Charles Whish At Calicut, and the Madhava School

The man who discovered the medieval Madhava school of Kerala Mathematics

Whish was certainly some character. At an age when many others toyed around with other exciting facets of human life, Whish studied Indian languages, excelled in Sanskrit and Malayalam, wrote and published the very first book ever written on Malayalam grammar, studied various Hindu scriptures, the Malabar Zodiac, their alphabetical notations of numerals and finally perused the complicated works of mathematics scholars. Remember now that we are talking about a person who predated Gundert and Logan, who incidentally spent entire days as an Assistant criminal judge in Calicut, just a few decades after the English (We are now talking about the 1820-1834 time frame) had finally got a foothold in India. He cultivated friendships with the learned people in Calicut and Malabar and understood not only their psyche, but also got close enough to understand the religious scriptures and astronomy and astrological methods. By the age of 38, the man was lost to this world, dying prematurely. Surely his friends would have remarked then that he had somehow upset the gods. I would however say that he was not yet ready for this world. His studies were alas, lost again to the world, suppressed so to say by lesser human beings envious of the painstaking and revolutionary work, for over 100 years, till finally CT Rajagpal and Mukunda Marar took it up in 1940. Now there are so many books and papers on the subject broadly termed as the Madhava School, the Kerala school of Mathematics or the Nila School.

Whish was the person who actually brought it all to light and tried hard to tell people how important that discovery was. As that information collected dust in the Asiatic society’s binders, people studied Newton’s theories of fluxions and Leibniz’s discoveries, heralding the subject which we know as calculus, today. It took another 150 years after Newton’s methods were burned into the brains of Math students that the discoveries and Calculus studies of mathematicians like Madhava and his students who predated Newton, came to light. Even today, as the work of Kerala School is finally gaining acceptance, the man who discovered it, Charles Whish is only mentioned in passing. Barring a scholarly paper by Sarma, Bhat, Pai and Ramasubramaniam, there are only passing mentions about this East India Company official who led such a varied and interesting, but short life in Malabar. I don’t think he missed a single day, or hour of his life, so busy was his life, so valuable his contributions to the world.

A remarkable young man, Charles was born to Martin and Harriet in 1794. It must have been tough, for the young lad was sandwiched right in the center between 7 elder to him and 7 younger. Martin worked for the excise department, but seems to have come to India sometime for it is said that Charles was born in India. Nevertheless Charles went to England for his studies, graduating from the newly established East India College close to London as a writer (administrator). He would have studied law, economics of course, and math from Dealtrey (the author of the book on fluxions) and Bewick Bridge. Literature and oriental languages would have been dealt with briefly. Whish passed the College examinations 'with credit' in 1810, aged 15 and in the following term won prizes for Persian and Hindustani. He was soon shipped off to India and straightaway went to the College of Fort St George in Madras (aka madras school) established for the purpose of training and graduating new EIC officers in Indian languages and publishing text books for that purpose. Whish was involved with these activities for the next few years and we find that he published the first Malayalam Grammar text book.

The school intended to pass out a batch of junior native civil officers from the college and work closely with the so called Dravidian ideas of FW Ellis, its founder. “Before the college was established, a junior civil servant on his arrival at Madras, was at once nominated to a situation, (generally in the interior) whence he was periodically summoned to the Presidency, for examination in the native languages, by a committee annually appointed. It was one of those committees which suggested the establishment of the college, in order to supply the want of tolerable native teachers, and of nearly all elementary books for the study of the native languages, then loudly and justly complained of; and to form a more permanent body, for the systematical examination of young men entering on the public service. With the exception of this last duty, the chief objects of the college, as explained in the paper suggesting its first establishment, were to print anew the few elementary books which then existed; to encourage by pecuniary rewards the composition of such others as were required; and to educate a class of natives for the situation of teacher to the junior civil servants.”

New works, illustrative of the Carnataca have been produced by one of its oldest members, Mr. M‘Kerrell, who has been followed by Mr. Reeves. Others on Teloogoo have been published, both by the present and a former college secretary, whilst two others of its students, Mr. Whish and Mr. Viveash, are engaged in similar works on the Malayalam (circa 1826) and Mahratta languages; and an extensive class of well-informed native teachers, of nearly every one of the numerous languages in use in the Peninsula, has at length been formed, aided by a subordinate class of candidates for that office.

