Posted in Personalities

Prisoner in Cuddalore, Prince in Sweden!

By S.V.Kaushik

History is full of strange twists. Here is one I stumbled upon.

Siege of Cuddalore

About 185 Kms south of  Madras (now Chennai) is the quiet port of Cuddalore, where you can see the ruins of Fort St. David. Back in1783, Cuddalore was far from quiet: The French were entrenched in the Fort and the British army from Madras had besieged it. The French made several raids into the British camp, but could not break the siege. One sortie was led by Sergeant Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. His charge was brave, but he fell wounded, and was captured.


The Siege of Cuddalore, 1783

He was taken prisoner by the British Hanoverian Regiment, commanded by Colonel Christoph von Wangenheim. Wangenheim rather liked the young prisoner: he treated him kindly and arranged for medical help. Soon the war got over; Bernadotte returned to France and Wangenheim to Hanover. They were destined to reunite 2 decades later…

Two decades later

Bernadotte saw a meteoric rise in his career. He fought many battles, faced many challenges, and ultimately became a Marshall of the French Army. By any military standard, his achievement was unique: he enlisted as a Private and ended as a Marshall! He had learnt his lessons well: he remained a soldier’s soldier, demonstrated a principled leadership and treated the vanquished gracefully (perhaps the influence of his Cuddalore experience?). Meanwhile Wangenheim had retired as a Major-General in Hanover.

When Napoleon conquered Germany, Bernadotte was appointed military governor in Hanover (1804). In Hanover, Bernadotte reached out to his old foe-turned-friend, Wangenheim. Wangenheim was overjoyed that the old Sergeant had come to thank him!

Many versions of this story have been written by chroniclers (including some cynics, who say that the whole story is high on emotion but low on facts). I would like to believe that it really happened, since it seems to be in line with the rest of Bernadotte’s character. Our story doesn’t end here….

Napoleon & Bernadotte

Bernadotte was a competent commander who spoke his mind, even if it was unpalatable to his boss Napoleon. This created a strange love-hate relationship between the two. Moreover, Bernadotte had married Desiree Clary, who was Joseph Bonaparte’s sister-in-law. (Joseph was Napoleon’s elder brother). Ordinarily, this would have given Bernadotte extra political mileage, but in this case, it made matters worse! [ It is said that Napoleon had once wanted to marry Desiree; and Napoleon was not above jealousy. Many stories have been woven around this, including a Hollywood movie starring Marlon Brando]. Naturally, Bernadotte was frustrated.

Then suddenly, Lady Luck smiled again at Bernadotte. The aging King Charles XIII of Sweden had no male heir and Sweden was desperate for a King. The Swedish legislators felt that if they could get a “military-man” from even outside Sweden, he would fit the bill. Bernadotte’s name came up and was accepted. The  influential Swedish army supported his candidature, because they remembered his kind treatment of Swedish prisoners of war (Cuddalore influence, again?) in his victorious campaigns.

Coronation of King Charles XIV

 This was a unique moment in history: a foreigner was ELECTED as Crown Prince and heir-apparent to the throne (instead of INHERITING it). Bernadotte approached Emperor Napoleon for his Relieving Order. In all probability, Napoleon was relieved to relieve a “difficult” subordinate. Yet, he tried to extract a final promise that, as Swedish King, he would never oppose Napoleon. Bernadotte refused to commit anything: he would do whatever was needed to protect the Swedes who had elected him! Napoleon yielded, saying “Go, and let our destinies be accomplished”. And so, by destiny, Bernadotte became King Charles XIV John of Sweden.


(L)From Marshall Jean Bernadotte of France to (R) King Charles XIV John of Sweden

Bernadotte kept his word. Although he never sought to confront Napoleon, there were many occasions when Sweden allied itself with enemies of France. But he never attacked France ever. As King, he survived many challenges, but was a largely respected and popular monarch. The present King of Sweden is a scion of the Bernadotte dynasty, which is one of the oldest surviving Royal Houses of Europe today!

What if?

What would have happened if Bernadotte had not survived the charge in Cuddalore?  I do not want to know!

Grateful Acknowledgements: All pictures are kind courtesy of Wikepedia. The Siege of Cuddalore is by Richard Simkin (1890); the Portrait of Marshall Bernadotte is by Joseph Nicolas Juoy and the portrait of King CharlesXIV John is by Francois Gerard (1811)

Posted in Men who made Madras, Personalities

Robert Clive and the Battle of Purasai

By S.V.Kaushik

 I know what you were thinking when you read the title….

  • Really, did Robert Clive fight a battle in Purasai?
  • Was he the Englishman who colonised the place we now call Purasaiwakkam?

