Monday, January 2, 2012

Canon S.S.Somasundaram - Commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary

Commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary of 
Canon S.S.Somasundaram

Vol.101  No.3 May/June 2003 (p.87)

Commemorating the 125th Birth Anniversary of Canon S.S.Somasundaram
The Cathedral, Colombo
23 December 2002

Santasilan Kadirgamar

I cannot claim to have known Canon Somasundaram intimately. Much of what I have to say here I have taken from Bishop Kulandran’s biography of the Canon. He was intimately connected with my family through the Kingsbury connection and the shared values that my father had with him. Canon Somasundaram preached the homily at the first wedding in my family, that of my eldest sister in December 1946 in the Chavakachcheri Church. An indelible impression was that he had come all the way – about ten miles - from Nallur on his bicycle and that too for a wedding. The bicycle was his mode of transport for decades and became the insignia of the simplicity of his life and physical fitness. Nineteen years later in 1965 my wife and I were deeply honoured to have him preach the homily at our wedding in the St. James’ Church, Nallur. Sagu has vivid memories of him as a pastor in the Nallur Church to which her family belonged.

His presence with his flowing beard and exceptional attire evoked attention on any and every occasion. Hence I never forgot his presence at my father’s funeral in 1961. I was present with several other members of my family at his funeral in 1967. We were also present at that historic memorial meeting in the Ashram the like of which one rarely witnessed in the Christian community. Three outstanding and respected Christian leaders of that time, Bishop Kulandran, D.T.Niles and Sevak Selvaretnam organized this service and paid glowing tributes to his life and work. D.T.Niles in his characteristically eloquent best referred to Canon Somasundram as the greatest Christian of the century in Jaffna and perhaps the country. 

It will not be possible to cover such a varied and long life in the time I have today. I will therefore deal with some of the high points of his career and the significance of his life for our times.

I requested my sister Lila and brother Rajan to reflect on his life and what they had to say has much in common with the numerous anecdotes that Bishop Kulandran relates in his biography. In fact there are several versions of the “summa vanthen” anecdote. Canon Somasundaram was a man who believed in being direct and brief. One of these anecdotes, as recalled, is that of a visitor traveling several miles to see him on some matter. He was welcomed the usual way. When the visitor was asked the purpose of his visit he said “summa vanthen” (a common expression in Tamil that defies translation roughly meaning “I just came” or rather “simply to see you”). The Canon went back to reading and other matters that engaged his attention. At the end of an hour the visitor got up and said he would like to take his leave. The Canon wished him well and said you may go. It was only then the visitor expressed the purpose of his visit. It is said that after this episode gained publicity other visitors never used that expression “summa vanthen” when they went to meet the Canon.

The stories are abundant and copious about how duty conscious he was. He never failed to visit the members of his parish for birthdays, not even the day after his daughter died. Another one is about how he was cast away from his family and in fact beaten-up by his own elder brother when he became a convert to Christianity.

Landmarks in a Long Life

Sangarapillai Somasundaram was born 2 October 1877. He was born into an orthodox Hindu family that had for generations had a special connection with the well-known temple at Maviddapuram situated between Kankesanturai and Tellipallai.

He had his early education at a Saiva Vidyalayam and entered Jaffna College in 1894. Jaffna College at that time was an institution of Collegiate standing that provided courses leading to the B.A. The Jaffna College YMCA hosted the visit of John R.Mott the following year. 400 delegates attended the conference. Somasundaram was deeply influenced by the event. The major turning point in his life came a few years later in 1900

He decided to enroll as a student at Scottish Churches’ College, Calcutta in 1900, where he opted for the honours course in Mathematics.He is known to have reached Calcutta via Chennai (Madras) after visiting C.W.Thamotherampillai brother of E.A.Kingsbury who was a teacher at Jaffna College.

Life in India could not but have a profound impact on him. Setting foot on Indian soil for the first time is an enchanting experience. There are people who love India and those who don’t. The young men of Jaffna who went to India in the early decades of the twentieth century were lovers of India.

