The East India Company gave Chennai's temples a lot of importance. With gifts of pagodas and land, the Company played a major role in their growth. Could it have been an early example of corporate sponsorship?

As Madras that is Chennai steps into its 372nd year, a quaint reminder of its colonial origins are several monuments and buildings. Among these are a few so-called Company temples, for these were built thanks to support from the East India Company. They belong to a very early period in the history of the city, a time when the differences between the British and the Indians had not become too sharply defined.

Chenna Kesava Perumal's shrine, known as the Great Pagoda in Black Town, first finds mention in a gift deed dated April 24 1648. The donation was made to Narayanaiyar by Beri Thimmanna, dubash (agent) of the Company and who along with Francis Day and Andrew Cogan can be considered one of the founders of the city. In the document, Thimmanna claims that he built the “Chennai Casava Permaul Covil” and was donating land to Narayanaiyar so that he and his descendants could continue performing services to the shrine “as long as the duration of the Sun and Moon.”

Outsider's views

The Great Pagoda was apparently important enough for foreign visitors to be taken to it. Dr Fryer, a visitor in 1673 later wrote a perfectly biased and wholly condemning passage on the shrine in his New Account of East India and Persia. He was of the view that the inner sanctum contained the ill-gotten wealth of the Indians (“their mammon of unrighteousness”). He also complained that the shrine “admitted neither light nor air” and that on the walls were “obscene images” and that floor stank “egregiously of the Oyl they waste in their lamps.”

The 1710 map of the city, which is the earliest such document to survive, shows that this temple stood in a square of 90 yards on the site presently occupied by the High Court. In 1757, by which time the British had lost to and regained the city from the French, it was felt that the temple and the part of George Town that surrounded it needed to be demolished to reduce military threats. Land spanning 24000 square feet was given in a trapezium formed by Nyniappa Naicken, Ayya Mudali, Devaraja Mudali Streets and China Bazaar (present day NSC Bose Road) as an alternative site for the temple. The Company donated 1173 pagodas as its contribution to the building of the new shrine. That was not enough and it was left to Manali Muttukrishna Mudaliar, the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company and noted patron of the arts, to set up a subscription list, beginning with his own contribution of 5,000 pagodas. A total of 15000 pagodas was eventually collected and work began in 1762. The new temple was a shrine with a difference, for it was a twin-temple complex. The Chenna Malleeswara Swami shrine was added for Shaivites to worship in and the two temples sit back-to-back to this day. The Chettys of Madras made several munificent donations for the temples' upkeep. The shrines continued to hold enormous importance in the Company's eyes. For long it was the practice at the Law Courts for witnesses to be sworn to the truth on (if Vaishnavite) the tulasi teertham of the Chenna Kesava and (if Shaivite) on the vibhuti prasadam of the Chenna Malleeswara temple! Perhaps it is appropriate that the High Court is located today on the earlier site of these shrines. The shrines are referred to even now as the Patnam Temples and there is a strong theory that the name Chennai is derived from Chenna Kesava.

The second temple that could qualify as a Company shrine is the Kalyana Varadaraja Swami Temple at Colletpet (now Kaladipet). The area was developed as a weaver's village by Governor Collet between 1717 and 1719. By 1718, the new settlement had ‘104 houses, 10 shops, a temple and contained 489 adult inhabitants'. The temple referred to was the Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple or as the East India Company records referred to it, the ‘ Colleana Verdaraja Swaminee Covela'. The shrine was built mainly to please Viraraghava, a man who appears in Company records from 1675 when he succeeded his father to the post of ‘Egyb' or Agent of the Company to the Nawab of Golconda. Virago Brahmany as he was referred to, later became Writer to the East India Company in 1717. Collet appreciated his diligence but did not like his devotion to the Varadaraja Perumal of Kanchipuram which made him often undertake the arduous journey to that temple town. However, being impressed with his piety, he offered to get a shrine built for the same God at Colletpet. That was how the temple came up. Viraraghava lavished his wealth on the temple. He was allowed to “collect a small duty on imports and exports for the maintenance of the temple” by Collet. But when he died, his son Kolacherla Papiah Brahminy sadly revealed to the Company that his father had “expended his whole estate on the pagoda.” The Company in compensation vested the management of the shrine in perpetuity on the family. Unlike the Patnam temples, this shrine has during the course of rampant modernisation lost most of its antiquity. A few pillars, a couple of mandapams and the inner sanctums are the only witnesses to the friendship between Collet and his Virago.

Twin temples

Like the Patnam temples, Chintadripet too has twin temples and like Colletpet, the area was meant to be a colony of weavers. This area was planned in 1734 on land taken away from Sunkurama, a dubash who fell out of favour with the Company. George Morton Pitt was the Governor and he stipulated that “none but Weavers, Spinners and other persons useful in the Weaving Trade, Painters, Washers, Dyers, shall inhabit the said town.” He also added “Brahmins and Dancing Women and other necessary attendants on the Pagoda” and of course included that indispensable guild of “Bettleca” (betel leaf) merchants. The area was developed by Audiappa Narayan, a dubash of Benyon who succeeded Pitt as Governor. Audiappa also built the temples to Adi Kesava and Adi Purisvara, who like Chenna Kesava and Chenna Malleeswara, share a common wall. Rather like Virago, Audiappa also went bankrupt but this was more due to the French occupation of Madras in the 1740s. The Company did not approve of Audiappa building the temples and strongly suspected him of misusing his position to extract donations from people, which he probably did. But when on his death his son Jaggu petitioned the Directors of the Company in England directly for support, the Madras Governor rather reluctantly restored to him the rights of the father, namely to collect certain duties to maintain himself and the temple. But soon Jaggu was unable to manage the estate and the Company took over the administration by itself.

Today, though well patronised locally, these shrines see very few visitors from Greater Madras. Would it help if these were reinterpreted as the earliest examples of corporate sponsorship?

The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com

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