A Frozen Journey


Continuing on about Madras, a place where I lived for a while, a place which hid so many mysteries and tales of a time long gone, I am now walking along the Marina beach and pause to stop at a structure called Vivekanadar Illam or so they call it these days. People reading this would mutter, ‘there he goes again, talking about some musty old geezers who made history, who talked about correct ways of living and all that’. Far from it, my friends, for this will take you along an astounding journey. Yes, I agree I will traverse into Bengal and mention the luminary Vivekanada, but only in passing.

I used to visit a small factory close to the Marina beach to get some training on some electronic equipment in the 80’s, and used to hear the name of a stop bellowed by the bus conductor every day – he used to say ‘Ice house’…and I assumed, yup – that must be some ice factory. Well, was it an ice factory? What lies behind it? Let us find out…But for that I have to take you first to the Hooghly River in Calcutta.

My late uncle, whom we called Bhanu Etta, earned his livelihood between the 60’s and 80’s working as a pilot in Calcutta. Now for those who start thinking about planes and airmen, I have disappointment in store; he was a pilot in the waters, guiding large ships through the sand and mud banks of the Hooghly River safely to their respective berths. Now the intention of telling you this was to set the scene, to let you know that the port of Calcutta was not like the one at Madras where a large ship could directly sail in and berth. He used to tell us about the dangerous mud formations near Diamond harbor and further down the river and how bad it was if a ship, god forbid, hit one of them (remember? that was how Vasco Da Gama ended up at Kappad near Calicut!). But well, my uncle was not around when the amazing event occurred.

Now what if the ship was an American ship carrying some strange cargo? We are about to find out what happened at Diamond harbor, on Sept 5th 1833 and its eventual connection to our landmark in Madras.

Sept 5th 1833

The land was still abuzz with the Himalayan - Nepal (7.7 Richter) earthquake. Rumors were flying about the effects and aftershocks. The natives were talking incessantly about the arrival of Kalikalam and the end of the earth. The Burra sahibs of the EIC and the other Goras at Calcutta were on the other hand, dismissive. They had bigger things to worry about, such as the rains and the heat, for it was unbearably hot and torridly humid. They were for example more worried about ‘milady’s’ complaint about the gown sticking to her body and her feet slipping in shoes while at the ball or being bitten by the mosquitoes. The business of ruling over an inhospitable landmass called India was complicated indeed. As somebody said, the deadly heat of Calcutta was more dangerous to British life than even a possible uprising by the natives. They often quoted the comments of Dr Edward Ives an English surgeon in 1774 who wrote about his horrible experience of a sultry day saying "not a breath of air was there for many hours, both man and beast and the very fowls of the air so sensibly felt it that some of each species fell down dead".

One bright Englishman even suggested a solution which was to sleep with Indian Women (based on a historic firman (decree) that the Portuguese once obtained from Shajahan to sleep with Bengali women). Now how that worked in cooling off somebody, I do not know, but let us agree for a moment on the superior Anglican expertise on heat control, and not argue, for this particular solution has no direct bearing on this story.

Introducing the Ice trade

Ah! Where was I? Yes, Sept 5th 1833, yet another hot day in Calcutta. The Tuscany was expected in the harbor. It had been sailing from Boston in the USA and bound for Calcutta since May 12th, a long four month voyage, laden with a 180 tonne cargo of believe it or not, ice.

Some months ago, I introduced to you the match king of the world Ivar Kreuger, now it is my chance to tell you about the Ice king Frederick Tudor. Many years ago, I had heard a joke where an American tried to sell a glacier to an Arab, tugged through the waters by a ship, but only recently did I read about the Ice story.
A very interesting person, Tudor had by 1830 made ice a commodity, one that could even be transported around the world, till another bright guy invented the refrigerator. Tudor “harvested” ice in winter from Boston-area lakes and ponds, stored it in icehouses of his own design, and transported it in the insulated cargo holds of sailing ships, sending it to far-flung ports like Havana and Calcutta. His first shipments to West Indies were unprofitable, for they did not know what to do with the ice. But he hit mother lode with Calcutta and later Madras. In the next 20 years Calcutta was one of the hottest destinations and a very profitable one for the Ice king Frederick Tudor. He made over $200,000 only from Calcutta.

He had for the last few decades, struggled with his icy business (frozen water business as it was called then) and was suffering through financial hardship, bankruptcy and several stints in debtor’s prison. But it all changed with Calcutta. Tudor was to tell Captain Littlefield of Tuscanny – As soon as you have arrived at latitude 12 Deg north, you will have carried ice as far south as it has been carried before, and your ship becomes a discovery ship…..as the first ship that has carried ice to the East Indies.

The stratagem in the later parts of the frozen water business was as follows - When January rolled around and the ice was ripe, it was time to harvest. In the mid-1820s, one of Tudor’s suppliers—a Bostonian named Nathaniel Wyeth developed an efficient method of cutting ice, better than the usual method where men used long saws to cut through the ice. He instead used horses to pull a metal blade, an ice plough, which cut the ice. Thus ice could be harvested in much larger quantities. These large, neatly cut blocks lasted better than rough sawn ice, and could be stacked in warehouses and ships more easily. Much later, in 1833, fellow Boston-based merchant Samuel Austin proposed to the struggling Tudor a partnership for selling ice to India, then some 16,000 miles (26,000 km) and four months away from Massachusetts. And it was thus that in May 1833 that the brig Tuscany sailed from Boston for Calcutta, its hold filled with 180 tons of ice cut during the winter. When it approached the Ganges in September 1833, many believed the delivery was an elaborate joke, but the ship still had 100 tons of ice in its holds upon arrival.

