Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVI No. 01, April 16-30, 2016
On a train journey back to Bangalore from Thanjavur recently, one of my fellow passengers, overhearing that I live in the Nandi Hills area north of Bangalore and conduct curated heritage walks in the foothills, asked me if I knew about the curious case of Omkar Swamy and his ‘ashram’ in the area. I wasn’t very enthusiastic about entering into another tale of a ‘godman’, most likely a rather forgettable one, and so replied that while I knew of the existence of the man and his ‘ashram’, I had no knowledge of, nor particular interest in, him. My fellow passenger, however, ploughed on and I, politely, listened. What followed, however, kept me enthralled and led me to further research. This is what I found.
The best shot of the
Swamijis picture considering the
angle through a shuttered door
and the poor lighting.
In 1919, an ascetic calling himself ‘Sri Sadguru Omkar’, or ‘Omkar Swamy’ to the locals, set himself up in a small ashram which he built in the serene and verdant foothills of Nandi Hills, 60 or so kilometres north of Bangalore, just off the Bellary-Hyderabad national highway. Nestling in a scraggy outcrop between the towering Nandi Hills on one side, and the lower subsidiary hills on the other (in particular, Chandragiri), the ashram overlooked the Nandi Valley and the villages of Sultanpet and Nandi. It was located on the western fringes of the former.
In front of this small and rather nondescript structure, under a makeshift metal sheeting roof and some vegetation, held up by four granite pillars, is a simple grave coloured red, having just a headstone and no other ornaments. The headstone states (translated from the Kannada): “Here lies the revolutionary who fought for Indian Independence, Shri Omkar Swamiji, Death: 4th March 1978, Sultanpete.”
The ashram itself is a pretty picture, a single storey building with a thatched verandah running almost all the way around it, well maintained, although unfortunately shut and locked when I visited. Between the tomb and the ashram building is a rather deep and rocky crevice ending in a pond. The entire complex, set some distance up the hillside, and accessible by a flight of granite steps, is a pretty and welcoming sight, what with several large trees around.
This panoramic view shows on the right the ‘ashram’ and today a small temple with its tops now painted yellow astride a rocky ridge on a small hillock with the dominating presence of Nandi Hills in the centre,
and the Nandi valley with the villages mentioned towards the left of the frame.
Peering through the locked door, I managed to take a photograph of the Swamiji himself, seen in later years. The entire compound housing these structures is well cared for. I learnt that the generosity, support and active assistance of some of the locals in the village of Sultanpet made this possible.
* * *
A revolutionary swamiji, who ostensibly fought for Indian Independence, living as an ascetic for close to six decades in the beautiful and quiet foothills of Nandi Hills, far from any of the centres of protest and action, nothing could be more intriguing. Nor could these titbits of information gleaned from the physical structures, be more enticing for me to ferret the story out. (Editor’s Note: This story has already been told in Madras Musings, so is repeated here only in abbreviated form.)
On July 17, 1911, the Collector and District Magistrate of Tinnevelly, Robert William d’Escourt Ashe, i.c.s., was shot dead at point blank range when the train in which he and his family were travelling had stopped at Maniyachi train junction.
The assassin, Vanchinathan Aiyar from Shencottah, then in the princely state of Travancore, jumped off train, ran into a lavatory on the platform and shot himself through the mouth using the same revolver he had used to assassinate Collector Ashe. This was the first overtly violent act of resistance against the British in southern India in the 20th Century.
Vanchinathan Aiyar had a letter on his body that hinted at a political conspiracy behind the murder. Not long afterwards, 14 men were charged with various offences ranging from murder to waging war against the King Emperor of India, and criminal conspiracy. This group of alleged conspirators was a motley crew of farmers, cooks, merchants, a greengrocer, a lawyer’s clerk, a schoolmaster and even a pot-vendor! The chief conspirator was a Brahmin youth of 21, a journalist, a fiery patriot and person of considerable persuasive skills and charm, called Neelakanta, alias Brahmachari.
Since the victim was a senior ICS officer, the trial was posted for the High Court of Madras by the District and Sessions judge, Alfred Tampoe ics, a Ceylon Tamil. After a long-drawn out court battle of 93 days, Chief Justice Sir Arnold White and Judge Ayling found the conspirators guilty of the conspiracy to murder, while Justice C. Sankaran Nair, concluding that murder had not been legally proved, held that only the charges of waging war against the King had been established against the chief conspirator, Neelakanta Brahmachari. He was sentenced to seven years rigorous imprisonment. The other accused were sentenced to various terms of lesser imprisonment.
In prison, Neelakanta Brahmachari drew close to the judge who had first tried him, and who had decided to transfer the case for trial to the Madras High Court, Judge Alfred Tampoe. Neelakantan, born in Erukkoor in Tanjore District, had some education. He was drawn to revolutionaries like Aurobindo Ghosh and moved to Pondicherry where he published a Tamil magazine, Suryodaya, which was subsequently banned by the British.
While serving his sentence, Brahmachari had time to examine his life, and concluded that violence was not the way to salvation. He also, jointly with Judge Tampoe, wrote from prison a detailed history of the underground political movement in South India. In recognition of this contribution, a remission of his sentence was granted. After his release from jail in 1919, Neelakanta Aiyar become a changed man, a reformed individual, more inclined to non-violence to achieve political aims. He called himself Omkarnath Swami and sought solace in the world of religion and philosophy.
Judge Tampoe visited him often in the “ashram on the till-top” and they held long philosophical discussions. Judge Tampoe and he become friends, no one quite sure who was the guru, who was the sishya.