamic practice of offering Salats owe their origin to the highly specialized Zoroastrian rituals called Bajs.

1) (Tr.) Darmesteter, James (1880). The Zend Avesta, Part I: The Vendidad, The Sacred Books of the East, Volume 4. Oxford University Press  
2) Cumont, Franz (1903). The Mysteries of Mithra. Open Court, Chicago
3) Rawlinson, George. The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Near-East  (1876). Longmans, Green and Co.
4) Zimmern, Helen (1883). The Epic of Kings - Stories Retold From Firdusi. T. Fisher Unwin.
5) Greenlees, Duncan (1951) [2003]. The Gospel of Zarathushtra. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar
6) Herzfeld, Ernst (1928) [1998]. Memoirs of the Archeological Survey of India: A New inscription of Darius from Hamadan. Archaeological Survey of India.
7) Zvelebil, Kamil (June 1972). "The Descent of Dravidians". International Journal of Dravidian Linguistics. 1(2).
8) Brunner, C. J. (1974) “The Middle Persian Inscription of the Priest Kirdēr at Naqš-i Rustam,” in Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles. American University of Beirut
9) (Tr.) Mehta, Siloo. Hoshbam: The Dawn (of Consciousness) by K. N. Dastoor (in Gujarati).

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Pallavas and the Pahlavas

In an article titled “India’s Parthian Colony” published in The Iranian on May 14, 2003, Dr. Samar Abbas wrote that the Pallavas of South India are descended from  the Pahlavas of Iran  and attributed  their persistent conflicts with their neighbours the  Chalukyas to an obscure, far-fetched theory that the Chalukyas  were descendants of the Seleucids, whom the Pahlavas overthrew to capture power in Iran. Though Abbas’  unscientific  paper deserves little more than cursory mention, the theory itself cannot be brushed aside as a farce simply because it had also been suggested by the famous South Indian epigraphist and Pallava expert V. Venkayya  who had worked with Hultzsch in deciphering the Mamallapuram inscriptions.  

Who were the Pahlavas! According to sources that date from the time of the Achaemenids, like the Turks and Mongols who came later, the Pahlavas or Parthians were a tribe of horsemen who inhabited the wild country called Chorasmia (now  forming  a part of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan and portion of north-eastern Iran) situated on the north-eastern frontiers of the Persian Empire. They became very powerful in the middle of the 3rd century BC under their chief Arsaces (Arshaka) who founded an independent Parthian kingdom just as the Seleucid Empire ruled by the descendants of Alexander the Great’s general Selucus Nikator started to decline.  In 150 BC, the Parthian king Mithridates I (Mithra-datha)  captured Seleucia, the capital of the Persian Empire putting an end to the Greek dynasty and  instituting almost three centuries of Parthian hegemony over Iran, a period characterized by incessant wars with the Roman Empire. In  224 AD, the last Parthian ruler Artabanus V (Ardavan) was defeated and slain in battle by his son-in-law Ardeshir who  founded the Sassanian dynasty. With it ended the Parthian Empire of Iran.  The lives of the powerful Parthian aristocratic families at the court, however, continued unhindered and many of them held onto their fiefs long after the Islamic invasions. An Indo-Parthian kingdom which ruled over the Indus river valley and surrounding areas outlived Persia’s Parthian kingdom by a few years.

Eight centuries later when Ferdowsi wrote the famous Persian epic Shah-nameh, the word Pehliva  had acquired the meaning  “captain” or “commander” (Just like the Tamil Thalapathi or Senapathi) – Ferdowsi frequently uses the word as an epithet of Rustam or Rostam, the hero of the epic, a semi-legendary character based, incidentally, on the general Surena who led the Parthian forces in the famous victory over the Roman army in the Battle of Carrhae (53 BC). A Pahlavi dynasty ruled Iran between 1925 and 1979, its founder Reza Khan adopting the surname “Pahlavi” as a measure to claim legitimacy through the Pahlava name.

 The Pallavas of South India, meanwhile, were a dynasty of kings who claimed to be Brahma-kshatriyas. Their first records date from the middle of the 3rd century AD and till the 6th century AD, all that we know about the Pallavas are from copper plate grants which barring the earliest (which is in Prakrit) , are all in Sanskrit. They used the florid Pallava or Vengi character, a derivative of Brahmi, which they introduced in the islands of Java and Borneo. In later years, however,  we find a marked increase in rock inscriptions mostly from the vast number of temples they built. There was also a perceptible shift in favour of Tamil as the medium of communication.  Thus, at the time of Nandivarman II who ruled at the end of the 8th century AD, the stage was already set for a cultural renaissance which witnessed its full bloom under the Cholas.