And being goods delivered by a Boston Brahmin exporter, I suppose this ice was ‘pukka’ stuff, even for the high castes of Bengal (that was a pun, in America it has been applied (after it was coined by writer Oliver Wendell Holmes later in 1860) to the old, upper crust New England families of British origin that were extremely influential in the development and leadership of arts, culture, science, politics, trade, and academia.

Back to Calcutta - The ship is coked now and the ice has been offloaded. Many a hoary story or yarn remains about the subsequent happenings. Like how a Parsee went to the captain and asked him – ‘How this ice make grow in your country? Him grow on tree or shrub? Some were disillusioned as the ice melted as quickly as they got it, some were more interested in the Baldwin apples that remained fresh in the hold next to the chilly ice. It was euphoria time in Calcutta. The ships officers soon mixed with the Anglo Indians and had iced drinks for weeks. As people were to remark, the Boston-India trade which had declined was finally back on even keel.

It was not that Calcutta had never seen ice until then. Indeed they had, only it was a kind of slush - made in a different way. Hooghly plain ooze was made by skimming surface ice from water in unglazed pots placed overnight in reed-lined pits. But you can imagine how it compared to the crystal clear blocks.

It was unloaded from the ship as quickly as possible, and after paying all expenses, Tudor realized a profit of over $3,000 on this first shipment. After some discussion, the British voted to grant Tudor a monopoly, and decided to erect a substantial ice house for him. He sold ice there by placing a 100 pound block on display behind glass – replacing the block each morning with a fresh one to make up for whatever had melted the previous night. And anyone who could afford and icebox invested in one of those zinc lined wooden contraptions. Calcutta’s ice consumption in the coming years rose to 3000 pounds compared to 30,000 at Boston.

A Calcutta historian, in speaking of the ice, eulogized, "I will not talk of nectar or elysium, but I will say that if there be a luxury here, it is this - it is this. ... A block of pure ice weighing 2 maunds," he continued, "was a sight Calcutta had never seen before. The idea of having the purest ice at three halfpence a pound during the whole year, instead of having the Hooghly slush for six weeks at fourpence the pound, was irresistible."

Either the reporters were over enthusiastic or the onlookers were – many amusing reports can be read. Like how a Bengali braved to touch a piece of the ice, and, believing that he had burned himself, wrapped his hand in his robe and rushed away followed by a number of the alarmed onlookers. Another story goes thus - J Stocqueier, a colorful journalist and editor of The Englishman, the leading daily newspaper in Calcutta, was rudely awakened by his old faithful who could not wait to give him the news that burruf (ice) had arrived from America. "There it lay", wrote Stocqueier latter "in a square mass of purest crystal, packed in felt and fragrant pine dust. A quantity of rosy American Baldwin apples reposed upon the surface of this glacier". Back in his office, the facile editorial pen wrote on, “How many Calcuatta tables glittered with ice that day. The butter dishes were filled, the goblets of water were converted to miniature arctic seas with icebergs floating on the surface. All business was suspended until noon and people rushed to pay each other congratulatory visits. Everybody invited everybody to dinner to taste claret and beer cooled by the American importation.”

Meanwhile the American captain of the Tuscany was presented a gold cup by the Governor General (you can see it on the video) by Lord Bentinck, and the romance of American ice was listed as an achievement of his government. In Boston, as the business boomed, the India wharf and an India Row where prosperous ‘shippies’ lived became in places and it soon became fashionable to marry an East India Capn. But the arrival of ice in Calcutta benefited far more than the upper crust in Calcutta. Food was kept fresh for weeks, doctors used ice as a treatment for fevers, and many other uses were found as well. The retuning ships also introduced the Asian cockroach to Boston.

Another person who was to picture in this business during the winter of 1846-1847, was Boston writer Henry David Thoreau who watched a crew of Tudor's ice cutters at work on Walden Pond and recorded these remarks in his journal. He wrote

Thus for sixteen days I saw from my window a hundred men at work like busy husbandmen, with teams and horses and apparently all the implements of farming, such a picture as we see on the first page of the almanac…………

Thus it appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. With favoring winds it is wafted past the site of the fabulous islands of Atlantis and the Hesperides, makes the Periplus of Hanno, and, floating by Ternate and Tidore and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, melts in the tropic gales of the Indian seas, and islanded in ports of which Alexander only heard the names.

Back in India, Calcutta was not the only place where Tudor conducted his ice business. Tudor, the `Ice King', built three houses, one each in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, to keep ice under proper insulation.

