Tuesday, August 01, 2006


According to some sources the word emandan in malayalam means "very big" "top notch" "immense" "powerful" etc...

This word is a new word added to malayalam, it appears, unofficially. You could call it colloquial usage or even slang.

And like many such new words, there is quite a bit of history to that. This word is derived from the name of the german warship SMS Emden. Emden was a bit like a legendary anti-establishment entity in times of general resentment to authority, that generates part respect, part fear and part joy in the minds of the people.

The SMS Emden

The time was during the first world war, the British, the rulers of India then, were fighting a world war, and fighting hard. It was also the time of the raj, when the sun never set on the empire. The British Navy then, was quite easily the best and the most powerful in the world. This was the arm of the British empire that enforced the writ of the pre-eminent power on planet Earth, Britan.

At a time like this, the SMS Emden, which was named after the german town of Emden, set off on one of the most romanticised and legendary cruises during the first world war . It was apparently, a piston engined ship and not a steam turbine driven ship like most ships then. It was apparently the last piston engined ship built for the German navy.

So we have this classic david vs. goliath face off. Mr. David being the SMS Emden, and Mr. Goliath being almost all of the Allied navies present int he Indian Ocean region. After many thrilling raids and naval battles all over the "backyard" of the British, the Indian Ocean, the Emden raided the port city of Madras, now called Chennai.

I reproduce the effect it had on the people of Chennai from chennaionline.com

It was a quiet night and life was going on as usual in Chennai. Suddenly, a pair of bright searchlights were turned on the city from the sea. Even as the few people on the streets stopped in their tracks, the noise of deafening explosions rent the air. Apart from the High Court compound, shells landed in the Royal Barracks, among the oil tanks of the British-owned Burmah Shell Company (setting off a conflagration), on the sand bar outside Fort St. George and on a British ship, 'Supra', where a British sailor manning the lights was killed. Caught by surprise, it took a little while for the British Army to react. But by the time the Royal Guards had trained their searchlights out to sea, the Emden had struck tents and slipped away beyond the horizon.

Senior citizens still remember that night. A retired lawyer, R. Kesava Iyengar (age 96), who lived in Thambu Chetty Street at that time, was "chatting with relatives around 9 pm when we heard a defeaning noise like nothing we had ever heard before....... Outside, there was absolute pandemonium and people were running in all directions. We couldn't sleep a wink that night."

Kalidas (age 92) was lying outside his house in San Thome and just looking at the stars "when I saw bright searchlights in the sky. Before I could make any sense of it, loud explosions were heard and I rushed to San Thome beach along with some friends. We saw the huge oil tanks of Burmah Shell Oil Company in flames." A friend working in the house of a British Shell employee reported that some explosive material had landed through a bedroom window and destroyed everything inside.

A centenarian retired police constable T. R Srinivasulu Naidu, who was in Chetpet's Naoroji Road at the time, remembers the searchlights and the explosions and frightened people running helter skelter in the dark. Next morning, there were military police all over the beach road. "We spoke of nothing else for weeks afterwards."

"Sangu" Ganesan, so called after a weekly "Sangu" (the Conch shell) he owned, was working in "Ganesh & Co" on Thambu Chetty Street at the time. He was at home with some friends when they heard the massive explosions. "We were terrified and ran out into the streets. The sky was covered with smoke. The next day, we saw the High Court building's compound wall blown to smithereens."

Anyways, the Emden also raided all along the coast of southern India and Sri Lanka, and that is how the local language of Kerala, malayalam, got its new word.

There is also the curious story of one of India's freedom fighters, Champakraman Pillai, (or Shenbagaraman Pillai, depending on how you want to pronounce it) landing at Madras that night, and dramatically applying the sand from one of the beaches on his forehead while a bunch of awestruck fishermen looked on. He is supposed to have said that he has come to free Mother India from the yoke of the British. It is claimed that he was on Emden, variously as commanding it (untrue), as the Engineer on it (I don't know for sure) or as a intelligence operative on it. However, we do not know how much of this story is real and how much is a legend. But that is for another day, another blog.


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