I was entranced by the history of Women’s Christian College and its oldest building- dating back to circa 1798! Doveton House, the college’s administration building, was built by one Benjamin Roebuck and occupied by a high ranking officer in the Madras Cavalry of the East India Company. (Can you imagine Netflix or Google having it’s own military wing? Well, that’s how it worked back then! Business and military and government hand in hand, conquering a foreign land and making money!)
The building is enormous, with very high ceilings, huge pillars, rounded sides, and elegant arched lattice work porches. Most intriguing: in 1875 an Indian king was imprisoned in this building after an attempt on the life of the head British leader in his area. Apparently the imprisonment was in kingly style; kings and other dignitaries arrived by elephant, and the elephants and the structure carrying the king on top (the howdah) were tall enough that the king was able to step off the elephant directly onto the second floor. To this day, the entrance to this building is called the Elephant Porch.
Various British leaders as well as wealthy Indians came and went, and in 1916 a British woman who had founded Women’s Christian College with the help of American and Canadian mission groups bought the enormous building and it’s 11 acres for the college. Additional buildings were added later thanks to the efforts of Lucy Peabody, an American teacher who raised $3 million to build 7 colleges in Asia. John D Rockefeller told her he would provide $1 million if she raised $3 million, which she did.
As is true of many of the best colleges and universities in India, Western missionaries and people of wealth were instrumental in launching and nurturing the development of top notch institutions of education. Personally, I have very mixed feelings about the role of missionaries around the world and the paternalistic way in which they brought their own religion and culture to extremely different lands. The assumption seemed to be that Americans (or Brits or Scots or Danes) had something superior to offer, without much respect for history and tradition. BUT, the women educators and philanthropists who founded Women’s Christian College I have to admire. Indian women had very options at the turn of the century, and women’s colleges offered new opportunities. The foreign guests were themselves brave, independent women who wanted to empower their sisters in India. It looks like they did not empower those many of those sisters to work in leadership roles in the early days, based on this photo. But Indian women took over leadership in l965 and continue to lead the institution today. Many well known Indian women leaders are products of WCC. And many live abroad, likely leading very successful lives. The college is run by women for women, and thousands of young women have been inspired and educated within these walls. The 18th century building is still in quite good shape, apparently well built to suit the Indian climate, soils, and heavy use. The main hall has the original wood floor and a gorgeous, winding teak staircase – I try to imagine the Rajah with his elephants, delicate silk clothing and retinue; the British military officers clunking around with their swords and boots; the hundreds of servants who have worked in these halls; and the hundreds of Western and Indian women who have served, worked, talked, eaten and played in this amazing building.