And so we finally we come to where we started, the Vivekanadra Illam or the Ice house of Madras, built by Tudor. This is the only one that remains while the others have long since vanished or evaporated like the frozen water business. When the International Ice Company was established in Madras in 1874, “to manufacture ice by the steam process”, the Tudor Ice company in India was finally done with. Bilgiri Iyengar who later purchased the ice house converted it to Castle Kernan, however, it did not succeed as residential quarters because of inadequate ventilation. Swami Vivekananda returned to India via Madras after a triumphant tour of the West in February 1897 and stayed at the ice house for 10 days and thus provided the reason for the new name. Later it became a child widows home, a school and so on, the details of which can be read in greater detail in the linked Hindu articles and the Madras reference book. Interesting is another observation in an old book that the sea shore was closer to the Ice house in those days than it is today. Also noteworthy is the fact that Ice was sold in madras at 4 Annas per pound in 1840.

Frederick Tudor was an opportunist merchant. He had seen that something that was useless in New England would be of great value in Calcutta, becoming a wealthy man simply because he figured out what to do with one hundred tons of ice, and setting a fine example of transcontinental trade. But there were many people who would have made snide remarks all along – that man Tudor is trying to sell ice around the world - what stupidity!! Tudor had long since proved everyone wrong. Apparently, the inscription on the front cover of his first diary were his words he lived by: “He who gives back at the first repulse and without striking the second blow, despairs of success, has never been, is not, and never will be a hero in war, love or business.”

The Englishman in India – Charles Raikes
Beyond The Veil, Indian Women in The Raj - Pran Nevile
Hindu article
Mechanics Magazine 1836
The maritime history of Massachusetts, 1783-1860 - Samuel Eliot Morison
Tudor’s story
Walden - Henry David Thoreau
Ice saw pictures & details
A video on Tudor
The Madras Tercentenary commemoration volume, Volume 1939 - By Madras Tercentenary Celebration Committee
Hindu articles – 1 & 2

Pics - various websites - each acknowledged with thanks


1. The dates of departure and arrival of the Tuscanny are somewhat hazy and clouded in the enthusiastic pen strokes of various writers who first tackled this icy subject. The departure dates vary between 6th -18th May and the arrival between 5th and 16th Sept 1833. But I assume that for the purpose of entertaining reading this inaccuracy would not matter. Probably the arrival dates at Calcutta were clouded between the time Tuscanny was first sighted and the time it docked.

2. Strangely – the ice industry was taken over by the spring or mineral water industry – waters from the alps and all that stuff, even arctic beer and Swedish springs have leapt to the forefront of a multibillion dollar industry which sometimes relies on tap water, but makes the millions preying on man’s fastidious preferences when it comes to ingesting food and water.

3. About Thoreau and his work let me borrow the words of Kenneth Champeon from the blog Things Asian

His masterpiece Walden is peppered with references to Eastern texts like the "Bhagvat-Geeta", the Vedas, the Vishnu Purana, the Sanchya Karika; the Hindu gods Vishnu, Brahma, and Indra; the Indian poet Kalidasa and his drama Shakuntala; the Tartar belief in the transmigration of the soul. Thoreau was a bridge between his "restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century" America -- which would certainly strike us as none of these things - and the various Golden Ages of departed Asian civilizations.

Of the Eastern texts, Thoreau favored the Bhagavad Gita, which he claims to have read in the mornings during his sojourn at Walden. To him, it was the pinnacle of Asian culture, of all culture. "How much more admirable," he wrote, "is the Bhagvat-Geeta than all the ruins of the East!" In the pond, he bathed his body; in the Gita he bathed his "intellect." Much of his preferred mode of living can be traced to the Gita's spirit. He even employs its tropes when he says that he must toil "to save the universe from annihilation." In Stephen Mitchell's adaptation of the Gita, the line is: "If I stopped acting, these worlds would plunge into ruin."

Thoreau gave something back to the India from which he drew so much inspiration. Gandhi read Thoreau's seminal essay "Civil Disobedience" and came to embody its message of nonviolent resistance, and of being guided by laws higher than those of mankind. Gandhi had other Western influences, notably Ruskin and Tolstoy. But his kinship with Thoreau is more palpable. Only Thoreau may have loved the Gita and India as much as Gandhi did, and paid as much obeisance to "higher laws."

Mahatma Gandhi first read Walden in 1906 while working as a civil rights activist in Johannesburg. He told American reporter Webb Miller, "[Thoreau's] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why, I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau's essay 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,' written about 80 years ago…..

Strange connection, isn’t this? Thoreau, the British, ice from Walden pond, Gandhi, India, Calcutta Vivekanada & Madras!!!!

Chennai days – Part 2


The family jewels had shrunk to the size of grapes with the onset of fear and I was shaking at the knees. Well, a typically argumentative Malayali would ask, which type of grapes? The minuscule Salem Drakhsi or the bigger seedless Angoran type, with mirth on his face and I would be tempted to take at swipe at that smirking mug, but well, this was all really in t mind, as they say, especially those who make comments sitting relaxed in their arm chairs. Then again, this fear must have come about from Krishna Iyer’s comment – ‘be careful or they will cut it off’. As you can see, I was young and had a life ahead, and the family jewels were important. Nevertheless….I had taken the plunge.