The origins of the South Indian Pallavas have always been a mystery. We know nothing of them prior to 275  AD  when the first copper plates were inscribed. These plates trace their ancestry back to a legendary hero called Bappa Bhatta.  Later regnal lists claimed a descent from Drona’s son Aswatthama.  But legend and mythology aside, the earliest known antecedents of the Pallavas ruled as petty kings in the territory between the Godavari and Palar rivers, probably as vassals of the last Satavahanas.  Over the centuries, the Pallavas gradually moved southwards championing Hinduism and hastening the pace of Aryanization in the Tamil country and  in exchange,  adopting the Tamil language and culture. (Their advent in Tamil Nadu could simply be the continuation of a southward migratory trend. In fact, K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, among all  historians, attributes a North Indian origin to the Pallavas) The importance of Pallavas to Tamil history, I feel, has frequently been understated. Both Saivism and Vaishnavism owe their early rise to Pallava patronage as much as that of the Pandyas and the Tamil script acquired its present form during the Later Pallavas.    

From the statues and sculptures of Mahabalipuram, we understand that the Pallavas kings had impressive physiques. Many were acclaimed wrestlers. Narasimhavarman I, for example, held the title Maha-malla  or great wrestler, Mahendravarman I Shatru-malla “opponent wrestler” and Paramesvaravarman I, Eka-malla or sole wrestler. Here the similarities with the Pahlavas of Iran are more telling. Wrestling is the national sport of Iran and  zur-khanehs or gymnasiums are found all over the country.  Many of their traditional heroes such as Rostam were fabled wrestlers. In fact, the Persian word for wrestler Pehelwan derives from Pahlava, hinting at the possibility of the Pahlavas having introduced wrestling as a traditional sporting routine in the country.

Like the Pallavas of South India, the Pahlavas of Iran were also fine builders. A noted feature of Pallava monuments is the  widespread use of lion motifs. The lion, it must be mentioned here, was an essential feature of Achaemenid architecture though it wasn’t as popular in Parthian times. Nevertheless, “the Lion and Sun” remained  Iran's national symbol until quite recently.  In India, the lion is  conspicuous in Pallava monuments to an extent found nowhere apart from the lion capitals of Ashoka the Great. However, another speciality of Parthian architecture the iwan is not found in any of the Pallava works.

The Parthians were a tribe of nomadic horsemen who adopted a settled life and the finer aspects of Persian civilization. Similarly, many theories claim that the Pallavas were of Naga descent. Who these Nagas were no one knows, for the appellation Naga was used at different periods of time to denote people of diverse ethnicities such as the well-known Nagas of Nagaland, the Nayars of Malabar, the Veddas of Sri Lanka and even certain hill tribes that live in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakthunwa. It could also be the Kurumbars of Tondaimandalam who held Tondai Naidu before the rise of the Pallavas. And then, why not the Parthians themselves! These are questions that demand answer!Another puzzle that needs a satisfactory reply is the fate of the Pallavas after the death of Aparajitha. Though there are many caste groups that claim descent from the Pallavas, none of their claims are convincing enough.


1) Rawlinson, George. The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Near-East: Vol VI: The Parthian Empire (1873) and Vol VII: The Sassanian or The New Persian Empire (1876). Longmans, Green and Co.

 2) Sastri, K. A. Nilakanta (1955) [1975]. A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar. Oxford University Press.

3) Zimmern, Helen (1883). The Epic of Kings - Stories Retold From Firdusi. T. Fisher Unwin.

3) Epigraphia Indica for copper-plate inscriptions of the Early Pallavas.

4) Pillay, K. K. (1963). South India and Ceylon. University of Madras.


Friday, November 13, 2015

Heritage walk at the Madras High Court conducted by Mr N. L. Rajah, advocate on July 16, 2015

Took part in heritage walk at the Madras High Court organized by INTACH and lead by advocate N. L. Rajah. It was the first heritage walk that I've ever participated in and it exceeded all my expectations. Now hours after the walk is over, I would say that if you are a heritage buff you are surely missing something if you haven't participated in the walk. I feel glad to have done so and I wish to participate in one or two more future editions as well. Thanks, INTACH for providing it free-of-cost but even if they hadn't, I would've still attended it.

