City's first focus on heritage

It was on October 24, 1978 that, at a seminar on heritage jointly organised by the British Council and the Madras Metropolitan Development Authority (MMDA), that the formation of the city's first heritage NGO was announced.

The Society for Environmental Protection and Conservation of the Historical (EPOCH), it was stated, would look at heritage, cultural and environmental concerns. Not only did it predate the founding in Delhi, in 1984, of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) — INTACH-Tamil Nadu being established the next year — but it was possibly the first organisation in the country to focus on all three aspects of heritage — natural, cultural and built.

The founder members were Nanditha Krishna, Abraham Eraly, Editor of Aside, the country's first city magazine, your columnist who was then writing for Aside a column titled ‘Once upon a City' and getting to be known as a chronicler of Madras, Prof. Raj of the School of Architecture, and M.G. Balasubramaniam, vice-chairman, Louis Menezes, Member Secretary, and G. Dattatri, Chief Planner, of the MMDA.

This group's first challenge was trying to save Moore Market — and that was your columnist's first battle lost. With Moore Market going up in flames in 1985 — and with the founding of INTACH-TN around the same time — EPOCH called it a day. But given its composition, it had been able to make the first suggestions of a Heritage Act to the powers-that-be — again, though, not very successfully.

I'm reminded about all this not just because October 24 is a birthday a few of us would like to remember, but because the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) recently organised another all-day seminar on heritage conservation — after 32 years!

At its inaugural session there was a Ministerial pronouncement: A Heritage Act would be enacted shortly. Loud cheers from all, but muted ones from your columnist, the reasons for which might have become clearer to the discerning after they heard a chronological compilation presented later in the day by a CMDA official.

It was a presentation that took your columnist 15 years back in time, when INTACH-TN met the Establishment several times to get it interested in a Heritage Act for Tamil Nadu. Finally, in 1997, a committee was formed by the Town and Country Planning Department, and a year or so later a draft Heritage Act was hammered out. But the senior bureaucrats, after a lengthy (in terms of time) scrutiny, decided it would be best if the Act, in suitable form, became some kind of CMDA regulation.

The CMDA formed a Heritage Committee in July 1999 and after several meetings, and many more months, the Committee was told that the regulations had been drafted and would be presented to the Government.

The Heritage Committee never met after that, and of the draft regulations nothing was heard till the Second Master Plan (September, 2008) which stated that action would be taken to preserve the city's heritage. Now, a couple of years and committees later, there's promise once again of a Heritage Act. After all these years, your columnist still lives in hope.


The San Thomé Redoubt

Fred de Silva, fascinated by my pictures last week, wonders whether I could do the same for the San Thomé Redoubt and also relate its story. I, therefore, turned to Glyn Barlow for another of his sketches and offer a photograph of a later age as well. And, tell the story briefly.

Between 1567 and 1582, Fort San Thomé was built, pushing Mylapore far from shore and establishing a battlements-surrounded Portuguese settlement.

The Dutch and the Mughal satraps between 1675 and 1697 demolished all those protective walls to such a degree that when the British moved in, in 1749, they could not even trace the line of the fortifications.

Deciding that such elaborate defences were no longer necessary, the British in 1751 had military engineer Benjamin Robbins raise a small fort by the shore, that would keep the Adyar under observation at the same time.

This was the Egmore Redoubt, built with walls 15 feet thick and three feet wide, and at a cost of about 6,500 pagodas (about half a million rupees today). With threats to Madras further reducing, the fort was given up and the property sold in 1794 to a Col. John Braithwaite, a hero of the third conquest of Pondicherry. He built himself a garden house here on the ruins of the Redoubt.

Two years later, the Colonel sold the 14-and-a-half-acre property to the up-and-coming merchant prince Thomas Parry who rebuilt the house as Parry's Castle, a name that survived till 1837.

In its grounds he established a tannery in 1805 and developed it into Madras' first industrial venture, a manufactory leather goods for the military, both in India as well as in Britain and the U.S. Parry, however, had moved out of the house and to Nungambakkam a couple of years after the tannery started. The odour had probably got to him!

When Parry died in 1824, Major General James Leith bought Parry's Castle and made it a garden house again. After he died in 1829, the house passed through several hands, but always remained residential property.

Some time after 1837, however, it became known as Leith Castle — and that is what it is still known as. But, now, built up all around, the ‘castle' is barely visible. It's, however, still in private hands, the last I heard.

At that time, a couple of years ago, it was in the family of R.N.P. Arogyaswamy, a well-known member of the Geological Survey of India.


Gandhi's first visit

‘The Quiet Traveller' (Miscellany, October 4) visited Madras for the first time not in 1915 but in October 1896, writes Prof. N. Bakthavathsulu. Writes the former Pachaiyappa College Professor, “After three years in South Africa, he (Gandhi) arrived in Madras on October 14, 1896.” His last, and 18th, visit to Madras was on February 4, 1946.

On that first visit, when he was known only for his contributions to the Indian causes in South Africa, Gandhi, it is recorded, was warmly helped by G. Subramania Aiyer of The Hindu and G. Parameshwaran Pillai, Editor of the Madras Standard. He addressed a few meetings, the biggest of which was in the Pachaiyappa College Hall in ‘Black Town'.

The meeting, organised by the Madras Mahajana Sabha, was chaired by P. Anandacharlu. His subject was the indignities the Indians faced in South Africa.

At the end of his vivid descriptions of what the Indians were going through, the meeting passed a resolution protesting the ill-treatment of Indians in South Africa and asking the Government to intervene and give them relief. That first visit, when Gandhi had not made his mark in the freedom movement, is forgotten by most — including your columnist and his sources in print.