People who had read the first part of this note would recall my plans of stepping into the hallowed environs of the Amir Mahal. The desire was exacerbated by our school ‘shikhshana’ of not balking at anything. ‘Go for it’ was the motto and so here I was. I had stood in front of the gates for a few minutes, across the road, gathering myself and the courage, watching the old watchman and his moves intently. He stepped away for a minute and I moved in, purposefully, as though I belonged. I quickly walked through the tall brick gates stained a dull red (like oldish betel spit) and into the Mahal.

Simple, was it not?

It is all in the mind, I kept telling myself again, this is free country, there is no problem out there and there is nothing to worry. I do not recall now if it said, ‘private property – keep away, entry by permission or trespassers will be prosecuted (or castrated)’ or some such thing. But I definitely know that there were no skull and bones pictures and the watchman seemed a ‘namke vaste’ geezer, the remains of wealthy days of the Nawab, vestiges long trimmed by the passage of time. But the sharp nag at the back of the neck and chest remained, for I was convinced I was in a place, a place I should not be in – maybe due to everybody else saying I should not go there. At that time I did not know that the Nawab and the people inside were a gentle lot.

It has always been like that with me, some friends may remember my experience with the taxi driver or the jump into the pond, articles published elsewhere. Act first, think later was my motto in those impulsive younger days. So that morning, on my way to the bus stop, on a Saturday, alone and lonesome, I was out planning to go for the Mardi Gras at IIT Adayar, which none of the others in Ambika Nivas were the least interested in, I decided to step into Amir mahal and take a look at the prohibited grounds, the place from where all those burkha clad females and shehenai wadan had emanated. I had to clear the mystery in my mind.

I did not know then, that it was an alternate living arrangement offered by the government to the Prince of Arcot, or that it was the Royapettah police court which got converted to a palace and thence renamed Amir Mahal. I did not know also that the Amir Mahal was actually converted to a 70 room place in 1875 by an Englishman, Robert Chisholm, with designs based on Queen Victoria’s Osborne house. The owners were finally shifted from the Shadi Mahal (Before that they were in the Chepauk palace or Kalas mahal) to the Amir Mahal, with their entourage. A few other things I did not know - Why was it called Amir mahal? Because it was the palace of the Amir-i-arcot or the Prince of Arcot, as he was renamed after the Nawab title ceased to exist. Maybe it was ‘emir’ which transliterated to ‘amir’, but I have to correct many that it was not ‘Amir’ as in rich, but ‘amir or emir’ as in chieftain. In the old days, sentries with rifles stood at the gates while the Nawab’s army band played in the rooms above the gate arch. Or that the Nawab still gets Rs 1.5 lakh or thereabouts as pension from the Govt of India.

I also did not know then that the Arcot prince in the early 20th century had purchased the first Rolls Royce in Madras, but that he was bitterly disappointed because it ran silent and he could not make an event of his arrival with that statuesque car. I also did not know that this was not to remain so, for a clever local mechanic (probably an Anglo Indian for they were the best repair men of the old days) of Royapettah used his spanner cleverly and loosened a few strategic screws, perhaps a trick that would have frowned upon by the RR engineers in Derby, to provide the prince with the right amount of noise from the tails and the exhaust and elicit admiring looks from passers by. Yeah! The big man cometh!!! vazhiye maruda...peria nawab vanthitte irukku....

I also did not know that anybody could go into the Amir Mahal on Id or Ramzan days for lavish tea parties, for I would have waited in that case and not taken this unholy risk. Anyway I was there, but I did not walk though the 14 or so acres that the grounds cover, I had entered the grounds, done the deed, now all I wanted to do was slip out without getting caught. I walked back and forth through the Zenana courtyard for a bit, sheepishly looking at the trees and aging buildings, the houses needing new paint probably, seeing eucalyptus and coconut trees between the buildings, remembering the sighing sound created by the tall eucalyptus trees swaying in the wind in Trivandrum, only there was no wind in the sultry Madras areas, the coconut trees looking sick and tired, they were not at home, I thought, home being the shores of Malabar.

There were plenty of people milling about for they were all related to the upkeep of the 600 or so members of the Royal family living within those many acres of land and buildings. I had no intentions of getting waylaid and being asked questions and then submit to the cleaver and the loss of the jewels. Yes, there were plenty of Burkha clad ladies wandering here & there, maybe with purpose, I do not know. So I beat a hasty retreat, deflated somewhat, not seeing pomp and glamour, or sights unseen, but nevertheless with an adrenaline rush still on high… The website of the Nawab shows many a dignitary visiting him, including Bill Clinton, but my in and out trip was over and done with in a jiffy, was not captured in camera for posterity and I still have my crown jewels. Finally I was out, quickly heading out to the next bus stop near Woodlands looking for the 5B going to Adyar.

And there I spent the next few hours and the evening, in the company of two pretty Gujju girls from Mylapore, whom I met during the bus ride, also going out across the river and Annie Besant’s home to witness the festival at IIT. It was indeed a gala time, and the last part was quite a scene. We witnessed a not so good Bharatnatyam performance by the ‘dream girl’ Hema Malini, and watched her being pelted onstage by all kinds of missiles, mostly of the paper variety, though I would not be wrong to say that one or two were of the soft and watery reddish vegetable variety. A miffed Hemaji stopped her performance, remonstrated to the crowd, that she had never seen a more rowdy group and walked away. Fortunately Dharam-paaji was not around to give it back to the public. And we all had a pretty good laugh...Ah! the vagaries of youth...

