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.
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