In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes.
Born Helen Petrovna von Hahn in 1831 in Ukraine, Blavatsky came from an aristocratic family. Her mother was a celebrated novelist, her grandmother a scientist. Her formal education was limited, but she was a great reader of her grandmother’s extensive library of occult literature by her early teens. Much later it was said a hermit named Barnig Bouyrak had predicted, “There are great events lying in wait for her in the future.”
She had planned to flee Russia via the Iranian border following a wedding she didn’t like, but her husband got wind of her plans and intervened. He finally sent his difficult bride back to her father, but on the way she boarded a small English sailing vessel bound for Constantinople, only to vanish for eight years. She showed up in New York in 1873 and the official version has it that she travelled in the Middle East, Europe, the United States, and Central and South America.
But she also claimed to have done her apprenticeship in Tibet and studied with a lama, but the claim was widely debated for no Caucasian woman had entered the forbidden kingdom. But her supporters said it was possible with her “Mongolian face and olive-yellow skin.
It was in New York that Madame Blavatsky wrote her first book, of 1,200 pages, entitled ‘Isis Unveiled’. She also met Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, a man of sterling worth who had acquired considerable renown during the Civil War, and had been an official investigator of the Lincoln assassination and had served the US Government with distinction, and was at the time practising law in New York. Olcott’s original interest was in spiritualism, but Madame Blavatsky let him know that the occult philosophy behind it was much more imperative. At a lecture one evening in 1875, Olcott passed her a note: “Would it not be a good thing to form a society for this kind of study?” Madame Blavatsky nodded. Thus was born the Theosophical Society.
In the United States, people seemed interested only in spiritualist phenomena and not in the philosophy behind them and this was the chief factor in her deciding to leave for India. After short stints in Bombay and Sri Lanka (where both of them became Buddhists), they narrowed down on a riverside plot in Madras.
Known as the ‘Huddleston Gardens’, the Theosophical Society garden lay on the south bank of the Adyar River and covered 260 acres. Blavatsky portrayed the Theosophical Society as being part of one of many attempts by a hidden hierarchy of Mahatmas to guide humanity. Madras Members were astounded by miracles, magic and other occult phenomena happening in the society. In fact, that was the glue that held the society together. Blavatsky would suddenly appear in a meeting room and then vanish as speedily. Letters from nowhere would drop on members in the meeting with instructions from the masters on what to do.
But in 1884, reality began to unravel. A housekeeper in the society, Emma Coulomb, claimed to have staged fraudulent phenomena on behalf of Madame Blavatsky — she had “dropped ‘precipitated’ letters onto Theosophical heads from holes in the ceiling. Her husband had reportedly made sliding panels and hidden entrances into the shrine room to facilitate Blavatsky’s comings and goings. At first, Coulomb attempted to blackmail the leaders of the Society with this information, but then with a change of heart went public.
Madame Blavatsky wanted to sue for libel but was dissuaded by Olcott as it would draw unwanted public attention and she resigned as secretary of the Society and returned to Europe. Her relationship with Madras was effectively over. History regards her as a kind of snake-oil salesperson but then she had swayed a host of people through theosophy. The society she founded still survives on the banks of the Adyar river and has influenced generations of Indians. The organised freedom movement and the founding of the Congress are directly related to the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky had changed the future of India without her knowledge or intention.
—The author is a historian