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Sir.T.Muthuswamy Ayyar
The First Indian High Court Judge


From the log cabin to the White House is a familiar idiom inspired by the scintillating and successful life of the great human being and former President of the Unite States of America, Abraham Lincoln. A similar life not so familiar and did not attain the status of an idiom in Tamil Nadu is that of the rise of a poor Brahmin boy from beneath the oil-lit street lamps of Thiruvarur to the Bench of the Madras High Court during the 18th century! Regretfully very few of the ‘today-generation’ are aware of one of the most brilliant men of the Indian legal world who created history as the first Indian to be appointed as the judge of the Madras High Court during the late 19th century when such an eventuality remained a mere dream for Indians. His life from very humble beginnings in the ‘agraharam’ streets of the temple town Thiruvarur to Madras, the capital of the sprawling Madras Presidency holds many inspiring lessons to one and all. Hard work never goes to waste. More than talent perseverance and persistence are the necessities to achieve one's goals in life. These may sound elementary today but they have worked time and again in the lives of many men and women. One such shining and stunning example is that of this great jurist of Madras. He was Sir T. Muthuswamy Ayyar.

From a lowly assistant of a village' karanam’ on a princely salary of Rupee one only per month he drew a lordly monthly salary of Rs .4,000 when he sat on the Bench of the Madras High Court. Such was the spectacular elevation of in his life at a period when such things were rare happenings in the British -ruled 19th century India.

(Taking into consideration the purchasing power of the Indian rupee during the British Indian Rule of the 19th century, that salary should be multiplied by at least one thousand times today!)

(According to the reputed and successful lawyer of Madras, S. Pichai, High Court Judges who belonged to the cadre of the Indian Civil Service, (ICS), received their salaries not in rupees but in pound sterling! This fact is not known to many including this writer!)

Somewhat surprisingly though Muthuswamy Ayyar did not practise law at any time he made his way to the top of the tree from its roots, from District Munsiff to District and Session Judge and then to sit on the Bench of the Madras High Court. The achievement is stupendous even by today's polluted politicized standards of recruitment!

During that period and for many decades later the Indian lawyer known as ‘vakil’ practising at the Madras High Court suffered from many prejudices and minus points stacked against him. Vakils were not permitted to appear in certain courts of the Madras High Court like the Insolvency Division on the Original Side. The Original Side heard cases originating within the city limits and it had several different divisions like Civil, Criminal, Matrimonial, Probate and Testamentary, Insolvency, Maritime and such.

While British Barristers who were considerable in number at that time practising at Madras wore a wig covering their hair, the Indian vakil had to compulsorily wear a turban whether he had a tuft or a western style ‘crop’. If he wore a traditional orthodox style ‘veshti’ he was not allowed to wear slippers and had to move around in the court bare-footed! This practice was nothing short of the arrogant British style racism practised in the legal profession of Madras during the day. That was not all. The Indian vakil was also prohibited from appearing in Insolvency cases on the Original Side. Only Barristers instructed by solicitors had the privilege. There was hue and cry soon among the vakils and a ‘ protest movement’ surfaced strongly among the vakils which led happily to the abolition of such racist practices. However some senior Brahmin ‘turban and veshti’ lawyers of the High Court still followed that practice being ‘bare foot lawyers’ well into mid-1950’s.

To the surprise and shock of the common man no Indian vakil could appear in the Insolvency Division of the Original Side. This was because the Original Side heard cases generating within the city limits and during that period there was much commercial litigation in which one of the two parties was a white man or his business. And he did not wish to face a ‘native vakil’ or what was worse face the eventuality of being cross-examined by a ‘black vakil’!

However soon such impressions changed color and hues when they came to realise that the new humble Brahmin on the Bench was razor-sharp in intellect and brilliant and he had encyclopedic knowledge not only of the laws of the land but also the ancient Sanskrit texts. That was the period when the Hindu law was not codified as it is today and the laws had to be interpreted in accordance with the ancient Sanskrit texts of Sages Manu, Yajnvalkya, and such wise men of ancient India. The complicated system of laws was explained by such sages in a matter of a mere few lines in Sanskrit revealing their brilliance and mighty intellect.

To cite an example, when a man dies ‘intestate’ without leaving a will regarding the disposal of his property, the entire law of inheritance in such situation was written down by the ancient sages in a single ‘sloka’ consisting of not many words. The Sanskrit ‘sloka’ runs as follows

"Pathnee duhitharaschaiva pitharau bratharasthatha thathsutha gothrajo banduhu sishya sabramhacharinaa……..!’

In a mere thimbleful of just nine words in Sanskrit the entire law of the intestate inheritance was described by the sages. It is indeed mind-boggling.

It is noticed from the above Sanskrit sloka that in the order of the inheritors the wife (widow) takes precedence, followed by daughters, parents, brothers and their children, persons belonging to the same ‘gothra’, relations, the dead man’s disciples, and last but not the least those who studied with him in ‘gurukulavasam ‘ under the same guru! Almost everybody one could think of has been included in the ancient system of intestate inheritance! It clearly reveals not only the drafting talents and skills of the ancient lawgivers but also their vision! Sadly today few are aware of these brilliant Hindu sages like Manu, Yajnvalkya and others and their contribution to the administration of the law and Justice.

To be continued....
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