The Mystery of the Pooly sahib
Sometimes you come across the strangest things in India. I was reading a book, a fine one at that (through it would be termed dry & academic by many others) called Saints Goddesses and Kings by Susan Bayly and then this snippet popped into the reading frame. It was just a brief mention of the Pooly ghost in Tirunelveli, but I thought it would make a somewhat interesting story, if indeed there was one behind it and so I spent a while researching it.
To get to the bottom of all that you have to go to a village called Illamulli in Suvisheshpuram – near Tirunelveli. Not many people knew it then, not many do even now. But this is back in 1809, a time when the CMS missionaries were still to plan their missionary activities.
Some who have been involved with history would recognize the year, for a major event took place in Travancore, something that would change the course of events our there. The events took place right at the beginning of that year and so I am going to take you, to a place called Aramboli, Aramunny, Arambuli or Arambooly. As I explained some months ago, there were mainly two passes * in the Western Ghats, one was at Palakkad, which I wrote about connecting it to trade.
Quoting James Mill (History of British India) - The mountains are lofty and covered with jungle, and present in general almost insuperable obstacles to the march of an army with baggage and artillery. The most practicable passes are situated near the southernmost extremity of the chain, where the mountains decline in elevation as they approach the sea; and through one of these, the pass of Arambuli or Aramuni, it was determined on this occasion to force an entrance into Travancore. The Arambuli pass was defended by formidable lines, consisting of a number of small redoubts, each mounting two or three guns, and connected by a strong wall of masonry. The whole extended about two miles along the sides of steep and rugged hills, and terminated at either extremity by a strongly fortified mountain flanked by impenetrable jungle. The high road from Palamkota led through the centre of the works, by a gateway which was commanded by two large circular bastions armed with several pieces of ordnance.
Colonel St. Leger arrived at the foot of the lines on the 6th of February; and, as the division was unequipped with a battering train, determined to attempt to carry the pass by surprise. On the night of the 10th, Major Welsh, with two companies of the 69th, four flank and five battalion companies of the 3rd native infantry, quietly climbed the hill on which the southern works were erected, and, after six hours' arduous ascent, reached the foot of the wall unperceived. The ladders were planted, and the ramparts scaled, before any effective resistance could be opposed; and although a short stand was made, which was attended with some loss of life, the redoubt was quickly in possession of the assailants. As soon as the day broke, the guns of the bastion were turned upon the defences of the pass, which they enfiladed; and, reinforcements being sent to Major Welsh, he was strong enough to attack the rest of the lines, and the whole of the works were speedily cleared of their defenders.
Having thus secured his entrance into Travancore, Colonel St. Leger advanced on the 17th of February into the interior; and dislodged, after a short action, a body of troops strongly posted, with nine guns, on the bank of a river near the village of Nagarkbil. The next march brought the troops to the forts of Udagiri and Papanavaram, which were abandoned: the gates were set open, the garrisons had fled, and ensigns denoting submission were seen flying in every direction. Our loss was Captain Lenn of the Caffres, and Lieutenant Swayne of the 13th Native infantry, wounded, and forty-nine rank and file killed and wounded. After this brilliant affair, which did infinite credit to Colonel M'Leod and the brave fellows under his command, the army encamped, four miles beyond the village of Nagracoile. The country was now completely in the possession of the British: the Nairs disbanded, and retired to their homes; the Dewan, despairing of forgiveness, fled into the thickets; and the Raja, left to himself, hastened to tender his submission, and profess his readiness to conform to any conditions which the Resident should please to dictate.
As we said before, most of the fortifications had been created by a clever French Officer Eustace De Lannoy. The northern Travancore lines were the ones that foiled the attempts of Tipu from marching into Travancore. The British used a rear entry tactic to get into Trivandrum. After the battle was won and various postwar activities commenced at Travancore, the people on the other side of the hill, however experienced a legendary incident involving a wounded white strangler from this war. In the heat of the battle, one British officer was mortally wounded, started across the hills and was picked up by some native Shannars (Shanars or Nadars) of Tinnevelly. His name was Capt Powell or Poole. But one who read the previous paragraphs carefully would say - The only losses were Lenn, Swayne & Cunningham. No deserters or mortally wounded were named. So who was Powell or Poole?
Let us take up the commentary as recorded by RC Cladwell - In the early part of this century, when we had some difficulty with Travancore, and our troops had to storm its " lines " at the Arambooly Pass—the southernmost pass in the Ghauts of India—there was a certain Captain Pole, who was mortally wounded. The poor man appears to have tried to return across country to Madura, to obtain European medical assistance, but died on the way, in the South Tinnevelly Palmyra forest. The simple Shanars of the district were terrified. They opened his scanty " kit" and amongst other things found some brandy and cheroots. What was to be done? His manes, according to their belief, were now abroad in the neighborhood, and must be duly propitiated. A grave was dug under the banyan I have referred to, a hut was hastily erected, the services of a local devil-dancer were procured, and the ghost of the officer was duly worshipped. But he was a white man; what gift would be most pleasing to his soul? The brandy and cheroots! So almost to this present day has continued this extraordinary worship. Alcoholic liquor, in some form or other, and cheroots, have been periodically presented at the grave of Captain Pole, under that spreading tree and before that solitary hut on the sandy waste, in order that the spirit of the departed soldier might refrain from wreaking vengeance on the simple rustics of the neighborhood. Near to this curious shrine are a number of small obelisks. The intention of these is well known. The devil-worshipper believes that the ghost of the dead man or the local he or she devil, as it walks about, never touches the ground with its airy feet, and is therefore always on the move, seeking rest. These obelisks, therefore, please the spirits, who rest on the top of them and watch the dances in their honor, and see, with a grin of infernal satisfaction, the fowls which are being sacrificed to them have their throats cut, and go flapping and tumbling about comically in their death throes!