But nothing beats the proposition I got while wandering through milling crowds at lunch time to the Armenian and Thambu Chetty street restaurants some days thereafter. I was in a hurry, for my pals at Crompton’s were holding a seat for me in some eatery. Feeling a light tug on my shirt, I looked down, to see a small urchin with a pleasant face. Now I can continue to wonder forever why he chose me, but the fella asks – ‘sir – girl’s venama? (Want girls?) -Very good – Bombay, Goa, Kerala, just name your choice’. I was flabbergasted. What the heck – in the middle of the street, amongst this entire crowd, at 1PM in the afternoon. What a gall? And I just asked the question that came naturally. ‘Enappa – neram enna nu unakku theriyuma? Like – do you have any idea what time it is?’ And the boy answers - rather retorts – ‘sir – ithukellam time irukka? Is there a time for these things?’ Well – I had no answer to that – and walked away – man – that was the limit, got me thinking anyway.

You know what – the location of Ambika Nivas was really great. We had Quaid-e-millet women’s college down the corner, Ethiraj not far away, SIET some miles down. So as Tamilians say it was a great locale for 'color watching'. The cycle, auto and electronic market of General patters were close, cross the road and Higginbotham’s was a landmark. The biggest building in town, the LIC building was a stone’s throw away and after the Thousand lights mosque, we had the Southern Chinese restaurant down Mount road to top it all off. There were movie theaters all around and many a restaurant or smaller eating places.

Those days I used to wonder why the bus stop was called Ayiravilakku or ‘thousand lights’. Well there appears to be confusion even today - It is said that 1000 lamps needed to be lit in order to illuminate the assembly hall in the Wallajah mosque. So people believed that the name came from this or the Thousand Lights Mosque. However, there are other people, who maintain that a thousand lights were lit by the Indian National Congress to mark their first meeting in Madras. The December 1887 session was held in Mackay's Garden, just off Greame's Road, placing it squarely in Thousand Lights, but, whether there were a thousand lamps lit or not, nobody knows. I think the former is more appropriate, but the paraffin or electric bills are bound to be horrendous anyway for I have seen such halls and many hundred lamps at the Blue mosque in Istanbul.

Thus went life in those parts, the back door to the British Empire. Now the young un would chirp – what is it the back door? The answer is interesting, the front door was considered to be Calcutta by the British. But well, Parry's corner was one hell of a place and these days I imagine what it must have looked like, the chetty's and Jews and Armenians rushing around with their small trading establishments, the arguments and fights of the left and right handed classes, the 18th century period when people like Parry, Spencer and Binny set themselves up in the area to create establishments in their names that survive to this day (Maybe not Binny). Imagine a time when Thomas Parry purchased the corner from the Nawab who had got it from John Call, the actual location of Dare house was a garden house in a plot and it was here that he built his colossal business empire with John William Dare. This later became Esplanade. Those days I believe they had a tram terminating at Parry's.

Here as Parry laid a foundation for his business, he had many a lay of a different kind, for It was here that Parry had many liaisons, cavorting with many a lady of many a heritage and nationality and finally leaving the world in gentlemanly fashion writing a will that provided for many of those ladies and their born and unborn children...Perhaps the urchin who cornered me in Parrys corner always knew that Parry's corner was a stimulating environment. This was even before all that the location where Comte Lalle the French Commander, after fighting the Malabar raja's (or at least around that time) sited his artillery while cannonading the Ft St George. But today in the hustle and bustle of the flower sellers, the business men, the petty shops of Burma Bazar, the street sellers, the lawyers and judges of the high court across the NSC Bose road, much of that is forgottten. Here in America, with that kind of story line, they would have made it a tourist destination of choice, with expert guides rattling of all these great stories while they point out the locales...and I feel as always, we Indians dont really have a sense of history...perhaps not marking time and events, simply letting life and times slide by, for they insist that times and events occur as fated, simply meant to be...

And then again, the British were the first to start it, and the North Indian’s followed, calling the people of the whole region as Madrasis, for they were from the Madras presidency. As Tharoor once wrote, why did they not call natives of Madras and the Madras presidency Chennayyn or something; maybe it was too difficult for their tongue. Anyway one person I would blame for all this mess is the late actor Mehmood for playing the role of a ‘madrasi’ in Padosan ( and the song Ek chatur naar) whom and which the Northies took to heart. Even after the place has been ceremoniously renamed Chennai, the people are still Madrasis, not Chennaiyaas. But then, If the Portuguese are to be believed, the name Madras came from the prominent Madeiros family, but equating Madrasis to the people of mediterranean is a tall claim, somewhat like saying Shaksespere was actually Sheshappa Iyer from chennai. Anyway Malayali’s have finally been somewhat disassociated from the Madarsi group and have become Mallus thanks to eubilent comedians like our Lola kutty.

