“Yes,” with a few exclamation marks following it was the emphatic response by S. Satyanidhi Rao to my question (Miscellany, October 7) whether there was a regular passenger service on the Buckingham Canal at one time. Rao, who was the with the Salt Department and had for years served alongside the Canal, supports his contention with the 1895 picture I feature today which is from a classic in his collection, History of the Buckingham Canal Project by A.S. Russell, Executive Engineer, Madras PWD, published in 1898. With this close-up taken at Tummalapenta, near Kavali in Nellore District, and a couple of others showing such boats in ‘Madras Basin’ and Kothapatnam, near Ongole, there is no doubt that special passenger craft (and inspection vessels, one of which this might well be) plied in the Canal.

Adding substance to these pictorial references of such usage is the number of resthouses, on the banks of the Canal between ‘Pedda-Ganjam’ and ‘Mercanum’, listed in the book. These were, no doubt, like the dak bungalows of yesteryears, meant for officials, sahibs and those considered brown sahibs by the resthouse keeper. Wharves in Madras included, from north to south, Madras Basin, Elephant Gate, Trevelyan Basin and Adyar South Lock.

The history reveals that by 1882 the Canal stretched 420 km from Pedda-Ganjam to Mercanum and was a “principal means of communication, both for passengers and goods.” To stress its importance are statistics in the history that reveal that in 1895-96 about 325,000 tons of goods valued at a bit over Rs. 25 million were carried on the canal in about 1,600 boats of around 22,000 tonnage! What an opportunity we are missing, not reviving usage of what was one of the finest canal systems in the world!

Adding to what Satyanidhi Rao has pointed out, K.R.A. Narasiah refers me to the 1961 Madras City Census (of India) Report. As late as 1960-61, after the separation of Andhra, 190,000 tons of goods valued at Rs.18.5 million were carried in 1,200 or so boats in Madras State alone. Passenger traffic declined from a little over 26,000 persons to 19,000 between 1956-57 and 1960-61, still noteworthy numbers. It was the cyclone of 1965-66 that decided the fate of the Canal, according to my correspondent. But that does not mean revival is not possible.

…and some recollections

Several readers have sent in their recollections about overnight trips by boat from Mylapore to Mahabalipuram and one of them, Les Jones, reminds me that many Anglo-Indians going in July on annual pilgrimage from Madras to the 18th Century Roman Catholic shrine (renovated by once Madras’s richest merchant, John De Monte) in Covelong still do it by boat on the Canal, making the trip from what was at one time the Lattice Bridge landing place. Besides trips to Mahabalipuram, there were boats trips to Pulicat, recall other readers. An overnight trip from Pulicat to Madras on the open deck of a cargo-carrier cost four annas, writes a reader who had worked in Pulicat.

V. Vijayaraghavan sends me a picture of a boat similar to the one featured in Miscellany, October 7 and tells me it was taken by a newspaper photographer in the 1920s. He points out that as the Rajahmundary bridge across the Godavari was commissioned only in 1893 and the Bezwada (Vijayawada) Station in 1899, lower coastal, Andhra depended on river/canal communication till the early 1900s. He also mentions the stretch of Canal built in Madras in the 1870s being in most places “100 metres wide (against 20 metres now).”

Another recollection is a tale out of the past by T.R. Thiagarajan. He recalls hearing about a house in West Mada Street, Mylapore, with quite a history. It was owned by a well-known “physician and nationalist” whom my correspondent refers to as “Dr. Nanjunda Rao’s grandfather”. The senior Dr. Rao apparently hosted Swami Vivekananda on his return from the U.S., discourses on the Gita by Bipin Chandra Pal, and Sarojini Naidu’s wedding. A frequent visitor to the house was Subramania Bharati. Not to mention several policemen seeking treatment. One of them mentioned to the senior Dr. Rao that Bharati’s arrest was imminent, whereupon, that night itself, the good doctor put Bharati on “a ferry going from Mylapore to Marakkanam,” which enabled the poet to make good his escape to Pondicherry.

The most interesting of these stories, however, comes to me from K.V.S. Krishna who summarises a few passages from Col. H.S. Olcott’s six-volume Old Diary Leaves. They read:

“On April 31, 1882, Olcott and Blavatsky journeyed from Adyar by houseboat on the Buckingham Canal up to Nellore. They reached Muttukur on the fourth day by 5 p.m. Olcott even took a swim in the Canal. From Muttukur, the party travelled by palanquin to Nellore, reaching by 11 p.m. … and returned to Mypaud Canal Station on May 9th and reached Peddaganjam by canal… On May 17t, they embarked on Ramaswamy Naidu’s houseboat to reach Mypaud and then Nellore. From Nellore to Tirupati, a distance of 78 miles, was done on dirt road by bullock carts, before they could catch a train to Madras, reaching on May 19th.

“Twelve years later, Annie Besant arrived in Adyar on December 20, 1893 and on January 2, 1894 she, along with Olcott and several others, left Adyar by two canal boats for a picnic at Mahabalipuram and slept in the dilapidated boats, returning on the 4th instant to T.S. headquarters.

“Various schools in Madras thereafter used to organise scouting camps at Mahabalipuram. As students we used to walk to Lattice Bridge and take a well-covered boat that would accommodate 30 to 35 scouts. Leaving Lattice Bridge Boat Station in the evening we would reach Mahabalipuram next morning, spend a day or two and return by the same boat. We sailed three or four boats in convoy. The roof of each boat was quite strong and we used to walk from one end to the other, like the boatmen who poled it on the canal.”


When the postman knocked…

*Nostalgic about Madras from the 1950s to the 1970s, A.M.V. Arunachalam writes about a ‘neighbour’ of his when he started life with the Indian Bank in 1954. Ambi’s Café (Miscellany, October 7), he recalls, was owned by K.S. Ambi Iyer who lost his life in a train accident in Mehboob Nagar near Hyderabad, whereafter his son ran the business. On the right of Ambi’s Cafe was South India Music Emporium which sold musical instruments. Next to it was the retail store of P. Venkatachellum & Sons. On the opposite side was Poppat Jamal & Sons. Near the Indian Bank branch here was the retail outlet of Sadhana Aushadhalaya, Dacca. As the name suggests, it sold Ayurvedic medicines procured from Dacca, Arunachalam relates and goes on to state that before Law College, where Kuralagam now stands, was the Law College police station, with a barricaded pound for stray cattle caught on the road. To Minerva Theatre’s right was the Original Vel Printing Press which published a booklet every week with details about the Madras Races. There used to be a crowd near the press to get the first copies, he remembers. On the left of Minerva Theatre was Thatha Muthiappan Street where Select Talkies stood. “I remember watching Naam Iruvar (‘We Two’), the AVM blockbuster, in the mid-1940s on a visit to Madras. The movie was filmed in AVM’s makeshift studio in Devakottai Rastha, near Karaikudi. The theatre later exhibited only Hindi movies. Kinema Central was on Seven Wells Street abutting Broadway, close to Broadway Cinema which was towards Mint Street. It was, I remember, renamed Murugan Talkies where re-run films were shown.”

*Abala Das from Calcutta, one of the second batch of women to enter Madras Medical College (Miscellany, October 7), did not complete the course, writes C.A. Reddi; she “discontinued her studies because of the Madras heat.”


Palmyrah green coverOctober 20, 2013

What’s the way forward?October 20, 2013

The Doric column lighthouseOctober 6, 2013

A lesson in local historySeptember 29, 2013