My response to the first question is: it all depends on which Purasai you are talking about. And the answer to the second question is: no, that honour goes to another corrupt English Governor called Elihu Yale.  Let me explain.

The place where you go shopping for Diwali, Saraswati Puja, Pongal and just-like-that summa (சும்மா) — the Purasaiwakkam that we Chennai-ites knowwas first taken on lease from the local Moghul Underling, by the Madras Governor Yale.  During the 1680s, British trade in Madras had grown so much that both Fort St. George and the adjacent Black Town (now George Town) were choc-a-bloc. So Yale decided to expand the town by leasing the nearby Purasaiwakkam. It was a nice wooded area with a lot of trees: flowering trees known in Tamil as Purasai. So Purasai-wakkam was simply “The place of Purasai trees”.

Most residents of Purasaiwakkam would find difficulty in describing the Purasai tree to you. That’s because those trees have just vanished from Purasaiwakkam: it is now a concrete jungle where several generations have lived without ever sighting a Purasai. One old resident told me that the only Purasai tree of Purasaiwakkam can be found inside the Gangadeeswarar Temple. Perhaps, it has survived because it is the Stala-Vriksha (holy tree) of the Temple. It is also known as Flame-of-the-forest, or Butea Monosperma. It looks like this:


Butea monosperma

Now you are thinking: enough of this botanical-bluster, where is Clive in all this? Be patient my friend, and I’ll tell you.

Clive Mir Jaffar

Clive after the victory in the Battle of Plassey

 Do you remember Robert Clive’s most famous battle? The Battle of Plassey – where Colonel Clive’s small army defeated the Bengal Nawab’s huge army. Well, “Plassey” is the anglicised version of “Palashi” which was the correct local name of that battlefield. “Palashi” is the Bengali word for …. why, Purasai of course! The place was full of Palashi trees and hence the name Palashi or Plassey.


Plassey Railway Station, now: note the lovely Purasai tree in the background!

Now, Clive’s “small” army had a “large” contingent of “Namma Ooru Veerans” a.k.a. the 1st Madras Regiment.  All these Tamil soldiers of Clive’s expeditionary force, what would they have called this place of Palashi trees? Why, Purasai of course. For them it was the Battle of Purasai, no? Touché!

Grateful acknowledgement: All the pictures in this blog-post are courtesy WIKIPEDIA.


Posted in Men who made Madras, Personalities

The Last Grand Nawab: Wallajah

By S.V. Kaushik

December 2106: India played the 5th Test against England at Chepauk Cricket Stadium. Over a 1300 balls were bowled from the Wallajah End before England was crushed. Ever wondered why the Wallajah End is called Wallajah? Your response would probably be “That’s because, that’s where the Wallajah Road is, Silly!” Yeah, so why is the Wallajah Road called Wallajah? Ah, THAT requires a serious answer. Wallajah Road is so called because that road leads to the Chepauk Palace of the Nawab Wallajah. And who was this Wallajah? To find out, let us travel back in time when the English were far more powerful than they were in the Chepauk stadium last winter.

The Nawab’s full name was: Amir ul Hind, Walla Jah, ‘Umdat ul-Mulk, Asaf ud-Daula, Nawab Muhammad ‘Ali Anwar ud-din Khan Bahadur, Zafar Jang, Sipah-Salar, Sahib us-Saif wal-qalam Mudabbir-i-Umur-i-‘Alam Farzand-i-‘Aziz-az Jan, Biradarbi Jan-barabar [Nawab Jannat Aramgah], Subadar of the Carnatic. When they decided to honour him, there wasn’t enough street for a name so long as that, so they just called it Wallajah Road! Walla Jah, we are told, means “supremely dignified gentleman”.


Indeed, Nawab Wallajah was not only dignified but also a fascinating gentleman. Although he was the legal heir of the 7th Nawab of Arcot (Anwaruddin Khan), he started his career as the 9th Nawab. No, this was not because he chose to work his way up from the bottom. Before he could lay his claim to the throne as the 8th Nawab, Chanda Sahib (a relative) usurped it.  So Chanda Sahib became the de facto 8th Nawab. For 3 years (1749-52) Wallajah battled tooth and nail to dislodge the pretender; and the British supported him (in fact, they supplied all the teeth & nails!). At the end of the war, Wallajah emerged very victorious and Chanda Sahib ended being very dead. Thus Wallajah rose to become the 8th Nawab, after eliminating the contentious pretender (or was it the pretentious contender?).

