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Somasundram family in India

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  • Robert Ebenezer Somasundram (1870 - d.)
    Arrived in Durban on 11th April 1890 aboard the Umtata 1 after matriculating at the Wesleyan Mission School in Madras. Started working as a teacher at Point Road School, but switched career to become a...

(Note that is a genealogical research page, to investigate and attempt to complete the ancestral family tree of Robert Ebenezer Somasundram, who arrived in South Africa, from Madras, India in 1890. It is therefore a combination of known genealogical information, family oral history, historical information, reasoning by the process of elimination, reasoning by "putting two and two together", etc. The reason for presenting this page is also to allow for the collection of additional information that may either enhance or refute the current information.)

According to South African documents, Robert Ebenezer Somasundram and his sister Georgina Somasundram arrived in South Africa from Madras, India. They matriculated in Madras, at the Wesleyan Mission College and Wesleyan Mission Girls School respectively.

The Somasundrams are Tamils from South India, and are also Pillais or Pillays (i.e. the South African spelling variant) and there is a South African newspaper document [1] listing Robert Somasundram as R Somasundram Pillay. Whilst the Hindu caste system has no place in Christianity, it is however very useful for the purposes of genealogical research. Pillay or Pillai [2] indicates that they are part of the Vellalar caste [3] . Somasundram is a Tamil name but apparently derived from Sanskrit, meaning "as beautiful as the moon" and is one of the names of the Hindu god Shiva, so I guess that the name Somasundram Pillay suggests that his family may have originally been part of the earlier Saiva Pillai group [4]. The corresponding Wikipedia entry states that "... A very few of them were converted during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to Christianity and retained the caste name 'Saiva Pillai'". It is speculative, but the name Somasundram (i.e. a first name that was subsequently adopted as a surname) may also indicate that the family village of origin was Madurai, India.

The name Pillai further suggests links to the ancient Pallavas, who had an empire in South India. " All traces of the Pallavas as a distinct community of clan disappeared; but the Kallar, Palli and Vellala castes trace their origin from them." [5]. The history of the Pallava empire is quite interesting, arguably traceable all the way to the biblical patriarch Jacob, via Aryanised Israelites part of whom were later known as Parthians, followed later by the apparently related Pahlavi in North India, and even later by the Pallava in South India.

In the Bible, the ancient Aryans are called the "Medes", also including the later "Persian" group. There is considerable debate regarding some of the Aryan tribes, being Aryanised Israelites since the Northern 10 Israelite tribes were exiled to the "cities of the Medes" by the Assyrian Empire around 700BC and then disappeared from the historical record at around the same time the ancient Scythians appeared in the historical record. Both groups were referred to as the "Khumri" in an ancient inscription on the Behistun Rock. The ancient Parthians, who ruled Persia, at the time of Jesus, were related to the Scythians, and the three wise men of the Nativity were apparently Parthian kings.

In parallel with this, whilst currently Dravidian Tamils, the Vellala group is also known to have migrated from a place called Dwarika near the India - Pakistan border, and originated from an Indo-Aryan tribe called the Yadu. This tribe is known by various names e.g. Yadu, Gadu, Gadun etc and is linked to similar tribes amongst the Pashtoon in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has been suggested, that the Pashtoon Gadun tribe, is derived from the lost Israelite tribe of Gad. In which case, apparently 20% of India today (about 200 million people!), may be descended from Gad.

More recent information indicates that there were apparently relatives of Robert Somasundram living in Grace Cottage, Madras, not that long ago (late 1900's). They were visited at the time by the late Leah Charles from South Africa.

From a further family oral recollection: His father (or earlier ancestor) was apparently the first Christian priest in India (possibly Methodist), and was rejected by his family after converting to Christianity.

Following that lead, historical information indicates that the earliest Indian Protestant Christian priest was Rev Aaron Pillai (first Indian Christian priest, born 1698 to a Hindu Saivite family) [6-10]. Also known as Arumugam Pillai, C Aaron, Chokkanatha Aaron. Since there are two fact matches ie. the first Indian priest (Protestant) and the same family name i.e Pillai (Somasundram is a first name that had been adopted as a surname; the family name was Pillai) it is possible that Rev Aaron Pillai was either a direct ancestor or a relative. Given that this would have been in the 1700's, there are probably a large number of modern day descendents and relatives around. Only some parts of the family tree of Aaron Pillai seem to be publicly documented.

Linked by marriage to the same tree was Rev John Devashayam, the first Indian Anglican priest (ordained 1896, married to Rev Aaron Pillai's grand-daughter). However since Robert Somasundram was already in SA around 1890 (age ~18) and in 1897 wrote a letter indicating that his elder sister had just died and that both his parents had died earlier, it is unlikely that Rev John Devashayam was a direct ancestor, though he may possibly have been a relative.


1. Indian Opinion, 5 October 1917, page 2





6. Aaron C.

7. Descendant demands recognition for Asia's first indigenous Protestant pastor, The Hindu, 30 Jun 2006,

8. Generations of church service, The Hindu, 18 April 2005,

9. German view of Olde Madras, The Hindu, 15 Sept 2003,

10. Great grandson’s efforts win stamp on C Aaron. The Asian Age, 25 Sept 2012,,

(NOTE: A possible Malaysian branch of the Somasundrams (i.e a Joseph Somasundram who was born in India in 1900 and diedin Malaysia) was investigated but it was concluded that they merely shared a surname but there was no evidence that they were related. The atypical Somasundram surname spelling (typically spelt Somasundaram), with English first names (probably indicating that they are Christian) as well as the time period (1900) had raised the possibility that they could have been related.)