Thursday, April 1, 2010

More on Patrick Russell

Patrick Russell came down to Vizag in 1781 at the age of 54 to take care of his ill brother and left in 1791. The years in between were apparently spent collecting snake skins, plant samples and, more importantly, treating snake-bite, which was a major problem on the Coromandel coast. The most common type of poisonous snake, or perhaps the most scary one, was called katuka rekula poda in Telugu. This was later named after him -- Russell’s viper.

In my imagination, he was a silent man, who spent hours, days and months in the Eastern ghats hunting down snakes and getting the tribals and locals to skin them (when he went back to England, he took with him a huge collection of snake skins, which he presented to the Natural History Museum in London. He also collected 900 herbarium species). The fact that he spent just 10 years in Vizag, makes me think he was driven more by a thirst for knowledge than love for the place. Five years after he left, in 1796, he published the book “Serpents Collected on the Coast of Coromandel”. All the drawings were done by him.

But this image of an impersonal scientist has its flaws. Russell was first and foremost a doctor. He treated people during a plague epidemic in Aleppo, Syria, before coming to India. In Vizag his work on snakes began with his search for a way to find out how to distinguish between the bite of a poisonous and non-poisonous snake. People were dying by the hundred due to untreated snakebites. So here was a man driven by compassion -- he studied snakes with the primary aim of saving lives.

Here's another interesting biography of Patrick Russell that I found on the Internet.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Deva dasis

Just finished reading an extract from Castes and Tribes of South India by Edgar Thurston and K. Rangachari. It's about the deva dasi system in South India, wherin young women are "married" to the temple idols and thereafter serve the general public as sex slaves.

The authors claim that in the whole Madras Presidency, the system survived in only one temple -- the shrine of Sri Kurmam temple in Vizagapatam.

The temple is actually located in Srikakulam around a hundred kilometers away from Vizag and is said to be the only temple in India dedicated to Lord Vishnu's second avatar -- that of the turtle or kurmam.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cyclones in Vizag

I love storms. They were definitely the most exciting part of growing up in Vizag. They would begin with howling gales and end in steady rain for days together. As a child I would thrill at the pitter-patter of the first raindrops and the smell of the earth rising through the air and penetrating closed windows into muggy rooms. When the clouds took a break, the whole city would look washed and clean: the leaves greener and the roads greyer. There was hardly any water-clogging like there is in larger cities that have more concrete to hinder the earth from absorbing all the water that the clouds had released.

It was the wind before the rain, however, that was most exciting. It would howl on for hours, rattling windows, smashing the panes, uprooting trees and even twisting iron poles. After the storm, we would learn of fishermen lost at sea and ships stranded in the port.

The Vizagapatam district gazetteer too has many references to cyclones in the area. In fact, Mr. Francis says droughts wreaked havoc in many parts of India but it was the rain that did the most damage in Vizag.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Today I’ve decided to look up Buddhism from every angle. For, after all, a portion of Vizag’s history does seem to be tied up with Buddhism. Thotlakonda, Pavuralakonda, Bavikonda….the list of kondas being discovered is increasing by the year.

I remember going to Thotlalkonda the first time in 2000. It really did look long-abandoned, ruined, and beautiful. Just a year or so later, I visited it again, this time with my parents and a friend from the Asian College of Journalism. Padmini Thorakumbura—a Sri Lankan Sihalese girl—was keen on visiting the Buddhist ruins in Vizag, as she thought they might be important to her religion. This time, the ruins were ruined. They had been converted into a tourist attraction. The road was lined with cut grass and garden flowers. The bricks had all been gathered and laid down as though a new colony of Buddhisht monks were to take up residence there any day. In a word, things looked ugly. But who am I to comment on what the Archeological department, in all its wisdom, considered the best course of action?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Erukamma - Hariti

Seeking Mahadevi: constructing the identities of the Hindu Great Goddess, a research paper by Tracy Pintchman is the piece I talked about in my last post.