He finally made the decision to be baptised which he received by immersion in May 1901 in the Anglican Church. Returning to Jaffna he began his teaching career at St.John’s College. In 1901 he married Ponnammah the daughter of Mr.Hemphil Thampoe and grand-daughter of E.A.Kingsbury his one time teacher at Jaffna College,

 As Kulandran relates:

In 1906 Sherwood Eddy, remembered as the most tempestuous evangelist who ever came to Jaffna, and Francis Kingsbury, the son of C.W.Thamotherampillai and a most persuasive speaker, were in Jaffna, conducting a campaign of evangelistic and revival meetings. The meetings created a great spiritual upsurge. Whether it was the effect of these meetings that led Somasundaram to take the final plunge is not known; but it could not be a mere coincidence that their visit as well as his decision took place about the same time. Anyway, during the latter months of 1906 at a meeting at Nallur he decided to enter the Ministry.

And hence in 1907 he obtained admission to the Cambridge Nicholson Institute (C.N.I) at Kottayam  - the successor of the earlier Church Missionary Society (C.M.S) Seminary in Tirivella in Kerala. Having successfully completed his theological studies he came back to St. John’s  College in 1909 to resume his teaching of Mathematics.
29 June 1909 he was ordained Deacon at the Nallur Church and was placed in charge of a small Church at Kokuvil and received his second ordination in Colombo on 12 March 1911.

His life and mission can broadly be divided into three periods: firstly as teacher at St.John’s College, secondly the Vanni Mission and finally as pastor of the Nallur St.James’ Church.

In a long and active period as teacher he held several positions at St.John’s College. In 1918 he was appointed Dean. In the larger community he held noteworthy positions and most significant was his work with the Jaffna Christian Union. There were four organizations in Jaffna that laid the foundations for greater unity among the denominations and the subsequent ecumenical movement. Jaffna stood in the forefront with strong support for Church Union in the decades the subsequently failed scheme was discussed. They were the Jaffna College YMCA (1884) and Jaffna YMCA (1890), the Jaffna Christian Union (1907), The Jaffna Inter-Collegiate Christian Fellowship (1930s) and the Christa Seva Ashram (1938). These were all inter-denominational. Canon Somasundaram was associated with all four.

His election to the Board of Directors of the Jaffna YMCA in 1910, possibly its youngest member then, indicated that he had become a notable figure in Christian circles, taking into account that the 83-year-old Sir William Twynam,  Government Agent (G.A.) Jaffna, was president. 

In 1913 the Rev. Somasundaram was elected Secretary of the JCU. The five years that he was Secretary marked a period of growth and activity by the Union. Distinguished speakers addressed the annual conventions. The first being held in 1915, went on for four days and was marked by the participation of hitherto unprecedented crowds.

An event of exceptional importance was the visit of the Indian Christian mystic Sadhu Sundar Singh under the auspices of the JCU in 1918. In Kulandran’s words, “the Sadhu hardly seemed a man at all … a visitor from another region, a region where angels and archangels continually do cry “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts.”...

He is believed to have seen strange visions and various miracles connected with him and of experiences with holy men and Rishis in the Himalayas were related and talked about. I recall hearing many such stories from my own father and other members of his generation, later confirmed in a biography of Sadhu Sundar Singh by Bishop Appasamy. Kulandran adds, “the stories seemed fantastic; but as the tall, spare form clad in saffron stood before them and spoke, people felt that this was a person about whom such stories could well be true; for he seemed as though he was one who saw sights that our eyes did not see and heard voices that our ears did not hear.”

The Rev.Somasundaram was not only in charge of all the arrangements but commanded such respect as to be able to take care of troublemakers who surfaced on such occasions.

Writing in 1925 in the Morning Star on “Evangelisation or Christianisation” the Rev. Somasundaram referred to the experiences of the Sadhu who had met many people in India who were followers of Jesus but not members of any Church and who lived and worked as Sanniyasis. Sadhu Sundar Singh had claimed that they were Christians in the true sense of the word. Emphasising the need for the indigenous expression of Christianity the Rev. Somasundaram wrote,

give India the cotton she needs and let her spin with it the sarees to suit her fancies and not force on her your narrow skirts and tight corsets of the western world. Give India pure gold and let her with it make a crown to fit her head.”

A message as relevant for our times as then.

From 1918 he moved to the Vanni a totally undeveloped region and initiated pioneering work in building up the mission there until 1930. Totally committed to the dignity of labour, simplicity of life and accustomed to a mode of transport that constituted his bicycle the Vanni posed no hazards – it was as though he was destined for the Vanni. 

