For whom the bell tolls

Almost two centuries after its discovery, an enigmatic bell is bringing communities together.

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Te Papa

It was 1841 when missionary William Colenso visited a Māori village somewhere near Whangārei, in the rohe of Ngāpuhi. Here, he encountered women boiling potatoes in a bronze pot—an unusual departure from the traditional hāngi style. But upon closer inspection, he realised this was no pot. It was a bell. Its rim was inscribed with a swirling, unfamiliar script. Colenso offered an iron pot in exchange for the bell, which the women said had been found many years before among the roots of a windblown tree.

Almost 25 years later, when the bell was displayed at a world fair in Dunedin, the mysterious inscription was identified as Tamil, a language spoken in parts of India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Translated as, “The Bell of the Ship of Mohaideen Bakhsh”, it posed a conundrum: how did it end up here? And who was Mohaideen Bakhsh? “It is believed that this ancient relic may yet prove to be an important witness,” Colenso wrote to the Hawke’s Bay Times in 1865. “Its tale has yet to be told.”

When Colenso died in 1899, he bequeathed the Tamil bell to the Colonial Museum—the predecessor to Te Papa, where it resides today. Many have mulled over its origins. In the 1970s, linguistic experts dated the bell’s apparently archaic Tamil script to 1400-1500. So could a Tamil ship have reached the South Pacific, pre-dating European arrival? Tamil traders did sail along the east coast of Africa as far as the southern tip of Madagascar, and reached Lombok (part of present-day Indonesia). But there’s no record that they ever got as far as New Zealand.

One wacky theory (courtesy of Pacific historian Robert Langdon—no relation to the Da Vinci Code character) suggests descendants of Spanish sailors, marooned in French Polynesia in the 1500s, brought the bell to New Zealand. Another explanation is that an abandoned ghost ship floated from the Indian Ocean and wrecked on the west coast.

“I think the fact that there’s so little information attached to the bell is actually part of why it is so endearing. Because it ignites the imagination,” says Grace Gassin, curator of Asian histories at Te Papa. It’s a surprisingly small object—fitting comfortably in cupped hands and weighing about the same as a brick. “People often ask how this would have held potatoes. Maybe potatoes were smaller back then.”

It’s one of the most popular objects at Te Papa and gets plenty of visitors. “Tamil scholars from around the world are really excited to think about all the different theories and what it could possibly mean,” says Gassin.

One of those international researchers unearthed new clues in 2019. Nalina Gopal, a curator at Singapore’s Indian Heritage Centre, visited Te Papa and with one glance, she knew that the 15th century date was wrong. Tamil script from that era should be difficult to read for a modern speaker, but she could easily decipher it. Working with other experts, she revised the bell’s casting to the 17th or 18th century. Gopal, in collaboration with Tamil researcher J. Raja Mohamad, scoured archives and records for mention of Mohaideen Bakhsh. They determined that Mohaideen Bakhsh was not the ship’s owner, or even the name of the ship. Rather, Mohaideen Bakhsh was a Muslim saint revered by merchant communities in south-east Asia. Perhaps, Gopal suggested, the inscription was a dedication placing the ship in the saint’s care.

Te Papa recently made a 3D scan of the bell, aiming to spur more research into its mysterious origins. But for Gassin, the bell’s unknown deep history is not as interesting as its present life as a symbol for New Zealand’s Tamil migrant community, “who are thinking about their connection to Aotearoa and what their relationship as migrants might be to tangata whenua”, she says.

Ravindran (Raveen) Annamalai, president of the Aotearoa New Zealand Federation of Tamil Sangam, says the Tamil bell gives his people and language “roots” in this country. It has inspired members of the federation to take te reo lessons and sparked a series of six Māori-Tamil hui around the country, aiming to deepen the relationship between the two cultures. “We feel a sense of belonging, a sense of connection, and a sense of pride that such a unique thing is found in New Zealand.”

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