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Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Komans of Calicut

I first heard about the Koman family from the writings of Mr Jayaprakash Mallay. I obtained more information later from the blog post, Hamlet in Monsoon. Very little has been known about this family who belonged to Calicut and fought many social disabilities to gain social and political recognition.
The story starts with Meppan Chandroth Koman (M C Koman) who was born in September 1865 to M C Mangathi (mother) from Moonnalingal (which is where the present General Hospital is situated in Calicut) and Malikayil Chandappan (father) who belonged to Thayyil, Kannur. There are no records of his childhood and schooling except that after passing his school final examination, he did a course in Apothecary.
Apothecary is a position just below the qualified physician and combines within it, the skills of a pharmacist, nurse and dresser ( no wonder, compounders in rural Kerala were called 'darasar', in an era when they did most of the doctor's work). In England, apothecaries attended to most of the rural population where the services of a qualified doctor were not available. They had their own regulatory body, and some of the distinguished apothecaries included the romantic poet, John Keats who was admitted to the Apothecaries’ Hall in 1816 after passing the examinations; and the writer Agatha Christie who passed out in 1917. In fact, it is believed that her work as a pharmacy assistant at the University College Hospital, London helped her acquire a good knowledge of poisons which she used effectively in plotting her novels.
When East India Company established itself in India it set up an Indian Medical Service (IMS) exclusively manned by Europeans and dedicated to the treatment of Europeans in civilian and military positions. Parallelly, an Indian Subordinate Medical Service (ISMS) was also formed to provide medical service to the Indian Natives – a service which lasted till Independence.
ISMS consisted of two classes of employees: the Apothecaries (including assistant apothecaries) who were warrant officers, mostly Europeans or their descendants; and Dressers ( including assistant dressers) chosen entirely from natives who ranked equal to private soldiers.
In 1835, a Medical School was established in Madras in order to impart formal education to the above two categories. The Medical School was expected to influence the natives in many ways. Firstly, natives were thought to be averse to modern medicine and depended on ‘the ignorance and empiricism of their own practitioners’. Secondly, introducing them to anatomical dissection (‘a science, which, at present, is absolutely unknown among the Natives of India’) would remove all prejudices in native minds. (The policymakers had evidently not heard of the work of Susruta!) Finally, as all instructions will be imparted in the English language, ‘ripe scholars in that tongue will be formed and thus they may be weaned from the study of their own authors, from whom little but error and superstition is to be gained’.(1)
The 2-year Apothecary course in Madras Medical School ( later designated Madras Medical College) consisted of Anatomy, Materia Medica, Medicine and Surgery. Later, Midwifery, Physiology, Ophthalmology and Chemistry were added and the course was extended to three years.
That Koman, hailing from Calicut and belonging to the fishermen community could get himself selected for such a rigorous course is a tribute to his quest for knowledge which he demonstrated throughout his career.
Koman proceeded to get enrolled as a stipendary student at the Medical School for the Licentiate Diploma (LM&S) which would make him a full-fledged doctor. According to Mr Jayaprakash, the author of Sir Koman’s biography, the Madras Mail of 1884 reported that out of the 10 selected for the Apothecary Examination (presumably from Malabar), 9 were Nairs and Thiyyas and the 10th was Koman, a Mukkuva from the coastal fishermen community.

