Translating a sthala-purāņa

Elizabeth Gwillim and her family lived in the village of San Thomé, now part of Chennai, “believed to be the first place where Christianity was taught in India & St: Thomas the Apostle is said to have fallen a Martyr here.” 

Elizabeth also knew San Thomé as “Mazoora pooram”, or City of Peacocks, with its celebrated temple at Mylapore or Mayilāpur. 

it is a curious place & I must tell you somthing more about it. – in order to prepare you for a story which I have translated from the Telingue language or as it is commonly called the Gentoo, & which I intend to send you by Captain Price, as I fear it will be too large for a letter.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, March 7, 1804
Kapaleeshwarar temple at dawn. This Image was created by User:PlaneMad. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons.

Elizabeth described the village “as what they call a Stallam – a word which in some senses means only a place but in a religious sense means somthing like a Cathedral City or a Bishops see – a place where there is a great Pagodo with many others subordinate to it”. The Gwillims had lived in a Bishop’s “See”, when Sir Henry was Chief Justice of the Isle of Ely in England before he was appointed as a judge in Madras.

Elizabeth wrote that “the Hindoos have a Legendary tale to every church”, and as she was learning Gentoo or Telugu, “I thought it wou’d be a good excersise to translate the Stalla pooranam or legend of this place.”

The sthala-purāņa of the temple of Mylapore

I therefore desired the Bramin to procure it for me. It is a Poem in their language as all these kind of works are; but it is not in their most extravagant stile. If you can get over the hard names I think it will give you a better idea of the religion of these people & their customs than anything I cou’d tell you and as you complain so much of the difficulty of reading my hand, I have put a native writer to transcribe it. – I have put a great many notes to it at the end, or perhaps they ought to be called memorandums for as such I wrote them, they will explain to you anything you want to know & you may read or let them alone as you like – you must accept this story as a letter when it comes, for tho’ not in my hand it was copied from mine & took me a great time to write, & the vast trouble of inquiring into the various circumstances is beyond your belief – You must endeavour to let me know if it affords you any entertainment that I may judge whether it will be worth while to send you anything more if I shou’d please God, translate it …

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Mother, Esther Symonds, March 7, 1804

The term sthala-purāṇam can mean various kinds of texts – from elevated poetic works that tell the story of the temple, to simple prose summaries of such works, pilgrims’ guides, oral versions of the main narrative events connected to the place, and so on. It is very likely that what Elizabeth Gwillim had before her was a Telugu prose précis of the main stories and maybe rituals of the Mylapore shrine, prepared by a local author or one of the temple priests, and that she translated this with some help into English. 

Elizabeth Gwillim sent her translation back to England with Captain Price on the East India ship Prince of Wales, which foundered and was lost at sea in June 1804:

I liked Captain Price his ship was reckoned the best & he the best officer but we fear that neither will be heard of more. – I wish you may have better intelligence – there were sweet children in her many, & every body here is in great anxiety about her. – I hardly know what I sent in her & in such a case cannot think of calling them losses – one of 5 or 6 sheets to Mrs: Yorke at Ely & with it a translation of a Hindoo Religious history – a sort of Legendary tale. which might have entertained you – a similar letter & a copy of the translation for my mother.

Elizabeth Gwillim to her Sister, Hester “Hetty” Symonds James, March 6, 1805

Thanks to Professor David Dean Shulman for information on the text likely translated by Elizabeth Gwillim.