Tucked away in the lanes behind the familiar landmarks and the host of modern buildings on Anna Salai, stumble upon an ancient temple and the traditional dwelling places that still stand around it
A little after the Poompuhar showroom and just before the Makka Masjid on Mount Road, an arch of the Pachaiamman Temple near Boothaperumal Street (earlier Boothaperumal Naicker Street) welcomes visitors into its historic fold. The temple itself, its caretakers say, is around 300 years old. The lanes around it are remnants of an old world that has not caught up with the fast-growing surroundings. The area also has another entrance — look for another temple arch along the Cooum behind Spencer Plaza, off Binny Road. In front of the Pachaiamman Temple, Muneeswarar — an imposing white statue — stands guard.
“My grandfather had a petty shop near LIC. Our home was on Boothaperumal Street, and my father and I were born here,” says M. S. Nagarajan, Manager Sports, Asia Pacific Region for Special Olympics. His family has a connection spanning generations with this temple — a tie so old and enduring that during the annual temple festival, when the marriage between the presiding deity Pachaiamman and her consort Mannareeswaran takes place, the seer varisai and thaali go to the goddess from Nagarajan’s home.
A quick search through the old census reports of Madras throws more light on the temple. The Census of India: 1962, Madras, reports: “The temple of Pachaiamman in the City of Madras is situated in Mount Road and remains unnoticed practically throughout the year. The annual Brahmotsavam in the month of March collects some crowds for the twelve days…” It is uncanny how this fact rings true even five decades later. Another book titled Castes and Tribes of Southern India by Edgar Thurston, first published in Madras in 1909, contains a little more information in a chapter titled ‘Palli or Vanniayan’. Nagarajan confirms that the area was earlier home to a handful of people who belonged to the Vanniyar community besides some Pillais. A quote from the book reads: “Huge human figures, representing Mannarswami in a sitting posture, constructed of brick and mortar, and painted, are conspicuous objects in the vicinity of the Lawrence Asylum Press, Mount Road, and in the Kottawal bazar, Madras.” There’s also a Perumal Street (Perumal Mudali earlier) in the area besides a hotel (Hotel Ram Prasad). The hotel’s name can be seen on the arch at the entrance too.
The lanes around the temple are dotted with old-world homes — with low entrances, intricately carved wooden door panels, thinnais, turmeric paste smeared across the bottom of the wooden door frame with white and red dots, and little niches to accommodate lamps and statues of the gods…
“A lot of people living in the area now are from the police department,” Nagarajan observes. The homes resemble what’s left of those in traditional areas such as Triplicane, Mylapore and West Mambalam. Talking about his growing-up years in these lanes, Nagarajan says, “It was, even then, a commercial area and noise pollution was pretty high. There were no schools nearby, so we had to walk all the way to Royapettah to study and later to Dayananda Saraswati Vidyalaya in Triplicane. Like most early settlements in the city this one too was on the banks of the Cooum and people used to bathe in the river then. I remember firewood being brought to our homes in boats.
While the noise of traffic could be heard till 5.30 in the evening even in those days, it would be followed by the bell from theatres in the neighbourhood (Wellington theatre, for instance). From the terraces of some buildings we could even see the Queen’s procession when she visited.” Parts of the lane look a picture of neglect now with piles of discarded cardboard boxes, sand and other debris.
The area was inhabited by both Shaivites and Vaishnavites in the past. While the Amman and Muneeswaran worshippers comprise the Shaivites, many homes still carry marks of their Vaishnavite roots with painted tilakas in white and red on their entranceways. One reason the locals attribute to the lack of new construction in the area is the confusion over who owns the land.
While some contend that all the streets belong to the temple, the temple does not have any documents to prove this. Nagarajan says, “While the land is considered to belong to the temple, the houses presumably belong to the residents who have occupied them for generations.” The temple has apparently told them that they are free to pay the current rate for the land and re-build their dwellings. But, Nagarajan says, the residents feel that since they have lived here ever since they could remember, how could the question of payment even arise?