Nungambakkam features repeatedly in East India records under different names

In the not-so-distant past, Valluvarkottam High Road was called Village Road. For much of its length, it runs along the old village of Nungambakkam. Of that village there is no trace until you come to a small Shiva temple with a large tank fronting it. Standing there, it is just about possible to imagine Nungambakkam’s rural past.

According to K.V. Raman’s ‘The Early History of the Madras Region’, Nungambakkam features in an 11 century copper plate pertaining to Rajendra Chola. He also adds that there are mentions in epigraphs of the large Nungambakkam Lake which was alas, filled in to make way for a residential area in the early 20 century.

In East India Company records, Nungambakkam features repeatedly under different names — Nimynbacka, Lamgabawca, Lungumbaca, Loongombauk, Lingumbauca and Moongumbaukum are some of the variants. In 1673, Governor Sir William Langhorne was appealing rather plaintively to his agent at Golconda that Nungambakkam was one of the few areas convenient for recreation and therefore, ought not to be handed over to the French. Five years later, the English were asking for it to be leased to them. This was granted in 1708.

In 1723, however, Nawab Sadatullah Khan began demanding the return of Nungambakkam along with five other villages, together with arrears in lease payments. But that was never to be. A redoubt was constructed here by the British by way of an advance guard for Fort St. George. This was demolished by the early 19 century by which time the British were undisputed overlords. Much of the area was under cultivation in 1798.

That was also the era of the dubash and one of these was Subba Devanayaka Mudali. His eponymous grandfather had been dubash in the 1760s to Sir Eyre Coote, conqueror of Pondicherry. Since then, the family had been in the East India Company’s service. By 1820, the grandson is frequently mentioned in company records and is also referred to as the dharmakarta (trustee) of the Agastyeswara Temple, the Shiva shrine for the village of Nungambakkam.

Devanayaka had extensive landholdings in the area, and did much for either the construction or the renovation of the temple. He did the same for the Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal temple, a Vishnu shrine that is in the vicinity.

Devanayaka Mudali finds mention in the Sanskrit work ‘Sarva Deva Vilasa’. Translated first into English by the great scholar Dr. V. Raghavan, this 19 century anonymous creation is structured as a walkabout in Chennai by two poets, Vivekin and Ativivekin. In it is a description of a soiree at a garden of a wealthy patron where Devanayaka is also a participant. He has clearly all the trappings of wealth and his mistress is described “as so beautiful as to be mistaken for a goddess.”

But sadly, the good times were ending. In 1824, government records indicate that Devanayaka was in serious financial trouble and was sometime later “shut up because of his pecuniary embarrassments.” What became of him thereafter? His temple still flourishes.

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