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Krishnavarma, Shyamji (1857–1930), Sanskrit scholar and Indian nationalist, was born on 30 October 1857 in the town of Mandvi in the Kutch district of western Gujarat, the son of a cotton press labourer, Karsan Nakhua, and his wife, Gomatibai, of the Bhanushali community. After his mother's death in 1868 he was brought up by his grandmother, and was educated to high school level in Bhuj, where his brilliance quickly became apparent. A scholarship provided by a rich Bhatia merchant enabled him to attend Wilson High School, Bombay, where he also started learning Sanskrit at a pathashala or seminary; another scholarship secured him a place at Elphinstone High School. In 1875 he married Bhanumati Lallubhai (d. 1933), the sister of a classmate and the daughter of the wealthy Bhatia textile magnate Sheth Chhabildas Lallubhai.

The young Krishnavarma soon distinguished himself as a Sanskrit scholar, and his talents acquired a political focus in his support for the Hindu reformer and Arya Samaj founder, Dayananda Saraswati. In 1877 he embarked on a lecture tour which gained him recognition as an authority on Vedic philosophical and religious texts, and resulted in his being awarded the prestigious title of Pandit by the Hindu Pandits of Varanasi. He also came to the notice of Monier Monier-Williams, the Boden professor of Sanskrit at Oxford, and in 1879 he travelled to Britain to become Monier-Williams's assistant. He was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, in April 1879 and graduated BA in 1882. As a student he presented a paper on Sanskrit at the Berlin Congress of Orientalists in 1881, and was made an honorary member of the Empire Club and the Royal Asiatic Society the following year. Intent on becoming a lawyer, he was called to the bar in 1884 (but was struck off the register of barristers in 1909).

Krishnavarma returned to India in 1885 and practised briefly as a lawyer before being employed as dewan (chief minister) of Ratlam state, in central India, a post he resigned owing to ill health in 1888. He then moved to Ajmer, in Rajasthan, where he pursued his legal career, and became independently wealthy through his investments in three local cotton presses. He acted as a member of the state council of Udaipur (1893–5) before becoming the dewan of Junagadh, in Gujarat (1895–7), but following bitter disagreements with an old Oxford acquaintance (now a member of the Indian Civil Service), A. F. Maconochie, he resigned his office at Junagadh in mid-1897. The repressive anti-plague measures implemented by the colonial authorities later that year disillusioned Krishnavarma further and, radicalized by B. G. Tilak's nationalism, he determined to support the Indian nationalist cause internationally, and moved back to Britain.

In London, Krishnavarma lived first at 9 Queenswood Avenue (later 60 Muswell Hill Road). An admirer of Herbert Spencer, he spoke at Spencer's funeral in 1903, endowed a Herbert Spencer memorial lectureship at Oxford (1904), and funded five travelling fellowships to enable Indian students to study in Britain. (These stipulated that the recipient should not subsequently seek employment by the British government in India.) On 18 February 1905 he founded the India Home Rule Society, dedicated to securing home rule for India, promoting nationalist propaganda, and mobilizing Indians against colonialism, objectives which were disseminated in his radical monthly pamphlet, the Indian Sociologist. That year he also purchased a mansion at 65 Cromwell Avenue, Highgate, which he named India House, or Bharat Bhavan, and opened as a hostel for Indian students. The hostel soon became a focus of nationalist activism and its residents included revolutionaries such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, and Har Dayal. Under increased police surveillance, Krishnavarma was forced to move to Paris in June 1907 (to 10 avenue Ingres, Passy, Bois de Boulogne), leaving Savarkar in charge of India House. However, after the assassination of Sir William Curzon Wyllie in July 1909 by Madan Lal Dhingra, an Indian student who had connections with India House, the hostel was closed.

In 1914 Krishnavarma moved to Geneva, but his political activities were restricted by the Swiss government throughout the war. His political influence declined noticeably in the last decade of his life: after a lapse in publication between 1914 and 1920, the Indian Sociologist was revived briefly until 1922, but his bequests to the League of Nations and the Press Association of Geneva were turned down. Krishnavarma died in Geneva on 30 March 1930 following an operation for an acute intestinal illness. He was survived by his wife and was cremated and his ashes interred at the cimetière de Saint-Georges, Geneva. He left instructions that his ashes should be moved to India at independence, but it was not until 2003 that his and his wife's remains were eventually repatriated. In December 2010 a Krishnavarma memorial complex, including a full-size replica of India House, was opened near Mandvi in Kachchh (Kutch), Gujarat.

Alex Tickell

Sources  

I. Yajnik, Shyamaji Krishnavarma: life and times of an Indian revolutionary (1950) · H. Sarda, Shyamji Krishna Varma (1954) · R. Visram, Ayahs, lascars and princes: Indians in Britain, 1700–1947 (1986) · G. L. Varma, Shyamji Krishna Varma: the unknown patriot (1993) · A. C. Bose, Indian revolutionaries abroad, 1905–1927: select documents (2002) · www.krantiteerth.org/index1.html, accessed on 4 Oct 2011 · www.movinghere.org.uk/stories/story171/story171.htm, accessed on 4 Oct 2011 · www.hvk.org/articles/0803/193.html · Balliol College Register

Archives  

BL, Indian Sociologist


Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in www.savarkar.org · photograph, repro. in kskvku.digitaluniversity.ac