Revisiting ‘Chatrams’: The Indic Dormitories That Were More Than Just That



It is time to realise the cultural capital, actively pursue the cause of the endangered cultural assets that Chatrams are and if possible make them functional again.

By Aravindan Neelakandan

There is a general belief that the institution of social welfare is a European contribution to India. Colonial studies of Indian culture and society repeatedly stereotyped traditional Hinduism as inward-looking, life-negating and hence lacking a social conscience. For almost two centuries colonialists and missionaries indulged in crude stereotyping of Hindus as uncaring for the fellow human beings. This view was further reinforced by scholarly missionary workers like Dr Albert Schweitzer. For him, Hinduism and Buddhism because of their doctrines of Karma and Maya negate life and this world. According to Dr Schweitzer, on the other hand, Christianity affirms the reality of the world along with the human situation in it, which in turn makes social service an ethical obligation for Christendom.

Evangelical propaganda: Christianity alone cares for fellow humanity.

To this day many Indians, intellectuals included, have internalised these views. There are also ideological vested interests – Hindu-phobia that forms part of the academic and political discourse in post-independent India has its roots in colonial aversion to Hinduism and Indian culture. So, while the Vivekananda-Gandhi school rejected and resisted the negative stereotyping of Hindu culture and spirituality by the colonial-evangelical school of social studies, in post-independent India, the dominant Nehruvian-Marxist school, which has a stranglehold on the academic and political narrative, embraced and reinforced the stereotyping for decades.

From the fabricated image of Theresa of Calcutta caring for those dying on the streets of Calcutta, flashed across international media, to movies of Kollywood and Bollywood showing Christian institutions as the only place of solace and hope for the downtrodden victims, the concept of Hindu deficiency in social service has been reinforced again and again.

So what is the truth? For this writer at least, the moment of truth came while reading an obscure ‘Sthala purana’ – the puranic history of a sacred place, of what is now an ordinary village in Tamil Nadu but still the place of a traditional Saivite Math – Thiruvaavaduthurai. The name, in Tamil, means the place where the Goddess Parvati in the form of a cow, made reparations and became one with Siva. The Stala Purana was written in Tamil by a Saivaite seer-poet Swaminatha Munivar, 250-300 years ago. The Sthala purana itself is based on the ‘Go-Mukthi-Kshetra-Mahatmyam’ in the Rudra Samhita of Skanda Purana.

The Sthala Purana has quite a few verses which showcase the way the poet looked at how an ideal society and state should function. In these verses, the poet mentions the kind of social services that should be rendered by both individuals as well as institutions. Here are a few:

When I first read these verses, I considered them as just poetic hyperbole – the product of the imagination of an ideal charity-based society. Even as imagination, the caring for those who in jail, caring for the welfare of the barbers and washermen etc. struck one as very noble deeds, far ahead of the time, not only in India but anywhere in the world. Even more puzzling was the mention of ocular medication. Ophthalmologists – eye doctors in a utopian imagination? That is a bit too much.

But the records of the Thanjore Marathas did speak of ophthalmologists and paediatricians rendering medical services. There were medical professionals stationed in the Chatrams, which were famous in the Chola province that was then under the Marathas, three hundred years ago.

In other words, the poet was not only describing an ideal vision but was also approximating his vision with the day-to-day reality of his times.

In the popular imagination, ‘Chatrams’ are just inn-like service providers to pilgrims. Often they fed the pilgrims free of cost and gave them a place to rest. However, as one looks inside the Chatrams, they turn out to be something far more than just pilgrim inns. They were also centres of learning of various arts and sciences for local students – both Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Chatrams also provided medical services. Primarily, they provided shelter to pilgrims, and also acted as centres where the local people interacted with the pilgrims. Chatrams were thus educational and cultural networks across the pilgrim highway of Thanjavur – the old Chola capital. The highway itself led to Rameswaram – one amongst the most famous pilgrim destinations for Indians.

