Lawyers slip into their black coats, clerks pace about with case bundles and judges make their way to court rooms… LAKSHMI KRUPA witnesses how the scene changes at the Madras High Court once the chopdar strikes the hammer against the gong

It’s 9.30 in the morning. Men clad in crisp white shirts and black trousers and young women in white salwar kameezes and smart black overcoats slowly file into the hallowed red-stone corridors of the Madras High Court. At the entrance visitors queue up. For some of them, knocking on the doors of law, it might just be the day that changes the course of their lives forever. A large car, negotiating parking space almost rams into a smaller one. They say, if you can park in the High Court after 10.30 a.m. you can park your car anywhere in the world.

At the parking lot, a majestic black statue catches my eye. Cross-legged, with a book in hand, and adorned in a gown, turban on head — it is of Sir Vanbakam Bhashyam Iyengar, who was the first Indian Advocate General (1897) of the Madras Province and was a judge in the High Court between 1901 and 1904. He sits overlooking one of the oldest and most prestigious bar associations of the country — The Madras Bar Association. Further away, is the Madras High Court Museum. Back in the day, before the current light house was set up, the court building acted as a ‘literal’ guiding light for, this is where the light house was. The building still houses the old light house.

At the entrance of the lawyers’ chamber, a black board announces in Tamil, the lawyers’ disapproval of the killing of Prabhakaran’s son in Sri Lanka and their court ‘boycott’ for one day over the same. Lawyers shuffle into their chambers, meet with clients and slip into their black coat, bands and gown and head to the court building.

Beautiful pillars with intricate carvings, red-stones and iron railings make way for long, cool corridors. A lesson in cross-ventilation for architecture students might most certainly warrant a trip to this old structure. The corridors are spacious and dotted with paintings of past judges and glorious arching entrance halls. Many lawyers make their way to one special place in the court complex every morning — that of Sir Thiruvarur Muthuswami Iyer’s white statue. He was the first Indian to be made a judge of the Madras High Court. I see a few of them stand in silence and pray before rushing to their allotted courtrooms.

An aquarium on one of the corridors stands out. It says ‘Tamil Nadu Fisheries Development Corporation’. As I stand, looking on at this odd addition to the building, I realise it’s almost 10.30 and pick up my pace. A chopdar or dawali, who has been standing with a hammer in hand, lifts it up and strikes it against a gong seven times and walks away. Everyone’s pace is brisker now. I see a few lawyers zip past me and come to a sudden halt as a “Shh.. Shh...” sound is heard. Another chopdar, in white uniform, a red cap and red and gold cummerbund, with a silver staff in hand, walks efficiently ‘shushing’ as a judge makes her way to the court room. She greets the hall, with her arms folded. Lawyers in the hall reciprocate, bowing slightly. After the judge walks past, the commotion continues. Some clerks carry case bundles and rush into court rooms. In courts with large number of cases, a trolley, filled with bundles arrives.

Courtrooms in the Madras High Court are a sight to behold. It is said that in the days before air-conditioning the rooms looked even grander with all the doors open — sunlight pouring in, bringing with it the Marina’s breeze. Beautiful brown doors, wooden chairs and benches — each piece a reminder of the past and the age of the room, cupboards filled with legal books… It is easy to lose oneself in these quiet rooms, wondering where each piece came from and how old it must be. Stained glass paintings that must be well over 150 years old are distinct and reminders of the court’s legacy.

As I walk out of the building, a statue of Manu Needhi Chozhan greets me and a little farther is one of Dr. Ambedkar, with fresh flowers. A literal hole in the wall, run by a mother-son duo, sells fresh fruit juices and hot samosas inside the court. And that seems like the perfect place to end this visit.

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