He shifted his capital from Arcot to Madras, because that’s where his dear friends, the British, lived. How could he forget them? He lovingly built the beautiful Chepauk Palace, very close to the British Fort St. George. (It is said that he wanted to live inside the British Fort St. George, but the English were nervous about the security risk. But they did make a Wallajah-Gate on the Cooum-side of the Fort so that Wallajah could enter freely and hobnob with the British bigwigs).

Life was not easy yet. He fought wars against the Mysore Kings and the Tanjore Mahrattas. The British were his allies; naturally, they were the sole suppliers of all teeth and nails — on credit! Wallajah ended up owing outrageous sums of money for the hardware and outsourced manpower!

Yet, Wallajah did not let petty accounting interfere in his business of noblesse oblige. He contributed to public causes like there was no tomorrow. He built shelters in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, sent Haj pilgrims on his private ships, contributed to mosques and even commissioned the famous Madrasa-E-Azam (Islamic school). His munificence was not restricted to Muslims either. He donated heavily to Srirangam and Triplicane Parthasarathy Temples. He donated land to the Mylapore Kapali Temple for building a Tank. (In the annual Float Festival of that Tank, his descendants still receive the first honour). He also donated land to Christian institutions like Bishop Heber school and St Joseph College in Trichy. Indeed, in charity, he was truly secular— long before  the SECULAR tag became politically fashionable! By now, Wallajah was very, very broke. SECULAR charity needed SECULAR funding. So, he borrowed from all communities: the British, the Armenians and other Indians. SECULAR economics!

By the Treaty of Paris 1763, he was recognised as a King, independent of the Moghul Emperor (it was good to have international certification even in those days).  But it did nothing to change  local Economics. His ultra-deficit financing model would have made even the US Government cringe, but Wallajah was ever full of courtesy and grace. Once an Armenian lender, Shawmier Sultan, came to enforce his dues. Wallajah charmed him into tearing up his promissory note (“My Lord, my claim is but just a little dust on your shoes”). Wallajah responded in kind by gifting the Noomblee village to Shawmier! In victory he showed kindness. When he defeated the Tanjore Mahrattas, his soldiers raided the Tanjore Treasury. To their disappointment they found that everything had been spent in the war— only the personal jewellery of the Queen Mother remained! Wallajah ordered his soldiers to return it to the Queen Mother and treat her like Royalty should be!

Wallajah lived like a King, gave like a King, and died like a King. But he left behind huge debts that made his descendants vulnerable. The British exploited this and took over his kingdom by means fair and foul. They could not completely forget his friendship, however: they allowed his successors to sport the honorary title of ‘Prince of Arcot’ and receive a tax-free pension from the government. That has not changed till date!

His memory lives in names like Wallajah Mosque, Wallajapet, Wallajabad, Wallajah Gate and Wallajah Road. And even a kid will tell you, every other over in the Chepauk Cricket Stadium has to be bowled from the Wallajah end!


Posted in Culture, Men who made Madras, Personalities

Mind your language

Connect the dots… English medium schools, Lord Macaulay, Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle, Madras university

It’s only been a few days since the government ‘suggested’ the use of Hindi over English in social media platforms. This reminds us of another story, but from a different era – the story of how we ended up making English our own in the first place.

If you are able to read and understand this post, thank Lord Macaulay. He was in India in the 1830s, at a time when the British were beginning to realize that they were just a small handful of men, ruling a vast country of many millions. They really needed help. The local Indians were of little use, because very few of them were exposed to western education at that point in time. And fewer still spoke English.

So the British decided to educate the Indians and use them to govern the country. And this was when an argument broke out. Should the Indians be taught in the vernacular, or in English? It was the raging debate of that time in British India.

Enter Lord Macaulay. He pushed strongly for English to be made the medium of instruction.

‘Whoever knows English has ready access to the vast intellectual wealth, which the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations’, he reasoned.Macaulay’s plan was to create a class of Indians, who would serve as interpreters between the British and the millions they governed; a class that would be Indian by birth but British by thought.


It’s been close to two hundred years, and Lord Macaulay’s language of choice still holds strong in India.

Later British administrators recognized that they couldn’t completely ignore native languages. By then they had figured that it was only by teaching local languages that they could get the masses to learn English. Charles Wood, the then secretary of state came out with a plan to overhaul the education system. He made the study of local languages at the primary level compulsory. And he modeled higher education in India completely on the British system. A direct result of his plan was the setting up of 3 universities – the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, all modeled on the London University.