And so the only Madras that remains in todays world is Madras in Oregon USA, or Madras as in Madras checks (clothing). The Madras in Oregon is home to some 5500 people, but curiously an airport servicing the place is called Bombay farms airport, 6 miles to the west. Unfortunately there are no Madrasi’s or Mumbaikars that I know of in this Madras, though they have a Taj Mahal restaurant owned by a Reddy-Garu who would also be loath to call himself a Madrasi.

Back to Madras - on some days we went to the only ‘kind of’ mall. It was in Egmore on Pantheon road, and called Fountain plaza, a hep place where the youth congregated. With ‘chat-bhel’ places and imported mal stuff sold in those Gujju shops. It still appears to be there, though dwarfed by the hundreds of modern malls and shopping places. Some other days we would creep up to the ‘Drive in Woodlands’ at Cathedral road ( as we were entering by feet, not on wheels). Fortunately they had a proper eating place where you could sit & eat and not just in your car, but that landmark vanished a couple of years ago.

So many other memories surface now and then and there are still some more stories untold, but to bring this rambling to a close, finally this Madrasi moved on to Bombay and that led to another series of stories, to be told some other day or other days.

If you want to take a look at old Madras, get a whiff of the old times, look through this picassa Album by Mageshwar

Political History of Carnatic Under the Nawabs -  By N. S. Ramaswami
Indian life in town and country - Herbert Compton
Hindu articles 1, 2, 3, 4
Prince of Arcot Website

Note: There is another side to the RR story, and probably the nut that was loosened became tight again for The Nawab of Arcot stopped being driven in his Rolls-Royce. Instead he attended meetings and conferences in an old car of a different make. When queried as to why he chose the inferior car for his trips, his straight-faced answer was: "Well... the Rolls-Royce does not make any sound when I drive it, even in high speed. During my use of the car in estates, my tenants do not get a chance to look up and pay me homage.... As such I have to use this cheaper and more noisy model, which gives advance notice of my coming!"

Maybe this one is true, but I still like Ramaswami’s version with the clever mechanic who provided the right sound from the muffler by a turn of the nut.

The Charition Mime and Udyavara


The heading would be mysterious to most people save a few from the Manipal or Udupi region of Karnataka, or those favoring Kannada and Tulu literary discussions. Most others may have heard a passing snippet referring to this in the middle of an uninteresting conversation, and so I thought it a good effort to cover this subject, for it is remarkable in many ways.

I have written often about trade from the Malabar coasts to various regions and countries all around from time immemorial, starting in the ancient times with the Greeks, then the Romans, then the Arabs, Eastwards with the Chinese and so many others. One must note here that there were also many trading ports in the South East and Eastern coastline, but we will for the moment restrict ourselves to the West. Spice & commodity trading at that time was not in reality restricted to the ports on the Kerala coastline, but many small and large ports all the way from Surat in the North of the Coast line to Kanya Kumari in the south. Then again I could be more specific and say that these traders did have a differentiation, and the Malabar Coast by definition extended roughly from the Goa area down to Quilon. Later on Malabar became synonymous with ports the North part of Kerala between Cochin and Mangalore.

I will now take you to a period in the mid 2nd Century AD or sometime earlier, a time when sea based trade intercourse existed between Greece and Malabar coats. It was not the beginning of these trade links or anything like that, but it was a time when Greek theatre was taking root in places farther away from Greece, places where their dominions flourished. This one takes us down to a place some 100 miles south of Alexandria and today’s Cairo, to an ancient Nile river city called Oxrynchus (Oxrhynchos, Oxyhydrinchus), named after the ‘sacred’ fish who ate the p*en*is of the Egyptian god Osiris after the God’s body was cut up by his brother Seth. Somewhere around 332 BC, Alexander conquered this area and established a Greek town with the name Oxyrhynchou Polis (town of sharp nosed fish). It soon became prosperous, and was the third largest city in Upper Egypt.

It did well until 641 when the Arabs conquered Egypt, and then it soon fell into disrepair. Today all that is left is a little town that goes by the name El Bahnasa and some archeologists. As it was the prosperous capital of the 19th Nome at that time, vast amounts of paper were created and eventually dumped as garbage. Much of that remained underground as sands shifted and civilization rebuilt over the old remains. Today many of those thrashed fragments have been recovered, testament to the life of the city and are termed the Oxrynchus papyri. The prosperous city housing some 10,000 people even had a theatre that housed some 11,000, which is what we will soon visit. All this came to light when two young fellas from Oxford Grenfell and Hunt started excavation in that area in 1896.

For ten years, from 1896 to 1906, every winter, when the Egyptian climate was bearable, Grenfell and Hunt supervised hundreds of Egyptian workers, excavating the rubbish mounds, digging up tightly packed layers of papyrus mixed with earth. The finds were sifted, partially cleaned and then shipped to Grenfell and Hunt's base at Oxford. During the summer, Grenfell and Hunt cleaned, sorted, translated and compared the year's haul, assembling complete texts from dozens of fragments and extracts. In 1898, they published the first volume of their finds. They worked closely together, each revising what the other wrote, and publishing the result jointly. In 1920, however, Grenfell died, leaving Hunt to continue the work with other collaborators until his own death in 1934. Meanwhile, Italian excavators had returned to the site: their work, from 1910 to 1934, brought to light many further papyri, including additional pieces of papyrus rolls of which parts had already been discovered by Grenfell and Hunt.

