My item on a tsunami (Miscellany, May 27) that may have led to sculptors stopping work in mid-stroke in Mamallapuram and Tantrimalai (in northwestern Sri Lanka) has Dr. M. Rajendran IAS., who has a deep interest in ancient Tamil history and inscriptions, offering further inputs on tsunamis in the region.

Tsunamis, rather than invasions or conquering armies, are more likely the reason for many of the sculptures in the region near the Coromandel and Fisheries Coasts being left unfinished, virtually in mid-stroke, he writes. In the 25 copper plates of the Pandyas so far deciphered and published, the Ilayanputhur copper plates are the oldest, he tells me, and in them is mention of what in Tamil is called an ‘aazhi per alai’, a mammoth sea wave or a tsunami. The plates were issued by the Pandyan king Ari Kesarivarman in 676 C.E. and the Ilyanputhur reference is to a village near Kanniyakumari, between Kazhugumalai and Kayatharu in the Tuticorin District, not far from where giant waves swamped Dhanushkodi on Christmas Eve in 1964. (Curiously, the tsunami in 2004 struck on the day after Christmas!)

In the Ilayanputhur plates it is stated that the advancing black wave was stopped by the Pandyan king flourishing his spear at it. This action of a Pandyan king is also found in the Chinnamanur plates (783 C.E.), both the Sanskrit and Tamil inscriptions recording that a Pandyan king threw his spear at the giant wave and it receded, comparing his action to that of Lord Rama! The Thalavaipuram plates (1018 C.E.) also recount a similar occurrence and state that the actions of the Pandyan king led to the tidal wave “touching his feet reverentially”. The rather poetic Thalavaipuram plates also state that as the threatening waves rolled in, large fish were flung into the skies where “they competed with the stars”.

Another reference to a tsunami is found in the Seevaramangalam plates. These were issued by the Pandyan king Paranthanga Nedunchezhiyan in 784 C.E. The plates record that during the king’s 17th regnal year massive waves destroyed his capital, Kapadapuram (no longer locatable), but that he escaped the onslaught of the waves.

There are two other points that Rajendran makes. One is that the colour of the waves mentioned in the copper plates is black. Whereas the Dhanushkodi tidal waves roared in at night when a colour was not distinguishable, the 2004 waves that were experienced in the morning were black in colour. The other point my correspondent makes is that while “we have Chola, Pandya, Pallava, Travancore, Mahratta and Sethupathi (Ramnad) copper plates, only the Pandya plates refer to a tsunami.”

A footnote to all this might well be Kumarikandam of pre-history, most of which vanished beneath the seas (Miscellany, July 16, 2012).

Whether it is Kumarikandam or the vanished towns of the Coromandel and Fisheries Coasts, there is a wealth of history beneath the waves that need exploring and recording. I wonder why enough attention is not being paid to this.

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A 150th year commemoration?

A couple of weeks ago, a new Spencer’s sign was emblazoned on the Madras skyline. This time it was of Spencer’s Hypermarket, the first hypermarket in the city. But I haven’t heard anything about anybody mentioning that this landmark event was taking place during the 150th year of the Spencer sign being first seen in Madras. Perhaps it is time to remember those beginnings.

It was in 1843 that Madras got what might be called its first department store, Oakes, Dalgairns & Co. It became Oakes, Patridge & Co. in 1848 and Oakes & Co in 1856. It was shortly after this that two new Assistants joined it, Charles Durrant and John William Spencer. Both were ambitious to shake the pagoda tree hard, but it was Durrant who took the first step. Oakes was on Popham’s Broadway and Durrant, deciding in 1863 that the newly opening up area, the Great Choultry Plain on either side of Mount Road, offered an opportunity for an Oakes-like venture, opened a similar, but much smaller, shop at the eastern end of Mount Road, proclaiming it as hosting a ‘Merchant & Commission Agent’. Later that year, possibly in June, Spencer joined him and Madras saw the Spencer name on its skyline for the first time. The sign at 187 Mount Road read ‘Durrant & Spencer, Auctioneers & Commission Salesmen’. The address is likely to have been somewhere around where the Bata showroom and the Philatelic Bureau now are.

