HUMBLE BIRTHPLACE IN KUTCH

GUJARAT IS THE BIRTHPLACE of several great politicians of India: Mahatma Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel, Morarji Desai, and Narendra Modi, to name but a few. Kutch, which until soon after 1947 was an independent princely state, is now part of the State of Gujarat. It was the birthplace of an important, but now largely forgotten, ‘father’ of Indian Independence, Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930).

The house in which Shyamji was born is the heart of the jumble of narrow streets in the old centre of Kutch Mandvi. Unlike the large house in Porbandar where Gandhi was born Shyamji’s birthplace is a very modest dwelling. Shyamji was the son of a poor man, who spent his working life struggling to make a living in Bombay.

We were shown around Shyamji’s birth house by Hriji Karani, who has not only founded a fine school in Mandvi but also instigated the creation of a monument to Shyamji at Kranthi Teerth.

The birthplace is now a museum, which is looked after by an elderly lady. In addition to caring fir the museum she helps her grandson and some of his friends with their schoolwork. Her grandson, aged only three, was able to speak a few words pf English as well as draw the Roman numerals on his slate.

The birthplace is devoid of household effects. Their pace is taken with exhibits, mainly photographs and paintings, relating to Shyamji’s fascinating life. Amongst the photos, there is one of the Middlesex Land Registry document relating to Shyamji’s purchase of a property in London’s Highgate, the building that was known as ‘India House’ between 1905 and 1910. This was the house where Shyamji and his ‘disciples’ including VD Savarkar plotted the downfall of the British in India. There was also a photograph of the block of flats in Geneva on which Shyamji spent the last few years of his life.

Shyamji and his wife died in Geneva. In his will, he had stipulated that his ashes were to remain in Switzerland and not to return to India until the land of his birth, India, became independent of the British.

Although India became independent, free of British domination, in 1947, it was not until 2003 that the ashes of Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma were brought to India. They were collected from Geneva by Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and brought to India. I knew that from 2010, the black marble casks containing the ashes were put on display in a specially built pavilion at Kranthi Teerth, but I had no idea where they were kept before that.

Mr Karani showed us the small room in the birth house where the ashes were kept from 2003 until 2010. This little chamber, like the inner sanctum of a Hindu temple, now contains several photographs and a reproduction of an early flag designed for India by Shyamji’s feisty revolutionary colleague Madame Bhikaiji Cama and VD Savarkar during the brief existence of India House in north London.

A large oil painting depicts Shyamji with Henry Hyndman (1842- 1921), the British socialist whose anti-colonialist ideas strongly influenced Shyamji and his followers. Hyndman delivered a speech at the opening of India House in 1905. In the background of the painting there is a portrait of BG Tilak (1865-1929), one of the most revolutionary of the earliest members of the Indian National Congress and can well described as ‘the father of Indian independence’.
Like many other traditional houses I have visited in Kutch and Gujarat, the wooden staircase leading to the upper storey is incredibly steep, almost a ladder. The upper storey of Shyamji’s birthplace was a single room with more photographs and a tiny balcony that provides a view of backs of the houses on the street below.

Shyamji left Mandvi to study in Bhuj and then Bombay before setting off for England where he became a barrister in London and a world expert in Sanskrit based at Oxford. It is unlikely that he visited Mandvi much after beginning his impressive career. I have described the remarkable life of this son of Mandvi and esrly advocate of Indian independence in my book, “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”

Although I knew that Shyamji was born in Mandvi in a far from well off family, and I had already visited the town once before, seeing his actual birthplace, viewing its surroundings, and entering his childhood home helped me appreciate the ‘rags to riches’ aspect of his life.

IDEAS BOMBS AND BULLETS by Adam Yamey describes the life of Shyamji Krishnavarma and the centre for Indian freedom fighters that he created in North London. It is available from:


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Bookdepository.com
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From London to Gujarat

TWO YEARS AGO, we first visited Kranthi Teerth close to Mandvi in Kutch, once an independent kingdom and now a part of the Indian state of Gujarat. Kranthi Teerth is a memorial to Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) who was born in Mandvi. A brilliant Sanskrit scholar and a barrister, Shyamji became disillusioned with the British and by 1905 was advocating that India should become completely independent of the British Empire.