Many of us would be familiar with Greek drama, especially the aspect of melodrama and how it became popular. It is not to say that other countries borrowed from it, but the Greeks had perfected it into an immensely popular art form. Drama troupes traveled around, and as an important town in the scheme of things, they were also at Oxrynchus. As it happens, a member of the troupe left behind his stage notes, it happens to be a stage musician who conducted or played the music for the plays that needed it. These were the annotated notes from the 2nd century incredibly survived the passage of time.

Among the fragments they discovered was what we now know as fragment 413 or POxy 413. Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 413 (P. Oxy. III 413) is a manuscript of an adaptation of Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris. The setting however is shifted from Greece to India. The anonymous adaptation is known as Charition after the main character. The manuscript is held by the Bodleian Library as Ms. Gr. Class. b 4 (P). Whilst the exact date of the play is unknown, it cannot have been later than the second century CE, and was possibly done earlier. It is also unique in offering several stage directions of a percussive kind (tumpanismos, krousis, krotalismos and fart), indicating where drums; cymbals or other instruments were to accompany the action, dance and song. The contents were published for the new world in 1904, close to two thousand years after its production!!

Ok, so what is great about it? We do have writing samples from Greece, but this one was a very interesting play. This Papyrus 413 and the whole play was what they termed a ‘farce’. It was a farce with plenty of farts, a princess, devadasi’s, booze, a king and many big bodied amazons with bows and arrows and so on. OK, that is also familiar, at least some of it. What is unique?

The interesting part was that the entire play was set in a Malabar coastal kingdom and the ‘Greek’ play has liberal doses of an ancient South Indian language. When it was first discovered by Western historians, nobody had much of a clue. Then word spread around, Indologists were involved who eventually determined it was a Dravidian language. But as you can imagine, experts were divided in opinion. Some said it was an ancient Prakritic language, while most others agreed that it was Tulu or Kannada. The Tulu and Kannada factions have been discussing ever since on which one it is. But I will get to all that eventually. Let us get back to the play and the situation.

Think for a moment out of the box. This is a Greek play in Egypt. Why on earth should you accurately use those ‘gibberish’ words and phrases, realistically in such a far away place? Mere sounds would have helped convey that it was happening in a far away land. Think again about people like me, living in a far away land eagerly running to the movie theatre to see a Desi movie. So were there expatriates, who spoke that language in Oxyrynchus – lying along the Camel route from the Red sea ports to Alexandria? A colony of Kannada-Tulu speaking traders perhaps? Interesting eh? A raunchy noisy play containing ‘Devadasi’s’, perhaps a Firangi Devadasi even, lots of alcohol etc once in a week would have kept them happy and reminded them of home, maybe? As again, we will get to more inferences later. Let us see what this ‘interesting’ play is all about. That there were Indian traders living in Greek towns like Alexandria is testified by Dio Chrysostom (117AD) who mentions Indians among the traders, a very reputable trading class. In context one must also note that while there were Yavana colonies in Muziris (Cranganaore or near today’s Kodungallur) as well as Kaveripoompattinam in Tamil Nadu none have been discovered yet in other places. A historian, E.P. Rice, even suggested that Indian actors could have been involved in the production of the mime in Egypt, and that the barbarizing sections are the transliterated record of their lines.

Now to go to the scene of the play and recreate it, we have to travel to a place near Malpe in Udupi called Udyavara – otherwise termed Odora in these ancient Greek writings. As it happens, a Greek trading ship is wrecked on its shores. One of the members of the group is a beautiful girl named Charition. Odara is ruled by the “nayaka’ of Malpe or Malpinak. Of course a nice Yavana girl has but naturally to be added to any King’s harem of dancing girls or flutists (Hunt’s own opinion is that pirates carried her away to Odara in an ocean raid) and she is thus added to the local lot of Devadasi’s. The girl is dedicated to the Moon goddess of the local temple, the Goddess Selene.

Some days later, her brother heroically sets out with his followers to rescue her and reaches the place. As the story goes, the brother finds her at the temple grounds and they plan an audacious escape. Charition advises her rescuers with ‘inside’ information that they should serve strong wine to the king. Accordingly they serve the king and his bodyguards (women with bows and arrows) the ‘foreign liquor’ or strong wine (undiluted!). Soon the king and party get inebriated, dance and fool around, and fall into a stupor as the brother quickly escapes with the girl after they tie down the king and party with strong ropes. The buffoon attached to the party advises the girl to take away some temple offerings (ornaments?), but she refuse stating that they are the goddess’s property and it would be sacrilege to do so. The fearful Charition makes her final prayers to the Goddess Selene for a safe journey & departs. Charition as we read wants to escape mainly to see her father

Anyway they make their escape and the tale is told in this farce POxy413. As you can imagine, the realism is created by extensive dialog bits in the Canarese language, interspersed with the Greek. The humor of the drama comes with the ‘barbaric dances of the nayaka’ and his entourage after getting drunk, for wine is not available in this region and the people have no idea how to drink alcohol in a sensible way (as explained by the Greeks). They gulp it (much like the slave in the Yiju story of the Geniza scrolls) against their will and fall senseless, after which the Greek team sail away with the fair maiden. Then again there is much mention of loud farts by the clown, but it is not yet clear that it is as intended, it could very well be the word used for a required stage sound effect. But then, at the beginning of the papyrus text there is a discussion of how salvation might be procured through farting; the Fool says that he contains the necessary equipment in his bottom, and addresses a prayer to a divine personification, Lady Fart, mentioning a statue of her made of silver!!