To commemorate the event a song was created by the devil dancers.
Over time the story and its variations multiplied.
Bishop Caldwell then tried to get to the bottom of the story separately and clarified in detail - I shall here give an exact account of what took place. The circumstances are these. From the rude verses which were sung in connection with this person’s worship, it would appear that he was an English officer, a Captain Pole, or some such name, who was mortally wounded at the taking of the Travancore Lines in 1809. They were carrying him towards a place on the sea-coast of Tinnevelly called Manapar, probably in the hope of seeing him recover, but he died on the way at a place in a dreary range of sand-hills about four miles from the place where I write this. Shortly after his death, the ignorant people in the neighborhood commenced to worship him as a demon. Every demon has offered to him what he is supposed to like best. An ordinary Indian demon would have preferred blood, but the offerings made to this English officer consisted in ardent spirits and cigars! I found this worship in full vigour when I arrived in these parts more than forty years ago, but it has long since passed away and been forgotten. My chief reason for mentioning it here is the unfair use of it which has sometimes been made. An English “globe-trotter,” who afterwards went into Parliament, asserted in Parliament, in the course of a tirade against the English Government in India, that this worship of an English officer as a devil was an illustration of the horror in which the English were held by the natives. The fact is, that the motive of the people of the neighborhood was not horror or dislike of anything they had heard about the poor man, but pity for his melancholy end, dying as he did in a desert, far away from friends, so that it was impossible that his spirit could have rest.
Another version by Monier Williams went thus - The most terrible of all demons are thought to be those created by Europeans. Of course the propitiating process must vary according to the character of the man whose demonized spirit is to be coaxed into good-humor. His tastes and idiosyncrasies during life must be carefully inquired into and judiciously indulged. The story is told of a certain choleric Englishman who was a terror to the inhabitants of a district in the South of India, and whose ghost after his death had to be constantly appeased by offerings of good cooked meat, brandy, soda-water, and cigars placed daily on his tomb. The same was done to secure the continued good-will of a philanthropic sportsman, who when he was alive delivered a large tract of country from the ravages of tigers. You can now see how the story changes character..
The next version by Rev Ragland was even more interesting - I will add another page out of the history of Satan's lyings. Near Suviseshapuram (the town of the gospel) is a lofty red sand-hill, which at the beginning of this century was chosen as the first station for the trigonometers' survey of South India. About a mile or two distant from this station is an inveterately heathen town called Illamulley, abounding with pey-coila or devil-houses, the largest of these, at least the largest of the altars in these, being dedicated to a pey called Pooley Sahib. He is the favourite, i. e. the most dreaded deity of the place, I believe, is hymned in a lengthy poem of some merit, of which the translation of a great part was read to me, and is attempted to be appeased by offerings of mutton, arrack, and cheroots. And whom do you imagine this mysterious personage to be? You will be as much astonished as I was to learn that he is nothing more nor less than the spirit of an English officer, of the name of Pole, or Powell, or some other similar name, metamorphosed by the Hindoos into Pooley, who was killed in 1809, at the taking of the Arambooly lines, and carried back to the station on the hill to be buried. Having met with a violent death, his ghost was supposed to be the cause of all the sicknesses of man and beast in the neighborhood. A man could not get a headache in a walk past the grave, but the Englishman's spirit was taxed as the author of it. The senseless Illamulley-ites at length sent a deputation, invited the spirit to their town, bribing it with the offer of a larger altar than any that had been erected there, promised offerings such as they shrewdly imagined would be most grateful to an English officer's ghost, and provided, I suppose, a native poet to prepare a hymn to be sung on peculiarly solemn occasions. This hymn speaks of Pooley-Sahib, as one of the greatest of heroes, and the conqueror of Madura, Tinnevelly etc., describes the attempts of his wife (a second Andromache) to dissuade him from the fatal fight, speaks of his power since death to inspire men with madness and to slay with a blow or breath whole herds of cattle. But the opening of the hymn is the most remarkable part of the whole. The spirit being Christian, and popery being the only form of Christianity known in this part of India until later years, it commences with an invocation of the Virgin Mary.
