Written in Tamil by Theodore Baskaran, this was first published in the Tamil edition of the Hindu. The story captivated me, and I wrote this translation so that the story can be shared with a wider audience. Apart from being, as Wikipedia so simply puts it, a Tamil film historian and wild life conservationist, Theodore Baskaran is also a personal friend and mentor – it was he who introduced me to birding and wildlife watching in the late 1990s. Without further ado, here’s the translation:
A tour of the stamping grounds of the celebrated highway robber Jambulingam
We were on a morning walk in the forest while at the Sengaltheri Forest Guesthouse at the Kalakkad Tiger Sanctuary, when the forest guard accompanying us pointed to a cave on a far hill across a ravine. He said the cave was the home of the thief Jambulingam, who had lived there a hundred years ago. Near the cave was a huge bulging rock called Jambulingam’s Rock. The beam of the Tuticorin lighthouse was visible from there at night, and sitting atop the rock, Jambulingam kept a wary eye on the plain. He was a force to reckon with in the 1920s, where highway robbery was a common occurrence. He was a merchant of palm jaggery from the town of Panagudi, who first took refuge in the forests to escape a court case against him, and later turned a highway robber. After trying his luck in Ceylon and Malaya, he could not stay away from his native land anymore, and he came to live in the forests near Nanguneri. He was once caught by the police, and was sentenced to five years imprisonment. He escaped from prison.
‘Red Tiger’ Jambulingam
His ways as a highway robber continued. He and his gang once dressed up as policemen of Travancore state, and made off with some guns from a police station. They lived in caves among the streams of the Kalakkad jungles, walking in the streams so as not to leave a trail. This made it impossible to track their whereabouts – the police were unable to track them even using hunting hounds. He targeted wealthy travelers, and helped the poor. He won the goodwill of common folk, and they called him Red Tiger and celebrated his adventures in folk songs. Some English newspapers even compared him to the legendary Robin Hood in their reports.
In those days, the main prize for highway robbers was jewelry. In Southern Tamilnadu, women had large holes pierced in their years, like the Buddha, and adorned them with big ornaments called pambadam. Highway robbers would target these ornaments, cutting women’s ears to quickly get them off. But Jambulingam would never touch a woman’s ears, and the members of his gang were also forbidden from doing so. Because of this, he was also known as the Ear-sparing Thief.
Kalki’s short story of the same name is about a different robber. Some researchers believe his well-known novel, Kalvanin Kathali (The Robber’s Lady Love) may be based on Jambulingam. However, in real life, Jambulingam became a robber only after he was married and was the father of three children. This story of Kalki’s was made into a successful 1955 film starring Sivaji Ganesan and Bhanumathi. It was indeed a good robber’s tale! (I read somewhere that there was a 1945 film called Jambulingam, but I haven’t been able to find anything else about it.)
Near Nanguneri, in the shadow of the hills, there was a home for destitutes run by an Englishwoman, Amy Carmichael. She met Jambulingam quite by chance in the forests of Sengaltheri, and offered to admit his three children in a school she ran. After that, he would secretly visit the school to meet his children and Amy. The police got wind of this, and in 1923, when he was returning from one of his visits, they pursued him and shot him dead.
Amy, who had wanted to reform Jambulingam and make him surrender to the police, was distraught. She penned an account of his story in her book ‘Raj, the Brigand Chief’ which was published in London in 1927. This 312-page book has some rare pictures, and details the social mores of the times. She writes of the abundant wildlife – tigers, elephants, wild dogs – in the jungles of Kalakkad. Known affectionately by the villagers as Amma (mother), Amy Carmichael died in 1951. The school she started, and her home for destitutes exist to this day at Dohnavur, near Vallioor. Last year, the BBC produced a biographical documentary about her, narrated by Mark Tully.
The pistol wielded by Jambulingam used to be displayed at the Police Museum in Vellore. The museum has since been shifted to Chennai, and I am unaware of the pistol’s whereabouts. Kalakkad is a tiger sanctuary today, and is home to rare rainforest species like the lion-tailed macaque.