The creative presentation of our past is perhaps the only way to kindle an interest in history

The recently concluded Madras Week saw tremendous participation in the celebrations and among the categories of events, the heritage walks/tours conducted by various enthusiasts saw the biggest participation. And as always, these were learning experiences for both the guide and the participant.

I put together three of the tours bringing my tally to 30 different routes so far. I am convinced that there is potential for at least a 100. The tours this year were – Tracing the Town Wall of Madras, the heritage of Alwarpet and the Story of the Harbour (in collaboration with the Royal Madras Yacht Club). And here are some of the new facts that I learnt:

That this year marks the centenary of the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan becoming an employee of the Port Trust

That the old harbour offices on the Western Quay may have been demolished but a small sample still survives to show how the old building looked – built with granite from Pallavaram.

That deep in the sea, it is still possible to see the old boulders that marked the original harbour construction that began in the 1870s.

That the Town Wall, built in the 1760s largely around George Town, may have been demolished in the 1850s but the locations of its gates can still be identified as the arterial roads that led out from them still survive.

That based on the contour of the Town Wall, it is possible to see how town planning was done then. The locations of wells, hospitals, and entertainment areas, all of which largely survive, stand as proof of that.

That contrary to public (and my initial) perception, Alwarpet is rich in heritage and there are 45 different personalities/locations (most of late 19th and early 20th century) that have a story to tell.A day-long tour would perhaps be more appropriate!

That author Ashokamitran’s account of Alwarpet is perhaps the most succinct summing up of its past and present. And it was thanks to his writing that it was possible to identify the once-upon-a time Alwarpet home of another celebrated Tamil author – Jayakanthan.

That perhaps the earliest British record to mention “Alwarpett” dates back to 1777 when a Captain Alexander Dugood handed over papers of a topographical survey of Madras to the East India Company. The exercise included “certain conspicuous trees in the Luz, Alwarpett etc”. Certain parts of TTK Road still have age-old trees.

That those who happen to be on the roads when the tours are on are keen to know of historical facts and feel heritage needs to be preserved. This includes policemen on traffic duty, autorickshaw and van drivers, hawkers and shopkeepers.

All this is food for thought. The creative presentation and bringing alive of our past is perhaps the only way to kindle an interest in history. Respect for heritage and conservation will automatically follow.