The significance of this may be lost on many readers today. But,  one has to compare the caste relations which existed in Malabar with that of Travancore which still practised a rigorous caste system which discriminated against the so-called lower castes.
Around the same time, an Ezhava youth named Padmanabhan Palpu qualified in the entrance examination for admission to the Travancore Medical School but was denied admission on account of his being an ‘avarna’. He proceeded to Madras and joined the Medical College in 1885 and obtained LM&S in 1889. But even that did not help… Travancore did not offer him a medical job for the same reason. This was long before Swami Vivekananda toured Kerala and described the place as a lunatic asylum (for details of the Swami’s tour and his statements, one may refer to
Dr Palpu went on to found the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) with the blessings of Sri Narayana Guru. 
After passing the LM&S diploma in 1887, M C Koman, served his bond period of three years (as required by the terms of his scholarship) in several municipal dispensaries. He was then posted as the Vaccination Superintendent at the Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy, Madras, where he was in charge of the manufacture and supply of smallpox vaccine. He was succeeded by Dr.Palpu who worked with the Madras Medical Department for about two years before shifting to Mysore Medical Service.
Dr Koman had worked at the Government General Hospital, Madras for a decade (1890-1900).
He was then posted as Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the Madras Medical College. Dr Koman was quite active in the Freemason Lodge activity and became the Mastermason on three occasions. He was only the second Indian Mastermason of the Lodge, the first being Prince B R Thondaiman.
In 1921 Dr Koman was knighted with the title Rao Bahadur at a function presided over by the Duke of Connaught. He passed away in 1925 at the age of 60.
Dr Koman is remembered today for his report on indigenous medicine. As we saw above in the constitution of the Indian Medical Service (IMS and ISMS), there was always a bias in favour of western medicine and a degree of contempt for indigenous medicine due to its lack of scientific methodology. This bias was used as a weapon by the Empire to promote its hegemonic objectives, by de-legitimising indigenous medical knowledge.
However, as World War I progressed it became evident that whatever supplies of European medicines were available,  had to be diverted to the battlefront and India would not be able to get sufficient supplies. This, coupled with incessant complaints from the practitioners of indigenous medicine about being neglected by the colonial regime, led the Madras government to appoint a committee to direct the research and investigation of the pharmacological action of Indian drugs.
Initially, Dr Srinivasamurthi was entrusted with the task, but he had to be drafted for military duty. It was in his place that Dr Koman was appointed on 12th July 1918 to conduct the investigation. He studied all the available literature on Ayurveda in Malayalam, Tamil and English and visited many ayurvedic physicians to understand their drug manufacturing practices. He also tried out many of these medicines on his patients in the General Hospital, Madras, taking care not to try it on serious patients.
In his first of three reports, he found that of the 53 patients on whom he tried indigenous drugs, 35 patients benefitted. Ultimately, in his final report submitted in August 1920, he recommended the inclusion of 40 indigenous drugs in the lectures on Materia Medica at the Madras Medical College.
Nevertheless, Ayurvedic practitioners strongly reacted to Koman's report, particularly his method of trying out the efficacy of drugs. Critics also pointed out that he covered only the south and west of the country and did not explore the rich heritage of indigenous medical knowledge in Bengal.
Particular objection was taken to Koman's statement in the report that 'the science of Hindu medicine is still sunk in a state of empirical obscurity'. Again, he stated: 'I am constrained to observe here that their hypothesis with reference to the classification and aetiology of diseases is entirely out of date and will not stand the test of the rational science of the present day'. Ayurvedic vaidyas and their bodies accused Koman of trying to please the colonial masters by denigrating the age-old science of longevity and wellness.
Dr Koman passed away in Febrauary, 1925.

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Dr Koman had two sons and one daughter. The elder son, Meppan Chandroth Balachandra Koman (Balachandra Koman in official records) was born on 14th May 1897. He matriculated in 1917 from Presentation Convent School, George Town, Madras. After graduating from Madras Christian College, he proceeded to become a Barrister-at-Law from the Middle Temple, London. Simultaneously, he qualified for the Indian Civil Service in 1923 and was at the Queen's College, Cambridge as a probationer. Back from his training in England, Balachandra Koman did the usual field as well as Secretariat postings in the erstwhile Madras province. In 1935, he was deputed to the judicial wing of ICS where he continued till retirement. 
Balachandra Koman ICS was elevated to the Madras High Court as an Additional Judge in 1945. Within six months he was shifted as Judge of the Sessions in Madras. Madras then had a strange system of a High Court Judge presiding over the Sessions Court where heinous crimes like murders were tried.
It was when Balachandra Koman was presiding over the Sessions that the Alavandar Case came before him. An appeal was filed against Koman's judgement to the division bench presided over by ASP Ayyar. ( The rich details of the case has been given by Maddy in his blog
For some strange reason, Koman was not made a permanent judge of the High Court, unlike his many other colleagues in the ICS like Rajagopal, ASP Ayyar and P T Raman Nair. There are suggestions that Koman, the handsome bachelor was romantically involved with the daughter of the then Governor-General and this proved to be undoing. Anyhow, he retired as District Judge in Chingalpet in 1958.
Calicut remembers Balachandra Koman for his generous gift of 7 1/2  acres of land in Moonnalingal for construction of the Government General Hospital on the beach. The land, named Mukkuvathodi (fishermen's plot) was probably a poramboke land in the possession of the nearby temple of which Koman was a trustee. Anyhow, it was surrendered to the Government without compensation. 
Koman's elder sister, Dr Vijayalakshmi Koman (1894-1975) also had a cosmopolitan education. After graduating from Madras, she proceeded to Cambridge University for higher studies. On return, she joined the Madras Education Service and worked in the field of teacher training at the Lady Willingdon Training College, Madras. She then became the Professor of English at Queen Mary's College. She was appointed the Principal of this college in July 1950 and continued in the post for five years, retiring in May 1955. Her presence encouraged many aristocratic families of Calicut and Kannur to send their daughters for college education to Madras Queen Mary's.
The younger brother, Major Somanatha Koman was also sent to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Camberley where British army officers receive their initial training. Somanatha Koman passed out as a lieutenant and served the Indian Army with distinction.
What an illustrious family!