So why the brouhaha now? Language has a funny way of being confused with one’s identity and race. They aren’t the same. What Macaulay ‘forgot’ to mention was that until the late 17th century, even in England, the medium of instruction was Latin and not English. Newton wrote his Principia in Latin. Most grammar schools in England were devoted to teaching students Latin and Greek, the classic languages. Some schools even punished students who spoke in English during school hours. So much for ninety generations of English!

As for our tryst with English, it was a matter of sheer chance. Did you know that in 1746, the French defeated the English and captured Madras? The British never really won it back. By then, England and France had been fighting each other for a long time. Finally it must have dawned on them that neither was better than the other. So in 1749, in a small sleepy town called Aix-La-Chappelle, England and France signed a treaty. They agreed to exchange certain territories captured from each other. And just like that, without so much as firing a single shot, Madras came back to the British. If not for that one small twist of fate, the world would probably have benefitted from a chutneyed version of French, instead of English.

Would we have fared better if we had not adopted English as our own? The debate still rages on – in at least a dozen Indian languages.


Posted in Great Places, Personalities

What did they see in Chennai?

‘Chennai is a grand city where tradition and modernity co-exist. Well, that’s what everyone says, the guides… the books… the articles… generally every Chennai-vaasi. And that probably is also the impression that most visitors carry back with them today. But what about those who visited many eons ago? Many have come to these shores across centuries, some to visit, some to stay on. How might this city or have looked to them? And what images did they carry back of this place? Let us stretch our imagination a bit and find out in their own words… shall we?

My Lord, You have sent me to this strange land so far away from my own. I can see a skyline dotted with beautiful conical towers which seem to be the local places of worship. There is no dearth of Gods here – there seem to be millions of them, and each also seems to go by a million different names…The people are friendly and are willing to listen when I talk of a different faith. Naturally there is also some resistance to my  presence here, but at least the local king is willing to lend me a ear.  I doubted your word once, but will not do that again. I know you will give me the strength and wisdom, to preach your message here…’

And so it happened. St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ arrived in India in the year 52 AD. He walked through the Southern Peninsula after landing on the coast of Kerala, and reached the place that is called Chennai today.  His message appealed to the local king. But some of his ministers did not take to this very well, and in 72 AD, he was martyred at a place that is now known as the St Thomas Mount. But by then, he had sowed the seeds of Christianity here in India – centuries before it was even accepted as a religion in the western world. In fact, Syrian Christians in Kerala are considered to be among the oldest followers of Christianity in the world.

The common phrase ‘Doubting Thomas’ owes its origins to the story of St Thomas doubting the resurrection of Jesus Christ and refusing to believe till he actually touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hands.

Let’s cut to another age, to another vistor…

‘I have been walking around this strange land and observing its people for some days now. I am most surprised by the fact that people do not lock their doors at all. It seems it is an insult to the king if people need to lock doors. And what a way they have to drink water! I tried it too and it went right through my nose. And can you believe it, there are times in the day when people refuse to take up anything important because the hour is considered inauspicious? They won’t even accept money! But the strangest thing about these people is that they make their Gods dark and their demons fair. So many things here that I do not understand!…’

Marco Polo the Venetian traveler visited the shores of Mylapore in the 13th century, and left a detailed account of the land, the people and their customs. Many of the customs he observed are living traditions, that we still see in practice. It was the time before the arrival of Western settlers and before the Muslim religion reached here. Hindu rituals and ceremonies had reached a peak, and the concepts of purity, casteism and untouchability were presumably fairly prevalent. As for the Gods, yes, they were dark initially, because we are a dark people, and we made our gods in our likeness. But things changed as colour consciousness set in and slowly, our gods became fairer. Of course, today, they have a peaches and cream complexion, perfect teeth and are no way like us!

Miguel Pedro Gonzales— that’s my name. I own a ship and came here because I can buy spices from here. I visited a pepper farm the other day. Dios, I could hardly believe my eyes. Pepper grew thick on the creepers. Black Gold they are called in Europe, and they sell like hot cakes. Only these pesky English men are a problem. We raised the price of pepper a teeny little bit, and they are refusing to buy. Stingy buggers. They say they will find their own route to India and buy their own pepper from here. I really don’t think they can. We are the Masters of the Sea, and they don’t have a chance of reaching here. We will still control pepper trade. As for the locals – what about them really?…’

 The Portuguese arrived here in 1523, but this arrival was more like an inquisition than a peaceful settlement. Their superior Naval capabilities put them in control of the spice trade with the west, and they came here to consolidate that position further. They built their Fort at Santhome and built the Luz Church here, which today is the oldest surviving church in the city. There is an interesting though unconfirmed story that one of the key catalysts for the English East India company to set sail for India was a nominal but an arbitrary increase in the price of pepper in the western markets effected by the Portuguese!