The walk was officially flagged off at the old lighthouse. Rajah explained that the lighthouse was constructed between 1835 and 1842 on what was then the Esplanade, a vast patch of flat, empty land overlooking Blacktown. The walk leader then explained how the the area was bombed twice - in the first as well as the Second World War and made a passing reference to the revolutionary Champakaraman Pillai. Then, he dropped an interesting piece of trivia - that the Madras High Court was the second largest court complex in the whole world.

The leader proceeded to give a short history of the High Court - Of how it had its origins in the the Madras Supreme Court that was started in 1801 with the redoubtable Thomas Strange as the first Chief Justice. And how it moved to its present building that was constructed in 1892 after functioning from Bentick's Building which later became the Singaravelar Maaligai for close to a hundred years, of how it replaced the Diwani Adalut which functioned from a building in Alwarpet which later became the house of Basheer Ahmed Saeed. It was one of the most extraordinary stories about an unique monument. The early history of the High Court also included the tale of the Arcot Nawab's downfall and how Mohammed Ali Khan Wallajah overburdened with debt ceded all his dominions to the British and his narration spanned the late 18th century and the whole of the 19th. But two individuals more intimately connected with the history of the building would be Henry Irwin, the architect and the contractor T. Namberumal Chetty, of Chetpet and Ramanujan fame. The freedom which Chetty gave to his workers resulted in the occurrence of contrasting architectural styles that we find today. (In this regard, I wish to recount an interesting piece of trivia - just as an Indian was largely credited with the construction of the Madras High Court, it was another Indian who had constructed Karnataka's - Arcot Narayanaswami Mudaliar - two similar personalities who left behind lasting legacies of their own). But despite the variation in architectural styles, the essence of the building remained Indo-Saracenic like most others from the latter half of the
19th century.

The leader then took us to what he described as the Sheriff's gate. It was this gate, he said, through which the Sheriff of Madras entered, impressively clad in elaborate regalia and armed with a sword in hand and headed a procession to call upon the Chief Justice and invite him to preside over the opening of the court in company with the Commissioner of Police. While we visited the spot, we found it stacked with bundles and bundles of papers - minutes of court proceedings perhaps.

We, then, walked upto the entrance to the museum building where stood a statue of Sir Vembakkam Bhashyam Aiyangar (1844-1908), a legal luminary of the late 19th century who created history by becoming the first Indian Advocate General of Madras in 1897 and later, a judge of the High Court. The story of Bhashyam Aiyangar, whose article in Wikipedia I created some five years back, reads like a fable. He wished to die with his boots on - ahem, or rather, with his lawyer's gown on, and actually met up with such a death. He was father-in-law to the Swarajya Party's legendary leader, that famous compatriot of Satyamurti and Rajaji, S. Srinivasa Iyengar. Bhashyam was probably not related to his townsman, V. Ramiengar who made a fortune through his Travancore dealings, though.

Next on our itinerary was the museum and it was the museum building which took most of our time. The most valuable artifact in their possession was a framed photograph taken on the occasion of the opening of the Madras High Court on 12 July 1892 by the 3rd Baron Wenlock, the then Governor. Next to him stood Sir Arthur Collins, the Chief Justice and the puisne judges, Sir. T. Muthuswamy Iyer, Parker, Wilkinson and Best. On the wall, were portraits of some of the Chief Justices of British extraction - Sir Gentle, the last of his tribe and his famous predecessor, Lionel Leach who was involved in the Lakshmikanthan Murder Trial. Covering its walls were lists of chief justices and puisne judges of the Supreme Court days. The museum also has in its posesssion an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of India signed by P.  V. Rajamannar the first Chief Justice of the High Court after independence, on the 17th of January 1948 and the documents related to the indictment of "Kappalottiya Tamizhan" V. O. Chidambaram Pillai preserved in a special glass case. The museum also had papers related to some famous judgements made in the 153 years of its history. We also found a prototype of the Sheriff's grandiose costume that Mr. Rajah had earlier alluded to.

But perhaps, the best preserved of the lot were two charters by King George III of the United Kingdom dated 1798 and 1800 which led to establishment of the Supreme Court of Madras, the first European-style court of judicature set up in the Presidency. A lifesize portrait of its first Chief Justice Sir Thomas Strange hung opposite to the Chief Justice's chair in the Chief Justice's court situated in another part of the same building. The Chief Justice's court is probably one of its kind in the whole world - nowhere else would you find a library located in the backdoor of a trial room that too behind the presiding judge's chair and nowhere do you find, a trial room with a stained glass ceiling. (I feel compelled to remark on the fact that the stained glass ceiling was a thing of stunning beauty - the High Court complex might deserve an UNESCO World Heritage site recognition for its stupendous domes alone). Mr. Rajah also made us aware of certain interesting facets of Sir Strange's life. I never knew before that Mr. Strange was the first to attempt the codification of Hindu law and Rajah rightly remarked that it was a widely held misconception that John D. Mayne was the first to codify Hindu and Muslim laws.

