A group of 40 heritage lovers discover that history and architecture are seamlessly woven together in this north Chennai neighbourhood

At crack of dawn on Sunday, around 40 people awakened to a fresh understanding of Royapuram. Following a walk, they discovered that history and architecture are seamlessly woven together in the north Chennai neighbourhood.

Chronicler and author Sriram V. first led the group into the premises of Royapuram railway station, where they got to know that the government declared a holiday the first time engines were offloaded at the harbour. Thousands thronged the harbour to catch a glimpse of the engines in 1856, explained Mr. Sriram, ending his account with nineteenth-century kummi songs on Royapuram.

Concerns regarding the recent initiatives taken by the Railways to redevelop the heritage building were raised by participants. The Royapuram railway station is the oldest surviving railway station in the subcontinent, Mr. Sriram said.

When the group walked past St. Peter’s Church a few metres away from the station, some residents of the area recalled the surge of seawater during a cyclone in the 1960s. “Our street was flooded with seawater. One ship exploded. The water entered the church premises, sparing the neighbourhood,” said Suma, who lived in the neighbourhood at that time.

“The Royapuram Beach was much cleaner. We used to play on the beach,” Ms. Suma said, recounting childhood memories. The walk kindled memories of a series of related developments which started with the resettlement of fisherfolk from Chepauk to Royapuram by 1799. This was followed by the consecration of the Church for the fisherfolk in 1829, harbour development, sand accretion in Royapuram, the ensuing commissioning of oil tankers, on which shells landed during the bombardment by Emden in 1914. It finally led to “Madras emptying itself”, Mr. Sriram recollected.

The walk then covered West Mada Street where a fire temple, mosque, church and other temples have coexisted without resulting in any communal strife. As the walk progressed on the road, Mr. Sriram pointed to the Missionaries of Charity building where Mother Teresa visited in the last century.

The walk ended with a visit to the neighbourhood near Raja Sir Ramasamy Mudaliyar Lying-in Hospital. Speaking at Robinson Park (Anna Poonga) opposite the hospital, Mr. Sriram traced the history covering Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s start at the park on September 18, 1948, the wealth created by Raja Sir Ramasamy Mudaliyar by tapping the business opportunity in cotton and timber during the American Civil War, his house which covered the entire Kilpauk Garden Road and his efforts at philanthropy to facilitate “clean surgical equipment”.

Ramasamy Mudaliyar constructed the hospital to help poor Indian women who were dying from sepsis due to a lack of modern medical intervention during childbirth, said Mr. Sriram.

As the group ended the walk in Robinson Park, residents formed a queue to get free ECG by a private hospital, one of the many that have been extending the facility free of cost in parks in many parts of the city.

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