Though the exhaustive records available to us come from the Thanjavur Maratha period, the concept of Chatrams in Tamil Nadu itself was very old; inscriptions speak of social service institutions like ‘Athula Salai’ or medicine houses for all people from the times of the imperial Cholas.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, dynasty intrigues and infighting made it possible for the British and Arcot Nawab to exert humiliating control over Thanjavur. By 1776, the kingdom under Thuljaji Bhonsle (1738–1787) had become a vassal of the British. Through the records, one can see how the British progressively choked the Chatrams. By 1799, the British resident-in-charge was reassigning the revenues for the Chatrams, often drastically reducing the financial support and hence the activities. By 1801, Thanjavur king Serfoji II Bhonsle (1777-1832) was writing a letter to the Resident requesting him to permit them to run the Chatrams. The letter provides an extraordinary insight into the manifold welfare activities that the Chatrams were undertaking. Here are a few excerpts from the letter:

A stone elephant in the Mukthalambal Chatram built by Serfoji II

Even the educational institutions which were run, show a remarkable degree of egalitarianism compared to their counterparts anywhere in the world. For example in the ‘Sarva Vidhyalaya’ which was run at Thanjavur (which became Nava Vidhya Kalanidhi Sala in 1807) we know, that in 1785, there were 85 Brahmins who learned Vedic chanting whereas 385 other students studied six languages. The school also employed at least one woman – Chengamma who taught painting and was earning monthly income of four chakras. Later according to another document of the 129 students studying in this residential school there were 20 Brahmins, 27 were from the royal house, six were children of Sepoys, seven Shudras and 46 Maratha boys. The hostel had ten cooks, one accountant, one washerman and one barber. This school was located in, what is today called, the Saraswati Mahal.

The chatrams, this residential school as well as the Saraswati Mahal had many functional relations. For example, an 1827 document records that, 501 inscribing pen tools were sent from one chatram to Saraswati Mahal. Similarly books were lent to the schools run in the chatrams from the Saraswati Mahal.

When I decided to visit a chatram, as part of Swarajya Heritage documentation, I chose the Muktambal Chatram. Muktambal was the lover of Sarfoji II. They were in a live-in relation and she gave birth to two children, both of whom died during child birth. She too was not of good health and died at a very young age. As her last wish, she requested the king that a chatram be created in her name to serve people. By then, the decline of the chatrams had already begun.

But, even then, this chatram served society in diverse ways. This is evidenced by the fact that when the British resident John Fyfe visited this chatram in 1825, he recorded that there were five educational institutions attached to it. There were 641 students studying there and 4020 persons were fed thrice a day. Nine thousand rupees was spent every month for the salaries of those employed by the chatram. English too was part of the curriculum at the chatrams. According to records, a Vellala from Thirunelveli came to this chatram and finished his English studies. He was given Rs 10 when he went back home after his studies. Books from Saraswati Mahal in Thanjavur were lent to this chatram on a regular basis.

Instructions for the management of the chatrams given by Neelakanda Rao Anandha Rao Jadav – one of the ceremonial military officials, in 1838 shows how the chatrams were experiencing increasing financial constraints. Yet, the stress on service to society still remains. Here are the excerpts:

As one travels from Kumbhakonam to where the Mukthambal chatram stands at Orathanadu, one passes through a small village called Thirupalathurai. Inside the Siva temple here, we find a unique structure which is ‘protected’. A board erected by the Tamil Nadu archaeology department says that the structure is a granary of older centuries. It was built by Raghunatha Nayakar (1600-1634) who ruled Thanjavur before the Marathas. The granary has the capacity of 3000 kalams (1 kalam = 96 padi and 1 padi = 14,400 rice grains).

Vishnu incarnated as a fish worshipping Shiva

As one passes through the serpentine roads that lead to the main road to Thanjavur, there is a small blink-and-you-miss village, Thiruchelur. As legend goes, Vishnu, in his first incarnation as a fish, worshiped Siva. A small Ganesha temple at the entrance to the village informs us that the temple had a historical connection to the Cholas and for centuries the villagers used to donate curd to any needy person during the summer months. The Ganesa is called ‘Dharma Ganesa’ and the Mandapam is called ‘Thayir Mandapam’ (or the curd Mandapam’).

From the time of the Cholas, they served the strangers with dignity – this small village.

As one reaches the high way that connects to Thanjavur one finds an intriguing scene. This is a route commonly used by tourists and pilgrims. But those that choose to halt and refresh themselves have nothing but the trees lining the highways for shelter. There is nowhere else they can rest or refresh themselves.

If you are a pilgrim and cannot afford a hotel to stay, then you end up eating on the sides of the highway. What a fall from the chatram days!

The historic irony unfolds further as one moves a little forward, as you see a ruined structure along a small water body – a dilapidated chatram. With some input and intelligent care, this beautiful chatram can still serve its original purpose as effectively as it did in the times in which it was built.

Not a temple but a ruined entrance to the Chatram
Inside the Chatram
A traditional water body by the side of the Chatram.
Chatram sculpture,Thanjavur: Churning of the milk ocean

Though there is today a separate department under the district collector for the upkeep of these chatrams, most of them have been encroached upon with their cultural capital left to erode and vanish.

