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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Unsung Heroes By Sneh Bansal

Inspired by the movie Hidden Figures, I thought of sharing stories about Descendants of Indian families who are now living in San Diego. Their families contribution in shaping our history, their contributions to society, their vision and generosity. Am writing about 5 families. Most common trait that I gathered from all these stories is that these were men of Substance and led honest and truthful lives. This is the legacy we need to carry forward and inculcate these values in our future generations.

1st story Vellore

I was introduced to Samantha through a common friend. Through her visits, we learnt about her wonderful family and the significant of Vellore. As a child I had visited Vellore and was impressed even then. She is a descendant of the Royal Bommi Reddy family from Vellore.
Vellore History
Located on the banks of river Palar, in the Eastern Ghats is the City of Vellore founded by the Reddy King Bommireddy. It is situated midway between the Metro cities of Chennai and Bangalore. It was the capital region and center of religion, culture, art and trade before Chennai and Bangalore were founded.
In 1639 East India Company obtained a small strip of land for trading, from the Vellore Kings which is now called Madras/ Chennai.

Vellore Fort was built by the Reddy King Chinna Bommireddy in the 1566. In the battle of Talikota in 1565, the Vijayanagara Kingdom was defeated by the combined might and deceit of the Deccan Sultanates (five Muslim kingdoms). Vellore fort stood as a symbol of resistance against the Deccan Sultanates / Muslim kingdoms.

The Vellore Fort is considered to be among the best of military architecture. It is known for its grand ramparts, wide moat and robust masonry. It was an impregnable Fort. The moat was an additional line of defense where once 10,000 crocodiles swarmed in the deep moat. It has huge double walls with bastions projecting irregularly, where two carts can be driven.
The control of the Fort passed on to Marathas, Mughals, Nawabs and eventually the British.

Vellore Mutiny of 1806 -
The British commander-in-chief of the Madras Army had prescribed a new round hat for the Madras sepoys to replace their turbans, plus the removal of beards, caste markings and jewelry. These measures were intended merely to improve the appearance of the Madras soldiers on parade but the sepoys considered them to be an offensive meddling with their religious beliefs. The situation was worsened by the fact that the hat included a leather cockade, made from cow hide.

This Fort was where the first war of Independence / Armed Rebellion against the British Army occurred in 1806. On July 10, 1806, before sunrise, the Indian sepoys stationed in the fort attacked the European barracks there, and by late morning had killed about 15 officers and 100 English soldiers and ransacked their houses.

 Jalakanteshwar Temple

The fort houses the famous Jalakanteshwar (Shiva) Temple which was built in 1550. It is said that King Bommireddy had a vision that there was a Shiva linga in the pond nearby. When he found the Shiva ling, he decided to build a temple around it. A few years later a sadhu predicted that this temple will be attacked. That was when the King decided to build a massive Fort surrounding the temple, which is the Vellore Fort.

The Jalakanteshwara Temple has exquisite carvings on its gopuram (tower), richly carved stone pillars, large wooden gates and stunning monoliths and sculptures

The temple Mandapam has halls supported by carved stone pillars of dragons, horses and yalis (lion like creature). The sculptures are masterpieces appreciated by the connoisseurs of art and architecture.

The temple itself is built in middle of a water tank. The circumference of the water tank is 8000 ft. The wedding hall (Kalyana Mandapam) inside the temple has a 2 faced sculpture, that of a bull and an elephant. The water used for Abishekam is drawn from an ancient well called the Ganga Gouri Teeertham, within the temple The sculptures speaks volumes of the exquisite craftsmanship of the highly skilled artisans of that period.
The temple after centuries of control by Muslims and British was re consecrated on 16 March 1981, by the Bommireddy family trust after fighting many decades of Court Battles with the Missionary groups. Regular Pujas are being held since then.
Consequently, the first Kumbha Abhishekam after re-consecration was held in 1982, followed by 1997 and 2011. For the third Kumbha Abhishekam in 2011, a special gold plated car was made at a cost of INR 30 million, using nearly 7 kg Gold.
In 2006, the 25th anniversary of the re-consecration of the Jalakandeswarar Temple was celebrated by taking out the deity in a grand procession thru the main streets of Vellore.
The Fort now houses a Church as well as a Mosque.

