A peek into the oldest college in Chennai — which is also the oldest engineering institution in the country and also among the oldest institutions in the world

The road lined with Ashoka trees leads right down to the domed, brick-red building that has been the face of Anna University for many decades. The marble floor ascends through a stairway into the office of M. Sekar, the dean. His workspace extends into a balcony with a panoramic view of the campus, right below the large clock and a name that brings fond memories to generations of engineers: ‘College of Engineering, Guindy'.

Towards the end of the 18th Century as more land began to come under the East India Company rule, the need for surveying them to assess revenue grew. Due to the harsh climatic conditions, Indians had to be trained to conduct these surveys, which led to the establishment of the Madras Survey School. It was started on May 17, 1794, on the suggestion of Michael Topping, the earliest astronomer and geographical and marine surveyor in Madras. The school was the first of its kind in the country.

“This survey school began in Fort St. George,” says Sekar, “There were no instruments or ways to survey the land back then. The British needed the locals to learn these techniques to help them in their work.”

The first batch of surveyors were then taken in as apprentices of the East India Company for about seven years. From 1836 to 1846, the surveyors who had passed out of this school were given higher posts in an office that later became the city's Public Works Department (PWD).

Owing to the demand for civil engineers at that time, the school, though recognised as early as 1842, became the Civil Engineering College around 1860 and the campus was shifted to Kalasmahal, the palace of the Nawab of Carnatic in Chepauk. The first department, on the authorisation of the Government, was started in 1861. Commissioned officers and civilians began to be trained as engineers.

The college evolved into a primary technical institution in the Madras Presidency and came to be called as College of Engineering (CEG) in 1894. Due to the lack of space, it moved out from Chepauk to a site south of the Adyar River and Guindy Park. This land of 200 acre or more was less than two miles from the Saidapet Railway station. So, in 1920, the College of Engineering moved to its present location, the oldest part of which is now popularly referred to as the ‘red building' or the dean's office.

The history of this institution has also stood the test of time but it is through the memories of former students that it comes alive. “We've got a strong alumni association,” says Sekar, “It was started by our first Indian principal Nagarathnam Iyer in 1925. The CEG was an independent college till 1978, after which is became the principal seat of the Anna University.”

T. Adhiraj, who passed out as a civil engineer in 1951, recalls: “There were only five engineering colleges in the Madras Presidency when I joined and the selection was based on district-wise communal population ratio. This form of selection was used till 1956 when the states were reorganised. There were only about 35 odd engineering colleges back then and seats were reserved for those coming from states which had no engineering college. We had only five streams then: civil, electrical, telecom, highways and mechanical engineering.”

In 1940, two women students were admitted into the college for the first time. But Sekar points out that it was only in the early 1970s that a women's hostel was constructed. Adhiraj remembers the times when he woke up for the 6.30 am class. “In the 1940s, the college was considered far away from the city, with only two buses connecting it; 5B and 19M. There was a huge mix of students from all the southern states and most of us stayed in the hostel, which was packed. The college was mainly a residential unit and we had just one girl who studied with so many boys,” he laughs.

As the vice-captain of the boxing team, Adhiraj was a part of CEG at a time when they were champions in inter-collegiate sports. “We were the reigning champions in football and hockey and also had a good boxing team. Usually, we'd compete with Madras Christian College and Madras University. But after a riot broke out one evening in YMCA, boxing was banned in schools and colleges across the city.”

Integrated courses, outdoor sports, theatre and quiz clubs — umpteen memories were made for him within the campus those four years. “In those days, jobs were many and engineers were few. After Independence, there were major expansion projects taking place and as soon as we graduated, offer letters came home. The salary wasn't great but we got jobs that rebuilt India. Civil engineering was the best subject to study in the 1950s. Life was tough, but it was colleges like CEG that produced real engineers.

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