Tag Archive: Indian history


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C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar, part one


The fort at Vandavasi.

On the holiday of Deepavali, November 13, 1879, a couple of hours before sunrise, a baby boy was born to C.R. Pattabhirama Aiyar and his wife Rangammal in the town of Wandiwash in North Arcot.

Wandiwash (the anglicized version of Vandavasi), is perhaps best known for a decisive battle fought in 1761 during the Seven Years’ War.  Both the British and the French were fighting for control of south India, which, of course, neither of them had any right to, since they were from Europe and not from India.  Having more money and more resources, the British won, securing the capture of Chengalpattu, Thiruvannamalai (the location of the mountain Arunachala), Tindivanam, and Perumukkal.

The holiday of Deepavali is celebrated all over India, in memory of the triumphant return of the great heroes Rama and Sita to reign over their kingdom, Ayodha.  On their return they were greeted by a joyous populous, carrying thousands of lights; commemorated ever since then, the festival is a celebration of lights.

C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar as a young man

C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar as a young man

The boy’s full name was Chetpat Pattabhirama Ramaswami Aiyar. His father, C. R. Pattabhirama Aiyar, had high hopes for him and was a stern disciplinarian, all the more so since two astrologers, one a European and one an Indian, had both predicted that the young boy would never pass an exam in his life. This grim forecast made an impression on Pattabirama Aiyar, who was a distinguished judge and a prominent leader in the community. He concluded that his son would need a strict upbringing in order to make a success of himself and continue the family tradition of public service.

During his school days, if C.P. was more than a few minutes late arriving back home, he would find himself locked out of the house, expected to skip dinner, and forced to spend the night on the verandah.  Actually, the verandah was pleasantly cool, and his mother Rangammal, or one of the servants, always found a way to smuggle his dinner to him, with some extra dessert as well.

Rangammal, C.P.'s mother

Rangammal, C.P.’s mother

C. R. Pattabhirama Aiyar, C.P.'s father

C. R. Pattabhirama Aiyar, C.P.’s father, in his later years

His father had a special high desk made for him, so that he could stand while studying, since his father feared that he might otherwise nod off and fall asleep.

There was no need for his father to have worried so much about his success.

Not only did C.P. pass all his exams with flying colors, he was brilliant in school, winning prizes in English, Sanskrit, and Mathematics. Dreaming of becoming an English professor, he sailed through every course with ease. However, his father insisted that he become a lawyer, not a professor. In those days, as is still true today, children in India are expected to obey to their parents, not just when they are young, but throughout their entire lives. So C.P. gave up the idea of becoming a professor and took up the profession of law, graduating with distinction from the Madras Law College.

From 1920 to 1923, Sir C.P., as he later was known, served as Advocate General of the Madras Presidency — the equivalent of State Attorney General.

A brilliant lawyer, he won over 300 cases. Although he enjoyed practicing law, he declined an invitation to become a judge at the Madras High Court.  Thanking the Chief Justice of Madras for the offer, he said, “I prefer to talk nonsense for a short while, to hearing it all day long.”

The Madras (Chennai) High Court

The Madras (Chennai) High Court

It was during a prominent legal case, in 1912, that C.P. first came into contact with Annie Besant, who later became a close associate of his. The Besant – Narayaniah Case was brought against Annie Besant by G. Narayaniah, and was prosecuted by C.P. Annie Besant had adopted G. Narayaniah’s two young sons and sponsored their education in England. Over time, however, the boys saw less and less of their father, and his suspicions grew that they were deliberately being kept away from him. The case had a link to Theosophy, since one of the boys was Jiddu Krishnamurti, who had been “discovered” as a future world spiritual leader.

Anne Besant was a leading figure in the Theosophical movement, and one of the accusations was that the boys were being indoctrinated into Theosophy. On behalf of the boys’ father, C.P. won the case, with Annie Besant acting as her own lawyer. Later on, however, the case was overturned by the Privy Council, a Judicial Committee in England, which was the final court of appeal for the British empire and could overturn the decisions of Indian courts. Annie Besant wrote to Sir C.P. to express her profound thanks for the great respect and courtesy he had shown to her during the case. He had, indeed, shown her great courtesy by declining to have her charged with contempt of court, though there were some grounds that would have supported this charge, which would have landed her in jail. The two established a firm friendship which lasted the remainder of her life.


