Date:16/10/2002 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2002/10/16/stories/2002101600230300.htm
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Around the old banyan tree

The serene headquarters building of the Theosophical Society, the famed library and the shrines of all faiths set amidst 270 acres of gardens and estates had their beginnings in a homestead in faraway Vermont, U.S. in the 1870s.

ACROSS THE Adyar, in what till not so long ago was a little-developed suburb of Madras and around one of the largest and oldest banyan trees in the country, there developed the campus of the world headquarters of the Theosophical Society. The serene headquarters building, the quiet residential quarters, the famed library and the shrines of all faiths set amidst 270 acres of gardens and estates that are a veritable eco-system in themselves had, however, their beginnings in a homestead in faraway Vermont, U.S.A. in the 1870s.

In the home of Mary Baker Eddy — not the Christian Scientist — when a tall, bushy-bearded American Civil War veteran, who had moved from farming to journalism to soldiering to investigating corruption in the military, lit the cigarette of a dumpy Russian woman with a talent for music, art, writing and clairvoyance there began a spiritual movement that spread throughout the world. As Col. Henry S. Olcott, who had come as a journalist to investigate `Eddy's ghosts' and stayed to listen to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's talks on spiritualism, later recalled, "Our acquaintance began in smoke but it stirred up a great and permanent fire", though the flame of Universal Brotherhood they lit never quite engulfed the world as they had hoped.

Searching for Truth in all the great religions of the world, seeking to investigate the powers latent in Man, intent on establishing an "Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinctions of race, creed, sex, caste or colour", the Colonel and the Russian-born aristocrat founded the Theosophical Society in New York on November 17, 1875. But it was in India, they felt, they'd find the great truths and so they arrived in Bombay in 1879 and, no doubt intimidated by the crass commercialism of a city emerging as the business capital of India, they moved to the then sylvan banks of the Adyar in 1882. Buying for £ 600 a garden house — and two smaller houses — in 27 acres of orchards and park, they established in December 1883, in what was called Huddlestone Gardens, the world headquarters of the Society. Huddlestone, a Madras Civilian who in 1784 was one of the envoys sent to negotiate with Tippu Sultan, had used this property from 1766 as his `country retreat'. Refurbished by the Society, after it was formally incorporated in 1905, the façade of the house and its foyer with its statues and bas reliefs are quite a striking contrast to the rather plain building seen across the river from its north bank.

After Mme. Blavatsky's death in 1891, and with Col. Olcott more interested in Buddhist and Oriental revivalism, it was left to Annie Besant, who had arrived in Madras in 1893, to focus the Society on its founders' aims : "to search for truth, to study religion, philosophy and Man and his place in the universe." Becoming President of the Society on Olcott's death in 1907, she got down to acquiring 200 neighbouring acres of woods and other property, developed new gardens here — the Blavatsky Gardens, the Olcott Gardens, the Garden of Remembrance, among others — and got down to providing the facilities searchers and scholars needed to seek the Truth in such gardens, in the library, in the several shrines, and under the banyan tree.

The giant banyan tree, believed to be around 450 years old, came with property acquired in 1908. Its sprawling branches covered 40,000 square feet of space and were once held up by a 40-foot tall, 30-tonne trunk and thousands of pillar-like roots dropped from the canopy. Under its shade as many as 3000 people at a time have sat and listened to discourses by J. Krishnamurthi, Annie Besant, Maria Montessori and others. When a gale uprooted the giant trunk in 1989, hope was given up for the ancient tree, but it has miraculously survived on a weakened trunk and its drop roots, still attracting thousands of sightseers every month.

Much fewer are the scholars visiting the Library Olcott founded in 1886. He had described what is now called the Adyar Library and Research Centre as "that child of my brain, that hope of my heart." Today, the Library has one of the world's finest collections on Eastern civilisation, the Classics, philosophy, mysticism and religion. Its 200,000 books and 20,000 palm-leaf and parchment manuscripts are not only a magnificent collection of knowledge but their repository is a major Indological centre recognised by the University of Madras for postgraduate work. The riches of the library, however, include a 600-year-old Koranic text, a 500-year-old text of rare Sanskrit stotras, a 300-year-old German Biblia and an 800-year-old scroll of pictures of Buddha among a host of other ancient texts, first editions and out-of-print books. But its most prized possessions are its ancient manuscripts in material ranging from sheepskin to bark paper that Olcott obtained from Nepal, Tibet, Siam, China and other eastern countries.

On a less scholarly or philosophical note are some of the major contributions the Society or its members have made to India. It was under the shade of the banyan that the former Civilian, Alan Octavian Hume, a staunch Theosophist, first mooted the idea of the National Congress and it was here that Annie Besant and others first discussed Home Rule, leading to the `Mylapore 17' meeting in a house on a Mylapore Mada Street and issuing the call that led to the founding of the Indian National Congress and the birth of the Freedom Movement. Who remembers that role of Madras today? Later, in 1908, it was Annie Besant who was responsible for uniting the Congress that had split in 1907 in Surat.

Other contributions from the sylvan haven on the banks of the Adyar included the first Swadeshi Exhibition, arranged in Bombay by Col. Olcott in 1879, Margaret Cousins and Dorothy Jinarajadasa founding the Indian Women's Association on which bedrock there developed the women's movement in the country, the India Scout Movement that was born of a rally Annie Besant organised under the banyan tree against Baden-Powell's refusal to permit such a movement, the development of J. Krishnamurthi, and the encouragement provided Rukmini Devi Arundale to start Kalakshetra and give Bharata Natyam a new place in society.

Annie Besant may have been a stormy petrel, Krishnamurthi's and Rukmini Devi's first steps may have been dogged by considerable controversy, but who can, looking back on it all, doubt the considerable contribution the Theosophical Society has made to Madras and India?

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