It arrived as a gift. The slightly-the-worse-for-regular-perusal book was titled Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Being a subject that's not exactly my cup of tea, I was getting ready to consign it to my library when I paused to take a look at the imprint. And there, to my surprise, was the publisher’s name: ‘Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London’ (HMSO)! And that’s when I began to wonder what the British Government was doing publishing this — and that too in 1982.

That’s when I began taking a closer look at it and found that HMSO had published this for the Victoria and Albert Museum, when it decided to exhibit to a wider audience its collection of South Indian bronzes. It was a V & A expert, A.G. Mitchell, who began working on the book in the 1970s and, when he died in 1976, the work was completed by a colleague, John Lowry, who also saw it through publication.

The slim book contains 50 single page chapters and each is accompanied by a beautiful black and white reproduction of a 19th Century bronze of the subject of the chapter. These bronzes were parts of various collections in the East India Company Museum that were transferred to the V & A.

The bronzes and their reproduction are striking, even if Lowry says in his Introduction: “Bronze image casting had probably reached its height in technique and aesthetic quality during the Chola period (mid-9th to mid-13th Centuries A.D.) when some of India’s finest bronzes were produced. They combine a delicate sensitivity in their treatment of details, especially facial features, with a graceful vigour in their posture and assured balance in their proportions. Many of the best examples remain in worship in temples in South India… Hindu bronzes continued to be made in the south during the 14th and 15th centuries, some of which are worthy of comparison with the Chola images, but the quality declined as the quantity increased from the late Vijayanagar period onwards (17th-19th centuries).” He, however, qualifies this assessment when having to speak of the icons reproduced in the book, saying, “Although hardly comparable with the finest of the older examples, they (those featured in the book) are often well made and show a deep respect for tradition and evident spirituality… There can be little doubt that the best of them are worthy successors to the ancient skill of metal image-makers in India.”

Lowry discusses briefly the bronze sculpture technique, illustrates and explains the mudras seen in the icons, and describes the Vedic, Epic and Puranic deities in a book that is obviously meant to be a guide to the bronzes in the V & A. Why is it our museums do not publish such well-produced and informative guides to their treasures? Thank you, Dr. N. Sreedharan, for giving me the opportunity to enjoy this book.

A road, but no hospital

It’s still called Naval Hospital Road, but of hospital there is no sign on the road off Poonamallee High Road and opposite the western end of the College of Fine Arts. A question about the missing hospital by a naval officer I met not so long ago had me on the trail of the hospital.

The Naval Hospital in Madras that I’ve been able to trace is one that in 1664 shared space with the Garrison Hospital, in Fort St. George, the oldest hospital established by the British in India. This facility eventually evolved into the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital of today, but remained in Fort St. George till around the 1740s.

In 1745, the Naval Hospital got its own premises, just outside the Fort and by the beach. By the 1780s, the hospital building was in sad shape and Government ordered it to move into a new building to be built further inland and, so, a site was selected in 1784. No further action was taken on the decision except the acquisition of the site. By 1790, the Naval Hospital was in such a sorry state that the sick from the fleet were tended to in the Garrison Hospital inside the Fort. Then, in 1808, the new Naval Hospital was built on the very site chosen for it nearly 25 years earlier. Here the naval hospital was to remain till 1831.

The decision to hand over the naval hospital buildings for a gun-carriage factory was taken that year as the number of sailors needing medical attention had dwindled with the frequency of naval vessels calling at Madras and it was felt that the General Hospital, opened in 1772 at its present site — and meant for Whites Only till 1842 — had enough beds for the naval sick too. Later, when there was no use for a gun carriage factory, its buildings were handed over to the Medical Stores Department.

Charles Curtis, a surgeon serving aboard a naval frigate visiting Madras in 1782, describes the Naval Hospital on the beach in a book he wrote in 1807. He said it was a large, square, one-storey building “widely open on the inner side” and located a few hundred yards from the beach, some distance from several houses. That would place it north of the Fort and across from Black Town. He went on to state that the building was airy (“no bad or sickly smell persisted”) and was, overall, kept clean (undoubtedly due to the “cheapness of labour”). Its patients were mainly those suffering from “sores and ulcers”, no doubt scurvy.

On the other hand, Madras itself, outside the Fort, was, he felt, a very unhealthy town, being “built on a low and sandy beach, and surrounded almost entirely with stagnant swamps or ponds of stagnant water” in which the natives cleaned themselves. He went on to note, “The trees, lanes and alleys, formed only of beaten land, admitted of no sweeping or cleaning…So that if it had not been for the number of Brammany kites, carrion crows, and dogs, together with innumerable multitudes of large flies, all constantly employed in the office of scavengers, in removing this offensive mass, Madras, in my opinion, could not have been habitable.” Have things changed all that much in 200 years?!

Does this thottam still exist?

Does Maskelyne Thottam still exist, asks L. Nathan who says he is in his eighties and remembers the name from his youth. So do I and I too wonder whether it is a name still in use in the northwest corner of the Purasawalkam High Road-Perambur Barracks Road junction. It was, I remember, a name vaguely known in the area in the late 1960s, even though of thottam there was none.

My interest in the thottam at the time — and that was when I was just getting interested in Madras history – was that it was a place whose name connected with Robert Clive. And therein lies today’s tale.

Edmund Maskelyne came out as a Writer in the early 1740s and with Clive and others fled in 1746 to Fort St. David, Tegnapatnam (Old Cuddalore), when the French seized Madras. There he was commended for the role he played in the defence of what was the last bastion of the English in South India at the time. Requesting a transfer to the military service, he made progress through the ranks and was a Captain by 1753 when he made an application for the grant of the piece of land that became Maskelyne Thottam. His application to the Governor stated, “There being a Spot of Ground to the Westward of Vepara, uncultivated, which the Renters are willing to let me form a House and Garden upon… I shall be extremely obliged to your Honour for a Grant of the same upon the Terms usually allowed in these cases.” The land, believed to be about 2000 square yards, was granted to Maskelyne as soon as the lease to the renters expired. This would have been well before early 1756, because when Muhammad Ali, after his public entry into Arcot in 1755, came to Madras (Miscellany July 1) Captain Maskelyne’s house at Vepery was placed at his (the Nawab’s) disposal during his visit.

That this could well have been a house fit for a Nawab could be deduced from the fact that the Nawab bought it in 1762, some time after Maskelyne returned to England. A map of 1798 shows the property replete with walks, trees and ornamental ponds. By 1816, it had disappeared off the map and become a slum.

Edmund Maskelyne was the brother of Margaret who married Robert Clive in St. Mary’s Church in the Fort on February 18, 1753, the marriage solemnised by the Rev. Johann Fabricius, the famous Lutheran missionary, scholar and linguist who was acting as chaplain of the Church at the time. The couple set up house in ‘The Great House on Choultry Street’, across the road to the west of St. Mary’s. Admiralty House as it should be properly called, it is popularly known as Clive House nowadays.

Judging from a recent map of Madras, Maskelyne Thottam would have been the area in Purasawalkam now bounded by Purasawalkam High Road, Mookathal Street, Bishop Lane and Perambur Barracks Road. I wonder whether anyone living in this area could shed any light on Maskelyne Thottam from old documents.


A long-lived Tamil monthlyJuly 14, 2013

The holey dollarJuly 21, 2013

A Governor kept busyJune 30, 2013

Will Corporation celebrate too?June 23, 2013

The Nawab’s charitiesJune 16, 2013