Circumstances leading to its establishment
Krishna Devaraya, during his reign (15091529), developed the Nayankara system. Accordingly, the Tamil country was divided into three large Nayankaras: Senji, Thanjavur and Madurai. Under the new system the subordinate chieftains were designated as Palayakkarars and their fiefdom as Palayams. T hanjavur which remained as a part of the Chola territories first and then of the Pandya kingdom became a vassal state of the Madurai Sultanate, from which it passed into the hands of Nayaks. The rivalry between the Nayaks of Madurai and Thanjavur finally led to the eclipse of Nayak rule of Thanjavur in 1673. Troops from Bijapur, led by the Maratha general Venkoji, defeated the Nayak of Madurai and captured Thanjavur. Venkoji crowned himself king, and Maratha rule began in Thanjavur in 1676. When Shivaji invaded the Carnatic in 1677, he removed Venkoji and placed his half-brother Santaji on the throne. But Venkoji recaptured Thanjavur and, after his death, his son Shahji became the ruler of Thanjavur kingdom. Shaji had no heir to succeed.
So his brother Serfoji I became the next ruler and remained in power for sixteen years (1712-1728). After him one of his brothers Tukkoji succeeded him, followed by Pratap Singh (1739-1763), whose son Thuljaji ruled up to 1787. Serfoji II aged 10, was then crowned, with Thuljoji‘s brother Amarsingh acting as Regent. Disputing this succession, the English thrust an agreement on Serfoji II, according to which the latter was forced to cede the administration of the kingdom to the British. Serfoji II was the last ruler of the Bhonsle dynasty of the Maratha principality of Thanjavur.
Serfoji II was a remarkable ruler. He was educated by the German Christian missionary Friedrich Schwartz, Serfoji. Similarly Serfoji II turned out to be a well-known practitioner of Western science and medicine. Yet he was a devoted, keeper of Indian traditions. He mastered several European languages and had an impressive library of books in every branch of learning. Serfoji’s modernising projects included the establishment of a printing press (the first press for Marathi and Sanskrit) and enrichment of the Saraswati Mahal Library. His most innovative project, however, was the establishment of free modern public schools run by his court, for instruction in English and the vernacular languages.
Serfoji II found in his contemporary missionary scholar C.S. John in Tranquebar, an innovator in education. John carried out reforms and experiments in schooling ranging from residential arrangements for students and innovations in curriculum and pedagogy. But his most important proposal was a project submitted to the English colonial government in 1812, urging it to sponsor free schools for Indian children, for instruction in Tamil and English. This was at a time when English education was not available to non-Christian Indians.
T homas Munro, governor of Madras, proposed a scheme for elementary public schools in the 1820s, but the Company government did not establish a modern school for natives in Madras till 1841. In contrast, from the start, the German missionaries had run several free vernacular and English schools in the southern provinces since 1707. Serfoji II was in advance of both the missionary and the colonial state, for as early as 1803 in Thanjavur he had established the first modern public school for non-Christian natives. While Indian rulers often endowed educational institutions of higher learning, they did not establish elementary schools, nor did they administer any schools or colleges.
Serfoji’s most striking initiative was the founding and management of free elementary and secondary schools for orphans and the poor in Thanjavur city and other adjacent places. Included were schools for all levels, charity schools, colleges and padashalas for Sanskrit higher learning. T he schools catered to the court elites, Vedic scholars, orphans and the poor. A second innovation was the introduction of navavidya (‘modern’ or ‘new’ learning) in the state-run schools. According to an 1823 report produced for Governor Munro’s census of education, 21 of the 44 free schools in the wider T hanjavur district were run by Serfoji’s government, 19 by the missionaries, one by a temple.
There were three schools that were run by teachers themselves free of cost. In the state-run free schools Serfoji made modern education available to all. In 1822, at the free school in Muktambal Chattiram the king’s favourite almshouse established in 1803, 15 teachers taught a total of 464 students of diverse castes, in two classes, in the morning and in the evening. Serfoji also supported a free school for needy Christians, run by missionaries in the village of Kannandangudi. Serfoji II established Dhanvantari Mahal, a research institution that produced herbal medicine for humans and animals.
Maintaining case-sheets of patients was introduced. Physicians of modern medicine, Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha schools undertook research on drugs and herbs for medical cure. They produced eighteen volumes of research material. Serfoji also catalogued the important herbs in the form of exquisite hand paintings. Serfoji’s strategic initiatives in modern education enabled the Thanjavur court elite and subjects to enter and benefit from the emerging colonial social and economic order.
The court officials, mostly Brahmins, trained in European knowledge, technologies and arts became leading agents of colonial modernity, equal to the Englisheducated dubashes, writers and interpreters, both Hindu and Christian, who mediated between the Europeans and Indian courts. Two of Serfoji’s pandits (one of them was Kottaiyur Sivakolundu Desigar) joined the Company’s College of Fort St.George and became leaders in translation and print culture.
The careers and projects of Serfoji and John illuminate the important roles that enterprising individuals, and small places, such as a Danish-Tamil fishing village and a Maratha-Tamil principality, played in the history of change in colonial Tamilnadu. Serfoji II was a patron of traditional Indian arts like dance and music. He authored Kumarasambhava Champu, Devendra Kuravanji, and Mudra rakshaschaya. He introduced western musical instruments like clarinet, and violin in Carnatic music. He is also credited with popularising the unique Thanjavur style of painting. Serfoji was interested in painting, gardening, coincollecting, martial arts and patronized chariot-racing, hunting and bull-fighting.
He created the first zoological garden in Tamilnadu in the Thanjavur palace premises. Serfoji II died on 7th March 1832 after almost forty years of his rule. His death was mourned throughout the kingdom and his funeral procession was attended by more than 90, 000 people. At his funeral, Rev. Bishop Heber observed: ‘I have seen many crowned heads, but no one whose deportment was more princely’.