Where the hot dunes have become a center of education

GU Pope lived in Sawyerpuram for eight years and did missionary work

GU Pope lived in Sawyerpuram for eight years and did missionary work

The air was warm in the morning. A group of students were sweating on a sprawling football pitch at Pope’s College, Sawyerpuram in Thoothukudi. When Tamil scholar and missionary George Uglow Pope arrived here 180 years ago, the area was just acres of sand dunes; for a European it would have been a fiery furnace. Driven by zeal, Pope, who will later translate Tirukkural, Thiruvachagam, Naladiyar, Purananuru (selected verses) and Manimekalai (incomplete) in English, lived here for eight years and did missionary work.

“In the summer, he beat the heat by placing a table and a chair in a huge well [a bath tub]. He read and wrote while sitting in the water,” writes K. Meenakshisundaram, the author of The contribution of European researchers to Tamil.

Two huge wells built by Pope are still in the seminary he founded at Sawyerpuram. But they are abandoned. The bathtub he used is also in the bungalow where he lived.

Sawyerpuram was created on 150 acres purchased by Samuel Sawyer, a merchant from the Portuguese East India Company.

“Sawyer transferred the area to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge to create settlements for those who were persecuted after converting to Christianity. The land was distributed to them in 1814,” said A. Wellington Francis Prabagar, professor of the Tamil department at Pope College.

It was the pope who created Sawyerpuram and another missionary, Robert Caldwell, in his writings named him as its founder. Pope, a newlywed, arrived here in 1842 when he was 22 years old. His wife, Jane Mary Anderson, was 18. Prior to his arrival, he had learned Tamil literary works from Suryanarayana Sastry, Ariyangavu Pillai and Ramanuja Kavirayar in Madras (Chennai).

“In fact, his Tamil and Sanskrit lessons had even started in England. He had spent eight hours a day reading on the ship itself. By the time he arrived in Chennai, he had prepared a book of Christian messages in Tamil,” said Mr. Prabagar, who wrote a biography of Pope with S. Jacob Rajan and Rev. R. Samuel Jeyaseelan.

“You must learn not only to think in Tamil but also to feel in Tamil, if you want to be intelligible and useful among the Tamil people”, he later wrote in his preface to the Tamil translation of Thiruvachagam.

His love for Tamil is explained in a letter to JM Nallasami Pillai, editor of Siddantha Deepikaiin which he had said that after his death, the inscription on his tombstone should be “A Tamil student”.

Pope decided to establish a seminary in Sawerpuram as there were only two in Tamil Nadu. Construction began in 1844 and was completed in 1846.

“Pope became the first director of the seminary. It was the seminar that caught the world’s attention and the University of Oxford gave financial aid for the opening of a library,” Mr Prabagar and others said in the book. A few buildings that were part of the seminary are still at Pope Memorial Higher Secondary School in Sawyerpuram.

Pope was a strict disciplinarian and the motto of the seminary was: “Read well, eat well, fight well and pray well”. He held a book in one hand and a cane in the other. He reportedly announced a reward to those who would help find the students who had run away from the seminary. There were also chains to tie up the students to prevent them from escaping. His discipline angered many, including the missionaries.

“Dr. Pope was practically kicked out of Tinnevelly [Tirunelveli] in the midst of his usual career by the complaints of the missionaries of the time, but he never had a successor possessing the same energy and efficiency until Mr. Sharrock appeared on the scene,” wrote Caldwell .

Pope’s wife died in 1845 giving birth to their second son and it took a heavy toll on her physical and mental health. There was also a suggestion that he might be sent to England to restore his health and wits. He left Sawyerpuram in 1849.

He returned to India in 1850, but was sent to Thanjavur and not Sawyerpuram. In Thanjavur, he deepened his Tamil knowledge with the help of Vedanayagam Sastri. From there he went to Udhagamandalam and later to Bangalore where he became the Headmaster of Bishop Cotton School.

After 42 years in India, he returned to England in 1882 and taught Tamil and Telugu at Oxford University. He deepened Tirukural, Manimekalaiand Thiruvachagam and translated them into English.

“I date this from my eightieth birthday. I find, by reference, that my first Tamil lesson was in 1837. This ends, as I suppose, a life long devotion to Tamil studies. It is not without deep emotion that I thus complete the literary work of my life”, he wrote in 1900, in his preface to the translation of Thiruvachagam.

James Reynold Daniel, former principal of Scot Christian College, Nagercoil, said in his final days Pope was a mature Saiva Siddhanti, with his faith still rooted in Christianity.

Writing of his last sermon in 1907, he said: “At the heart of my last sermon are truths that harmonize with all that is best in Tiruvachagam and Siva-nyanam [Siva-gnana bodham].” He died in 1908.

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