Described as it has been as the city’s ‘first 100-foot high building,’ Agurchand Mansions (Miscellany, August 27) has every right to be called the city’s first ‘highrise’. But of its history I knew little till the mention I refer to above brought me a heap of information from readers, the richest of it from M. Bharath Yeshwanth and S. Natarajan who had worked with two of the protagonists referred to in my first story.

The story I’ve distilled from all these correspondents is still an unfinished one, but there’s enough of a tale to warrant getting started on it today. It is a story which begins with the Princes of Arcot.

The property where Agurchand Mansions stands was once property that stretched all the way from Mount Road to Express Estate, lining the eastern side of what was called Lord Pigot Road and which is now Club House Road. In these gardens stood a mansion called Rushkrum. On several occasions, I visited a transport office here housed in a large heritage building; I wonder whether that was Rushkrum. (I wasn’t that interested in heritage 40 years ago to search out its history).Be that as it may, the property, I’ve found, belonged to a Begum of the Arcot family.

Across the road from Agurchand Mansions is the Madrasa and the Qaid-e-Millat College for Women. They are both on a property that once belonged to Begum Azeem-U-Nissa, wife of the last titular Nawab of the Carnatic, Ghulam Mohammed Ghouse (1825-1855). She appears to have sold it to the Government sometime in the late 19th Century. Did she own Rushkrum too?

The question arises because a ‘Begum of Arcot’ is said to have leased the Rushkrum property in 1905 to a Thomas Robert Frost and, later, sold it to Agha Mohammed Khaleeli Shirazee on August 30, 1910. Rushkrum itself is believed to been built in the late 18th Century by Col. Patrick Ross, the builder of Fort St. George much as it looks today. Ross arrived in Madras in 1770 as the Government’s Chief Engineer.

Khaleeli Shirazee, of Persian descent and one of the richest men in Madras in the early 20th Century, decided to develop the vast acreage that came with the Rushkrum property. And between 1923 and 1925, he built Khaleeli Mansions, the city’s tallest building at the time. No sooner had he raised the Mount Road building, he bought Best & Co.’s handsome building on First Line Beach and made it the family’s business headquarters. In 1956, the family sold the building to the TI Group (now the Murugappa Group), who, on the site, built the first modern high-rise on 1st Line Beach, moving into it in 1958. But that is by the by. To get back to Mount Road…

When Khaleeli Shirazee settled the properties on his sons, Abbas Khaleeli got Khaleeli Mansions and Khasim, Khaleeli Rushkrum. The two sons had married the daughters of Sir Mirza Ismail, Dewan of Mysore.

Abbas Khaleeli, an Oxonian, was a brilliant ICS officer who lived in Khaleelabad on Pantheon Road. He was Director of Industries in Madras which was when Reader Natarajan worked with him. He was due to take over as Postmaster-General, Madras, when Partition occurred and he decided to move to Pakistan “which needed experienced administrators.” Khaleeli Mansions was declared evacuee property under the Evacuee Property Act, 1949, and put up for auction, with Agurchand Manmull and Adithanar, for whom too Natarajan later worked, bidding for it. As already related Agurchand Manmull was successful.

What happened to Rushkrum’s ownership, I have been unable to trace as yet. But several modern high-rises have come up on it including the Taj Club House. How far Abbas Khaleeli went in Pakistan – one of the comparatively few Muslims from the South to settle there – I also hope to find out before long.

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The vaidya’s cure

Reading through a brief scientific biography that appeared in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society on an early Madras naturalist and snakeman, Dr. Patrick Russell (Miscellany, January 23, 2006), by a frequent contributor to this column, Dr. A. Raman, I was intrigued to discover something known as the Tanjore Pills that vaidyas used to treat snakebite poisoning. Russell – after whom the Russell’s viper is named and who was an authority on Indian snakes – discovered in the late 19th Century the pills being used with considerable success in South India and developed a great faith in them. He had them tested in a Government laboratory where they were found to contain mercury, arsenic, black pepper and “a few other unidentifiable materials.”

A friend of Russell, Dr. William Duffin, who was a surgeon in Vellore, was not convinced of the efficacy of the pills, He and some fellow practitioners of allopathic medicine wrote to the Madras Hospital Board in September 1788, “Although the results of the tests conducted by Government Chemists on Tanjore Pills were convincing, some of the material contained in them were to be reconsidered for a general recommendation for public use,” they wrote. They also sought publication of the ingredients in detail. Dr. James Anderson, the Government Surgeon and no mean naturalist himself, in November 1788, submitted a list of the ingredients, arsenic being the main one, and did not recommend the pills for general use because of their arsenic content.

Some years later, Duffin, by now the Head Surgeon, Madras, brushed aside Anderson’s views and stated that, despite the arsenic, he had treated several patients with the pills and found the pills “beneficial in a majority of the cases”. He gave his findings to Russell, the Physician-Botanist of the Company in Madras, who sent them to the Royal Society in London. Duffin, thereafter, continued experimenting with the pills and began to look at them more positively, but Russell suddenly changed his stand; he thought the trials were inconclusive and he himself had found the pills ineffective, he stated.

I look forward to answers from doctors as well as snake experts.

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The Chinese in the Nilgiris

Reader Nina Varghese, a former student of mine and now well settled in the Nilgiris, has sent me a fascinating little tidbit on one aspect of cinchona’s (Miscellany, August 27) arrival in the Blue Mountains.

Cinchona, named after the Countess of Cinchon, the wife of the Spanish Viceroy of Peru, was brought to Europe by Jesuits priests (therefore the alternative name ‘Jesuit bark’) in the middle of the 19th Century and then sent eastwards to the Asian colonies. By 1867, it was being planted commercially in the Doddabetta and Naduvattom areas in the Nilgiris.

In search of cheap labour to clear the jungle and plant cinchona after coffee had been blighted, planters, hit badly in the pocket by coffee’s collapse, looked for cheap labour and saw a solution in convicts. These included Chinese convicts from the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore) and the European settlements in mainland China. These Chinese, after serving their time, married Tamil women and settled in and around Naduvattom as vegetable growers and dairy farmers.

The cinchona they had planted had, meanwhile, thrived, and a factory was set up in Naduvattom to manufacture quinine. By 1905, the factory was producing 17,000 pounds of quinine a year and earning a profit of Rs.15 lakhs. But not long afterwards, overproduction worldwide caused prices to crash and cinchona went out of the Nilgiris’ planters’ view. Tea had, by then, begun prospering.

Chinese labour was also used in planting tea on many a new South Indian tea estate, the clearing of the jungles for which and the raising of buildings were done by Sinhalese brought from Ceylon by those British planters who had got started on tea in the Island’s highlands.

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