For those interested, a translation of the farce can be found at the linked sites at the end of this article. However, the Kannada or Tulu words are not still clear and are best left to experts who are still poring over it and mediating a final conclusion.

So does it finally mean the settlers in Egypt were of Kannada origin or spoke a tongue akin to that projected? Was that the language used in the North Malabar regions before the entry of the languages we know today? All these I assume, lay ground for exciting anthropological and language oriented research. And strange isn’t it – we come across the Indian weakness for booze in the Geniza scrolls – dealing with the Bomma slave and now again in these papyri. If only the king of Malpe (Malpinak) or Alupa knew how to handle his liquor, we may choose to think, but then again, he did not, and so we have this precious piece of history. Other interesting facts are the usage of women as personal bodyguards (these days the Libyan dictator Gaddafi has such a set of Amazons guarding him) and the attachment the Yavana Devadasi forms with the moon goddess and her refusal to steal the ornaments or offerings made by her devotees, are interesting aspects of the story. Reading the lines and seeing somewhere a word similar to Mariyamma in the farce, reminded me of a Mariamman or goddess dance and kannagi, especially the latter and its relation to trade and the traders of Tamilnadu, but more on all that later, on another day. Does it mean that such a story took place? Probably not! Where did the Greek knowledge of the Udyavara locale come from? Traders or sailors or Indian expatriates in Egypt? How did the Kannada/Tulu/Prakrit words find their way into this mime and farce? What was the purpose? How much realism was intended? The mention of the women bodyguards with the great bows and arrows, the prospect of a monn temple in Odara….

I leave it to you, the reader to figure it all out as you like.

The Barbaric language of POxy 413- One of the most interesting features of the skit is the appearance of a number of Indian characters who speak dialogue in an Indian language. Shortly after the papyrus' publication, Dr. E. Hultzsch, a noted German indologist who had a strong command of the Dravidian languages, demonstrated that the words represented an ancient form of Kannada, and suggested possible readings for the dialogues in question which made sense in the context in which they were uttered (Hultzsch 1904). There is considerable ambiguity regarding the Indian language in the play, though all scholars agree the Indian language is Dravidian, but there is considerable dispute over which one. The dispute regarding the language in the play is yet to be settled, but scholars agree that the dispute arises from the Fact that Old Kannada, Old Tamil And Tulu during the time when the play was written were perhaps dialectical variations of the Same Proto language and over the years they evolved into their present forms as separate languages. Bhaskar A Saletore, KB Ramakrishnayyah and Sama Shastri are the proponents of the Kannada theory while PS Rai feels it is Tulu.

The eminent Dr Hultsch concludes - From the learned researches of Mr. Priaulx, it appears that before 200 A.D. four Roman emperors were visited by natives of India, Viz., Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, and Antoninus Pius. Only of the first of these four alleged embassies can it be safely asserted that, in spite of sensational embellishments, it rests on a historical foundation. For, Augustus himself declares in his Memoirs "To me embassies of kings were frequently dispatched from India, which had never before been seen with a leader of the Romans. The frequency of such missions proves that, already about the time of the Birth of Christ, a lively intercourse existed between India and the Occident. For this reason and those adduced before, there is nothing strange in the fact that the author of the farce discovered at Oxyrhynchu8, or his informant, must have been acquainted with the Kanarese language.

Tail note: Some say that the temple referred to at Udyavra is the Shambu Kailaseshwara temple or Shambhukallu (Chembukal) Bhiarava temple. However experts at Tulu Studies believe that this was built during the 4th century CE. Was it perhaps a Bhagavathy temple earlier? Note also that the Greek Goddess of the story - Selene is the Moon goddess, sister of Helios. However Greek history enthusiasts would now recall that the worship of Selene had been taken over by worship of the goddess Artemis (not the same deity) by 750-800BC. If that were that case, could this Drama be even older than 2nd A.D? And if that were true, it was well before the advent of languages like Kannada, Tulu and Tamil as the argument rests at today. Food for thought.

The Oxyrhynchus papyri (Vol III) – Grenhall and Hunt
The alleged Kanarese speeches in Poxy413 – LD Barnett
Remarks on a Papyrus from Oxyrhynchus: - E. Hultzsch
Iphigenia in Oxyrhynchus and India: Edith Hall
History of Indian theatre, Volumes 1-2 - Manohar Laxman Varadpande
Goddess Selene facts

For more details on Udvyara the place, refer Dr B Vishal’s charming blog. and this scholarly article at Tulu studies
For the complete mime/farce script check this link – Translation by Mark Damen
Images – Shambu temple – Tulu studies, others from www thanks