The city as we know it, is a very recent creation. The last census before Independence, in 1941, placed the population of the city at 650,000. A mere decade later, it stood at 1.3 million. What transpired in that decade forms the essence of this modern metropolis.
When Japan initially ravaged the Allied forces, they moved to two places to regroup — Colombo and Madras. The major commercial institutions of that time — Harrison, Simpson's, Parry's, Binny's, Addison, all of them — directed their units towards the war-effort. Madras grew as an industrial city, and people moved in, in unprecedented numbers.
Essentially, Madras is a city of migrants. Very few can truly call it ‘home'. Therein lies the challenge before us — how to nourish in people a sense of identity, of belonging.
From ancient Mylapore and Mahabalipuram, the major ports of the Pallavas, our culture travelled all the way to South East Asia, the Philippines, Sumatra, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Bali, Northern Java and parts of the Malay peninsula. The only reason we know this is because we work it backwards — we find traces of our culture there, and conclude that it must have gone from here — and not because we have preserved any evidence of it. There is not a single Pallava or Chola ship left here.
In fact, how much of our history before the British has been lost forever is devastating.
In the century leading up to 1600, there flourished a Portuguese settlement in the Santhomé area. Precious little remains of it, and the community has largely vanished. The Fort would have extended from present-day Kutcheri Road, to the beach; and held well over 6,000 people within its walls. The seven churches that stood within it still stand.
Madras has contributed significantly to the building of modern India. The only way to remember this is through the buildings that remain, as memorials to the institutions they once housed. By the middle of the 17th Century, the 172 sq.km of Municipal Madras was the most important British settlement in their stretch of lands from Aden to the Philippines. Every major institution of the modern nation came from it — the oldest technical school in Asia; the first western school in the country; the oldest municipality; the oldest general hospital; the earliest railway line and the first western legal system. We were graduating women doctors before England was. The Indian Army began here, as did the Civil Services. The Madras Regiment is the oldest in the Indian Army. The surveying of India started here.
But heritage is not captured in brick and mortar alone. Besides built legacies, there is our natural history — our rivers, our forests and our beaches. How many cities have a forest situated in them, such as the Guindy Park? Then there's cultural heritage, captured in our religions, including Judaism and Buddhism, our arts and our music.
We must accept that interest in heritage is, in many ways, a privilege of the affluent. And as long as we lack a Heritage Act, there is no way for us to safeguard these treasures. There is so much that history is yet to tell us.
(As told to Chithira Vijayakumar)