A few rooms away lay the Madras Bar Association (MBA) library with volumes of MLJ stacked all over. Here we sat down in a semicircle before our leader who discoursed on the colourful history of the Madras Bar Association. Mr. Rajah gave some interesting anecdotes from the lives of some of MBA's members. He recounted how at the height of the "Simon Go Back" agitations in Madras in 1928, K. Krishnan Pandalai, the then magistrate, refused to order fire on non-violent agitationists and stood his ground despite intense official pressure. Despite confronting the government, Pandalai was given a promotion two years later. This, Mr. Rajah said, stood testimony to the fairness of British justice. Another colourful life from MBA's history would be that of V. O. Chidambaram Pillai who started his life as a respectable barrister and ended up a prisoner of the King Emperor. Mr Rajah paid glowing tributes to the munificence of some of MBA's presidents - V. L. Ethiraj (1945) for example bequeathed a fortune towards the founding of the Ethiraj College for Women which functions from what was previously, his residence.

Next in our path lay the statue of T. Muthuswamy Iyer (as one spelling of his name goes) whose story I know only too well. But Mr. Rajah has very little known things to say even about very well-known people. He kept us on the tenterhooks by choosing to speak not on T. Muthuswamy Iyer the person but his statue. Mr. Rajah described how V. Krishnaswami Iyer, the well-known advocate and and Kaiser-i-Hind medallist, opposed a statue to Muthuswamy Iyer on the strange premise that Hinduism did not allow deification of humans and ended up having his own statue a few years after his demise. And when Krishnaswami Iyer's statue was unveiled, the legendary Sir S. Subramania Iyer who once wrote an SOS to the US president Woodrow Wilson, took up the gauntlet and opposed it tooth and neck. But Mani Iyer too was helpless, having given up his flesh and body, to forestall the setting up of a memorial commemorating his life. But aside these interesting anomalies, it appeared to be a prevailing practice for posthumous remembrances and not many lawyers were opposed to them. But one interesting cause that Krishnaswami Iyer appears to have espoused was the protection of the Marina. To this end, along with 3,000 others (or is it 5,000) he appears to have protested British plans to set up a railroad cutting right across Marina beach. Mr. Rajah opines that Krishnaswami's effort helped save the beach as a tourish destination. But I differ with him on the issue. The setting up a railway line along the beach might have considerably reduced traffic in Mylapore's roads and may have helped us avoid these grotesque monstrosities dangling dangerously above our heads. More importantly, the far-sightedness of the British might have led to the construction of more railroads that would have reduced traffic on the roads so that the need might not have arised for today's politicians to dig right through important throughfares or pull down heritage buildings.

Sensing that the walk was coming to an end, Mr. Rajah took us on a painstaking ritual up the narrow spiral staircase that led to the terrace. Cramped for space, we tried to sneak in one by one holding tightly onto the railings. As we did so black dust settled down on our hands as a thick layer of grime enveloped those iron clutches. As we explored the High Court's fabled terrace, we got fabulous views of the light house and the harbour. The terraces were a photographer's delight for the building peaked into a series of porticoes, domes, corridors, Moorish arches and minarets. Finally, we reached the highest point on the building to assume kinship with the tall lighthouse nearby. A few minutes and few pictures later, we retraced those steps back to the ground floor. The walk concluded at court room number 8 with a speech by Mr. Rajah. A solemn rant by Mr. Rajah underneath the stupendous silvery dome bemoaning the disregard and neglect shown by our authorities towards heritage monuments provided a befitting conclusion to what was an awesome Sunday morning.

There are many things that I've left out for my memory is rather too poor. But I hope to compensate for it by attending one or two more sessions.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

It's Perur, not Porur!

It is a commonly-held misconception that the name Porur derives from the Tamil word Por meaning war, Porur being a "place of war". It is easy to see why - such a conjecture, of course, appears to be the most simple and obvious. But vague theories resting on such slender foundations can easily be rendered asunder by the time-tested science of etymology. And deeper scrutiny has revealed that Porur had no connection with any battle whatsoever, be it mythological or historical. 

