As is well known, Madras Presidency suffered a grievous famine between 1875 and 1877. This has been well documented and there are also some very heart rending photographs of the starving people. In Madras, work began on the Adyar Junction (now Buckingham) Canal as a famine relief measure.

Vedanayagam Pillai’s bust at his grave in Mayiladuthurai

Elsewhere in Mayiladuthurai, the District Munsiff Vedanayagam Pillai organised relief measures with such munificence that the composer Gopalakrishna Bharathi created a song on him, now lost, which described him as Purusha Meru.

Vedanayagam Pillai composed Panjam Theer Aiya, a prayer to the Lord to end the scourge. Recently, I was asked to select a song that best describes the current situation, especially the plight of migrants and I chose this. I have translated the lyrics into English to the best of my abilities though I must admit it is nowhere near the spirit of the original. Those who can read Tamil are lucky and I have appended photos of the lyrics as taken from an old edition of Vedanayagam Pillai’s songs that I have. It makes you want to weep. But I am sure all will be well. As we survived that famine and much else, here too we will triumph.

Panjam Theer Ayya

Rid us of this Scourge O Lord,

Who else is our refuge, dear God?

Like the avaricious

The clouds have proved treacherous

Our minds lose hope and waver

Your lotus feet are our only succour (Rid us…)

Without food they stay

For many, many a day

Rags on their waist

A begging bowl raised

Their shrivelled bodies now bones

Millions shelter in the woods, away from homes

No houses or hearths

No water to quench thirsts

And no food on offer

With none to drive away their hunger

Almost everyone is a beggar

Many more have departed forever (Rid us…)

Wives abandoned by husbands

Parents leaving aside infants

They ate roots, tuber and leaves

And extended their palms for charities

They gave up their fields and lands

Their wives sold their wedding bands

Some worked as domestic labour

Others took jobs that demanded rigour

But most were exhausted and sick

Infants cried out for their mothers’ milk (Rid us…)

Never have we seen a famine like now

Most homes have not lit a stove

Like poison rise the prices

Our troubles resemble high rises

We have in truth wilted

Our hearts are melted

Our gait falters and totters

Our tears are flowing like rivers

There are millions begging on the streets

Night and day you can hear their shrieks (Rid us…)

As the lakes and rivers dry up

The fire from the skies shows no let up

As the cattle and goats die and rot

As the fire destroys what little we have got

The weak have taken to begging

The low resort to exploiting

Some shut their doors fast

The good see this aghast

As bodies shrivel and people fall

Without your grace there is no hope at all (Rid us…)

In front of my eyes many have gone, alas!

Like cows others have foraged trees, leaves and grass

Countless dried up like sticks

And having thinned, suffered and become twigs

Many pine, others faint forlorn

People flock to buy food, while others pawn

Thus the earth has darkened its face

O Lord of the Vedas, our only hope is your grace (Rid us…)

You may want to read these other stories on Vedanayagam Pillai

Where Vedanayagam Pillai worked

Where Vedanayagam Pillai rests