#3: A rebel queen from Tamil Nadu, English words that are not really English, and how the British got desis addicted to chai
In this episode
Did know that the phrase “dam it” or the word shampoo has its roots in colonial India? Ever heard of Velu Nachiyar, the first queen in the subcontinent to wage war against the British? We also explore how chai came to India and how the desis got addicted to it.
English words that are desi, Asian, anything but English
Ever watched Lagaan and thought to yourself, “I wonder how Captain Russell learned to speak Hindi?” I’ve always wondered if the Brits had any reference material when they landed in India. It turns out they did — two British men in India, Sir Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell, took it upon themselves to create a historical dictionary of Anglo-Indian words and terms from Indian languages which came into use during the British rule in India.
Basically, these were commonly used Indian words that they thought would be helpful to the British officers, and many of these are commonly used in English today. One of my favorites is the phrase “I don’t give a dam,” which comes from the saying “I don’t give a damri.” The damri is a small denomination coin, so essentially the person was saying that they didn’t give the smallest amount of money they could fathom!
The dictionary itself is available in online thanks to this University of Chicago website. It even has a search feature. Explore away!
The rebel queen of Tamil Nadu
An 18th century Tamil Queen, Velu Nachiyar, in 1780, was the first Indian queen to successfully fight the British and regain her kingdom. This happened decades before the 1857 rebellion, the first big concerted effort against the British Raj. Nachiyar lost her kingdom after her husband was killed by the British and the kingdom refused to pay tax to the British East India Company. The battle to regain the kingdom included a suicide bombing planned and executed by the commander of the army, Kuyili, a Dalit woman.
Here is another research paper on her.
Another cool queen, this time from the southern state of Karnataka. Rani Chennamma, or Kittur Chennama, fought and defeated the British in defiance of the doctrine of lapse. She is a celebrate folk heroine and has, like Velu Nachiyar, had a postage stamp released in her honor.
And in addition to a university and a train that are named after her, a warship on the science fiction show [The Expanse](https://expanse.fandom.com/wiki/Kittur_Chennamma#Trivia) also bore her name. Who knew!
Lizzie Collingham’s Curry has been a revelation. Her chapter on tea is the bulk of my research for this week. For anyone remotely interested in the cuisines of the subcontinent, I highly recommend the book. Phillip Lutgendorf’s paper on chai is also incredibly insightful. It talks about how, after the British left, Indian merchants marketed tea as a homegrown product and tied it to nationalism.
Tea is also seen as one of the primary reasons for the Opium wars because the British wanted to break China’s monopoly on tea.
For years, they tried to grow it in India. The leader of the Singpho tribe in Assam, which had been drinking a local variety of tea for centuries, even showed Scotsman Robert Bruce how to brew tea. While Bruce died shortly after, his brother, Charles Bruce, had some minor success with growing this native variety, Camellia sinensis assamica.
But the British would not stop there. They also sent Robert Fortune to steal plants and bring it back home. Fortune, a white Englishman, dressed up in a mandarin and garb and somehow convinced the locals that he was one of them.