I’m particularly fascinated by the conclusion Pintchman draws about the Erukamma cult being a continuation of the Buddhist practice of Hariti worship. Faint traces begin to emerge of how a Buddhist Vizag must have looked and felt.

The Erukamma temple is located in Dondaparty, Visakhapatnam, and Pintchman says Dondaparty was one of the many villages Vizag swallowed as it grew. The Erukamma cult is, therefore, basically a rural one.

The Erukamma story is quite similar to most stories related to Goddess worship. The woman Erukamma preyed on children, stealing them from locals and devouring them in a secret place on the village outskirts. One day an Erukula man (belonging to the caste that weaves baskets) found her eating a child she had recently stolen; he cut off her head. The people of the village panicked at the thought of her spirit taking revenge and tried to placate her by worshiping her. They diverted her malevolent powers to their benefit and now seek blessings, protection, and sons from her.

Now for the Hariti story. According to classical Chinese Buddhist Mahayana texts, Hariti was originally a yaksi who feasted on children. One day Buddha kidnapped one of her own five hundred children, to show her how it feels to lose a child. Hariti’s appetite for children soon cooled and she turned vegetarian, accepting offerings of rice from devotees. The parallels are obvious enough.


Seeking Mahadevi: Constructing the Identities of the Hindu Great Goddess; Tracy Pintchman

Erukamma cult - Buddhist connections

I found a well-written piece on how the Erukamma cult (of Dondaparty, Visakhapatnam) is actually a much-modified continuation of the Buddhist Hariti cult. It represents a gradual, seamless blending of Hinduism and Buddhism in India.

This piece of information comes from a paper written by one Tracy Pintchman and could yield some nuggets. Will definitely follow and see what it has to offer.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Jugga Rao Observatory

A crowd gathers to watch the transit of Venus at the Jugga Row Observatory in 1882
The Observatory at Visakhapatnam stood on the same grounds as the Dolphin Hotel (needs verification) does today. It was established by Venkata Jagga Rao, on whose immediate ancestors Francis W. heaps praise in the Vizagapatam Gazetteer.

About Jagga Rao’s paternal uncle, Surya Prakasa Rao, Francis quotes one Dr. Benza as saying, “He speaks and writes the English language uncommonly well, and his pronunciation evinces hardly any foreign accent. He disregards the show and glitter, the suite of attendants, the umbrella-carriers, and other indispensable appendages of his countrymen of rank corresponding to his own; and wears none of their ornaments. He came to visit the governor on a superb Arabian horse, and was introduced without a single attendant. We accompanied him on his return to Anakapalle, and he conducted us to his garden, which was laid out in a most beautiful style, rich with indigenous and exotic plants and trees.’ Francis W. goes on to say this uncle of Jagga Rao also helped capture a notorious rebel, Prakasa Rao, in 1834. Sounds like an accomplished Anglophile, whom the English liked in return.

Jagga Rao was the elder son of Surya Prakasa Rao’s only brother, Surya Narayana Rao. He studied at Madras under the then government astronomer, T.G. Taylor, from whom he seems to have acquired a love for astronomy. On returning home to Vizagapatam, in 1841, he built the observatory. He died in 1856, leaving behind a daughter. She married Ankitam V. Narasinga Rao, who carried on his father-in-law's work, even resigning his post of deputy collector, in order to find time to manage his newly-acquired estate.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Observatory site

Finally! I've managed to pinpoint the exact spot of Nursing Row's observatory. I'd already known it was somewhere in Dabagardens, but I did not know the exact location or whether any remains of it survive.

But today, as I looked up the transit of Venus in a search quite unrelated to my Vizag story (in fact I am fascinated right now by a book by Dava Sobel, called "Longitude"), I came across a 1995 book by Rajesh Kocchar and Jayant Narlikar, which mentions Nursing Row and his observatory. It says quite clearly, "The site in now occupied by Dolphin Hotel." Voila! Here's my revelation for the day. Hope you enjoyed.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

One story idea

I'm toying with ideas on which to base my history and one of them is this:  I could trace the history of one of the Vizagapatam ivory-work cabinets:

1. An 18th century one which is presently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The path the piece followed from owner to owner is well documented. It was apparently commissioned by a Muslim and can be traced back through six generations of the family.  The name of the ship (The United States) on which it was brought from India to America, when it arrived in Philadelphia (Sept. 13, 1785), and how it descended over time through the family of socialite Anne Willing Bingham (1764-1801), who counted both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among her acquaintances, are all there.