Whish passed out with a first class in Malayalam in 1814, 5th ranked in Tamil, was highly placed in law and placed on par with another student Dent in all these subjects. In the passing out speech they are singled out “The Gentlemen whose names stand in the first Class of the third classification, namely Messrs. Viveash, Chamier, Whish, and Dent, have made a progress in the study of the two languages which entitles them in our opinion to receive the highest salary, namely 100 Pagodas pr. month and we accordingly recommend that it be granted to them. Mr. Whish and Mr. Dent, have fully qualified themselves for promotion, and should their services be required we have no doubt that they will prove highly useful in whatever department it may be pleasure of the Right Honorable the Governor in Council to employ them.”

CM. Whish's Malayalam Grammar and Dictionary was the first publication in that language with which the fort St College was associated as far back as 1815.By 1815, he is posted as the register of the Zillah of South Malabar and by 1823 to Malabar, presumably to Calicut. He rose to the position of Sub Collector and joint magistrate of Malabar in 1826 and in 1827 took the position of assistant judge and joint criminal judge of Malabar continuing on until 1830 when he was posted to Cudappah in the same post. For some reason he was not employed in 1831, was reinstated in 1832 and died prematurely in 1832, at Cudappah.

Let us now take a look at his contributions, both as a civil servant and those a result of his study of the methods of the Malabar zodiac. We saw that as a register, and later a criminal judge he was pally with both Murdoch Brown and Thomas Baber. Baber as a person who had a high regard of the native populace, was very much Whish’s sounding board on many aspects, as we will see soon. Perhaps it was his friendship with the Raja of Kadathanad, one Sankara Varma, an intelligent man and acute mathematician, as Whish himself testifies, which put him on the track to understanding the special methods used by Hindu mathematicians. Varma had by then authored the Sadratnamala, a book on Hindu astronomy ‘comprehended by two hundred and eleven verses of different measures, abounding with fluxional forms and series’. The details Whish gathered from the various texts he perused convinced him that the mathematics school which once existed in Kerala was far advanced than previously thought and that they predated relatively more modern solutions proposed by Newton and Leibniz. This prompted him to write a paper on the subject ‘on the Hindu quadrature of the circle and the infinite series…..”. It is now felt that he wrote this originally in the 1820-25 time frame, when he was a register and dealing with South Malabar. It took quite a few years before it was first read, then published by the society. During this period we now understand how Whish had to fight with the EIC who were at cross purposes when it came to depicting the intellectual capacity of the native population.

To understand his turmoil, we have to get to know two more people who were on the same track, again people who were neither historians nor mathematicians. They were Lt Col John Warren, a Frenchman indigo planter. During the 1805-1811 period he was in Madras, in temporary charge of the new observatory there and then he took to documenting the methods used by the South Indian in reckoning time. He returned to France in 1815, but continued with his research and published a voluminous record now named Kalasankalita. Obviously his path crossed that of Whish while he was at the St George College and their correspondence continued after Whish had been posted to Malabar. He was, as you can imagine, Warren’s source for the research in Malabar. George Hyne was an assistant surgeon and medical officer of the EIC and very much involved in the literary society, a naturalist and botanist dabbling in the field of flora and fauna.

We note from the contents of the Kalasankalita and the studies conducted by Sarma and team that Warren had started his own research after meeting a Hindu astronomer/astrologer. As the Asiatic society report states - In 1814 Captain John Warren, one of Colonel Lambton’s chief assistants in the Trigonometrical survey, at the suggestion of Mr. F. W. Ellis, prepared a paper on Hindu astronomical computations, and another on the Muhammadan Kalendar. It treats almost exclusively of the methods employed by the Brahmins in Southern India, explaining in detail the arithmetical processes for determining chronological and astronomical elements. The author deprecates any charge of trying to support the views of Bentley, or of the partisans of Bailly: his object “is merely to explain the various modes according to which the Natives of India divide time, and to render their Kalendars intelligible.” Very strange of course is the fact that Warren makes no acknowledgement to the inputs from Whish, but praises those from Hyne. We can perhaps infer from this that Whish had already fallen out of favor, due to his pro native views and also the fact that Warren and Hynes were considerably senior in age and position in the EIC bureaucracy.

