Madurai, so famous for its temples, has other havens too. I stumbled across the local Theosophical Society, which provides a free reading room and library. This is one of the oldest branches of the TS - dating back to 1883, within a few years of the foundation of the movement. It has a large library - named after a local lawyer, A. Rangaswami Aiyar, and apparently based on his own collection.
I spotted about fifty titles by Annie Besant alone. She must have come to Madurai, and I wondered whether she had personally given any of her books to the local society and inscribed them. I couldn't find any signed copies - but among the several thousands volumes and pamphlets kept carefully behind glass, I am sure there will be real gems. How nice to find such a wonderful, public spirited institution.
The reading room takes the English and Tamil daily papers and seems to have a loyal coteries of users. How long the society can survive - the street it's on is largely given over to modern, high-rise hotels - I really wonder, but there is something soothing and special about such a tranquil spot amid the bustle of this restless temple town.
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott died 110 years ago today.
Never heard of him? Never mind - keep reading. Olcott was a founder of the Theosophical Society and its first president. He died in the grounds of the Society's global headquarters at Adyar in Chennai/Madras. And the day is still celebrated - here and by Theosophists worldwide - as Adyar day.
Never being one to miss out on the byways of global history, I went to the Theosophical Society's wonderful, sprawling ashram at Adyar to join in the tributes to this pioneer of western engagement with the Orient.
On this day every year, the students of the Olcott Memorial Higher Secondary School in Adyar pay tribute to their founding father.
Henry Steel Olcott was an American, born in 1832, who lived a full and varied life. He wrote about agriculture for the New York Times, fought with the northern states in the American Civil War and in 1874, through his interest in spiritualism, met up with Helena P. Blavatsky.
The following year, in New York, they established the Theosophical Society. He was the founding president. And in the early 1880s, they travelled together to Bombay, and shortly after bought the land in Madras which remains the Theosophists' global HQ.
Both Blavatsky and Olcott were Buddhists - allegiance to a mainstream religion not being a bar to Theosophy - and Olcott in particular was an important figure in the Buddhist revival in what was then Ceylon. He detested Christianity and Christian missionaries detested him.
The school which takes his name charges no fees and conducts its classes in Tamil - it serves the local community rather than the Tamil elite.
Once the school kids had sung their songs and the procession had moved on, a simple quasi-religious ceremony in memory of Olcott was held in the headquarters building.
There were about thirty-five people gathered - mainly women - largely Indian - and only a handful under fifty.
Songs were sung, speeches made, and then the faithful placed flowers under statues of Olcott and Blavatsky - likenesses all in white, with maroon garlands, the Mary and Joseph of Theosophy..
Onlooker though I was, I scattered a few petals too.
Her life was very much in two acts (three if you include her rather sheltered upbringing and unhappy marriage). In 1889, she reviewed two volumes by one of the founders of Theosophy, H.P. Blavatsky, met her and became her disciple. Annie's freethinking, radical colleagues - Charles Bradlaugh among them - were horrified.
Four years later, Annie Besant made the journey to India - which was to become her principal home for the last forty years of her life. For much of that time she lived in Adyar on the outskirts of Madras/Chennai, in what is now the sprawling, enticing, global headquarters of the Theosophy movement. She was cremated here too.
The bust stands in the main hall of the Theosophy Society HQ. Nice to see you, Annie!
I suppose I ought to attempt to explain Theosophy. It respects all faiths - and in the grounds of the headquarters there are temples, churches and shrines of all the world's main religions. The society's three objectives - the only values and beliefs that adherents are required to subscribe to - are:
+ to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour
+ to encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Sciences
+ to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in men
The key figures in the establishment of the Theosophical movement were from Europe and North America, and it was in some ways a manifestation of Orientalism, albeit one respectful of Eastern belief systems.
Blavatsky's impulse to establish the Theosophy Society came from a visit to India - and while the movement was founded in New York in 1875, its headquarters were from an early date in South Asia. Although not core to Theosophy's beliefs, it is widely seen as tinged by spiritualism and occultism. While a theosophist, Besant also embraced the occult, clairvoyance and (this really does seem bizarre, but there you go) freemasonry.
But don't rely on my inexpert account - here's the link to the Theosophy Society's website: http://www.ts-adyar.org/
The society's grounds - only open for a few hours a day - are magical, with banyan trees, palm groves and gentle jungle, sprinkled with places of worship and busts of founding fathers. There's an excellent bookshop, and no-one tries to proselytise.
For me, part of the magic was following in the footsteps of some whose lives I have researched: the socialist novelist Margaret Harkness came here about 110 years ago to meet up with Annie Besant; 25 years later, Freda Bedi's husband-to-be, B.P.L. Bedi, came to Adyar to seek, and receive, Besant's benediction before setting sail for Europe.
Theosophy feels a little bit like the Esperanto movement - born out of a sense of optimism and an impulse towards universal brotherhood, but never quite making it into the mainstream ... and now just hanging on, its best years long since gone.
I keep getting drawn back, though, to Besant. From the moment she set foot in India, she regarded herself as Indian and championed its interests over that of the imperial power which was her native country. In India, she dressed and ate in the Indian style. She championed social welfare, the reform movement within Hinduism, higher education, and was so forceful and prominent within Indian nationalism that she was prohibited from some Indian provinces . She enjoyed a spell as a highly visible and active president of the Indian National Congress - the movement which led India to independence.
Alongside this remarkable range of activism, she was distrustful of mass political mobilisations and of universal suffrage. While she admired Gandhi, she didn't agree with him. By the end of her life, she was sharply out of step with the increasingly strident tone of India's national movement.
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