The Tamil Plutarch
A Summary Account of the Lives of the Poets and Poetesses of Southern India and Ceylon
Simon Casie Chetty, First Published in 1859,
Second Revised Edition published by
Asian Educational Services in 1982
From the Preface by the Author, 15 August 1859:
"Of the languages of the Scythian family, Tamil confessedly occupies
the most distinguished rank, and it is peculiar to the people of that part of India, which
was formerly under the sway of the Chera, Chola and Pandiya kings and of those of the
eastern and northern provinces of Ceylon.
The name Tamil, signifying " sweet," is characteristic of the
language. Indeed it is one of the most copious, refined, and polished languages spoken by
man, as correctly observed by an accomplished Orientalist. (Taylor's Preface to Dr.
Rotler's Tamil and English Dictionary, part iv.) ....
Few nations on earth can perhaps boast of so many poets as the Tamils.
Poetry appears to have been the first fixed form of language amongst them; for as has been
remarked by Abbe Dubois, " they have not a single ancient book that is written in
prose, not even the books on medicine ", and hence the poet formed the inalienable
part of the philologist, the theologian, the philosopher, the astronomer, the physician,
etc. (Abbe Dubois' Description of the People of India, p. 260.)
The inducements held out to poets and the rewards bestowed on them by
the long line of Pandiya kings, who graced the throne of Madura from the ninth century
before to the fourteenth century after Christ, were most liberal, and might have done
honor even to the court of Augustus.
These kings had three different Sangams, or Colleges established in
their capital at three different periods, for the promotion of literature, more or less
corresponding in character with the Royal Academy of Sciences founded by Louis XIV at
Paris, and made it a rule that every literary production should be submitted to their
Senatus Academicus, before it was allowed to circulate in the country, for the purpose of
preserving the purity and integrity of the language.
It may be well imagined how favorably these Sangams operated on the
talent and genius of the nation. From every part of Southern India poets crowded into the
Sanga-mandapam, or College hall to recite their compositions and the successful candidate
besides winning the smiles of Royalty was rewarded with something more enduring and
substantial as will appear from Vamshasu'da'mani Pandiyen presenting a purse of gold to
the poet Tarumi, alla Kule'sa Pandiyen honoring the poet Iddeika'der by the gift of
a young elephant and a horse, besides gold, and fertile lands.
Neither were the kings of Chera and Chola backward in patronising
poets; for they had a certain number of them always attached to their courts, and the
names of Peruma'Kothari Chera and Kulo'tunga Chola are still celebrated, the former
for his unbounded munificence towards the poets in general, and the latter towards the
poet Ottaku'ter, the author of the war-chant called Kalingattu Parani.
There can be no doubt that an infinite number of works in the different
departments of sciences and literature were composed during this brilliant age; but in the
early part of the fourteenth century when the Muhammedan hordes poured into Southern
India, and Prakrama Pandiyen was led away captive to Delhi, the Tamils had to deplore the
loss of almost all their literature; for those ruthless fanatics amongst other outrages
ransacked all the libraries in the country, and committed to the flames "all that
genius had reared for ages." ....
It had long been my intention to offer to the public an account of the
Lives of our Poets, but the difficulties which presented themselves in procuring materials
for the work owing to the absence of biographical records in Tamil either ancient or
modern, was more than I had calculated upon, and I almost resolved to give up the
undertaking in despair. Finding however that the traditions current among the people,
carefully collected and scrupulously detached from fictitious and ornamental additions
such as oriental imagination delights in could afford the desired information, I was
induced to direct my attention to that source of knowledge, and the result with all its
imperfections is now before the public.
This work, being the first attempt of the kind, must be notwithstanding
all my vigilance necessarily subject to many inaccuracies and defects, for which I solicit
the indulgence of the reader and the critic...."
Chetties rose a great Tamil scholar - 200th birth anniversary of
Simon Casie Chetty will be celebrated today at Kalpitiya
Kasipillai Manickavasagar, 25 March 2007
Simon Casie Chetty, the first civil servant of Ceylon was a member of
the Legislative Council, judge, scholar and prolific author. His 200th
birth anniversary is being celebrated today at his school in Kalpitiya
near Puttalam. The programme will include the release of the reprints of
three of his English books, unveiling his portrait and a commemoration
meeting. He was indeed a multi-faceted personality.