So what was Porur derived from by the way! A 1794 map captioned The Territory belonging to the East India Company around Madras published by Robert Laurie and James Whittle  offers a vital clue. Here, as expected, you find no Porur. But in the vast empty wilderness that lies to the west of the Long Tank, there is a tiny inconspicuous speck labelled Peroor resting upon the banks of a humongous lake its diminutive incoherence magnified by the gargantuan size of its  watery neighbour. So, the name Peroor or great town got corrupted to Porur with the passage of time. The representations on the map are highly imperfect and dimensions are way off the mark. But the evidence is clinching, though.  There is no other place sounding similar to Porur or Perur and situated by the side of a lake; atleast none in the vicinity of Chennai.(Till 2011 when these areas were incorporated into the Chennai Corporation, the board atop the Porur town panchayat office, I remember, used to read "Porur Peruratchi". Imagine a "Perur Peruratchi")

The 1794 Laurie and Whittle map appears to be the last known usage of the form Perur. At the other extremity is Aditya Chola I's inscription from Kolapakkam dated 891. Between the two are a dozen Chola, Pandyan and Vijayanagar inscriptions from the few weather-beaten temples of Porur and neighbouring Kolapakkam. These records almost unanimously proclaim that the region was administered as a part of the district of Perur Nadu in the division of Puliyur Kottam in the province of Jayamkondacola Mandalam alias Tondai Mandalam. The inscriptions found in the Agasteeswarar Temple of Kolapakkam, in particular, are of remarkable value as a historical record.  They number about nine in all and name villages such as Kulapakka and Manapakka which as Kolapakkam and Manapakkam form outlying suburbs of Chennai city today. The authorship of two of these inscriptions is attributed to the Telugu Chola king Vijaya Kanda Gopal who in addition to the suburbs has also left his imprint all over the city proper. Another inscription dates from the time of the great Rajendra Chola and records the gift of a Buddha idol by the Sri Vijaya king of Sumatra in the 11th century. It was later found that the idol was not of the Buddha but the Mahavira.

These outlying suburbs of Chennai city constitute some of the oldest inhabited parts of Tamil Nadu.  A ten-minute southward walk from Kolapakkam leads to the Adyar river on the other banks of which lie Pozhichalur, where, according to the book Inscriptions of Kanchipuram District published by the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, an inscription recording the construction of a tank by Ayyapolil Ainnurruvar, a Chola period merchant guild had been found. The Agasteewarar Temple at Pozhichalur like its namesake on the other bank, is ascribed to the time of the Cholas. Proceed five kilometres to the north-west and you will reach Mangadu, whose Valliswarar Temple has an inscription of the Pallava king Nandivarman III dated 861. This inscription, according to historian K. V. Raman, is the third oldest to be found in the vicinity of Madras. But Raman feels that Mangadu might be far older than the inscription and cites the Udayendiram plates of Nandivarman II (731-796) that mentions a place called Cutavana, which is a Sanskrit rendering of the Tamil name Mangadu. If all these small suburbs are considered as fragments of one single large settlement, then it might constitute the oldest continuously inhabited place in the whole of Tamil Nadu, the Iron Age stone circles of Kundrathur's Subramanyaswami Hill (excavated in the mid-50s) representing the intermediate period between the Palaeolithic habitations of nearby Pallavaram and the townships of later, historical times.

But the social fabric and the dynamics have considerably shifted. For example, from the Laurie and Whittle map, we get to know that during the 18th century, the principal routes of communication from St. Thomas Mount ran westwards through Manapakkam and Kovur and linked up with the Kundrathur-Poonamallee road. The larger Mount-Poonamallee Road and the Porur-Kundrathur Road was non-existent, so were the smaller roads leading to Pallavaram. Secondly, an urban IT culture is taking root in these suburban areas though they've retained a bit of their quaint old world charm. With pizza parlours, coffee shops and two-wheeler showrooms mushrooming here and there in recent times, Porur is finally living up to what its name actually meant - one large town.

 An inscription of Raja Raja II dated 1152 at the Agasteeswarar Temple, Kolapakkam  mentioning Kulapakka


The Agasteeswarar Temple at Pozhichalur on the southern banks of the Adyar River dates from the reign of the 11th century Chola king Kulothunga I


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Concocted histories

Perhaps there is no other country in the world where history writing is as controversial as in India. History has been constantly politicized right from the time of British rule that it has become seemingly impossible to discern falsehood from the truth. This is not to say that history was never used as a propaganda tool in other parts of the world. We have the classic examples of Victorian England and Nazi Germany. But nowhere does  the ground situation offer scope for higher politicization than the countries of South Asia. And being a country of enormous proportions and varying multitudes each pursuing their own agenda, India was always a hotbed of distortions and falsifications.

