Think Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in Karnataka and it conjures up images thrown up by movies today. But there is an intriguing, partially unknown history there. It is a history of Dharma and inspiration.
At its heart is a Tamil savant who, had he lived in yester-centuries, would have been hailed as an Azhwar-like figure.
In the early twentieth century, KGF attracted quite a lot of workers, mostly from scheduled communities in Tamil Nadu. They were both hard-working and enterprising. Soon, they realised they should organise themselves with strong Dharmic bonding if they were to progress in a holistic way. Towards this they needed religion.
There were competing religious activists in the field. Colonial missionaries and also proselytisers for Buddhism who arose from a colonial narrative of Buddhism being a religion of liberation against 'Brahminical' casteism and superstitions.
However, for those who were truly concerned about social emancipation, there was something deficient in the alternative offered by proselytising activities.
Under these circumstances, an emerging leader and entrepreneur from the scheduled sommunities in KGF visited the sacred Vaishnavaite temple Sri Rangam.
His name was M C Madurai Pillai.
Here, he was listening to the traditional telling (katha-kalaksheba) of Srimad Bhagavata Purana by Sri Ubhaya Vedhaantha Pravarthaga Srimath Arulmaari Thiruvengada Varayogi Swamigal. Pillai's dignified look and devotion attracted the attention of the disciples of the seer.
They asked him his whereabouts. He informed them that he was seeking 'Pancha-Samskara' from the seer, and that he belonged to Paraiar community.
Under the influence of colonial casteism, the disciples said that a person of Paraiar community could not be given the Vaishanava initiation. Calmly Sri Madurai Pillai started a fast till he would get initiated by the seer.
When the seer himself heard this, he at once performed Pancha-Samskara and gave Sri Pillai the name 'Madurakavi Ramanujadasar', and the seer also came to KGF.
A new chapter thus started in the history of the region.
At KGF, an 'Udayavar Sabhai' was established at Andersonpet. Many members of the working communities were given Pancha-Samskara. A splendid temple of Maha Vishnu — Nam Perumal Ranga Mannar — came up. Community organisation was catalysed.
In 1919, he started Sri Namperumal Primary Schools both in Robertsonpet and Andersonpet. In 1926, they became middle schools. He constantly worked for the welfare of the downtrodden and helped many social reform movements. He gave the name Adi Dravidar to the scheduled communities. He established Adi Dravida Mahajana Sabha and brought out a magazine Dravidan.
When Srimath Arulmaari Thiruvengada Varayogi Swamigal was in KGF, he gave Pancha-Samskara to a devoted boy, Veeraiyan and initiated him as ‘Vaduganmbi Dasar'.
He was both a scholar and devotee of Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya. His expertise was so great that he was given the title ‘Sri Hari Katha Prasanga Vedantha Rathnakara'. It was he whom Madurai Pillai made the editor of Dravidan.
The magazine was a voice for the social upliftment and human rights of the marginalised sections, and was rooted in the Sri Vaishnava philosophy. With organisational skills, inclusiveness, networking with other Vaishnavaite communities on egalitarian terms, Madurai Pillai made a practical and sustained model for holistic social emancipation.
While the term ‘Dravida’ had acquired racial-ethnic connotations in colonial discourse of Indian sociography. For the staunch Vaishnava-minded social activists and entrepreneurs like Madurai Piḷḷai, it had another connotation as the basis of Sri Vaishnavism.
The hymns of Azhwars — Divya Prabantham is traditionally hailed as ‘Dravida Veda Saram’ (essence of Vedic wisdom in Dravidam).
Many of the Vaishnavites from KGF were also supporters and followers of Dr B R Ambedkar, even as they held dear and proud their Sri Vaishnavite identity.
Madurai Pillai inspired quite a lot of philanthropic souls from the community in KGF. In this, he was ably guided and also assisted by another personality — Sri K Pooswamy, whose Sri Vaishnava Deeksha name was Bhuminayagam Ramanujadasar.
He was a member of Mysore Representative Assembly (MRA). He was skilled in engineering science and also was a prudent contractor in KGF. He was charged with his bhakti for Andal, who was also worshiped as the incarnation of Mother Earth and as the consort of Maha Vishnu.
He constructed a temple for her at Marikoopam village of KGF. He wanted to give the best to her and hence he imported the best of tiles from Europe at that time for the temple walls and floors. The sacred images were consecrated at Sri Rangam and paintings were made by traditional artisans.
The commercial ventures he started were named after her: ‘Sri Aandaal Motor Works and Sri Aandaal Bus Services.’ He also started a school that would benefit the children of the workers and economically weak sections of the society — Sri Aandal Primary and Middle School.
At the sacred pilgrimage centre of Melkot in Mandya district, Karnataka, he built Sri Ramanuja Kootam — for all pilgrims to stay and have food — without any caste discrimination.
When a British officer insulted him, Sri Pooswamy decided he would never work again under the British. He decided to become an owner of his own gold mine.
Challenging the British goldmine owners, he acquired land and established 'The Bisanattam Goldmines' in Andhra Pradesh. Till the end of his life, he worked as its chief engineer, profitably, and right in the face of his previous employers 'John Taylor & sons'.
Even his death was spiritual. When he was travelling, a snake came in front of his car and raised its hood. He calmly got out of the car and serenely bowed before the hooded cobra.
In the life of Sri Ramanuja, one of his disciples, Govinda, put his hand into a snake’s mouth and removed a thorn and nursed it out of pain. That is the Vaishnava compassion and respect for all life.
In modern times, Sri Bhoominayagam Ramanujadasar displayed the very same Vaishnava respect for all life. He could have simply driven the car over the hooded cobra. He did not. He bowed before the snake. The snake left and with that bow to all life forms, the great soul that was Pooswamy also "reached the sacred feet of the acharyan", as they say in Vaishnava tradition.
Another leader from KGF who carried forward the work done by Madurai Pillai was Alavandardas (popularly known as R A Das). He was a brilliant contractor and obtained his wealth through his intelligence and hard work. Then he used the wealth for the community upliftment of KGF workers and economically weaker and socially marginalised sections of the society.
Every Pongal, he would arrange for new clothes and other festival necessities for every family. In 1943, he started the ‘Adi-Dravidar Mahaajana Sabhai Hostel’ for the scheduled community students in Robertsonpet near the King George Hall in 1943.
He was also the member of Mysore Representative Assembly (MRA). In this capacity, he got schemes approved for the marginalised communities. He arranged for free education and food for the poor children.
In Tamil Nadu's Vellore, he built another hostel for scheduled community students. He named it ‘Ramadas’ after a Vaishnavaite humanist from KGF who was associated with Vellore, ‘Sri Manavala Mamunikal Sabha' and Melkote ‘Aruḷmari Swami Sabha’.
Madurai Pillai worked in close proximity with Dr Ambedkar for the upliftment of downtrodden and he was at the same time rooted in his Vedic Sri Vaishnava bhakti.
While he ‘‘reached the sacred feet of the acharyan" in 1935, the movement he started in KGF went on and continues to provide a practical, pragmatic model for social emancipation without compromising with Indic spirituality as its core.
Buddhist evangelist from the Scheduled Caste community and esteemed poet Iyya Kannu acknowledges that in KGF, the impact of Sri Vaishnavism on social emancipation surpasses that of any proselytising movements, be it neo-Buddhist or Christian.
In our living memory, a Vedic-Vaishnava model of social emancipation succeeded against colonial odds, yet its vibrant existence has been forgotten. This underscores the need for multifaceted decolonisation efforts and a robust promotion of this model in the face of contemporary challenges.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!