Anusha Parthsarathy writes about the important areas of the city that were once prosperous villages
What was Madras before it became the city we now know? There is a lot to explore, if one decides to walk down the farthest corners of a city’s history. There were many villages like Mylapore, Triplicane, Thiruvotriyur, Pallavaram, Poonamallee and Egmore that existed in different forms before they melded into the expanding city of Madrasapatnam.
The Early History Of The Madras Region by K.V. Raman explores this area from the Palaeolithic Age. Much later, during the Sangam Age, we find that this region, along with modern-day Chingleput, South Arcot and North Arcot came under two divisions — Aruvanadu and Aaruvavadatalainadu. These divisions came to be called Tondaimandalam or Tondainadu, after the conquest of Tondaiman Ilam Tiraiyan, who lived around the same time as Karikala Chola.
In the Mackenzie Collections: A Descriptive Catalogue of The Oriental Manuscripts and Other Articles Illustrative Of The Literature, History, Statistics And Antiquities Of the South of India, it is said that Tondaimandalam was first home to the Kurumbas, or wild tribesmen, who are also mentioned in the Purananuru as being war-like people. K.V. Raman writes that the Kurumbas had their headquarters in Puzhal Kottam (modern-day Puzhal) and most of today’s Madras falls under it.
The greatest source of information about the ancient village of Triplicane comes from works of the Vaishnavite Alvars, who not just sang extensively about the 8th Century Parthasarathy Swami temple but also about the area, its inhabitants and their culture.
Chennai by Rina Kamath also reiterates this and adds that inscriptions from the temple suggest that the main temple was built first by a Pallava king in the 8th Century and later additions were made by the Cholas and Vijaynagar Empire. Although there is another school of thought that says that the temple was already there during the 8th Century and that the kings only reconstructed it. Triplicane itself was a tulasi forest with a lily pond. A whole village lived in this vicinity.
In K.V. Raman’s book, we note that Pey Alvar, a contemporary of Budattalvar, picturesquely describes Triplicane and its temple saying that the corals and pearls that are left behind by the sea, like bright lights, illuminate the whole of Thiruvallikeni in the evenings. This is where the reference to the sacred lily tank comes from, and also the reference of Triplicane being near the sea. If the town is named after a tank, it means that the temple and its tank formed the nucleus around which a town evolved.
Raman also says that a Sanskrit work of the 17th Century Viswagunadarsha by Venkatadhvari, calls Triplicane Kairavani. The famous Pasurams of Thirumangai Alvar, on the other hand, give an insight into the inhabitants of Triplicane. He describes Mayilai- Thiruvallikeni as a place possessing storied buildings. A Thennan Tondaiyarkon is credited for having built those buildings, rampart walls, gardens, pavilions and more. While the exact identity of the Tondaiyar is unknown, Raman contemplates that it must have been either Pallava king Nandivarman Pallavamalla or his son Dantivarman (who reigned over the area).
“Here rose the potent city, Meliapor Named in the olden times rich, vast and grand: Her sons their olden idols did adore As still adoreth that iniquitous band”– Cameons, The Lusiads (1572)
Mylapore was not just a town of peacocks but a city of many names. Marco Polo described it as a ‘little town’, John De Marignolli called it ‘Mirapolis’, a Catalan map dating back to the 14th Century called it Mirapor, Nicolo Conti (who visited in the 15th Century) named it Malepur, the Arabs called it Maila and Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy wrote about an important place on the south coast called Maillarpha. Of the Nayanmars, Appar calls it Mayilappil and Sambandar calls it Madamayilai. Sekilar in Periyapuranam calls it Thirumayilapuri. In all, it seems that this city was an active ancient trade port visited by explorers and traders from all over the world.
The Early History Of The Madras Region says that Nayanmars, Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar, who lived in the 7th and 8th centuries, sang about Mylapore, according to the Periyapuranam. There are, of course, contentions as to whether the ancient Kapaleeswar temple that is situated in present-day Mylapore was located closer to the sea. It is said that the temple that stands now dates back only three centuries. K.V. Raman says that the structures of the present temple, including the kalyana mandapa, judged from the corbels, seem to belong to the late Vijayanagar period (16th or 17th Century). He also says that, even though the temple was visited and sung about by the Thevaram composers, there are no old inscriptions in the temple. Arungirinathar, the author of Thiruppugazh, refers to the temple as being situated near the sea. And so, Raman concludes that the old temple might have been abandoned due to encroachment of the sea.
An epigraph dating back to the Chola period states that Mylapore once had a street named Madavidipeerunderu. A 12th Century inscription mentions Mylapore as Mayilarppil (the majestic strut of a peacock). Post this reference, Mylapore was associated with peacocks. The streets are praised for their palatial buildings in religious literature. Raman notes that it must have been a rich town since he who sings about it spoke in glowing terms about the beautiful mansions and the general prosperity. Sambandar, in Pumpavai Padikam, talks about the festivals celebrated there. He mentions that the people of Mylapore would take a bath in the sea on Masi Magam (which is still observed).
To be continued…