Traditions of history writing in India could be broadly classified into two schools - left wing Communist and right wing Hindu nationalist . Each school of historians have had their heyday in turn (currently, it is the ascendancy of the Hindu right) and each have introduced their own dosage of venom to polarize the susceptible Indian mind. So, while Hindu nationalists have been preaching that the Aryan Invasion Theory was a blatant lie and that all practising Hindus are natives of India thereby justifying violence against Muslims who were outsiders, Communist historians had gone out-of-the-way to whitewash the record of iconoclast Muslim monarchs. But using terms like "Hindu" and "Muslim", you might wonder if I too have caught the fever. But it is not so - it is only apt that I use the terms Hindu and Muslim instead of politically-correct denominations as Indian, Arab, Persian, Turk, Afghan or Moghul for it is to nourish the ideologies of Hindu pride or Muslim appeasement that such histories have been concocted.

First, let us examine the newer school of history writing - nay, it isn't the younger of the two by any yardstick,  having had its beginnings in the writings of Tilak at the end of the nineteenth century but it is  surely the one which had lacked official sanction and patronage for a long, long time. Many hesitate to consider  this school of historiography as little more than the disgruntled ramblings of a few isolated amateurs who had been nurturing centuries-old grudge against all foreign invaders from the time of Alexander the Great to that of Robert Clive. Such historians are almost exclusively from Hinduism's uppermost castes who take a myopic view of conversions from Hinduism. For example, conversions are attributed by them  solely to coercions and compulsions; in doing so, many refuse to acknowledge that the caste system even existed and a significant few deliberately desist from addressing caste atrocities in their writings.   These historians or more appropriately, writers with a historic bent of mind, often fail to comprehend the relation of the caste system to the different forms of Hindu worship and instead, start writing with a presupposed notion that every Hindu worshipped their gods with Sanskrit shlokas and that the Vedic and Puranic texts and the traditional systems of Hindu philosophy such as Advaita were preeminent. I consider it altogether a heinous crime - something that discredits the ageless culture and animistic traditions of India's vast adivasi population or the ecclesiastical independence of the Scheduled castes in prehistoric times. Hinduism is rich as India is, and similarly, diverse. Also while rightwingers challenge the Aryan Invasion Theory despite the weight of contrary evidence, they refuse to concede upon the disputed antiquity of the Vedas and instead, make absurd claims on its inviolability.

The second school of history-writing has been accorded far greater tolerance in intellectual circles and liberally allowed to mould our perceptions of history. But nevertheless, this version of history, too, has been tainted by lack of credibility and an infusion of a narrow-minded political zeal. To the Marxist historian, religion is anathema but Indian Marxists are selectively in bashing Hinduism alone regarding Hindu religious practices as the sole representatives of the basest form of superstition and the Hindu varna system, of the worst form of capitalist tyranny. Blemishes in the religious beliefs of India's minorities are generally overlooked and Marxist historians always commit the grave error of classing all those people among the proletariat. But facts and figures paint a different story and the Mughal Empires and the medieval and post-medieval sultanates were no more the friends of the poor than the Hindu nationalist Marathas. Only a insane person would consider the Nizam of Hyderabad among the poor and oppressed. Similarly, Mughal rule also produced an array of powerful and lecherous Muslim landlords and feudatories who lived off the relentless toil of peasants, both Hindu as well as Muslim. Marxist historians and intellectuals have been blind to atrocities whenever the perpetuator was not a Hindu or a British imperialist. Can anyone forget how in a shameless attempt to court people of a particular community, film maker Shyam Benegal tried to misrepresent the jihadi Fakir of Ipi as a freedom fighter in his film Bose - The Forgotten Hero. Or how Tipu Sultan's biographer Bhagavan S. Gidvani coveniently ignored the Mysore Tiger's numerous well-substantiated acts of religious bigotry while writing his The Sword of Tipu Sultan. Nothing can be far from the truth. It would not be a surprise if these Marxists even try to portray Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Muhammad Omar in a favourable light.  By showing tolerance to the fanatical segments of minority communities, these Marxist historians are succumbing to the bait of communal polarization. Respected historian Irfan Habib who has Marxist sympathies has recently donned the garb of a Tipu Sultan apologist and thus allowed his communal sympathies to come out in the open. The trend is to portray Tipu Sultan as an enlightened and ironically, secular monarch and a gentleman. True, Mysore made vast strides under Tipu Sultan, but it also did under Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV and Sir Mark Cubbon. These historians along with their patrons might possibly have noble intentions but choosing sides would be more detrimental than beneficial in their purported fight against communal polarization.