The parchment scroll detailing the biographical data of Simon Casie
Chetty prepared for posterity by M.H.M. Naina Marikar, M.P. for Puttalam
and Deputy Minister was unveiled at the New Puttalam Law Courts complex
on October 19, 1984. The inaugural address on this occasion was
delivered by Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne, former Minister of Justice.
The History of the Colombo Chetties written by Shirley Pulle Tissera,
and the History of Colombo Chetty Community written by A.T.S. Paul
confirm that "the ancestors belonged to a small community that hailed
from Alwar in the Tinnevely district in South India, who were
Tamil-speaking Hindus. One of them, Casper Casie Chetty migrated to
Ceylon in the middle of the Portuguese period, became a Catholic, and
was known to be living in Colombo with his wife in 1620. The grandfather
of Simon, Adrian Casie Chetty became a Protestant and a member of the
Dutch Reformed Church.”
Chetty VS Setthi
The Colombo Chetty Association (CCA) in its historical souvenir has made
an etymological declaration of the word Chetty, that "it is interpreted
as Setthi in Pali, Hetti or Situ in Sinhalese and Etti in Tamil.
Therefore, any reference to Setthi or Situ would mean Chetty. This is
important because in all historical records this Community is referred
to as Setthi or Situ".
At the same time, the Tamil Lexicon published under the authority of the
University of Madras in six volumes in the early 1930s and reprinted in
1982, etymologizes on page 1583 of volume 3 that the term Chetty
originated and derived from the Prakrit word Setthi. It is worthy to
note that the Prakrit and Tamil words sound alike and that the Tamil
word Chetty originated and derived from the Prakrit word as proved by
the Tamil Lexicon. Incidentally, the suffix-like Pulle is Pillai in
Tamil meaning child, and Appa is father.
Prakrit and the Middle Indo-Aryan languages began as vernacular dialects
and eventually developed distinct styles. These dialects were
distinguished by regional names. In Malayalam Chetty is Cetti, and in
Kanarese and Telugu it is Jetti. Some scholars restrict Prakrit to the
language used by the Hindu and Jain writers, while some others include
the Buddhist languages such as Pali and Inscriptional Prakrit.
The Souvenir also mentions that "the ancestors of the Colombo Chetties
first moved from the North Western parts of India to Malabar and
Coramendal coast”, but it is yet to be ascertained with evidence. The
President of the CCA Reggie Candappa admitted this fact thus:
“Occasionally, articles have appeared in the local press giving a vague
insight into the origins of our community.”
The souvenir also states that they came to Ceylon from Madura and
Nagapatnam as well. Supporting it, A.T.S. Paul says in his book that
“The advent of the Colombo Chetty community from Nagapatnam, India is
well documented from 1663 during the reign of King Rajasingha II of
Kandy, and the Governorship of the Dutch, Ruckloff Van Goens. With the
arrival of the Westerners in search of the riches of the East, the
Chetties of India used the opportunity to further their trade. Tandava
M.P. Aserappa, a wealthy ship owner, arrived in his own vessel from
Nagapatnam with his brother Arthurunarayan. He was a Hindu. On his
conversion to Christianity he took the name of Anthony Pieris Aserapa.
Incidentally, the Tamil language was termed Malabar in most of the
translating of the Bible into Tamil and it was the word used to denote
the Tamil language by the early foreign missionaries.
Speaking of the origin of the Colombo Chetties S.P. Tissera says: "The
Colombo Chetties belong to the Vaisya Caste. The Vaisyas compose the
nobility of the land, and according to the classification made by Rev.
Fr. Boschi they were divided into three distinct tribes or castes. The
highest sub-division being the Tana Vaisya or merchants, followed by Pu
Vaisya or Husbandmen and Ko Vaisya or Herdsmen. The Tana Vaisyas are
commonly called Chetties.” It is the Tamil term Chetty that associates
the Colombo Chetties with the reputed Tana Vaisya caste, and Dharmasiri
Senanayake, then Minister observed at the opening of the CCA Exhibition
that “The Chetties and the Tamils have some cultural links” (Dinamina
As per the Tamil Lexicon, Chetty is Vaisya or mercantile caste. It is
the title of a trader, wrestler, prize-fighter and the Hindu God Skanda.