Warren quotes Hyne mentioning that Whish had sent him details of his mathematical findings and that Whish felt that the knowledge was totally indigenous. He goes on to add however Whish’s change of mind -  I requested him to make further inquiries, and his reply was, that he had reasons to believe them entirely modern and derived from Europeans, observing that not one of those who used the Rules could demonstrate them. Indeed the pretensions of the Hindus to such a knowledge of Geometry, is too ridiculous to deserve refutation. We can also infer that Hyne was the person behind this strong belief for Warren explains later referring to - Mr. Hyne’s opinion the Hindus never invented the Series referring to the Quadrature of the Circle which were found in their possession in various parts of India; and that Mr. Whish, from whom he had obtained some of those which were communicated to the Madras Literary Society, after having first expressed a belief that they were indigenous, had subsequently reasons for thinking them entirely modern, and derived from the Europeans ; observing that not one of the Jyautish Sastras who used these Rules, were capable of demonstrating them.

But Whish was not too happy about the direction he was forced to follow and finally published the paper in his own name, in 1832, well after the above faux pas. In it he made his conclusion clear “Having thus submitted to the inspection of the curious eight different infinite series, extracted from Brahmanical works for the quadrature of the circle, it will be proper to explain by what steps the Hindu mathematician has been led to these forms, which have only been made known to Europeans,
through the method of fluxions, the invention of the illustrious Newton. Let us first, however, know the age of these works; and as far as can be determined, the authors. First, then, it is a fact which I have ascertained beyond a doubt, that the invention of infinite series of these forms has originated in Malabar,, and is not, even to this day, known to the eastward of the range of Ghats which divides that country, called in the earliest times Ceralam, from the countries of Madurai, Coimbatore, Mysore, and those in succession, to that northward of these provinces.” He also provides details of each of the books, their authors and his opinion on their dating.

Whish also offers to provide the proofs and demonstrations, but very soon he was transferred to Cudappah and met an untimely death. Was it a punishment transfer out of Malabar due to his ‘going native’? You can also see that he loses his job after moving to Cudappah for a year before reinstatement in Cudappah. The paper was eventually published after his death, in 1834. Though it was by now in print, it was largely ignored by the academics.

We also note that the British continued to cast doubts on Whish’s deductions even after the paper was published. CP Brown’s book listed under references has a chapter ‘On Fraudulent documents’ where he refers to obtaining the opinion of one Ayyah Sastri, Hynes’s learned Brahmin assistant and atheist who demonstrates how easy it is to create false attributions. Sastri stating that it is easy to fool an Englishman, accuses Whish of quoting a reference named Tantra Sangraha which does not exist as it does not figure in Whish’s collections! It is a pity that such rubbish was published by Brown, as the work does exist in the collection and the book is now a well-known reference. But it is also a fact that there was an element of misquoting in Whish’s paper - KV Sarma explains that the equations referred to were not part of Tantrasangraha, but in the commentary by Sankara - The Sadratnamala.

Whish’s input to his Kalasankalita was perhaps the detail on the Malayali Kollam era and this was separately published by CM Whish as a paper titled – On the origin and antiquity of the Hindu Zodiac. Another paper titled ‘on the alphabetical notation of the Hindus was published by Whish, but the TLSM feels it is a paper apparently written by George Hyne and was wrongly attributed to Whish which is likely at first look. What is primary to all these studies is the Whish’s understanding of the Katapayadi system of using letters to depict numerals as letters, words or usage of slokas for long numbers. Unfortunately most works that detail the Kerala method attribute the first paper on the subject to CF Fleet and forget that Whish had actually explained it much earlier, in 1832.

Whish of course had many other interests as is evident from the papers he left behind. He studied the early history of Kerala, wrote about the Cheraman Perumal epoch, the Kollam calendar, the Jewish and Catholic copper plates, was adept at the ancient Malayalam vattezhuttu transcription

He frequently collaborated with Thomas Baber at Tellicherry on translations and dating of archaic Malayalam inscriptions and was the second person who provided a translation of the Jewish copper plates (the first was FW Ellis and third was Gundert) of Cochin, using his knowledge of vattezhutu as well as old Malayalam and Tamil. The Jewish plates were transliterated in 1821, when it is recorded - Mr. Baber called the attention of Mr. C. M. Whish, an excellent Tamul scholar, versed in the ancient as well as the modern character, to the subject of this inscription. Whish states that the basis of the translation is based on his skill at deciphering the script on the stone engraving at the Tiruvannur kshetram near Calicut and the Nedumprayar kshetram at Kavalappara – Palghat. By then he had inspected and worked with over 100 such temple inscriptions.