To be continued…


Top photo: Author – Banandhan / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / Vandavasi, Tamil Nadu, India. The decisive battle of the Seven Years War, which the British won, was fought here over 100 years before C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar was born in the town.

Second, third and fourth photos: Courtesy of C.P.Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation

cows resting in the Tamil Nadu countryside

Not surprisingly, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, “Sacred Animals of India” devotes many pages to the cow, since the cow is an especially sacred animal in India, where all animals are sacred.


The cow is a symbol of “dharma.”  Dharma, a very complex Hindu concept, is basically righteousness.  It is the right way and the right path in life.


In difficult times on the earth, it is believed that the earth takes on the form of the cow in order to pray for help from heaven.


From the ancient Indus Valley, one of the earliest carvings is a bas relief of Pashupati, an early form of Shiva.  Pashupati is the God of the animals, and “pashu” is  “cow” in Sanskrit, and by extension, the word applies to all animals.  In the carving, Pashupati is surrounded on all sides by animals.  Another Sanskrit word for cow is “go” or “gau”– from which the English “cow” is derived.


Throughout the early Vedic literature, there are countless references to the cow.  She is associated with the dawn, and with speech itself.  One of the characteristics of Sanskrit literature is that there are so many levels of meaning.


Indo-Iranians also worshipped the cow, and in the Zend-Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians,  the Soul of the Cow is called geuvarsan or goshuran.


The world over, cows have meant wealth, and in early systems of money, the coins sometimes depicted a cow.


In ancient India killing a cow was a particularly despicable crime – equivalent to, or even worse than, murdering a human. It was punishable by death.


According to later mythology, Brahma, God the Creator, ordered that the cow be worshipped, stating that she is the mother of the Gods.


A brown cow near Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu

A great many words and concepts come from the cow.  In India, a person may have several family names, and one of these is called the gotra, which refers to one’s ancient lineage, a bit like a clan name.  Literally, it means cow pen, so there is a connection with the cow.  One cannot marry another person of the same gotra, even though there could be thousands of people all over India who belong to that gotra, because they are all relatives.


In a Brahmin marriage, the entire family history of both the bride and the groom is recited.  This goes back thousands of years and can take several hours. There are any number of other rituals too that have to be performed, so weddings last several days.


A temple gateway is called a gopuram, and some Hindu temples have a number of gopurams, magnificent and beautifully carved.  Gopuram means the cow’s village.


So much of tradition in India relates very directly to the cow.


A black cow near Kanchipuram

During the shraddha ceremony (the rites performed at death), a cow is to be given to a Brahmin.  When the person who has died arrives in heaven, the cow will be there waiting, and will then free the soul from all sin.


Dr. Krishna delves into the question of whether cows were killed and eaten in ancient India, looking into the evidence in literature.  Although, there is some suggestion that certain elements of society may have killed and eaten cows, this was considered abhorrent by most of Indian society, back to the most ancient times.


There are numerous injunctions throughout Hindu scriptures not to kill animals, and especially, not to kill cows and not to eat beef. This has been a strict rule of Santana Dharma (the correct name of Hinduism) for thousands of years.


Ushas, the Goddess of Dawn, rides in a chariot that is drawn by seven cows.


Kamadhenu is the name of the cow who is mother of the Gods.  She grants wishes to those who ask her with reverence and sincerity.


In re-reading this account by Dr. Krishna of the cow’s central place in Indian tradition, it occurred to me that the recognition of the cow as divine throughout the history of India, into the farthest past, may have had a great deal to do with the principle Hindu doctrine of ahimsa or “do no harm,” since the cow is such a gentle creature known for being kind, generous, for nourishing her calves, and giving milk to humans too.  She eats grass and harms no one, giving only good and beneficial gifts.


A civilization that worships the cow is necessarily one of gentleness and compassion, and this is a thread that runs throughout Indian history.  India is a land that is fundamentally kind – not in all ways, at all times, since all that exists on the earth can be subject to cruelty or to being cruel– but there is, all the same, a connection with kindness that is very basic, that is unique, and that lies at the heart of India.