In 1905, Shyamji bought a large house in Highgate (North London). He converted this into a centre and hostel for Indians studying in London, a place where they could eat Indian food, meet fellow countrymen, and discuss affairs related to India. He called the place ‘India House’. The house still exists in Highgate but is now divided into flats.

Shyamji’s India House in Highate, not to be confused with the building with the same name in the Aldwych, rapidly became a centre for anti-British, anti-colonial activity until its demise by the end of 1909.

In 2009/10, a monument was created near Mandvi to commemorate the long forgotten pioneer of the Indian independence movement, Shyamji Krishnavarma. The monument includes a life size replica of the house in Highgate, which was once ‘India House’. The interior of the replica makes no attempt to copy whatever was inside India House back in the time of Shyamji. Instead, it contains portraits of numerous freedom fighters including some of those who either visited or lived in the house in Highgate when it existed as India House. There is also a collection of portraits of some of the heroes of the Great Rebellion, or First War of Indian Independence, that occurred between 1857 and ’58. One might question one or two omissions amongst the portraits (eg Jawaharlal Nehru and Gokhale), but there is a large selection of freedom fighters remembered here. Apart from the feisty Madame Bhikaiji Cama and Shyamji’s wife Bhanumati, there are no other ladies commemorated.

When I first saw the replica at Kranthi Teerth, which looks very incongruous standing tall in the flat sandy semi desert landscape, I became fascinated by its history. When we returned to London, I began researching the story of India House and its exciting contribution to the independence of India. Last year, I published a book about it: “Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets”. The title encapsulates what happened in India House: ideas were discussed; experiments in bomb making were undertaken; and guns were packed ready to be smuggled into British India.

It was interesting to revisit the portraits on display in the replica of India House after having researched my book. At our first visit, most of the persons portrayed meant nothing to me. However, seeing them again, having learnt about them while writing my book, felt rather like meeting old friends!

Yesterday, we revisited Kranthi Teerth and met Hriji Karali, whose ideas led to Narendra Modi’s encouragement of its construction. I presented the senior officials at Kranthi Teerth with a copy of my book. They appeared to be very pleased because until then they had not seen anything in English about Kranthi Teerth and the person it commemorates. My wife and I were given a warm welcome.

Apart from the replica of house in Highgate, there is a simple but spacious gallery where the irns carrying the ashes of Shyamji and his wife are reverentially displayed. These were brought to India from Geneva, where Mr and Mrs Krishnavarma died in the 1930s, by Narendra Modi in 2003 while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat.

I always enjoy visiting places more than once because each successive visit I discover more about them and thereby appreciate them with greater keenness. This was certainly true of our second visit to Kranthi Teerth.

Ideas, Bombs, and Bullets by Adam Yamey is available from:
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Pothi.com (best for purchasers in India)
Amazon
Bookdepository.com
Kindle

Picture shows setting of the replica of India House at Kranthi Teerth

An Indian patriot from Kutch

My new book “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” explores the brave exploits of Indian patriots living at India House in London between 1905 and 1910. They dedicated their efforts towards gaining independence for India – complete liberation from British imperialist rule. India House, which was in north London, was purchased by Shamji Krishnavarma, a barrister and leading scholar of Sanskrit. If his origins in Mandvi (Kutch, now Gujarat) were humble, his academic acheivements were quite the opposite as these excerpts from my book explain:

Shyamji Krishnavarma[1] (‘Shyamji’) was born in Mandvi, an estuarine seaport in Kutch, in 1857. Until June 1948[2], Kutch, a largely arid desert area, was one of the semi-autonomous Indian Princely States controlled by the British Government in India. Sandwiched between Sindh (now in Pakistan) and the Saurashtra peninsula, Kutch is now part of the State of Gujarat.