Bommireddy Family

In the 20th century the Bommireddy family made significant contributions in the field of Art, Films and Children’s Education.
Bommireddy Narasimha Reddy He was a Director, Producer, Writer who directed his first film in 1937.. He was a Reformist who addressed the social problems of his time thru his films. His themes focused on Swarajya, unemployment, dowry issues. He believed in quality over quantity. His movies are timeless classics which live on in people’s minds.
He inculcated discipline in his team members and trained his actors to deliver their role with perfection. Many yester year stars and their present generations owe their success to him.
He was awarded the Padmabhushan, The Dada Saheb Phalke award and the Doctor of Letters honors. There was also a postal stamp released in his memory.
Bommireddy Nagi Reddy – He was the founder of the reputed Vijaya Vauhini Film studio in 1948 in Chennai. He was also a Director and Producer of some of the classic movies of South India. The most famous of his movies was Maya Bazar (based on stories from Mahabharat Maya Bazar turned 60 years this year and there is no film like it to this day. With the meagre technology available then, the film has some great special effects.
He was awarded the Dada Saheb Phalke award apart from other film fare awards.
As Chairman of the Board of Tirupati Balaji Temple, he was instrumental in building the Vaikuntam Queue Complex that now serves to regulate the darshan queue.
Nagi Reddy was a visionary, deeply interested in inculcating social and moral values in children thru story telling. He founded the Chandamama monthly magazine for children in 1947. The unique style of storytelling and illustrations enthralled and educated many generations of kids. This magazine was printed in a dozen Indian languages.
Nagi Reddy also founded the Vijaya Medical & Educational Trust in 1972 which runs some of the premier hospitals in Chennai - the Vijaya hospital, Vijaya Heart Foundation and Vijaya Eye Foundation, Vjaya Trauma and Orthopedic center.
Their family was the first one to donate land to Vinobha Bhave movement.

2nd Story – First Exporter of Indian Tea

Manju Sikri is our close acquaintance. They recently moved back to San Diego. Am writing her family story as described in her own words.
All over the world there are many people who have lived very successfully and fully, who are not in the list of heroes, but who are very fondly remembered by all who knew them.
One of these hidden figures was my father, Goverdhan Nath Tandon. The Khatri family had lived in Agra and Delhi and moved to Kolkotta as it was the headquarters of the East India Company and the main business Centre.
China was the only country growing tea and therefore had the world monopoly. The British managed to get some of the bushes from China, bought land in Assam and planted it there. To their surprise, in the hot, wet tropical land the tea grew very well with a thick and full strong flavor. This became a new cash crop for the British to export to England and the Western World.
In the 19th century this new , very stimulating beverage became very fashionable and popular in the western world and Europe, being its main consumer.
The entire business was owned by the British and tea auctions were held in Kolkata. British companies like Brook Bond and Lipton etc, bought tea from the auction and blended it and exported it to London. From London tea was further sent to the other European countries and the rest of the world. They had complete control of the India Tea growing and marketing
After India’s Independence this still continued till the mid 1950’s.
My Father came from a business family whose main work was import and export. When he entered the family business and had to expand it, he thought about new profits and ventures. He then thought of exporting Indian tea directly to Europe and break the British monopoly.
In mid 1950’s he went to Europe and met some German firms whom they were in contact with and proposed to sell tea also, along with other products such as spices. Kaizer Cafeteria became a big buyer and soon France, Poland and East European countries followed. After securing the orders His efficient business team would execute the orders.
Being simple, very honest, with high business ethics, he was liked by the European tea buyers. In his visits abroad he would not drink alcohol nor eat meat. His business associates respected him for his simple disciplined life and were comfortable with him. Gradually other Indian firms followed but my father was a pioneer in Tea Export Business.
According to Manju, her father was called a living saint by his brother in law. Two days before he had predicted his death. . He was very fond of his wife and each of his daughters felt they were his favorite. After his retirement he wrote poems on currents events, Modi election etc. He published 3 books. Even in the hospital the care providers said they had never seen a patient like him. He had written a poem on them and blessed them. Manju feels blessed to have parents with good Sanskars / Values.

3rd Story - A Unique Indigenous Banking Institution Developed By Chettiars (Nagarathars) in Early 19th Century

Everybody knows this person in San Diego. Heard this story when he visited us in Jaipur in our yearly jaunts. He does not want his name revealed, as he believes the story is more important than the person, and I respect him for that.
The Chettiars , a very small community in Tamilnadu not more than 125,000 people worldwide, started out as salt traders and money lenders in the seventeenth century and evolved into a full-fledged banking system by the nineteenth century. They grew with the expansion of British Empire and at its peak, their banking system extended from South India to Burma, Malaya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and parts of seventeenth century China with some outposts in Indonesia and Mauritius. Their capital base around the early 20th century is estimated at between 3.7 billion and 5.8 billion 2008 US dollars. There were more Chettiar firms or bankers doing business in Burma (1650), Ceylon or Sri Lanka (700) and Malaya (over 500) than in South India (243). This may sound strange to outsiders but was in keeping with their adventurous spirit to exploit business opportunities wherever they presented.
Unlike Multanis, Marwaris, Kalladaikuruchi Brahmins and Chinese and Burmese money lenders with whom they competed for business in far flung areas, they developed a very efficient banking system taking advantage of credits available to them from their kith and kin and western commercial banks reluctant to lend money to small business and agriculturists.