At the entrance of Thanjavur too, one finds what should have been a chatram, but has sadly been encroached upon. Beautiful depictions like that of the samudram-manthan or the churning of the ocean for nectar being churned, have been left to meeth thier fate thanks to neglect and lack of maintenance. On the way from Thanjavur to Muktalambal Chatram one finds many such chatrams which are becoming extinct right in front of our eyes. And we are answerable to both our ancestors as well as posterity for what we have let happen to them.

Another ruined Chatram on the way to Mukthalambal Chatram
Two more Chatrams on the way to Mukthambal Chatram, Oratha Nadu. All are in various states of ruin and neglect.

As we arrive at the Muktambal chatram, what strikes one first, is the care taken to build it. There is a lot of love and attention here – not just for the deceased beloved of the king but for the Dharmic activities that would go in her name. The king may have wanted to see the love for his beloved resonate in the form of gratitude in every beneficiary of the chatram. The memory of his beloved was honoured with the thankfulness and the happiness of every student who obtained knowledge here, every hungry person who received a meal here.

For a moment, one cannot help but think about that monument which has been flaunted as the symbol of love. But to digress on this tangent would be a ‘secular’ taboo. So let us stay with the Chatram here.

A pale ghost of its past grandeur: Mukthambal Chatram – a real gift of love to benefit humanity !

Today, a private polytechnic institution is running some classes inside. A ghost of what it was intended to be, it shows the slow degradation that traditional institutions underwent under the British and the present regime. A good part of the Chatram is in ruins, what with party flags, left over liquor bottles strewn around and and roofs falling down. But, none of these can destroy the majestic beauty enshrined in the Chatram.

The Chatram is built like a chariot drawn by horsemen.
Just two centuries ago, students came here to quench their thirst for knowledge and travellers came here to be freed of hunger.
Chariot of service

This chatram, this chariot of education, food security and medical services was not run by the steam of surplus created through colonial extermination of other people. It was pulled by the hard work and honestly-earned-money of the local farmers and other communities.

It is interesting to note that while the colonial discourse made Indian culture look like it is otherworldly and hence lacking in social conscience, actual observations by early East India Company officials differed. Here is what Dr John Howison (1797-1859) a high officer associated with East India Company, who had his own cultural prejudices against Hindus, recorded about the Chatram-type institutions in India.

Charm of the Chatram, a sculpture found in Mukthambal Chatram

Chatram institutions show that India not only created institutional social service but created an innovative model that never asked for any obligation, physical or spiritual in return nor did the model depend on surplus created through colonialism. Christian charity, on the other hand, was created through colonial surplus and the rendering of charity enforced on the beneficiaries through theological colonialism. In other words, Hindu social service is totally rooted in this world, aimed at removing the misery and increasing the welfare of humanity (and also all life) in this world. Yet, thanks to the strong propaganda and tyranny of institutional discourse, Hindus too tend to believe that their religion is deficient in ethics and social conscience.

Dr. Edmund Weber, Professor of Comparative Religion at Goethe-University Frankfurt rightly observes:

It is understandable that the British slowly and steadily choked the chatram institutions. It served their colonial and evangelical purposes. In distant Assam again, the network of Sattra has been the backbone of Asom culture. The Sattram institutions came to Assam with the Vaishnavism of Srimanta Sankara Deva (1449-1568). In later Vaishnavaite literature, Baikunthanatha Bhattadeva defined Sattra as the place where the devotee-pilgrims perform religious rites and practice nine-fold devotion. We find that throughout the national freedom movement, from the Bengal partition to the ‘Quit India’ movement, the Sattra institutions and the trustees of the Sattras, the Sattrathikaris helped the freedom movement dynamically. Assamese historian Dr Sagar Barua writes:

Srimanta Sankara Deva and Sattras in Assam

One can even say that the British averted a lot of trouble for them by weakening the chatrams in Tamil Nadu, though their optimal functioning could have prevented the death of millions of Indians during the great famine of 1877. But what baffles one is, the continuous ruthless destruction of these wonderful cultural and social assets in Independent India.

Perhaps such destruction is necessitated by the present Nehruvian-Marxist-Dravidian cabal that continues the colonial-evangelical legacy in our academic, political and cultural spheres. So it becomes important for all those who love India and who belong to the legacy of India’s fight for independence to preserve these endangered cultural assets and if possible make them functional again realising their cultural capital.

PS: I thank Prof Balasubramaniam, who worked in the rare manuscripts section of Saraswati Mahal and also Sri Kannan of Kumbhakonam, without whose help and inputs this trip would not have happened.

This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor – you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

Source: Swarajya Culture