‘The Madras Region before the British,’ offers nuggets of history about Chennai.

History has been romancing Madras and its surrounding regions through many millennia, creating layers of story, legend, poetry, song and spiritualism. And the collage of “domes, towers, theatres and temples,” as Wordsworth’s described another ancient city.

‘The Madras Region before the British,’ is an elegantly arranged narrative exhibition that unfolds vignettes of the city of Chennai that was Madras, Coromandel, Cholamandal, Kondiamandalam and Tondaimandalam.

In the weaving of the narrative, it brings together photographs, drawings and paintings of temples and ancient monuments, original sculptural pieces, Swamimalai bronzes of kings and queens and even clay models and recreated catamarans. In the process, it throws up fascinating but little known nuggets of history.

Did you know that Greek historian Ptolemy’s Mirathan refers to Mylapore? That peacocks once danced in Mylapore or that tigers roamed in the region till the last one was decimated by British hunters?

The Madras story begins with photographs of megalithic relics and tools unearthed at Pallavaram- the first such finds to be excavated in the country. The region first inhabited by Kurumbas or Pillindas also perhaps formed a part of the Ashokan Empire. In the second century, the region was conquered by Thondaiman and so was called Thondaimandalam.

The Pallavas wrested power in the 3rd century and ruled the area till the 7th century. The Pallava cave temple in Pallavaram, with its inscriptions, is a testimony to the early beginnings of Madras and its cultural vibrancy as are the great Mahabalipuram temples.

The city changed hands with the Chola conquest and was renamed Cholamandalam. Small exquisite Chola temples speak of the once mighty power of the empire. The city was an outpost of the Vijaynagar Empire till its fall in 1565 when it passed into Nayak hands. And there it remained till the Nayaks sold it to the British in the 18th century.

‘The Madras Region before the British,’ while tracing the footprints of the city’s textured history also celebrates its spiritual connection with the Alwars, Nayanmars and other saints. It focusses through photographs, paintings and sculptures on the great temples of Mylapore and Triplicane, which from time immemorial have formed the spiritual core of the city.

The city’s temples witnessed the growth of Shaivite and Vaishnavite learning. Pey Alwar was born in Adyar and settled in Triplicane. Nayanmars such as Appar and Sambhandar in the 7th and 9th centuries were also associated with this region. And it is believed that Valmiki settled down in Thiruvanmiyur. The Thiruvanmiyur Marundeshwarar temple is described in the work of Shaivite saints, while Ramanuja’s guru lived in Poonamali – the land of jasmine flowers. The historic churches of Santhome, Luz and St. Lazarus Church were built during Portuguese rule.

On display is a collection of precious coins dating back to Pandyan rule, Tipu Sultan’s reign, French rule in India and East India Company’s suzerainty. These, along with the original sculptures and bronzes bring the exhibition alive.

There are also original stone sculptures of Gangadhara Pallava and stunning icons of Bramha, Bhairavi and Vishnu dating back to the Vijayanagar Empire.

Swamimalai bronzes of Pallava and Chola royalty and portraits of Shaivite and Vaishnavite saints give a sense of continuity to the narrative.

A beautiful handcrafted peacock rests on a dais and sketches of Pallava ships speak of an era when the Mylapore seaport flourished. A handcrafted catamaran used then and now reflects the sea of continuity that is Madras.

And what better way to catch the inherent poetry of the exhibition than Thirumangai Alwar’s poem on Triplicane:

“Where cuckoos sing and peacocks dance,

The sun’s rays never penetrate,

The thick foliage of Thiruvallikeni”.

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week!

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Photos: www.thehindushutterbug.com