However, strangely, there is one point on which proponents of both these rival schools of history-writing agree. And that is, on their dislike for Europeans. To the right-winger, a high caste Hindu man can do whatever he wants with an Indian belonging to a downtrodden class whereas an European shouldn't. To the Marxist, the rapacious Afghan or Turkish invader is a friendly insider, while the European is not. Such indoctrinated mindsets require a great deal of cleansing.  And lastly, we have all those sub-national schools of history-writing though which the illusion of an united India is broken to shambles. These regional magnates are fond of exaggerations and through their writings and sayings, lend credence, sometimes unwittingly, to narrow-minded regional chauvinists to whom the extravagant stories painted by these academicians and their downplaying of the roles of other cultures and civilizations is sweet music. In the end, it leads to a lot of name-calling and unpleasantness in online forums.

I've been wanting to write on the politicization of history for quite a long time and I assure you that this is a honest, sincere effort.  The reader might feel compelled to accuse me of promoting a Christian missionary viewpoint but seriously, I am not a supporter of such forces, either. Rather, I take the position of a neutral onlooker when I comment on such things. Bluntly speaking, it is high time caste Hindus stop pretending that all is clean and well with their homes and take steps to  alleviate the pain and inconveniences some Hindu beliefs continue to cause. To fellow historians, I make this humble request - Please don't let your religious or political beliefs prejudice your notions of history or defile your writings.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Raworth episode

The Mutiny of 1857 was not the first sepoy mutiny in British India, nor was the older, more spontaneous irruption that took place in Vellore in 1807. Strange though it might seem, the first-ever mutiny in the British Indian army took place more than three hundred years ago  (though the white, European soldiers in the Company’s army of the time were not “sepoys” in the real sense of the word).   The rebellion took place in the nascent British colony of Fort St David near Cuddalore and the leader of the rebellion was a decorated soldier  and former member of the Fort St George council named Robert Raworth who had successfully defended the fort from an invasion of Swaroop Singh the faujdar of Gingee in 1711-12.

Fort St David was, first, obtained by the British East India Company in 1691. Right from its beginnings, the colony had to endure the hostility of the formidable Swaroop Singh whom, the early British authorities were thoughtless enough to provoke. Swaroop Singh invaded Fort St David which was only saved in the nick of time through the exertions of Robert Raworth, then member of the Fort St George council who repulsed the attack and thus bought the English some breathing space. As a reward, Raworth was promoted to the Deputy Governorship of Fort St David. This made him the number two man in the Madras Presidency.

However, Raworth’s military successes seem to have “gotten over his head” and within a few months of taking charge, he tried to break off his allegiance to Fort St George. A dispatch dated 5 October 1713 appears to give us the first signs of the situation in Fort St David. The dispatch protests that orders and proclamations issued by the Madras government were being ignored in Fort St David and out-of-the-way promotions were being given to army officers of Raworth’s choice. Further, the dispatch also pinpoints the various financial irregularities committed by Raworth and his administration.   Though these accusations coming from a non-neutral source, ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, they do make one thing clear – all was not well between Fort St George and its daughter colony.

From J. Tallboys Wheeler’s Madras in the Olden Time we get to know that as a consequence of the 5th October despatch, Raworth was immediately dismissed from service and. Henry Davenport appointed in his place. However, Raworth stuck to his office in defiance of Fort St George’s orders and when Davenport rode to Fort St David to take charge,  he was prevented from entering the fort by troops loyal to Raworth.   Davenport retired to Monapa’s choultry at a distance of five kilometers from Fort St David from where he planned an assault on the fort. During his sojourn at the choultry, the deputy governor-designate was offered, by the Madras government, a “party of sixty chosen men” for his safety.