So Pole or Powell, or some such name as Dr Caldwell admits (yes, one check with the war office would have been enough to clear the matter had there been a doubt, but since Caldwell and Thurston and many others, evangelists or not chose to leave the story be, it seems that one of the unnamed dead Englishmen was indeed the Pole or Powell) was buried by the Shannars or Nadars and a small burial stone erected, together with the obelisks in line with their practice. The English did not, I assume mention the desertion or flight of this gentleman or even his existence probably as he was considered a deserter, without perhaps the knowledge that he was mortally injured.
But why did the Shannars accord a dying strangler this honor? Was it the courage of the soldier in the last hours, was it the officer’s pride in facing death that impressed the tribals, sadly, we are not to know.
But anthropologists like Sundar Kaali have an answer after study of the thought process of those ancient times– Studies of tribal rituals indicate that a violent death generates a cult. Violent death transfers power to death deities. This power can be summoned to counteract other elemental forces such as disease, disaster or death!! So it is not just a matter of honoring the dead, but a category transfer that enables contact with them…
Now to imagine how violent that death would be, you have to read my article on the Pazhassi Raja. If Pole had been shot with a Brown Bessie, one ounce musket ball, it would have knocked him flat and you stayed flat with shock, ripped muscles, shattered bones, arteries and nerves, and heavy bleeding. Maybe that was the sight seen by the Shannars who are mostly used to bows and arrows and lance or sword wounds.
According to Sundar Kaali, two stories possibly merged to create this legend, one being the Pooley story otherwise known as the Vellaikaran, and the other the Ittimulli story involving another Englishman called Turaimatan. Turaimatan lost his life fighting against one of the Nayaks, possibly the Veera Pandya Kattabomman during the times of the Khan.
The place where Pole is worshipped is I believe called Pole pettai. A typical description of the propiation ceremenoy is provided in the story A witch’s den by Mme Blavatsky.
But another portrait, amazed my friend a good deal, and put him in a blue funk. The whole district recognized an English officer, a certain Captain Pole, who in his lifetime was as kind a gentleman as ever lived."
"Indeed? But do you mean to say that this strange people worshipped Captain Pole also?"
"Of course they did! Captain Pole was such a worthy man, such an honest officer, that, after his death, he could not help being promoted to the highest rank of Shanar devils. The Pe-Kovil, demon's house, sacred to his memory, stands side by side with the Pe-Kovil Bhadrakali, which was recently conferred on the wife of a certain German missionary, who also was a most charitable lady and so is very dangerous now."
"But what are their ceremonies? Tell us something about their rites."
"Their rites consist chiefly of dancing, singing, and killing sacrificial animals. The Shanars have no castes, and eat all kinds of meat. The crowd assembles about the Pe-Kovil, previously designated by the priest; there is a general beating of drums, and slaughtering of fowls, sheep and goats. When Captain Pole's turn came an ox was killed, as a thoughtful attention to the peculiar tastes of his nation. The priest appeared, covered with bangles, and holding a wand on which tinkled numberless little bells, and wearing garlands of red and white flowers round his neck, and a black mantle, on which were embroidered the ugliest fiends you can imagine. Horns were blown and drums rolled incessantly. And oh, I forgot to tell you there was also a kind of fiddle, the secret of which is known only to the Shanar priesthood. Its bow is ordinary enough, made of bamboo; but it is whispered that the strings are human veins. .... When Captain Pole took possession of the priest's body, the priest leapt high in the air, and then rushed on the ox and killed him. He drank off the hot blood, and then began his dance. But what a fright he was when dancing! You know, I am not superstitious. . . . . Ami? . . ."
Many other white soldiers died in various parts of the Coromandel while fighting the Nayaks, but were not accorded such legends and rites. So those final moments hold the key, which I am unfortunately not able to unlock. So we know not who this English soldier was, if he was an Englishman, Welsh, Scots or Irish or the rest of his melancholy existence, though he lives on in ghostly fashion, after death. But the story proved to be an interesting one and one for a rainy day, which today is and is just right for Ghostly Haloween which is tomorrow.
Contemporary Review – Vol 27
Brahmanism and Hinduism - Sir Monier Monier-Williams
Journal, Volume 1 - Anthropological Society of Bombay
A memoir of the Rev. Thomas Gajetan Ragland - Thomas Thomason Perowne
Military reminscences; extracted from a journal of nearly forty years - James Welsh
The Travancore state manual, Volume 1 - V. Nagam Aiya
A political and general history of the District of Tinnevelly Robert Caldwell
Omens and superstitions of southern India Edgar Thurston
History and the Present - Partha Chatterjee, Anjan Ghosh
Historical records of the XIII Madras infantry Robert Pilkington Jackson
Diary of Colonel Bayly -12th regiment. 1796-1830 - Richard Bayly
From the caves and jungles of Hindostan - Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
*There were actually three passes during that period. One into Coimbatore, called the Chavakkad (near Trichur) or Palakkad pass; the second is the Ariyankol, into Tinnevelly ; the third is the Arambuli. Somewhere in that region is the Thovala Fort; near Aramboly about 10 km from Nagercoil on the Nagercoil-Tirunelveli Highway, the remains of the Eastern Defence Lines of Travancore.