They do not possess grand structure or ornamental façade, but are no less important in historical value or social importance

While Chennai is getting busy to celebrate the World Heritage Day on April 18, many old markets in the city, some more than 100 years old, are in need of urgent attention.

They do not possess grand structure or ornamental facade to announce their presence, but heritage markets such as Zam Bazaar and Mir Sahib Pet are no less important either in historical value or social importance.

Many of them continue to thrive, but require improvements that would enhance their historical importance and help them function better.

Much before Moore Market, the grandest of public markets in Chennai was built in 1900 (lost in a fire accident in 1985), many public markets existed. One of the earliest elaborate-market was built in George Town in 1788.

The Municipal Administration report published in 1880 lists about 30 private markets in the city. Building and running such markets were economically attractive and entrepreneurs such as Phiroz Muncherji Clubwala, `a well respected merchant of Madras' invested in them. Mr. Clubwala owned the Zam Bazaar till his death in 1927.

These markets were periodically inspected for their sanitary conditions, state of facilities and were periodically licensed. They were well patronised and many of them still function.

Zam Bazaar now houses over 800 shops that deal in vegetables, meat, fish, rice and banana leaves. Narendra Varma, whose family owned a shop in the market for four generations, says that “on an average day, more than 600 shops are open, generating a total business worth Rs.3 to Rs. 5 lakh.” “The most unique thing about the market is that it still exists,” says G. Jayaraman, a plantain leaf vendor in the Meer Sahib Pet in Royapettah. He sits in a building which is a century old. “This is just a shack with a few rosewood pillars and a clay-tiled roof. It does not have any value. But this is the place where people who lived two generations before me did their business,” he adds.

Some of these old markets were demolished. The old vegetable market on the Thyagrayaa Road, T.Nagar was recently pulled down to build a commercial centre. Pointing out that the markets at Thousand Lights and Mylapore have vanished, M.N.Muniyandi (69), a flower seller, in Mir Sahib Pet says “the market can be saved only if it is renovated.”

Civic officials, however, think differently. Mayor M. Subramanian said that the Palavoyal Market in Ayanavaram and old market in Pondy Bazaar that have been demolished and reconstructed belong to the civic body.

“Those market buildings were in a rundown condition and shopkeepers were selling their wares outside the market, which is why they were demolished and reconstruction was taken up.” A senior official of the civic body said that such old-time markets were no longer viable. “The concepts of markets have changed. People prefer to go to super markets and save time rather than try and save a few rupees at the local market,” he said. Historians and long-time users of such markets feel otherwise. “To associate heritage with only something that is built big and grand is a narrow understanding. These markets are living heritage and are integral part of the urban history of Chennai. Their continued patronage is a reflection of their relevance even in changing times and such examples of vibrant urban spaces must be conserved,” feels S Suresh, Convenor, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Tamil Nadu Chapter.

For people like P. Mehboob, who regularly shop at Mir Sahib Market, there are additional reasons as to why these markets have to be conserved. “Malls have replaced market places,” she says.

“But people like me cannot afford to go to expensive commercial outlets. At least the remaining neighbourhood markets must be preserved.” Lack of improvement, as traders in Saidapet market that was inaugurated in 1949 point out, affects business too.

Cutting across various markets, traders and users think that simple measures will help. The construction of public toilets, better parking arrangement and building cold storage facilities are necessary feel many.

Government intervention in the conservation of the markets is welcome, but as a shopkeeper in Zam Bazaar insisted “we should not be evicted but permitted to function on the same premises.”

(With inputs from

A. Srivathsan, Meera Srinivasan,

Aloysius Xavier Lopez, Deepa H Ramakrishnan and Ajai Sreevatsan)

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