FACE

Mandvi was an important trading centre. It was surrounded by a long wall, constructed in the 16th century and now mostly demolished. The old heart of the town and its bustling bazaar area remains picturesque with many houses displaying intricately carved wooden structural and decorative features. One bank of the mouth of the River Rukmavati continues to be a thriving centre for the construction of traditional wooden dhows, which are favoured for transporting goods mainly between the Arabian Gulf and East Africa. Fishermen mend their nets and maintain their colourfully decorated small vessels on the opposite bank. Mandvi is probably best known for the Vijay Vilas, a Maharao’s palace built in the 1920s in a Rajput architectural style. It was used to film some of the scenes in the highly popular Bollywood movie Lagaan, which was released in 2001 and depicts the struugle between the Indians and the British.

Shyamji was born into a poor Bhanasali family. The Bhanasali community comprises mainly poorer farmers and traders, who are Vaishnavite Hindus, worshippers of Vishnu (an avatar of Krishna) [3]. Krishnavarma’s first name, Shyamji, can mean: ‘dark complexioned’, ‘dark blue’ (as Krishna is often portrayed), and ‘Krishna’[4]. It was an obvious choice for a son’s name by worshippers of this god. The ‘Varma’ suffix on his surname was questioned by members of the Indian police in British India, who became very interested in Shyamji’s activities after 1905. A police report dated 27th September 1905 suggested Shyamji:

“… added the title “Varma” to his name in order to pass himself off as a Kshatriya[5]…”

This might have been a defamatory act of the authorities against someone they feared. If this was really the case, it might have been added because the Kshatriya (warrior) caste is believed to be superior in status to that of the Bhanasali people and some members of Shyamji’s family’s caste claim to be of Kshatriya descent[6]. Fischer-Tiné wrote that despite his name Shymaji was not a Kshatriya[7]. Regardless of whether he was a Kshatriya, Shyamji’s educational successes allowed him to mix with men from backgrounds more prosperous than his.

Young Shyamji attended the local primary school in Mandvi from 1870 onwards[8], and continued his education in the Alfred High School in Bhuj (60 kilometres northeast of Mandvi). The language of tuition in Bhuj was English. He was an excellent student and topped the school in academic achievement. His father, who had a small business in Bombay where he lived, may have given news of Shyamji’s prowess to members of a group of reformers based in Bombay[9], with whom he had business relations. Some of them had family members in Kutch, who might have also heard about the child prodigy. In any case, news of Shyamji’s scholastic excellence reached the ears of men who were prepared to help bright young Hindu men.

The reformers in Bombay were followers of the Arya Samaj movement (see below). Led by men such as Vishnu Parsaram Shastri, Madhavdas Raghunathdas, Karsandas Mulji (sometimes called an ‘Indian Luther’[10]), and others, the Arya Samaj reformers fought against pillars of Hindu Brahminical tradition such as: untouchability, child marriage, enforced widowhood, sati (widows’ self-immolation by burning), and worship of idols. One of these gentlemen, a Bhatia merchant and philanthropist from Kutch called Mathuradas Lavaji[11], paid for Shyamji to enter the Wilson High School in Bombay to continue his studies…

… As in Bhuj, Shyamji became a first-class student in Bombay. His academic ability and knowledge of Sanskrit won him the Seth Gokuldas Kahandas Parekh[12] scholarship, which paid for him to study at Elphinstone High School, a much more expensive and prestigious establishment than Wilson High School. His great knowledge of Sanskrit allowed him to use the title ‘Pandit[13]’.  Elphinstone’s pupils were mainly the sons of Bombay’s wealthy elite. It was here that Shyamji became a friend of a pupil Ramdas, son of Chhabildas Lallubhai, a wealthy Bhanasali merchant of Bombay. Chhabildas was impressed by Shyamji. He asked Shyamji, then aged eighteen, to marry his daughter Bhanumati with her approval[14] (possibly unusually for the period), then aged thirteen. They married in 1875.

