11 March 2008

Erect in Conscious Integrity

I hadn't planned on visiting Madras at all--even Lonely Planet has negative things to say about it. But I had to pass through, so I thought I should give India's fourth-largest city (still about 6 million people) a chance. I'm glad I did, because I uncovered some gems. Overall, it's a fairly relaxed place by Indian standards, though still high octane compared to America. Allow me to proceed in reverse order, skipping unnecessary details.

Santhome Cathedral ballyhoos itself as being only one of three churches in the world built atop the tomb of an apostle of Jesus Christ (one free samosa if you can name the other two)--in this case, St. Thomas. You may know him from the cliche "doubting Thomas" (as in, don't be one). St. Thomas, after sticking his fingers into Christ's resurrected kidneys (eww), came to India to preach and whatnot. He ended up in Madras, or whatever it was called before it actually existed, and--wait for it--was martyred. Believe it? I don't! But I've already visited one other tomb-church, and I plan to visit the third this summer (oops! hint! make that half a samosa!), and soon I'll be able to say I visited the only three churches in the world built atop the tombs of apostles of Jesus Christ (applause). And I didn't even know it was here! I love it.

Just before that, I visited a colorful Dravidian-style temple, its main tower a riotous, tapered display of festive figures (in procession, like Trajan's Column, but in Technicolor 3-D). I had to take off my shoes to go inside, was overcharged for storing them, and filthified my socks before learning, I should I have known, that non-Hindus are barred from the inner sanctum. At least I dodged that woman who tried to put a garland of flowers around my head! Nice try, begum!

Near the Hindu temple was a Jain temple, my first. It was so beautiful! Ah! And all in white marble. And I was allowed inside! And I didn't have to pay to leave my shoes! Jains rule.

Finally, or firstly, I stopped at the Raj-era Fort St. George to see if there's anything interesting there. Guess what? No! But! I also stopped, within, at St. Mary's Church, which ballyhoos itself as the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez. Huzzah! Completed in 1680, the church itself is nothing spectacular, but inside I found what I intend to be the model for my own epitaph:

To the memory of JOSIAH WEBBE, Esquire.
For many years Chief Secretary to the Government of Madras
and afterwards resident at the court of Scindia, where he died
the 9th of November 1804, aged 37 years.
His mind, by nature firm, lofty, energetic, was formed by classic study
to a tone of independence and patriotism not unworthy
the best days of Greece and Rome.
Disdaining the little arts of private influence or vulgar popularity
and erect in conscious integrity, he rested his claims to
public honours on public merit.
An extensive knowledge of the Eastern languages forwarded his
rise to stations of high trust, where his ambition was fired to
exalt the honour and interests of his country.
But in the midst of a career thus useful and distinguished
preferring the public weal to personal safety,
he fell a martyr to an ungenial climate in the prime of life
beloved with fervour by his friends
particularly lamented by the governors of India.
Admired and regretted by all.

To his public and private virtues this monument is
dedicated by his friends.

I, too, aspire to rise to stations of high trust, erect in conscious integrity. Executors, please maintain the British 'u' spellings in my version. Also, replace "Madras" with "the Celestial Spheres", "Scindia" with "Cthulhu", and "India" with "the Multiverse."

Now, as if that weren't enough, some of you privileged bastards who went to Yale may know that your university was originally named after an otherwise obscure British merchant who sent over a box of random crap to New Haven when its college's Puritan founders begged for someone to make a bequest. In a corner of St. Mary's, I discovered *this* plaque:

Commemorating the 250th anniversary of the naming of Yale College in honor of Elihu Yale, Governor of Fort St. George 1687-1692 and vestryman and treasurer of St. Mary's Church, the classmates of Chester Bowles, Yale 1924, American ambassador to India, have made donations for lasting improvements in this church.

October 6, 1968

Lux et Veritas

So there you have it. Proof that people in the US once actually had names like "Chester Bowles."

The church must be proud of this Yale connection, because next to the plaque is a glass case full of Elihu memorabilia, like the wedding register in which his name is inscribed and a photo of his tombstone in Wrexham, Wales. This poem appears on the tomb:

Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell'd and in Asia wed
Where long he liv'd and thriv'd; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even
And that his soul thro' mercy's gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in silent dust.

This is an example of the kind of epitaph I do NOT want.

I was quite surprised to learn that Mr. Yale made it all the way to India and ruled the fort at Madras. Here is a precis on his governance from Wikipedia:

"As governor of Fort St. George, Yale purchased territory for private purposes with East India Company funds, including a fort atTevnapatam (now Cuddalore ). Yale imposed high taxes for the maintenance of the colonial garrison and town, resulting in an unpopular regime and several revolts by Indians, brutally quelled by garrison soldiers. Yale was also notorious for arresting and trying Indians on his own private authority, including the hanging of a stable boy who had absconded with a Company horse."

I'm glad that Yale's contemporary graduates are maintaining the fine traditions and example set by its namesake benefactor.

Since I'm doing amusing-out-of-context quotes today, I will close with a complaint of John Adams, Founding Father of the United States and our second President, on the predominant notoriety of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, found in a book I recently finished, "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin" by Gordon Wood:

"The history of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod--and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War."

Zing! I'll bet even Alexander Hamilton got a chuckle out of that one.

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