The Chettiars offered checking or demand deposits as well as time deposits to their customers and caste members. Deposits from noncaste members made up a small percentage of total deposits, but they were offered a higher interest rate than to Chettiar clients. Depositors would receive either a deposit receipt or a passbook containing the particulars of the transaction when the deposit was made. All deposits, including the checkable ones, paid interest. Chettiars made a clear distinction in their account books of deposits (time and on demand) received from fellow caste members and those received from outsiders. Interest paid on Chettiar time deposits was lower than non-Chettiar time deposits, allowing them cheaper access to stable capital from within the caste.
Deposits were the basis for the drawing of bills of exchange or ‘hundis’. Clients had to maintain a deposit account with the banker, in order to be able to draw a hundi. Hundis worked much in the way checks do, serving the purpose of transferring funds across place and time without moving physical money. Checkable deposits, in turn, could be drawn on by ‘at sight’ or ‘darshan’ hundis, resembling demand drafts. Time deposits could only be drawn on by interest-bearing hundis with fixed maturity dates, resembling present day certificates of deposit.
What is unique about Chettiar financial system is that they generally met on a Friday evening in a Pillayar (Ganesha) or Murugan (Karthik) temple and after the prayer, they will set a deposit interest rates communally for all people to follow (perhaps similar to what Federal Reserve does now every month). They made their profit from interest spread and almost 100 percent repayment of their loans (a far cry present day banking in some countries).
After 1929 worldwide depression their banking system suffered because of decline in world rice price affecting their major market in Burma. Inability of Burmese borrowers not to repay the loans resulted in wholesale transfer of property to Chettiar bankers from their Burmese borrowers to such an extent that Chettiar firms came to own nearly 25 percent most fertile Irrawaddy Delta of Lower Burma. This was the beginning of Burmese resentment that in 1947 resulted in land nationalization policy of President Aung San, father of current leader of Myanmar. Chettiars lost all their lands and property in Burma, but had their wealth in their villages in Tamilnadu for them restart their lives in India and become prosperous again.
Their contribution to temple building and maintenance in Burma, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Tamilnadu, and most important Hindu pilgrim places of worships in North India is legendary.
One such place is Kashi (Benares). Viswanath (it is referred to as Viswesvarar in Chettiar or Nagarathar community), is their Ishta Deivam and they have been supporting its worship for over 200 years. They provide milk and flowers for Viswanath worship every day Abhisekham – morning, evening and early morning. Milk and flowers are carried every day at 11.00AM in procession from 1820 building owned by Nagrathars in Kashi with South Indian Percussion instruments and South Indian religious servant carrying special incense and kept at the temple premises for evening and early morning Abhisekhams. After World War II, Maharajah of Beneraes wanted this RIGHT back, but Chettiars refused and continue to perform this service to Supreme Lord Viswanath without interruption. Recently, they had the privilege and honor of covering Viswanath with Pure Gold Kavasam. God has granted them the privilege of sitting in the third window of the Sanctum Sanctorum during Pooja times to worship the Lord.

Recent studies by Malavika Nair and David Rudner and earlier studies by L.C. Jain, Mahadevan are excellent sources to learn more about this enterprising community at a time when international travel was dangerous and uncertain. As a matter of fact, when Chettiars left their villages for Burma and other countries, family members threw rice on the leaving member heads, perhaps suggesting last rites if they don’t return.

4th Story Gurukul for Girls

Met Mr. Senthil at my grandson’s birthday party. During our conversation was inspired to hear the story about his family foundation. His great grandfather ( mom's grandfather ) donated about 50 acres of his own land to start a Gurukul for girls ( It used to be mango orchid ). His uncle – Mama (mom's brother) Mr. Vedaratham Jr. is managing the trust today

As told by Senthil “ My mom was brought up in Gandhian way. She wears simple hand woven cloths ( kaadhi ); All of us in our family finds joy in helping others. I attribute it to the great environment and example set by my great grandfather and grandfather”
With the blessings of Mahatma Gandhi, Late Sardar A.Vedaratnam Pillai, the veteran freedom fighter and pioneer of the Vedaraniam Salt Satyagraha in the Southern India launched by our beloved Rajaji (C, Rajagopalchari) in the year 1930. He devoted his entire attention to the constructive programs of Mahatma Gandhi. He started Kasturba Gandhi Kanya Gurukulam in the year 1946 to educate the girls in villages which is one among the constructive programs of Mahatma Gandhi and named it as Kasthurba Gandhi Kanya Gurukulam. The organisation is situated in a typical small Indian village near Vedaranyam, a well known place in Tamilnadu State.
He wanted to emancipate the rural women from the shackles of slavery, drudgery, illiteracy and bondage. He dreamt to develop the Institution Kasthurba Gandhi Kanya Gurukulam into an organisation for downtrodden women, girls, widows and destitutes. The institution was started from a scratch but slowly it was built by a charitable trust with accredited people as its members.
From 1946, till today the institution has grown up with the patronage of philanthropists and well wishers. Now it has a higher secondary school for girls from Standard I to XII, It also provides training to develop the printing skill to rural women. An electronic production unit to enable the women to get trained in TV manufacturing. A cottage industry unit for the production of Agarbathi, Indian incense sticks is there. The institution is run on Sarvodaya lines. following a well knit cooperative community. In the Higher Secondary School, there are 1700 girls out of whom 600 share a community life; In the printing school, the strength is 50, where training is given in the various activities of printing. The electronics training cum production unit has 12 women. 20 girls are in the Agarbathi unit (perfume sticks).