He is known to have taken an active part in the co-operative movement and established a C.M.S. United Finance Society making loans available at low interest rates to farmers. This Society was able to help the Muslims in Puliyankulam set up a similar society sometime later.

After a short stint as Principal, Kotte Christian College during which period he was conferred the title Canon of the Cathedral he returned to Jaffna for his single longest spell as pastor of St.James’ Church 1932-54.

I do not think he really retired. He was very much in demand for all kinds of occasions. In 1959 he lived briefly in the Ashram having been an ardent supporter of Sevak Selvaretnam’s pioneering efforts.

Preparations had been made to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination in 1961 in Jaffna on an elaborate scale but out of respect for the Satyagraha in the Northeast that brought the governmental machinery to a halt the celebrations were observed on a low key.

Theological Attitude

Kulandran devotes a substantial amount of space in his biography to what he titles as his Theological Attitude and discusses his position in the context of schools of thought prevalent in the Anglican tradition. Not being a theologian myself I quote at length from Kulandran. I hope I am not on controversial ground.

In the Anglican Church there is more than one school of thought, it is necessary for us to understand where he stood theologically, if we are to understand his life and career” and adds “Somasundaram’s basic Christian beliefs and attitudes had taken shape under the American Congregational Missionaries at Jaffna College …they, in fact, remained basic to his life and outlook always.

It may be surprising to know that his long standing connexion with the Anglican Church came about entirely by accident.”

Somasundaram did not quite know at the time the distinction between various Christian denominations, nor did he care for them later when he knew.

At the outset there was nothing special about Somasundaram’s theology. The C.M.S. at that time was quite strong in Ceylon; … all the Anglican Churches in Jaffna (except Christ Church) had been founded by the C.M.S.” In fact, in Jaffna all Anglican Christians were called “C.M.S.Christians”… Just as the congregational South India United Church (SIUC)  – the predecessor of the present JDCSI was often referred to as the American Mission.

In the Anglican Church there is liberty both for the laity and the clergy to hold differing views within certain limits. 

During the two successive episcopates after 1924, the views of practically the whole Anglican Church in Ceylon were those of a very different colour from those of Somasundaram; if he was not interfered with, he came to be looked upon as a curiosity.

Evangelicalism had no philosophy of religion but Christ crucified … they looked to the Bible as their chief source of inspiration and authority, believed in prayer and personal holiness and their whole religious life was characterized by great zeal … always overflowing into good deeds. They were responsible for founding the Missionary Society, called the C.M.S., the Bible Society which was non-denominational and played a large part in the abolition of Slave Trade, in bringing about prison reform and an improvement in the condition of workers (in nineteenth century England) … and though they belonged to the Church of England they did not feel that there was any real difference between them and their fellow Protestants outside the Church of England.

Among the gamut of the Anglican Church, four distinct groups can be discerned: the Low Churchmen and the Evangelicals on the one hand, having much in common with each other but not quite identical; that is, while all Evangelicals are Low Churchmen, all Low Churchmen need not be Evangelicals; on the other side, the High Churchmen and the Anglo-Catholics, all Anglo-Catholics being High Churchmen but not all High Churchmen being Anglo-Catholics. All groups, however, are Anglicans.

Somasundaram was an Evangelical to start with and through life was an Evangelical without reservation.”

But Somasundaram never wavered. “You are a very Low”, a bishop said to him once; it was as much to say, “You are incorrigible.”  But never once did Somasundaram waver in his conviction that the type of theology he had adopted at the outset was right in its stresses, as against those, which had become prominent, later. He, comments Kulandran, had deliberately renounced a religious heritage of 3000 years, not to belong to a denomination but to be a Christian.

Here was the core and essence of his theology – and more than that the man himself. There is something remarkable about the convert to Christianity from Hinduism, especially those who had been devout and pious Hindus, learned and steeped in the Hindu scriptures and familiar with its devotional songs and thevarams. I can recall the names of several others including two in my own family the Rev.S.Ramalingam Hitchcock and Francis Kingsbury. I also recall the powerful impact that Paul Kadambavanam from Tamil Nadu had on congregations in Jaffna in our student days. Another was K.E.Mathiaparanam of Jaffna College, lecturer in Tamil and a devout Christian who always carried a copy of the “Thirukkural in his pocket. They belonged to what in Indian history is known as the Bhakthi tradition.  Theirs was an indigenous expression of Christianity” that reflected the genius and soul of Jaffna of their times, so very different from the Colombo variety, and none of the aping of the west that has once again become so commonplace today.