He explains - These inscriptions are perfectly unintelligible to the inhabitants of Malabar of the present day, not so much from difficulty arising from the character in which they are written, for it is a mere form of the present Kole-Elutta adapted to incision upon stone (with some peculiar characteristic variations); but particularly, from the peculiarity of the language in which they are written; it being an ancient dialect) the intricacy of which none other than the old Tamul dictionary, which is now publishing by the Board of Superintendence for the College of Fort St. George, can solve, aided by a competent knowledge of the Shen-Tamul. He observes that no mere scholar of modem Tamul or Malabar languages, ignorant of High Tamul, can expect to understand so ancient a record; such will perhaps agree in the reading, but be perfectly ignorant of the meaning of the terms, most of which will be as unknown to them as Greek.

His understanding of the Katapayadi system, was presented in the paper on the alphabetic notations and of course, in the paper on the Hindu quadrature, he introduces Aryabhatiya, Sankara Varma (Sadratnamala), Somayaji (Charana Padhati), Talakulattara nambudiri (Tantra Sangraha), Cellalura nambudri (Yukti Bhasha) and so on. The paper on alphabetic notations

Nick Balmer, referring to the notes of Thomas Hervey Baber mentions that Baber was an ally in the works completed by Whish and that they frequently met at Baber's house at Tellicherry during the Monsoon every November which was more like an annual holiday.  While Whish served at Calicut as a civil administrator, Thomas Baber was the magistrate, collector and judge. Both were fluent in Malayalam, and both spent prolonged periods studying Indian texts surviving in the Temples in Tellicherry, and Calicut. We can find an interesting occasion when Thomas Baber (thanks and due acknowledgement to Mr Balmer for this tidbit) passed severe criticism on the way Whish judged an 80 year old blind man (on a crime of bribery) and sentenced him to such a large fine (well beyond the rule) that he would have spent his old age in jail for this minor crime. I would guess that by that time Whish was being blackballed by the EIC bureaucracy, and was starting to toe the line.

Anyway soon, he was transferred to Cudappah, lost his job, got reinstated and died soon after, slipping into obscurity till Marar and Rajagopal came up on the Quadrature paper a hundred or so years later.

After Whish’s untimely death and burial at Cudappah, his collection was gifted to the Royal Asiatic society Library in London, by his brother, where you can still view the considerable collection of some 300 granthams (for details see attached image).

A remarkable man, indeed….

Carnatic chronology, the Hindu and Mahomedan methods of reckoning time explained - By Charles Philip Brown
On the alphabetic notations of the Hindus – CM Whish
On the Hindu Quadrature of the Circle, and the infinite Series of the proportion of the circumference to the diameter exhibited in the four S'ástras, the Tantra Sangraham, Yucti Bháshá, Carana Padhati, and Sadratnamála – CM Whish
The discovery of the Madhava series by Whish: An episode on Historiography of Science – UKV Sarma, Vanishri Bhat, Venketeswara Pai, K Ramasubramanian
An overview of Indian mathematics - J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

Note: This is a short article on CM Whish and his work, leading upto to the announcement of the discovery of the Kerala School of Mathematics. The details of the 14th-16th century school and its works, plus the great teachers are covered in a number of interesting books, such as those by GG Joseph, Kim Plofker etc. There are also interesting hypotheses (Joseph, Arun Bala) on how this information perhaps traveled westward and got used by European scholars and mathematicians. If there is sufficient interest, I can provide an overview one of these days.

Madhava’s picture - A digital image of Madhava drawn up by the Madhava Ganitha Kendram, a voluntary association working to revive his works, with inputs provided by descendants of the mathematician-astronomer, Courtesy Telegraph Feb 25, 2014


SSW said…
Thank you for this article. I myself only got to know of Whish from the writings of Geeverghese Joseph. I was faintly aware of the Kerala school of mathematics particularly the works of Madhava, Neelakhantha, Jyeshtadeva etc but I had very little knowledge of Whish other than the little note that he was credited for discovering the Kerala school. There is some idea that using induction etc came to Europe from the Kerala school, since they were doing 200 years before the European mathematicians did. When we learnt of the Mclaurin's series in college we had no idea that Madhava had discovered this hundreds of years before. Even the Taylor's series and Gregory-Leibniz series were discovered by Madhava. I dound Josesph's book "The crest of the peacock" a very good primer to non-European mathematical beginnings.
Maddy said…
thanks SSW
Joseph's books are good reading, both of them. But if you delve deeper and deeper you will find that so many of these practices were subverted. Mathematics was one, but traditional medicine was another. If you try to read the contents of Hortus malabaricus, an encyclopedia which Dr Manilal finally laid before us in English only a few years ago after 600 or so years, you will find a wealth of information on medical practices in Kerala...

