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When the postman knocked

PHOTO: S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

HAMILTON BRIDGE It has become Ambattan Bridge in local use

It's that season of festive advertising — and, inevitably, the advertising bonanza abbreviates my column in print. This week, therefore, instead of writing on a subject or two of my own choosing, I'm concentrating on the pick of several letters, calls and messages that have been piling up these past few weeks. Given these readers' patience, they deserve the space.

`Snakemen' in Australia & Tranquebar

Reader B. Vijayaraghavan, Chairman of the Snake Park Trust, is seeking information on what sounds to me like two fascinating characters. The Taipan, he informs me, is "the world's most dangerous snake". Apparently there had lived in Mackay, Queensland, Australia in the 1990s a snake collector called Edward Royce Ramsamy, a former railwayman. Calling himself Ram Chandra, he used to present regular snake-shows handling the Taipan — earning himself the title `The Taipan Man'. Ram Chandra, it is related, played an important role in developing an antivenin for Taipan bites. In 1957, he was bitten by a Taipan — but his life was saved by his antivenin. The poison, however, over the years attacked his nervous system and nine years later he became paralysed from the waist down. Despite his disability, he continued to work with snakes and help with the development of antivenins. All this is recorded in a book on the Taipan by Paul Masci and Philip Kendall published in 1995. Reader Vijayaraghavan wonders whether Ram(a)Chandra/Ram(a)samy had Tamil connections and whether anyone can shed light on the subject.

The other person reader Vijayaraghavan wants information on is the Rev. John of Tranquebar, who wrote much on snakes. What little I've been able to trace has it that not only Christoph Samuel John but also Johann Peter Rottler, a fellow Pietist, wrote much on Indian snakes and other Indian fauna as well as flora. In fact, John received an honorary doctorate in 1795 for his studies in Natural History. John was renowned for his collection of shells and the botanical garden he had laid out in the mission; he, however, failed to get the Danish Governor to let him lay out a similar garden in the town.

John arrived in Tranquebar in June 1771 and died there in 1813. In 1779, he set up an integrated school for European and Tamil children and, in 1810, advocated similar schools wherever the Danish Halle Mission worked. His best-known work was a book on Indian Civilisation published in London in 1813 and which looked at the traditional Indian school system. In fact, of John it has been said, "In Tranquebar rationalisation came with John!" But that's information that doesn't get me any closer to answering reader Vijayaraghavan's question about John. Are there any readers who can help?

Where's the name from?

The oft-repeated story is that Hamilton Bridge (see picture), just north of San Thomé, was named after a British official called Hamilton and that in local usage it became Ambattan Bridge and, thereafter, Barber's (ambattan = barber) Bridge. Reader K.R.A. Narasiah wonders how valid this story is — and after going through various records I tend to agree with him. Certainly there is none of prominence called Barber in the records. Though Hamiltons there are.

Madras, however, had no Governor named Hamilton to justify the story that the bridge was named after a Governor of Madras. The closest you can get to Hamilton as Governor and bridge is Harris Bridge, near the Gaiety Theatre, which, possibly, might have been named after Lord Harris (1854-59).

Getting back to Hamilton Bridge, of course you could say that it was named after Captain Alexander Hamilton, a ship's captain who wrote one of the earliest accounts of Madras. He describes San Thomé in some detail in his A New Account of the East Indies (1727), but there's no mention of a bridge in his writings on this area. So I think we can pass on this.

Col. Henry Davison Love, that authority on Madras from 1639-1800, expresses his views in Vestiges of Old Madras (1913) in this brief note: "Tradition describes the construction of this bridge to an engineer named Hamilton, a word corrupted by the natives into Ambaton. In process of time this designation was identified with the Tamil ambattan, a barber. The story should be accepted with reserve. The original bridge was probably built by the Portuguese, as mention is made of it during the French occupation of San Thomé, in 1672-1674 — that is, anterior to the period of British control over the site. During the 18th Century, Ensign James Hamilton, who was killed in Madura in 1764, was the only Engineer bearing that patronymic. Towards the end of the 19th Century, a portion of the channel on each side of the bridge was utilised for a bend of the Buckingham Canal."

The only other Hamilton of any significance I've come across during this period is William Hamilton, a Civilian. When Major-General Archibald Campbell became Governor of Madras in 1785, he divided the administration into four Boards: Military, Hospital, Revenue and Trade. One of the four civil servants who constituted the Board of Trade was William Hamilton. That would have made him an eminent enough person to have something named after him. And why not a bridge, if he lived close-by?

The early years of basketball

Reader M. S. Venkataraman, who, when he is not absorbed with the Music Academy, devotes his life to basketball, has sent me much information on the game in India/Madras after seeing my item on it on September 11. Venkataraman, who has been associated with the game for over 50 years, represented Madras and India and went on to found the Ace Basketball Club in 1954. He tells me that the first basketball team in India was formed by a Duncan Patten in 1894, just three years after the game was invented by Naismith. He, however, does not tell me who Patten was and where his team first played. But Venkataraman does write that it was Harry Buck who formalised not only basketball in India but also other Olympic sports — and all these were popularised through the YMCA movement. Annually brought out by Buck during his lifetime were the updated rules of basketball and other Olympic sports that were popularly called the `Buck Rules'.

The game was in its early years controlled by the State Olympic associations and it was at the 1934 National Olympics in Delhi that the first National (inter-State) Basketball Championships were held. Basketball moved from under the wings of the Olympic associations in 1950 when the Basketball Federation of India was formed with C. C. Abraham (Principal of the YMCA College in Madras, 1948-56) as its president. Later that year, the Madras State Basketball Federation was formed with C. C. Abraham at its head. By 1956, the leadership of the Federation became more broad-based, going beyond the portals of the Nandanam campus, and the game began to take root not only throughout the city but in other parts of the State as well.

More about Gerhard Fischer

Reader N. S. Rao, "a work colleague, long-time associate and very close friend" of Gerhard Fischer (Miscellany, September 11) writes to set the record straight with reference to a couple of things I had mentioned in my brief tribute. Gerhard Fischer, the elder son of Martin Fischer, a Sinologist, and a Norwegian mother, was, he tells me, born in 1921 in Oslo and NOT in Madras, as I had stated. Gerhard Fischer, he adds, decided to resign in 1985 from the German Foreign Service, while serving in Berne as Ambassador to Switzerland, to devote his energies to "leprosy and rehabilitation work". He, however, returned to his home in Bavaria and did NOT settle in India. Though he and his wife Ann Lohmann Fischer spent several months every year in India from 1985, they lived in Westerbuchberg, "a picturesque village" close to Germany's border with Austria. His daughter Karen Fischer Koch, reader Rao tells me, carries on his work in India.

S. MUTHIAH

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