Two bells at the Fund Office in Madurai have been telling time for over 118 years
When clocks and watches were unheard of, bells and gongs suspended in important places served to mark the hours. Madurai has preserved one of its time-telling traditions. At The Madura Hindu Permanent Fund Limited, popularly known as ‘Fund Office', a bronze gong has been tirelessly ringing for the past 118 years.
Amidst the hectic traffic and noise of the West Tower Street, it is easy to miss this round, metallic structure suspended from its edges that makes the street resonate every hour.
The ringing tradition has been there since the inception of the office in 1894. “The gong served as a clock for locals," says M. Rajarajan, chairman in-charge. "People scheduled their work and some also used to draft horoscopes for the newborn babies based on the ringing of the gong." Besides, he says, “There used to be a punching clock in the office. The watchman used to pull the string every 15 minutes that left a mark on the cardboard. Thus, four marks counted for an hour.” He also adds that the bell and punching clock kept the watchman up all night.
In those days, the chime was loud enough and was heard even one-and-a-half kilometres away. To keep the tradition alive, the office continues to ring the gong throughout the day and night. If the time is 12, the watchman on duty strikes the gong 12 times. In total, the gong beats 156 times every 24 hours.
The dumbbell-shaped mallet, made of teak wood, usually lasts for about six months. The office bought four gongs from Kumbakonam fifteen years back to replace the older ones, which had lost their resonance. The Fund Office, which has 11 branches in the city and outskirts, has one more such bell at its Ponnagaram branch on the New Jail Road. “The instrument is referred to by 12 names in Tamil though it is popularly known as ‘sekkandi',” says N. Mammathu, musicologist.
“In olden times, it used to be played at temples and during death ceremonies.”
The smaller version of the instrument is called ‘Paanni' in Kerala and often played by the Maaraan community during the recital of ‘Sopanam'.
Though the bells are nearly drowned out by the nearby noise pollution, they continue to tell their century-old tradition.