Life in India/Chintadrepettah Schools

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Life in India by John Welsh Dulles
Chintadrepettah Schools

Chintadrepettah Schools.

A new-comer at Chintadrepettah would hardly fail, when seated at breakfast, to ask the meaning of the hum and hubbub from without that saluted his ears; and on being answered, would conclude that there must be strong lungs among the pupils of the mission schools. Such, certainly, was our conclusion when we heard the clamour of youthful voices; nor was it unfounded, for few spots can exceed in noise and confusion a Hindu school in full blast. The popular belief seems to be, (so far as we can judge from popular practice,) that as learning is received by the brain through the medium of the ear, the improvement made will be in a direct ratio to the strength of the impression upon the tympanum. The lesson thundered out by the teacher is re-echoed by the class, and as every pupil studies at the top of his voice, the din is prodigious. In the native schools the method is to learn certain books by heart, with very little reference to their meaning, and very little profit aside from as much reading, writing and arithmetic as will serve to carry the owner through the ordinary business of life. Geography is entirely unstudied, except some primary facts, such as the shape of the earth, which is said to be that of the lotus or water-lily, with seven seas and intervening mountains surrounding it; these seas are of various fluids ; first, salt water; then sugar-cane juice, wine, melted butter, milk, curdled milk, and, beyond the last ring-like mountain, a sea of fresh water. Their teachings as to the size of the globe correspond with their views of its shape: thus the earth is four thousand millions of miles in diameter, with the vast Mount Meru in its centre towering up six hurdred thousand miles in height, with a base one hundred and twenty-eight thousand miles in circumference. On my once remarking to a well-educated Brahmin that it was singular that no traveller had ever caught sight of this vast peak, he answered that they probably had never travelled far enough to see it.

In Christian schools this din is modified as far as possible; but when the teaching is by natives, trained in the native way, there must and will be noise enough to deafen civilized ears. On Mr. W.'s invitation, I accompanied him in his morning's visit to the schools upon the mission compound. We had to walk but a few steps to the bungalow in which the vernacular school for girls is kept. The school-bungalow is a long low building, with unglazed windows, large doors, a tiled roof and hardbeaten earth-floor spread with mats. As we drew near, the noise subsided, and the girls, about eighty in number, rising from their mats, saluted us with a loud “Good morning, sir," and then stood quietly in two long rows. Behind the second line stood the teachers, each with his turban on his head, one hand holding a serviceable rattan, and the other enveloped in his flowing robe. They gravely bowed and salaamed as we entered. The missionary, glancing his eye along the array of girls, gave a signal to the first, who repeated in a strong, clear voice a text from the Tamil Daily Food. The second and the third followed, and so on down the line to the little creatures four or five years old, who could only lisp out a fragment of the daily text.

It was a pleasant sight to see these poor girls, children of idolaters, forbidden by their sex, according to Hindu law and custom, all the advantages of education, thus gathered by the hand of Christian love to be refined in mind and heart, and taught the way of life. Though they rarely remain after eleven or twelve years of age, and may at any moment be taken away by the jealousy of heathen parents, yet before that time they may receive impressions for good that even the corrupting and deadening influences of Hindu social life will not obliterate. If the influence be not apparent in this generation, it may be in the next, when these girls have become wives and mothers.

The girls of this school, though of good caste, are from the poorer classes of society; for those of the highest caste may be as poor as beggars without affecting their standing. Their very presence upon the compound of a Christian missionary is one of the evidences of the change that is stealing over the face of Indian society. Their complexions, though dark, are soft and smooth, and their features by no means devoid of beauty; indeed, they often are very pretty; their hands and feet are small and well-formed, and their figures graceful. To our eyes, the marks painted upon their foreheads and the rings in their noses are no great additions to their beauty, and the frequently dirty state of the clothing of the poor is far from attractive; but intelligence beams in their sparkling black eyes and bright faces. Culture of mind and holiness of heart only are needed to fit them for their duties as daughters, wives and mothers; their need of both cannot be exaggerated. Sad indeed is the state of woman in this land. By Christian effort only can she be raised to fitness for her high calling.

The dress of the smaller girls in the school is simply a petticoat of figured calico, tied by a tape at the waist; even this they would not need at home. The larger girls, in addition to the skirt, wear a short-sleeved jacket or bodice, and over it a light white robe. Their jet-black hair is braided, or gathered into a mass back of the left ear, and adorned with flowers, of which they are passionately fond. In quickness, they are equal to children of the same age in any land. Every day the native teacher or his assistant goes to the houses of his pupils to send or bring them to school.

The missionary himself does not attempt to teach in these schools, but oversees and instructs the teachers; if married, he has the assistance of his wife in the management, instruction, and oversight of the girls. Their studies are largely scriptural. After learning to read, and at the same time to write, they commence with simple catechisms and Scripture narratives, advancing to the Gospels, Psalms, arithmetic, and geography, with sewing. The teachers, generally men, because the women of the present generation are untaught, are paid from two to four dollars a month; the assistants or monitors, from one to two dollars.

When the text for the day had been repeated, a few questions were asked, to see that its meaning had been understood, a few words of exhortation were given, and prayer offered in the Tamil language. The school then divided into classes, and commenced their studies and recitations with the native teachers.