The Institutions and Projects of Gurukulam:
Basic School
Higher Secondary School
Sri Thayumanavar Vidyalayam Middle School
Diploma in Teacher Education (Teachers training school)
Bachelor of Education (B.Ed., college)
Printing Press -Training and Production wing
Electronic Unit / Training cum production Centre in TV Assembly
Agarbathi Unit/Training cum Production Centre
French Friendship hospital
Siddha Dispensary (native medicine) handed down by saints
Dairy Unit/Biogas
Hand Pound Rice
Ireland aided Bakery training centre
Radio TV Assembly Training
Home for the Destitute
Village Adoption & Social Work

5th story – Private Bank in Rajasthan

The last story is of my maternal grandfather and father. My maternal grandfather Late Shri Dwarka Prasad Gupta was the first General Manager of the Bank of Rajasthan. His father was the financial person to the king of Kota. My mom and her sister spent their childhood with their grandfather, she would tell how the dal tadka/tempering, was done by gold coin for her grandfather.
In 1940, my grandfather had published a book on Banking. When the King of Mewar, in Udaipur wanted to start a bank. His daughter, who studied with my grandfather, suggested his name. My mom used to tell us stories of how the Buggy would come from the palace to fetch them.
The King of Mewar wanted to name the bank, “The Bank of Mewar”, but my grandfather, wanted the bank to serve all the people of Rajasthan, not just Mewar, so the bank was named “The Bank of Rajasthan ” even before the state was formed on 30 March 1949

A leading private sector bank, the Bank of Rajasthan was founded on the auspicious day of Akshya Tritiya on May 8, 1943, in Udaipur. Shri Rai Bahadur P.C. Chatterji, the then finance minister of the erstwhile Mewar Government, extensively contributed towards the establishment of the Bank. Mansingka Brothers from Bhilwara and the Late Seth Shri Govind Ram Seksaria, an eminent Industrialist,were the stock holders of the bank. The bank started with a capital of only Rs. 10 lakhs
Mr Govind Ram Seksaria was the founder Chairman and Late Shri Dwarka Prasad Gupta was the first General Manager. The logo of the bank consists of the historic Victory Tower of Chittorgarh.
It was, in 1948, that the Bank of Rajasthan became a scheduled bank
Bank of Rajasthan was one among the first banks to take banking services, at the door step of customers. This was done, when it opened its first mobile branch in Jaipur on August 5, 1960, thereby initiating the concept of mobile branches. The Bank became one of the earliest banks in private sector sponsoring any rural (Gramin) bank, when it established the Mewar Anchlik Gramin Bank in Udaipur District in Rajasthan on January 26, 1983.
My father Jethmal Agarwal, was the right hand man of my grandfather. My grandfather had an early death in 1960, while he was only 56 years old. My father being young was not appointed the highest position. Whenever there was a vacancy for the Chairman post, he was invited to join the bank.

My father finally accepted the position of Chairman of the Bank of Rajasthan in 1975. For 5 years that he was in this position, he worked hard. People were in and out of our house. Board lunches were held in our house. He opened 100 branches, opened extension counters in schools, hotels, transport centres. Doubled the deposits. Opened a women’s only branch and started a training college for officers. He bought land and built branches.

On May 23, 2010 The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) approved the merger of Bank of Rajasthan with ICICI Bank. Ms.Chanda Kochhar the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of ICICI Bank Limited has this to say after the merger, “ we never knew we would get so much assets with the merger.” Most ICICI branches are rentals.

Even when he was retired. Just by his sheer, gentle personality, he could get any work done. I cannot forget the incident after my marriage how he went to the Punjab National Bank with me in Sambhar, Rajasthan and got my savings account opened on a Sunday. All his daughters were like his secretaries, carrying out whatever errands he wanted us to do, without questions asked and with love. No one can replace the love and attention that parents shower on us.

Am sure there are many more stories untold. If you would like to share your story, please email us at under the heading  Unsung Heroes.

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