2. The second one is the ornate writing and dressing table that was auctioned away by Lily Safra. I had written about it in a previous blog.

Both stories sound quite good, but how much of the city's history do they cover and what's the scope of the sotries is, I'm not very sure.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Lars Fogelin

I've decided to go into Buddhism for a while. A must read seems to be "Archeology of Early Buddhism" by one Lars Fogelin. He's spent two years (2000-2002) doing a surface survey of the ruins of the buddhist monastry in Thotlakonda and seems to have written this book based on what he found out there.

Rough plan

A rough draft of my book would consist first of a sweep through the Buddhist world, dealing with how the Thotlakonda and Pavuralakonda monastries came into being and how they managed to sustain themselves on those lonely hillocks, out of sight of all humanity and several metres above all sources of food and water. Then will follow the Kalinga kingdom and the effect of Ashoka's conquest, if any. In fact, I think the Buddhist settlements themselves are an effect of this. But we'll have to see.

The Simhachalam temple speaks of the Vijayanagara kingdom's influence. What were people in the area like in this era? What language did they speak? Oriya? Telugu? or something else? What castes emerged in this era? What professions did the people follow? Were there any royalty?

From my very preliminary research, it appears as if recorded history has suddenly jumped from the 13th century to the arrival of the Europeans -- the Dutch in Bhimli and the British in Vizagapatam. About this period there seems to be plenty of material.

The outline looks fine as of now. But the treatment is what matters. I want to make it sound like one connected story. So a theme must be found. A single common thread, one thought that runs through the whole narrative.

Next the style must be conversational. My aim is to make it a readably scholarly book. So once again, we need a story. What will it be?

Monday, January 11, 2010

The East Coast News

Am reading a book called "Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce, and Industrial" resources by Somerset Playne. One interesting find is that there was a newspaper --  The East Coast News -- printed in Vizagapatam.  I guess the date must be somewhere in the first decade of the 1900s, as the first edition of the book itself was printed in 1912.

Wonder if the archives of the newspaper can be found somewhere.


Southern India: Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources; Somerset Playne

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ramsden and Du Jardin

People could make my history come alive. And here are two promising figures: George Ramsden and Clement Jordan (later du Jardin). When the English settlement was established in Vizagapatam in 1682, George Ramsden was sent there as the chief and Clement du Jardin as his deputy.

They beat the Dutch at gaining favours from the local lascars and establishing business. However, in 1683 they fell out and Ramsden was temporarity suspended, while du Jardin was recalled and prosecuted. Would love to learn more about these men.


Found out from a book, "A geographical account of countries round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679" by Thomas Bowrey that Vizag was called Gingerlee or Gingalee before the British took over. Must do a search and see where that leads. Actually Gingerlee refers to the part of the coast between the estuary of the Godavari and the Pagoda of Jagannath (assume it's Puri). Quite a bit of coastline. Not very specific at all.

The book itself paints an interesting portrait of the inhabitants. It says they are mostly of the Hindu merchant class and rigorously paid taxes, as they were in mortal fear and total awe of their Muslim rulers. They paid a huge price for the privilege of worshipping their gods.

The merchants were rich but feared to display their wealth, as inheritance was not their birthright but depended on the goodwill of the king. So they wore the same kind of clothes as their servants and lived in thatched huts. Probably accounts for the present Vizagite's psyche. Most still prefer to hide their wealth and live very frugal lives.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Suryabagh Palace

Caught a glimpse of the Suryabagh Palace of the Daspallas. It's not as huge or opulent as I expected it to be. It stands right next to the Daspalla Hotel, behind the new Chermas showroom and looks like it's made of lime. It's pretty well-maintained though. Not dilapidated in the least.