Davenport’s “attack” on Fort St David began on 19 October 1713. Davenport tried his best to avoid armed confrontation as he was confident that he could persuade Raworth loyalists to join him. However, the tactic failed miserably. Davenport was able to proceed upto Cuddalore bypassing  Raworth’s forces on the way. But on 21 October, they were ambushed by a band of horsemen at Condapah’s choultry within sight of the fort and though Davenport’s men were able to beat back the attackers, they chose to retreat to Cuddalore “dreading a dangerous attack in the night”.  The Madras government then tried to starve out the rebels by cutting off supplies.But,  the French colony of Pondicherry came to their aid and ensured an uninterrupted flow of food and provisions to Fort St David despite vehement protests from the Madras government. With the situation thus reaching a stalemate, Davenport sent a Mr. Warre and Mr. Lewis to negotiate with Raworth.

The rebellion eventually fizzled out as Raworth agreed to relinquish office on favourable terms of surrender.  However, he kept insisting that he would surrender to none but the Governor, Edward Harrison, himself. After some initial hesitation, Raworth’s demands were accepted by the Madras government. Harrison met Raworth at Fort St David on 7 December 1713, more than a month after the events at Condapah’s choultry. In the intervening period, Raworth’s influence had begun to wane and mass desertions have been recorded in the Fort St George archives. Also, unknown to the Madras government, Raworth had applied to France for asylum. Permission arrived from Louis XIV of France just as the authorities at Fort St George were beginning to get wind of Raworth’s treachery. They could not, however, prevent Raworth’s escape to France. Raworth died in Paris shortly afterwards, just as the directors of the British East India Company were preparing to prosecute him in absentia.

Why did the Fort St David garrison support Raworth and rebel against the Madras government in the first place? True, the soldiers of the garrison might have had little choice but to obey their immediate superiors. However, the Fort St George archives claim that Raworth ensured the fidelity of his troops by bestowing generous rewards and increasing wages.  In doing so, Raworth had built a powerful support base for himself. But the mass desertions towards the end remain unexplained to this day.   Raworth’s rebellion differs from the later ones  in two important aspects (other than the ethnic angle) – firstly, the uprising did not witness any of the hard-fought battles or vengeful executions that were characteristic of the later ones. Secondly, I feel that the mutiny was motivated by less noble causes than the 1807 Vellore mutiny or the Indian Rebellion of 1857.   While I do agree that Raworth’s rebellion was too small an incident to be remembered, nevertheless, the diligence and resolve shown by Company’s authorities in handling those early sieges and mutinies was instrumental in Britain maintaining a foothold in India without which the legendary Indian Empire would have never become a reality.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The strange case of Thodla Raghavaiah

For years, I’ve been visiting the Raghavendra Temple in Raghavaiah Road, T. Nagar, that I’ve always wondered who this Raghavaiah might be. Like all roads in T. Nagar, this one, too, would have been named after some V. I. P. of the 1920s. (Or was it just another name by which Guru Raghavendra was affectionately called? Very much plausible!) But when my forays into old books helped me piece together Raghavaiah’s life I was truly surprised by the end result. I found it difficult to digest the fact that the Justice Party which was allegedly founded to fight caste-based discrimination had named one of T. Nagar’s roads after someone perceived to be one of the main villains of the Vaikom Satyagraha.

Born in a Telugu Brahmin family, Thodla Raghavaiah entered the provincial civil service on completing his studies. After serving in the forest and revenue departments, Raghavaiah was made an official of the Madras Corporation which he headed as President in 1911.  In 1920, Raghavaiah was appointed Diwan of Travancore and soon became a favourite of the Raja, Moolam Thirunal. Both Moolam Thirunal and Raghavaiah opposed temple entry and made their best efforts to prevent the Vaikom Satyagraha. However, the satyagraha did eventually succeed due to Moolam Thirunal’s sudden death in 1924. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who became the regent on Moolam Thirunal’s death was a strong opponent of caste-based discrimination and on her assumption of the regency, repealed all the discriminatory laws forbidding low-caste Hindus and Dalits from entering Hindu temples.

While Raghavaiah’s stance during the Vaikom Satyagraha lowered his standing among Indian nationalists and social reformers, it did not affect his civil service career, the slightest bit (or his reputation as a “progressive” official).   Raghavaiah was made a Companion of the Order of the Star of India in 1924 and the next year his services were requisitioned by the princely state of Pudukkottai. When Raja Martanda Bhairava Tondaiman of Pudukkottai died in Cannes, France in 1928 without a heir, his six-year old nephew Rajagopala Tondaiman was chosen king and a regency council was established on insistence of the Madras government. Raghavaiah headed this regency council from February 1929 to November 1931. When the regency council was abolished in November 1931, Raghavaiah quietly retired from public life and inexplicably disappeared from state records altogether.

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