The Monegar and Rajah of Venkatagiri Choultries, behind the Government Stanley Hospital, has provided succour to the aged destitute for over 230 years. Anusha Parthasarathy reports

Shanmugam is busy making tea at the cooking quarters, which looks like a traditional South Indian home with wooden columns and tall arches. He has lived here for 14 years and helps in the kitchen when the cook is on leave. Bhavani has worked here for 32 years and has grown from being a typist to a superintendent. She now lives on the premises and looks after the 60-odd elderly people who have made it their home. There are others lazing under trees, animatedly chatting with other block mates or relaxing over a cup of tea. It is these people and others like them who have kept Madras’ first organised charity (behind Stanley Hospital in Royapuram) alive for the last 230 years.

Goodies for residents

Bhavani is at the office block where a wooden plaque bears the name of the organisation and its year of inception, ‘Monegar and Rajah of Venkatagiri Choultries, Home for Aged Destitutes, Estd. 1782’. There are boxes of biscuits and toffees at the entrance from generous donors. Bhavani orders them to be distributed and busies herself with paperwork. “I became the superintendent seven years ago and we’re in charge of everything inside the choultry. I live here, just across the block, because people here are old and might need my help at any time. They just have to shout my name and I’ll be there,” she says.

The history of Monegar Choultry goes back to the 18 century, when there were constant wars between the British and the Nawabs of Mysore. This led to destruction of property and lives and ended in a famine in Madras. A village headman, a ‘maniakarar’, began a gruel centre for the poor in his garden. He ran this ‘kanjithotti’ until the end of the war, after which it became a choultry for “the sick and the poor”.

“The name of the choultry is derived from the ‘Maniakarar’ title, which later became Monegar. The people who come here are those who have been abandoned by their families. We take them in and do everything for them, even perform their last rites,” says Bhavani.

During the war with Hyder Ali in 1782, an order was issued by the government that all buildings within a certain distance of the “Black Town Wall” be destroyed. But the Monegar Choultry was exempted from this order. When more people started coming to the choultry, the Government made a substantial donation in 1807. The Nawab of Arcot gave another generous sum to the choultry.

Says Bhavani: “When I first joined the Monegar Choultry, the rooms would be in a straight line from the entrance. Twenty years ago, they were renovated to form a circular pattern ending in the office block. The kitchen and the prayer rooms are at the back. In the beginning, the food the residents received was basic but we now have variety. We serve tea, breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. Many people come forward to donate food, clothes and other things.”

An assistant surgeon with the Company, John Underwood, founded a ‘Native Infirmary’ in 1799 and this was combined with the ‘Native Hospital and Poor Fund’ in the choultry a couple of years later. In 1910, with the growing need for medical facilities, the Government took over the Native Hospital and the land where the Monegar Choultry stood to construct the Stanley Hospital. The choultry, meanwhile, was shifted to the premises of the Rajah of Venkatagiri Choultry nearby and a line of rooms was built.

Home away from home

The Collector of Madras remains the chairman of the managing committee of the choultry. “We celebrate all festivals, admit the residents to the hospital when necessary, keep a stock of magazines for them to read and have a TV set for each block,” Bhavani explains, “These people are used to family life and the small comforts we provide will make them feel like they are part of a family.”

Life goes on at the choultry. The women help in the kitchen and the men tend the garden. There is even a temple (at the base of an old tree) at the entrance to the premises, where the women perform daily pujas. The Periya Palayathu Amman temple is ancient, and has survived as part of the tree for generations.