Search billions of records on Ancestry.com

Among the Chetties rose a great Tamil scholar

200th birth anniversary of Simon Casie Chetty will be celebrated today at Kalpitiya

By Kasipillai Manickavasagar - Sunday Times Mar 25 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 11.10.95)

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.