The year before his marriage, Shyamji met Swami Dayanand Saraswati (‘Dayanand’; 1824-83), who became important in his life. The Swami had come to Bombay to meet members of the reforming movement, with which Shyamji had become associated.

Dayanand[15] was an influential reformer of Hinduism and the founder of the Arya Samaj movement. He was born in Tankara, which is now in the Morbi district of the State of Gujarat…

… While visiting Bombay, Dayanand met Shyamji, who then received private lessons in Sanskrit from him. Shyamji and Dayanand rapidly became friends and corresponded with each other. Their friendship might have been enhanced by the fact that Dayanand’s mother came from Kutch, as had Shyamji[16].  Shyamji provided valuable assistance in the editing and distribution of Dayanand’s Vedic publications…

… The arrival in Bombay of a scholar from Oxford in 1876 was a turning point in Shyamji’s life. The scholar was the orientalist Monier Monier-Williams[17] (1819-99), an Englishman who was born in Bombay. He had become Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford in late 1860. In 1876, Monier-Williams had come India to elicit donations from Indian princes to help finance his project to create an institute dedicated to furthering studies of Indian culture at Oxford. His Indian Institute was established in 1883, and finally opened in 1896[18].

During his visit to India in 1876, Monier-Williams wanted to find a man who could read and write Sanskrit in the Devanagari script[19], in which, for example, the Vedas were originally recorded in writing (after having been transmitted from one generation to the next orally and learnt by rote). Judge Gopal Rao Hari Deshmukh (1823-92), a social reformer belonging to the Chitpavan[20] community of Maharashtra, introduced Monier-Williams to Shyamji, the brilliant young scholar of Sanskrit…

… Shyamji travelled to England on the SS India. He was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, in April 1879 and was awarded a BA in 1882[21].

 

A house cover

IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS (ISBN: 9780244203870)

is available on lulu.com, bookdepository.com, amazon, Kindle, and can be ordered from bookshops.

 

NOTES IN THE EXCERPTS

[1] For a readable, informative biography, see: GL Varma: Shyamji Krishna Varma The Unknown Patriot, publ. by Ministry of information and Broadcasting Government of India, New Delhi: 1993

[2] Rushbrook Williams, LF: The Black Hills, publ. by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London: 1958

[3] See: http://www.bhanushalisamaj.in/ , accessed 22 March 2019

[4] See:  http://www.indianchildnames.com , accessed 22 March 2019

[5] Bose, AC: Indian Revolutionaries Abroad: 1905-1927, publ. by Northern Book Centre, New Delhi: 2002, first publ. 1998

[6] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhanushali, accessed 23 March 2019

[7] Fischer-Tiné, H: Shyamji Krishnavarma: Sanskrit, Sociology and Anti-Imperialism, publ. by Routledge, New Delhi: 2014

[8] See: https://www.krantiteerth.org/about-shyamji-krishna-verma.html, accessed 22 March 2019

[9] Yajnik, I: Shyamaji Krishnavarma, publ. by Lakshmi Publications, Bombay: 1950

[10] See: Barton Scott, J: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 2015, Vol. 83, No. 1, pp. 181–209, and Motiwala, BN: Karsondas Mulji: A Biographical Study, publ. by Parbhudas Ladabhai Mody, Bombay: 1935

[11] Yajnik, I

[12]He was Gujarati. See Fischer-Tiné; Yajnik, I adds the ‘Parekh’ to his name

[13] Pandit: ‘learned’ or ‘wise’. See: Johnson, WJ

[14] Yajnik, I

[15] For a succinct biography of Dayanand, see Johnson, WJ

[16] Varma, GL

[17] DNB: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition, accessed 24 March 2019

[18] http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/broad/buildings/east/old_indian_institute/index.html

[19] See: Bose, AC

[20] Many Indian freedom fighters and reformers of note belonged to the Chitpavan community.

[21] DNB