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The earliest Indologists?



Once, I’d described it as the ‘Black Hole’ of the University of Madras campus. Today, the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library is in a much better state and is considerably more user-friendly, once again attracting researchers. The Library, founded in 1867, is built around three major collections, those of Col. Colin Mackenzie, Dr. John Leyden and C.P. Brown. Mackenzie’s is by far the largest and has been considered “of inestimable value in reconstructing the history of South India”. Indeed, he was the first of the great European Indologists to focus on South India.

Curiously, Mackenzie, who came out to Madras in 1763 as an Ensign in the Madras Engineers and died in 1821 when serving as the first Surveyor-General of India, neither spoke nor read any Indian language. His interest in inscriptions and ancient manuscripts had him using several interpreters and translators to bring to his ken his host of Telugu and Tamil finds. Of all his assistants, the one most referred to is Borraiah. But, a magnificent little monograph, written by Prof. C.V. Ramachandra Rao and sent to me by him recently, indicates that as significant as Borraiah’s contribution was that of his brothers’ Lakshmaiah and Ramaswami, who continued what he had been devoting himself to till his death as a 26-year-old in 1803.

I don’t know about others, but not only were the two younger brothers a revelation to me but so were many other facets of Borraiah himself. Readers must pardon me if, during the next few weeks, I come back to these brothers who helped Mackenzie gain the following recognition by N.S. Ramaswami, the Madras columnist of the 1950s and 60s, who wrote so much about the history of South India: “(It is to) Col. Colin Mackenzie more than any other individual that we owe the recovery of the South Indian past.”

The Kavali brothers, five in number, were the sons of Kavali Venkata Subbaiah of Eluru, West Godavari district. Borraiah, Lakshmaiah and Ramaswami were the three middle brothers, but it was the eldest in the family, Narayanappa, who introduced the scholarly Borraiah to Mackenzie — and then, there began a tale that deserves a much longer telling than Rao’s fascinating monograph. Of Borraiah, it has been said that he was the father of Indian Paleography and Epigraphy. I would certainly say he was the first in those fields in South India. But what I found even more fascinating is the description of him as the “first Indo-Anglian writer — the first Indian author to write in English”. The First Indian Author in English is the title of an OUP book, and it gives that honour to a Dean Mahomed, a Subedar in the Bengal Army, who migrated to Ireland in 1784, married an Anglo-Irish girl and then settled in England. His The Travels of Dean Mohamet was published in England in 1784. But this was a series of letters written to a friend — and with this one publication his literary career came to an end. So, others credit Rajah Rammohan Roy with being the first Indian author in English. His Abridgement of Vedanta was published in 1816 —and several other books in English by him followed.

Borraiah, for his part, was known to have kept a journal in English of his travels with Mackenzie in the 1790s. Better documented are tracts that he wrote in English and which were published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society and similar publications. These tracts included On the Manners and Customs of the Jains (written in 1803, published in 1810), The Political Conditions of the Carnatic during Mughal Times, Athayana Vyavaharatantramu (an English translation in 1802) on the revenue and village administration in the Deccan, Historical Collection of Mysore and An Account of Srirangapatnam of Mysore. The best was yet to come, but for his untimely death. It was left to his brothers to carry the torch — and well they did as I will record anon.

It is recorded that on Borraiah’s death, Mackenzie had a monument to his memory raised on “the Madras sea shore”. There is mention of the monument as late as 1847, but what happened to it after that is not known. As for Mackenzie, he commanded the Madras Engineers on war service in Java (1811-13), where, when on off-duty, he not only surveyed the island, but also explored Borobudur and Prambanam, and rediscovered the Hindu temples of Tjandi Mendut and Tjandi Kalasan. He also found numerous early Dutch documents that Stamford Raffles used to write his history of Java.

Mackenzie and his team of assistants were unique — but the Kavali brothers, given their head by Mackenzie, made the team’s reputation. It is sad that few remember them. I wonder whether their descendants, wherever they are, can add to this story.

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