One can see this in Indian history. Great nations have typically become empires, conquering and ruling other peoples. They have launched wars and invasions (even today). India has never done this, and has limited its expansion, which was far-ranging, reaching all over Asia and even far to the west – to trade and to cultural influence – always peaceful and enlightening.  Of how many countries in the world can that truly be said?  There is, in my view, something entirely unique about India – and perhaps this has much to do with the sacred cow.

Photos: Sharon St Joan



Animals greet the Ganges

Monkey family

The monkey family sit together, the baby on his mother’s lap, and the daddy monkey sits behind grooming the mother monkey.  They are carved in stone, and the peaceful family group has been sitting here, enjoying the afternoon sunshine, since the seventh century AD at Mahabalipuram, an ancient place of monuments carved into the rock.

Along the Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal, Mahabalipuram lies 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu.

Near the monkey family, stands one of the most amazing monuments ever carved into rock, known as Arjuna’s Penance, also known as the Descent of the Ganges.  The giant whale-shaped rock, about 96 feet long and 43 feet high is carved with over a thousand figures—mostly incredibly charming animals and angels.

Bas relief - the descent of the Ganges

They have come together to witness an event.  There are two different accounts of what the event is. According to one account, Arjuna, a hero of one of the two major epic books of India, the Mahabharata, is doing a penance, in order to win a boon from the god Shiva.  One can see that he looks like he is making a strenuous effort.


Mr. G. Balaji, who is my guide on this adventure, points out the figure that may be Arjuna.  He is very thin, his ribs are showing; clearly he is an ascetic, and he stands on one leg.  Hopefully, Shiva will grant his wish.

Mr. Balaji is an anthropologist and historian with the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation; and I feel fortunate in having him along as a guide to Mahabalipuram.

Rocks and trees

In the other account of what this means, Mr. Balaji tells me, the entire bas-relief represents the descent of the River Ganges from heaven  (although the Ganges River is, in geographical reality, located several hundred miles to the north).  Nevermind, this is the land of myth.

A fissure maybe six feet wide runs lengthwise down the entire bas relief.  This is the River Ganges falling from heaven.  One can see snake beings carved inside the fissure—their coils resembling the waves of the river.  The sacred Ganges starts in heaven, and to break her fall, she lands first on the head of Shiva and becomes entangled in his hair, then she falls more gently down the rest of the way to earth.

A multitude of delightful and charming animals and angels attend this event—most notably an elephant family, portrayed in stone in the most engaging way possible—very lifelike.  The baby elephants play underneath the mother.  Another elephant follows along behind.

Elephants, with their babies, welcome the Ganges

In front of the elephants stands a cat, his hands raised in prayer.  All around him are mice. Mr. Balaji suggests that they may be praying to the cat, to thank him for not eating them. (Though someone else tells me later that this is not entirely certain!)

On the other side of the fissure, there are geese, lions, and deer.  Everywhere there are heavenly beings—flying, musical angels, angels who are part bird, and countless others.

What is more clear than anything is that these great carved beings were put here by people who loved animals—who were, in the seventh century AD, part of the long, bemusing and enchanting story of India, which has, reaching back into the mists of time, always revered nature—the animals, the plants, the stones and the trees.

Nearby, in a large rock-cut temple are six pillars with carved lions.  Mahabalipuram illustrates the transition being made in the seventh century from rock-cut temples to temples built of stone as separate structures.

Krishna's butterball

The natural granite rocks, which must have existed on the sea coast for perhaps millions of years were no doubt always perceived as sacred in themselves—even long before the great boulders began to be carved.  The area, which covers many acres, is incredibly peaceful.  It is kept very clean and beautiful.  Grass and trees grow among the boulders. One huge boulder, called Krishna’s Butterball, serves as shade and shelter for a herd of goats, who might appear to be in great danger from the rock, perhaps 25 feet high, which looks like it may roll over at any moment, but it seems to have been there for centuries, and the goats lie calmly underneath it.  Occasional dogs also find a peaceful spot for a nap on the grass.

A dog on the grass

Photos:  Sharon St Joan

To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, please go to

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