We now went to the church compound, and entered the two-storied building in which the high school meets. Here, some one hundred and fifty boys and young men were seated on wooden benches, almost filling the principal room. A monitor (assistant teacher) is calling the roll; and, “Ramasamy,” “Rungasamy," "Chinnappah," “Rungappah," "Chinnasamy” and a host of “Samys” (i.e. gods or lords) are answering to their names with a loud "present," or receiving a mark for absence. It is worthy of note that almost all Hindus bear the name of some one of their gods. This is a most economical arrangement in a religious point of view, as every utterance of the boy's name is an act of great merit, and secures the favour of the god. Thus, when the father exclaims, “Come here, you Narayana-samy!” or, “I will give you a good flogging, Narayana-samy!" or, “You lie, Narayana-samy !” he is increasing his stock of religious merit by repeating the name of Narayana, one of the names of the god Vishnu. The roll-caller, if this were true, would certainly be a favoured mortal, for he daily utters the names of all the more important and honoured members of the Indian Pantheon.

A general “Good morning, sir!" salutes us as we enter the hall and take our seats on a slightly raised platform at its upper end; the teachers show their zeal by moving through the ranks, and brandishing their rattans threateningly at the scapegoats of their flock. When all are composed, English Bibles are produced, and the place found. Mr. W. reads the first verse in Tamil, and is followed by a scholar reading the same verse in English. After asking any questions suggested by the subject, he reads the next verse, followed by the next boy in English. Thus some twenty verses are read, the Bibles closed, the passage explained and enforced, and prayer offered in Tamil, during which all present stand. The daily text is next repeated, both in Tamil and English, and any matter requiring public comment receives attention. The classes are now called, and the boys file off with their respective teachers to different rooms to study and recite. The instruction is by a head-teacher, who is an East Indian, and several Hindu assistant teachers and monitors. Of these some are Christians, and some heathen. Of course, good Christian teachers would be preferred for every department; but they cannot always be procured in the present state of education in India, and we must use the best tools we can get until better ones can be prepared.

In addition to the study of the Scriptures and of the evidences of the truth of Christianity, the lads of this school go through a full course of English studies, in which they use the English language. They study arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and surveying, English composition, the history of Rome, England, and India, with general history and natural philosophy. It must be borne in mind that they are not carried through these branches by the missionary himself, but that the instruction is carried on by hired native teachers, while he is engaged with matters more strictly religious. After leaving the school, the young men, if nominally heathen, and conforming to the customs of the countrymen, are almost universally at heart convinced of the folly of idolatry and its attendant superstitions. They are qualified for stations of responsibility; and some remain as assistant teachers, while others enter the medical, engineering, and surveying departments under government, or engage in other useful callings. They are from more respectable classes of the community, and generally of higher castes, than the pupils in the vernacular or purely Tamil schools. All castes, however, are freely admitted. Here you will find high-caste Sudras, Rajpoots, Mohammedans, and even Brahmins, sitting beside the abhorred and despised Pariah. Many of the boys are both handsome and highly intelligent. Some of the Brahmin boys, especially, are exceedingly engaging in their appearance. They are generally well dressed, wearing either the usual male costume of a cloth around the waist and hanging down below the knees, with another over the shoulders; or the scholar's dress–a long-sleeved white pelisse extending to the knees and covering the inner cloth. On their heads some wear turbans, others high-peaked, starched linen caps that have a very absurd appearance. Their heads are shaven, except a tuft on the crown called the Coodamy. I was not a little amused when two young shavers, not ten years old, gave as an excuse for absence from church on Sunday, that “the barber did not come in time to shave them !"

What, it will be naturally asked, induces these lads thus to come to a Christian school, where they are taught that Hinduism is false, and where they are required to drop all distinctions of caste? And why do bigoted parents permit them thus to go where their faith in the religion of their ancestors will be destroyed and their caste endangered? The motive is a desire to obtain a knowledge of the English language. At present there is in India a wonderful passion for the study of English; this is the language of the rulers of the land, of its courts and officers, and a knowledge of English is a stepping-stone to place, honour, and wealth. Christian missionaries lay hold of this circumstance, which makes fathers willing to risk the conversion of their sons if they may but get an English education. The missionaries of the Scotch churches, especially, have directed their entire energies to this branch of the mission work; and in Madras, Bombay, Calcutta, and other great cities, are exercising an immense influence over the youth of India. Of their scholars, several have become teachers, preachers, and ordained ministers of the gospel, while others have lucrative situations under government. The University supported by government, in which English is taught without the Bible, has been far less popular than the missionschools with the Hindus themselves. The often-repeated assertion, that the use of the Christian Scriptures would be offensive to the Hindus, is an absurdity. Nothing could be more in accordance with their ideas of propriety than that youth should be taught in the Shastres or holy books of the language they are studying.

There are about six hundred young men, boys, and girls receiving instruction at the station under the care and influence of the missionary,[1] at a very small expense—the whole cost being but $1200 a year. Of this sum, nearly the whole is given by English gentlemen residing in Madras or its vicinity. The Church of England, the London and Wesleyan Societies, as well as the Scotch churches, are engaged in similar labours for the idolaters of Madras.


  1. The Rev. M. Winslow, who has laboured in India since 1819, now (1855) thirty-six years.