It should be noted as S.S.Ponnambalam indicates that the Canon was a Tamil scholar in his own right and had extensive knowledge of the Thirukkural, The Ramayana, The Mahabharatha, Pattinaththu Adigal Padal, Thayumanavar Padal, and the Bhagavad Gita and is known to have sung stanzas from some of these texts in his sermons. His favourite songs were the thevarams of H.A.Krishnapillai known for their high literary standard and finish of his poems and an intensity of feeling and devotion that is comparable to that of the Hindu saints and poets.


Ground of Greatness

On the 7th of May 1967 in Kulandran’s words “the tenacious hold on life, which had survived many grueling demands, had snapped at last.”

D.T.Niles in his tribute spoke of the Canon as a witness to both God’s immanence and His transcendence. Miss.M.V.Hutchins referred to him as a person of uncompromising integrity, to whom his duty to God came first and as one who cared nothing for convention. Kulandran echoing what Niles had first said wrote, “He has a right to be considered not merely the greatest figure in our history during this century, but perhaps the greatest during the last 150 years. The response he evoked was “Awe”. Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe once said, “He was the nearest approach to a saint.” Kulandran prefers the description “holy man” denoting strength and firmness of character and utter dedication to God. H.E.R.Goonawardene reflecting on his period as Principal of Christian College, Kotte, calls him “God’s Good Man.”

The story of Harichandra is a fascinating one. I remember learning it in the text titled “Mayanakaandam” under that legendary teacher of Tamil Literature, Viswalingam of Jaffna College when I was in form one. It is the story of a king reduced to a keeper of the crematorium assuming the status of the lowliest of castes having lost all his power, worldly possessions and most of all his family, and paying the price for his unwavering commitment to truthfulness and principles.

Canon Somasundaram has been placed in that great tradition which in the New Testament is summed-up in Peter’s words (in Acts 5:29) “we must obey God rather than men.” It is a principle valid for all times. The Canon came to it through his devotion and total obedience to God. In secular terms in contemporary situations it amounts to a position that should be taken  when faced with laws made by men that deny and violate ultimate values be it autocrats, legislatures, employers or even church and religious authorities. From the perspective of those involved in human rights and justice movements it is asserted that we should obey this higher law rather than that of men.

I did not interact with the second-generation members of the Somasundaram family except Mr. Nesiah (senior)  son-in-law of Canon Somasundaram. But I have known and interacted with and am aware of the work based on total commitment to ultimate values by some members in the third generation of the family and now into its fourth. (As an aside may I say that I have also noted that some of them have inherited some of his mannerisms in being cut and dry and of few words, not to mention a mathematical and analytical mind leading to heights of achievements in several professions.)

I dare say that some notable members of the Somasundaram family have established a reputation and have carved out a permanent place in history in their unwavering commitment to ultimate values, taking an extra-ordinarily courageous stand on justice and human rights issues in the contemporary situation in this country. I believe the foundations for that were laid by the venerated Canon Sangarapillai Somasundaram whose 125th birth anniversary we commemorate today. It is a legacy and heritage that needs to be acknowledged, take legitimate pride in and needs to be passed on to generations to come. It is a legacy and heritage we commemorate and reaffirm today.


As mentioned above I have been associated with several of Canon Somasundaram’s grand-children. This was one reason I accepted this invitation to speak.  In addition my father was close to both Rev.Somasundaram and his family.

Notable in the third generation are Rajan Hoole, founding member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). The UTHR did extraordinary work in publishing several reports from 1988 and two major publications, The Broken Palmyra and the Arrogance of Power. He was forced to leave Jaffna and lived in cognito in the country and then went into self imposed exile returning at war’s end in 2009. Associated with him was Daya Somasundaram who continued to live in Jaffna for many years through the war. He is the author of Crippled Minds among other publications. Devanesan and Lankla Nesiah are well known names in civil society, Devanesan having retired from the civil service has been member of several commissions on human rights and justice issues.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. An enlightening and inspirational piece of writing on the life of the Canon.