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The first Madras graduate

C. W. Thamotharampillai from Jaffna was the first graduate of the University of Madras

I HADN'T heard in a while from Doug Cochran, former Consul General for the U.S. in South India, so the call the other morning was a surprise. But his inquiry wasn't. He has had a long spell in Colombo and had been quite taken up with Madras and, so, both of us shared an interest in anything that was a bridge across the Palk Strait. Cochran, who is now settled in Andhra Pradesh, was calling to find out the initials of the first graduate of the University of Madras; he remembered the young man's name, Thamotharampillai, knew he was from Jaffna and that he was an ancestor of Neelan Thiruchelvam, who was so tragically assassinated in the heart of Colombo a few years ago even as he strived to bring peace to the island.

I was able to help, but also threw a spanner in the works. C.W. Thamotharampillai and a fellow student from Jaffna, Daniel Caroll Vyramuttu Visuvanathapillai, were the only two who sat for the University's final B.A. exams in the year it was founded, 1857, and both passed the exams to become the first graduates of the University of Madras. But Thamotharampillai scored higher marks and was placed first, so is considered THE first graduate of the University. His portrait, I'm told, used to hang in the University's library. Both Thamotharampillai and Visuvanathapillai were graduates of the Batticotta Seminary (now Jaffna College) that American missionaries had started near Jaffna in 1824. A higher secondary institution that offered students almost a university syllabus, the seminary turned out all-round students with a solid foundation in Western and Eastern literature and sciences. This grounding enabled both Jaffna boys to sail through their examinations in Madras. They, however, as their later record as Tamil scholars was to vindicate, were outstanding students too.

Thamotharampillai went on to become an Examiner of the University of Madras in Tamil. He is, however, best known for his Ilakkana Vilakkam that was published in 1889. Caroll Visuvanathapillai, on the other hand, made more broad-ranging and, in a couple of cases, controversial contributions to the Tamil literary scene. He edited the Morning Star, a leading Jaffna paper, till he came to Madras in 1857, wrote in 1855, the first Algebra in Tamil, Visa Kanitham, and edited The Astronomical Journal. Returning to Jaffna after his degree, he became embroiled in controversy when, in 1866, he wrote Supra Theepam, an attack on the worship of Lord Subramania and Saivism. About a decade later, he saw the light in Chidambaram and wrote a rejoinder to his own book, only to find his new work burnt by his relatives! Visuvanathapillai also compiled an English-Tamil Dictionary and helped the Rev. Myron Winslow with his classic Tamil-English dictionary.

TAILPIECE: Just as the fate of Thamathorampillai's portrait is to be ascertained, as I write these lines the fate of another bit of memorabilia is something I need to catch up with. Prof. P. S. Venkateswaran writes, "I had located the original drawing of Donovan's body (Miscellany, July 19) by himself on a blackboard enclosed in a glass case in a cobweb-covered recess in the Government Royapettah Hospital twenty years ago." If it's still there, I hope it finds a safer place in the Medical Superintendent's office or in the Museum, for what a treasure such a find would be considered in most parts of the world.

S. MUTHIAH

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