Chettinadu is a landmass of 1700 sq. km and consists of 74 towns and
villages. There is neither a separate country as such nor a government
for it. Yet, since the Chetties were industrious and philanthropic,
their territory has been dignified after them. The bulky Madurai Tamil
Great Dictionary produced in 1937 mentions 12 categories of Chetties and
the list includes the Tamil word ETTI, respectably ETTIAR which has been
referred to above in the etymological declaration.
Simon Casie Chetty
In this illustrious community was born Simon Casie Chetty, the greatest
Tamil scholar the Colombo Chetty community ever had. He writes in the
preface dated August 15, 1859 to his classical work the Tamil Plutarch:
“Of the languages of the Seythian family the Tamil confessedly occupies
the most distinguished rank and, it is peculiar to the people of that
part of India, which was formerly under the sway of the Chera, Chola and
Pandiya kings and of those of the eastern and northern provinces of
Ceylon. The name “Tamil” signifying “sweet” is characteristic of the
language. Indeed it is one of the most copious, refined, and polished
languages spoken by man, as correctly observed by an accomplished
Orientalist Taylor. Few nations on earth can perhaps boast of so many
poets as the Tamils. Poetry appears to have been the first fixed form of
language amongst them; for as has been remarked by Abbe Dubois, “They
have not a single ancient book that is written in prose, not even the
books on medicine.”
Simon’s father Gabriel was born in 1779, but his father had an early
death and his maternal uncle Abraham Muthukrishna, Chief Tamil Mudaliar
of the Governor’s Gate brought up Gabriel and caused him to study Dutch.
However, as the capture of the island by the British gave importance to
English, Gabriel studied English and Governor North appointed him as one
of the Tamil translators to the Government from which post he rose to
the position of Mudaliar of Kalpitiya and settled down there after
marrying Marie, daughter of Simon de Rosario and held several offices of
trust in the Dutch East India Company Service.
Their son Simon Casie Chetty was born in Kalpitiya on March 21, 1807 and
baptized in Colombo as an Anglican. Simon attended the Tamil school at
Kalpitiya and subsequently another. Somewhat like Srilasri Arumuga
Navalar who at a young age, tutored his Principal in Tamil at the Jaffna
Central School of Rev. Dr. Peter Percival, Simon taught Tamil to Lt.
Smith who also had literary achievements. He agreed to teach English to
Simon. This was the beginning of Simon the scholar. Dr. Nissanka
Wijeyeratne speaking of Simon said: “Later he was to master, besides his
native Tamil, English, Sinhalese, Sanskrit, Hebrew and Arabic and had a
fair knowledge of Portuguese, Dutch, Latin and Greek.”
Simon’s father died on 2.8.1837 and he was appointed Mudaliar and a
Proctor. Mr. Mooyart was the Assistant Government Agent and District
Judge of Puttalam and he engaged Simon in his literary pursuits. The
Christian missionaries beginning with the Methodist Mission were
received in Jaffna by the Mooyarts. In 1839 he completed a church at a
cost of 250 pounds and more than half of it was paid by him.
At the age of 17 Simon was appointed Interpreter to the Puttalam Courts,
later to the Office of Assistant Collector. His later appointments were:
Collector of Chilaw and Maniyagar of Puttalam and Attorney to the
Government was in addition to these Offices. During this period he
maintained and conducted a free Tamil School at Kalpity for 50 students.
Simon married his cousin of the Wesleyan Mission in 1839. The following
year he had the acquaintance of Mrs. Foster, wife of the Commander and
this accomplished lady and a lover of literature helped Simon in his
literary research for about nine years. Simon Casie Chetty was appointed
a Tamil Member of the Legislative Council when this office was rendered
vacant due to the death of Coomaraswamy Mudaliar. He held this office
for seven years and then resigned. On his retirement from the
Legislative Council due to heavy expenses he was made the First
Ceylonese Civil Servant and also a member of the Royal Asiatic Society
in 1845. He proceeded to Chilaw as District Judge which office he held
until his death on November 5, 1860 at the age of 53. Before his death
he became a Catholic.
Simon Casie Chetty was a prolific writer and author of 12 published
monographs and seven manuscripts. The Ceylon Gazetteer was his Magnum
Opus – his great work, and it is the one that was displayed together
with his portrait in the 75 cents postage stamp released on National
Heroes Day of 1989.