And here I was, blissfully unaware all these years of the great Maratha's Madras connection

Before I came to Chennai in early 2001, I lived in Delhi for nearly eight years, but I never got to see the Taj Mahal. Though once, I almost made it to the monument: in the year 2000, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh held a convention in Agra and I was assigned to cover the three-day meet, starting on a Friday and ending on Sunday. I decided to visit the Taj on Monday, after I had faxed the last of my copies.

But as I checked out of the hotel that Monday morning and asked the receptionist how to get to the Taj, I was told that it remained closed to visitors on Mondays. My heart broke. Finally, I had to make do with viewing the Taj Mahal from a distance — from the ramparts of the Agra Fort.

Forget the Taj; I am yet to visit even Humayun's Tomb, which I passed by twice a day during those eight years in Delhi. What a shame. But I guess that's what happens once you become a resident of a city. You take the city for granted and become blind to its features other than those related to your bread and butter. When it comes to visiting historical marvels, you tell yourself: “What's the hurry, I'll go there someday.” Someday, as we all know, never comes.

For many years, the ‘someday' factor kept me from exploring places of historical interest in Chennai. Only as recently as in early 2010 — after spending a decade here — did I start looking up such places and each of them threw surprises at me. For instance, inside Fort St. George stands a house where the Wellesley brothers, Richard and Arthur, planned the decisive war against Tipu Sultan — this was long before Arthur Wellesley defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. The house is still in use (it serves as a depot of the Army Service Corps).

What surprised me most, however, was a discovery I made in George Town. A friend once took me there, saying he would show me the temple that Shivaji, the Maratha warrior, had visited. Since he himself was visiting the temple for the first time, I took his words with a pinch of salt. It was simply impossible for me to relate Shivaji to Madras: imagine him coming all the way down 300 years ago!

But at the Kalikambal temple, located on Thambu Chetty Street in George Town, I found a plaque confidently declaring: “On this day of 3rd October 1677, Chhatrapati Sivaji Maharaj visited this shrine and worshipped Sri Kalikambal.” A framed painting, put up by the Madras Mahratta Association, shows the Maratha warrior, in battle gear, kneeling before the goddess and offering her a lotus.

Back home that evening, I did some research. Shivaji was indeed in the vicinity of Madraspatnam in the later part of 1677. He even sent word to Fort St. George, asking for the services of British engineers. But the East India Company, deeply suspicious of his intentions and not wanting to anger his powerful enemies, politely turned down his request. Interestingly, it was on October 3, 1677 — the very day Shivaji is said to have visited the temple — that the administrators of Fort St. George wrote in their report:

Sevagee Raja having sent the Agent a letter of 22nd September last by two of his Spys, desiring us to supply him with Ingeniers, to which was returned to him with a civill excuse, it being wholly unfitt for us to meddle in it, there being many dangers consequent thereon, as well of encreasing his power as of rendering both Golcondah and the Moghull our Enemys, all these parts being spread with his Spys and himself and Army having come nearer this way within two days march of this place.

In fact, the Company was so alarmed that it decided to further fortify Madraspatnam in order to “prevent any designe of so evill a neighbour as Sevagee.” Given such suspicion, it is quite likely that the Maratha warrior came to the temple incognito, or else his visit would have certainly found mention in the Company's records.

And here I was, blissfully unaware all these years of the great Maratha's Madras connection. Many in the city still are.

Bishwanath Ghosh is the City Editor of The Hindu.

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