The English did come here eventually, and were masters of half the world in times to come. But what might have been their thoughts about this city in those early days?

‘God deliver me from this land. It’s blazing hot, and my top hats and long sleeved coats are no help to me. Here I am, William T. Smithers, working for the East India Company, posted in Fort St. George. We have collected all the goods from the Black Town, just outside of the fort, and I am waiting for our ships to come and load it in. It is the best Calico cloth I have ever seen and bought at an excellent price too! The mosquitoes are a menace here, and worse still are the peacocks and their raucous cries. We have about fifty of them in here, awaiting the ship. They are going to England, to grace the lawns of the large estates there. Poor creatures—they will surely die in the cold there. As for me, what I want is a large glass of lager, cold lager, with condensation beading the outside of the glass, and the bubbles bursting lazily on the top. Will this land ever get the benefits of ice?…’

 Though this hero is imaginary, we can safely presume his thoughts are all true. Peacocks were taken to England for the purpose mentioned, but they lived and adapted to the cold there. They are still to be found in England. As for ice, yes, it too came to India, all the way form New England in the U.S.A.. Henry Tudor had the brainwave of supplying ice to Europeans in hot countries, and made a fair success of exporting blocks of ice. Remember, we are talking pre-refrigeration era, and the enterprise made sense. The outcome of this enterprise was a new landmark in Chennai where this imported Ice was stored  –  the Ice House, now called the Vivekanandar Illam.

And that friends, is one account of Chennai as it was seen by those who ventured here from lands far far away – some liked it, some did not, some prophesied its future, others were totally off the mark – but they all left a legacy behind. So let’s raise a toast to them, and say “Hats off, gentlemen, we owe you”.


Posted in Personalities, Religion

The city of St. Thomas

Chennai, a study in contrasts, where IT coexists with cottage industry, modern glass buildings live cheek by jowl with agraharams and orchids are sold along with the ubiquitous jasmine. So it really comes as no surprise that temple bells and church bells unite in their call for prayers. And as much as temples contribute to Chennai, so do its many churches. But how did Christianity come to Chennai? The long saga of Christianity began when St. Thomas, an apostle, picked a chit which had Asia written on it, and so had to come here to spread the word of his God.

thomas (2)

This apostle made Chennai his home and preached here, staking claim to the title of the founder of Christianity in India. It is not insignificant that Christianity came to India with him, in 52 AD, much before it was even recognized as a religion in the west. Thomas lived in what is today called Parangi malai, or Little Mount, in a cave and prayed and preached from there. Till date, one can see the cave with its spring, which Thomas brought forth to help the people who were suffering due to drought. There is an imprint of a hand on the wall there, which people believe is the apostle’s. The site where he was killed, on St. Thomas’ Mount, is a land mark today, for there is a small but beautiful Portuguese church standing there. It houses a cross, which is said to have bled, and a secret passage which connects it to the cave in Little Mount. All these stories lend an aura of mysticism to the place. Today, it is the best spot to have an uninterrupted view of the busy Chennai airport, and the city beyond. The small church on St. Thomas Mount is a memorial to this man who came from so far away to preach a new religion in a strange land, driven solely by the force of this conviction.

A long drive leads you through some of Chennai’s busiest roads and to Santhome, the place where the basilica of the same name stands, with its tall white spire visible for miles around. This breath taking white Gothic basilica is a monument to Saint Thomas again, and is said to be built over the remains of the apostle. His body was brought down and buried here before it was disinterred by the Portuguese and taken away to Spain. They constructed a small church here, which was later rebuilt by the British a century ago. The beautiful stained glass behind the altar shows St. Thomas touching Christ’s wounds. According to legend, St. Thomas was the original Doubting Thomas. It seems he refused to believe Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and said he would believe it only if he saw and touched the wounds on Christ’s body. He did, and the relic in the crypt below the Basilica has a fragment of a bone from his hand, that believers say touched the wounds on the body of Jesus Christ.

The skyline of Chennai today is a medley of buildings – temples, churches and of late, multi storied IT hubs. But the story of St Thomas, who came way back in 52 AD, still stands tall. Many powers came after him and the architects of Christianity in India have been many – the Portugese, Dutch, Danish, French, Armenians, British … and each invariably built towering monuments to their faith, many of which still dot Chennai’s skyline. The Luz Church, Armenian Church, St Mary’s Church at the Fort, St Andrew’s Kirk, are just some beautiful examples. A drive past these surviving monuments is an enjoyable experience that helps you reflect upon the city, its history and the common stereotypes associated with it in a new light.