[1] All quotes from The Madras Journal of Literature and Science,(1838) edited by J C Morris pp.265-66


  1. Fascinating character and thank you CHF for telling us about him! I heard his name first when I was researching YS Rao (still incomplete). Dr MC Koman was called to check on and treat YSR. Yes, as you say , an illustrious family indeed.

  2. Thanks Maddy for your comments. We look forward to your digging up more information on Dr Koman as part of your research on Y S Rao.

  3. Dr. Oliver Noone: There are several anomalies in the life history of Dr Koman as we know now.
    1)In the category of Indian knights in Wikipedia, the full list of Indians who received British knighthoods prior to 1947 are given. An Indian knight was a male indigenous British subject of a country under the British Raj before 1947, who was appointed a Knight Grand Cross/Knight Grand Commander or Knight Commander of an honour in the British honors system, or who was appointed a Knight Bachelor. The name of Dr Koman is not mentioned.

    2) Sri V V Aravindan (Retired from Postal Services and grandson of V V Govindan F Z S) was kind enough to give me the copy of a Souvenir on V V Govindan published by the Rao Bahadur V V Govindan Memorial Committee Kaipamangalam Br. 1978. In it, in the chapter on Dr. M C Koman, there is no mention of the awarding of a knighthood. “In 1921, as a prominent member of the Freemasons, Duke of Connaught welcomed him.” “In 1925 Dr Koman was awarded the exalted position of Past Assistant Director of Ceremonies”.

    3) The surname is another cause for confusion. His father: is Malikayil Chandappan of Thayyil Cannanore and Mother: Meppan Chandoth Mangathi of Moonnalingal. Calicut. Both are MCs!! I understand they follow makkatthayam tradition. Rao Bahadur V V Govindan FZS, married Narayani, niece of Dr Koman. So most probably it is Malikayil Chandappan Koman.

    4)The extended members of the family are in very high positions in all walks of life esp. in Judiciary, Science, Literature, Medicine, Armed Forces, Civil Service.

    5)And how could it have happened? How did they get Janmam status?

    i) Malikayil Chandappan family at Cananore were acknowledged landlords in Kattadi area at Mattool in Chirakkal taluk. They were established stevedore contractors at the pier and lading and shipping agents at the port. Their trading vessels used to ply between the ports of Karachi and Cananore.
    ii) Meppan Chandoth family at Moonnalingal (M C Andi, brother of M C Mangathi) had 7.5 acres of land called Mukkuva Thodi which was given to government for the construction of Beach Hospital.
    One explanation goes like this: After the execution of Kunhali Marakkar III, the office of the Admiral of Calicut was bestowed upon the Arayan Veettil Marakkars, who became his naval commanders. This may also include Meppan Chandoth family

    The sea became a place of violence mainly after the arrival of Europeans. The role of a sea-going person - fisherman, mariner or sailor -is blurred here. After the third Mysore war, Malabar came under the East India Company. These families who served the previous rulers in the ports, automatically became the helpers for the English who now controlled both inland and international trade. And in a couple of generations were helped by them for a better education which made all the difference.

    6)Miss Vijayalakshmi Koman.
    Miss Koman was my mother’s lecturer in Lady Willingdon Teacher’s Training Institute in Madras 1942-43.

  4. Many thanks, Dr. Noone for your illuminating comments which have added great value to the post. Let me attempt to address the points one by one:
    1. I agree with you on the Knighthood for M C Koman. I did not find any proof except for the statement by his biographer. That's the reason for not highlighting it in our post. You have now provided clinching proof.
    2. You may be right about the initials. It should have been Malikayil Chandappan Koman and not Meppan Chandroth Koman. Here again, I was guided by the biographer.
    3. The information on the background of Malikayil family and their position as stevedores (who owned their own ships) is very relevant. It probably explains how Koman's education in Madras was financed.
    4. It is also likely that after the killing of the last Marikkar by the Portuguese (with the connivance of the Zamorin) they decided to bestow the title of Marakkars to a Hindu family. Portuguese always distrusted Muslim leadership; Zamorin must have been persuaded by his experience with the last Marikkar to agree to this change.
    Miss Vijayalakshmi Koman - she deserves a separate entry. We are collecting more information and may come up with a post soon. Thanks once again.

  5. information


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