From that point of view Whish's attempts were so heroic....
SSW said…
How do you mean subverted? It wasn't that there was anything especially present specifically to destroy Indian thought forms or obliterate the knowledge. Hortus Malabaricus was written and preserved in Latin because van Rheede rogue though he was, was interested in it. Books were preserved in the West, we in India writing on our palm leaves weren't that interested in the preservation of knowledge, because of our laissez faire attitude. While some of us venerated education our idiotic caste system tried to keep knowledge within certain communities. Not that other parts of the world did not try to do it, Europe certainly did, but we were more successful than others and contributed to our own stultifications. If the united Indian subcontinent which at that time was larger than Western Europe had established a university system with peer reviews and support from commercial classes as there had been in Europe we may have had great universities as we once did. But instead we chose to go another way.
Maddy said…
Thanks SSW
an interesting comment, well...In this case, you saw that there were overt and subtle reasons for the decline of the Kerala school. Both Plofker and Joseph have gone into it. The main reason was the suppression of astronomy, astrology and such sciences as religious superstition. As the Gregorian calendar took over, interest and belief in the Kollam calendar declined. Students believed in the power of the west, the conqueror and the developments there, the teachings of luminaries like Newton and so on...

regarding medicine, you saw how ayurveda got suppressed and allopathy took over. jadibooti - herbal medicine was scoffed and discarded. books supporting it were kept inaccessible from the mainstream, like the Hortus.

Now they are all coming out slowly and interestingly, ayurveda survived only because of lower castes, who for various reasons still believed in it. In fact ayurveda practice was (barring the kottakkal warriers & some others) to some extent kept in continuance by the thiyaas of malabar.

I covered the hortus M earlier, check these out
Maddy said…
I will now give you a little teaser.
there was once a young man who rose to become the principal of the Ayurveda college in Madras.For various reasons he strayed from that discipline and moved to America in the 20' and went onto become a famous biochemist, the finder of a cure for filaria, the antibiotic tetracycline and provided faber with some of the chemicals for his first trials in chemotherapy...
SSW said…
Mr. Yellapragada Subbarao was somebody amazing. You think of the Indians who never won the Nobel Prize I guess people like him and ECG Sudarshan would top the list , though sadly winning the Nobel prize is as much networking and self promotion as it is to real research work. I know the Kottakal story for many reasons as well as something about the smaller Ayurvedic schools in Trichur. I must read more about the active suppression of native sciences and for that matter engineering. I'm afraid I don't have much knowledge in that area. I mean the actual ingredients of zoot steel is still being researched.
I think I did read your article on Hortus Malabaricus, though I must go back and check. There were a couple of interesting articles on it some years back, I think India Today had one.
From your accoount it appears that Whish had spent much of his time in South Malabar ( with headquarters at Cherplacherry). As acknowledged by Geeverghese Joseph, it was Whish's paper which introduced the world to Madhava's theories ( although the initial welcome was skeptical.)
Prof. Joseph had given a lecture at a meeting of Calicut Heritage Forum some years ago. One of the questions put to him was whether the Jesuits could have been responsible for taking out the Kerala School ideas to the western world. His reply was tentative - he said more research was required and greater access to the Papal archives.
Another marvel in this respect is the contribution of the mathematicians and astronomers of Vettath swaroopam. The small village of Trikkandiyur was once host to brilliant scholars like Neelakantha Somayaji and Achutha Pisharodi. I am not aware of any systematic study of their contribution. One hopes the Malayalam University at Tirur ( which has a department for heritage studies) takes this up.
Maddy said…
Thanks CHF..

Whish was in S Malabar until 1823. The studies and papers on Maths were possibly done while he was there and perhaps before he moved to Calicut. But it could also be just after for he had exploratory discussions with the Kadathanad Raja. I also feel that most of his temple inscription studies took place when he was in South Malabar and when he had more time at his disposal.

There are a large number of published works on the Kerala school and the Alattiyur mathematicians. Joseph believes that Jesuits Ricci, Schrech, Diego Gonsalves and Rubino were trained mathematicians sent with a task of learning the Eastern sciences.

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