In 1867, Durrant was out of the business — reasons not known — and the sign at the same address read ‘J.W. Spencer & Co.’ Four years later, on January 1, it was announced that “from and after this date their business will be conducted under the style and designation of Spencer & Co. …” That was the year, 1871, that Eugene Phillip Oakshott moved from another trading house and joined Spencer’s. In 1882 he became its sole proprietor but wisely realised — unlike a later generation — that Spencer was a name that meant something in Madras and retained it. Now, in its 150th year, it’s a name bigger than ever on the Madras skyline but far from its Mount Road beginnings.

This year is also a centenary Spencer’s has not marked. It was in 1913 that Spencer’s entered the hotel business that was to make it No.1 in the field in India pre-Independence. In 1891, Eugene Oakshott bought the Connemara Hotel, which had previously been known as the Albany Hotel and as the Imperial Hotel before that. Next, in 1909, he bought the Elphinstone Hotel and renamed it Spencer Hotel. This property was where the Indian Overseas Bank headquarters came up. Shortly after his death in 1911, his son Roy bought The West End in Bangalore. And then, in 1913, when Eugene Oakshott’s nephew J.O. Robinson (Miscellany, April 22), became Chairman of the Company — after Oakshott’s two sons showed little interest in the business — Spencer’s bought the three hotels but failed to acquire the Cubbon Hotel in Bangalore which it was leasing.

In time, Robinson and his successors were to spread the hotel business throughout India, but reduced its presence in it after Independence. Today, it still owns the Connemara, The West End and The Savoy in Ooty, which it purchased in 1943. But in March 1984 it entered into a long-term lease agreement with the Taj Group, which now runs the three hotels under the Taj brand. But the properties are Spencer’s — and it is sad the Company has not commemorated its 100-year association with the residential hotel business.

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Bulldozing heritage

And so the Metro progresses on its merry way, bulldozing any bit of heritage that stands in its path. The latest heritage building to fall to it is that of the school that was established in the campus in Saidapet of what was then called the Government College of Education, but which was better known as the Teachers’ Training College. Facing Mount Road, the building echoed in its styling, with its twin semi-circular frontages and a host of windows, the Ice House.

The oldest teacher training institution in British territory outside the Home Countries, what is now called the Institute of Advanced Studies in Education had its beginnings in what was called a Normal School set up in Vepery in 1857; a normal school being an institution meant to train teachers. In 1887, it was re-named the Government College of Education and moved in 1889 to its own campus in the Model Farm, Saidapet that had closed down, Alexander Arbuthnot, the first Director of Public Instruction and then a major figure in the Government of Madras, having much to do with this. The handsome new home with a tower out of the Chisholm manual is now a shambles and cries for restoration. As does the Centenary Block for which the foundation stone was laid in 1956 by C. Subramaniam, then Minister of Education, Madras State.

The School’s first Principal was J.T. Flower and it awarded the Licentiate of Teaching (L.T.) till the Bachelor of Education degree began to be conferred from 1940. The L.T. was awarded only to graduates and the first two to receive the Licentiate in 1888 were Joseph Daniel (First Class) and Abraham Gnanakkan Nadar (Second Class). Among its most famous L.Ts. were the Rt. Hon. Srinivasa Sastri, S. Radhakrishnan, the former President, and Anathasayanam Iyengar, Speaker of the first Lok Sabha.

Tamil teacher training started in 1949.

The entire campus was listed as a Grade I heritage precinct by the Justice E. Padmanabhan Committee whose report was endorsed by the High Court. But when the Metro wanted to bring down the school building in the campus, the Heritage Conservation Committee of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority only too quickly gave its approval stating that the building was not individually listed! Listing a whole precinct/campus, it would appear, is no guarantee of the survival of individual buildings in it, whatever their history or architectural importance.

When will such official destruction of heritage stop? When will a Heritage Act be passed to at least make those bent on destruction of heritage think twice before letting the bulldozers loose?