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Relics of Company times

The horse guards' boxes at the main gates of Government Estate were once meant for the Governor's Bodyguard on daily sentry duty. Those guards were pretty... and their groomed-to-a-gloss horses added to the picture postcard effect.

MY PROGRESSION down the Road to the Mount has been brought to a stop by, of all things, a snippet of news from Pondicherry; they are going to revive there the daily `Changing of the Guard' ceremony as a tourist attraction. And if that's had me looking across the road from The Hindu, at the horse guards' boxes, it has also prompted me to look back the way I had started from the Fort and note a couple of other relics that I had passed up. All of them date back to the East India Company times, particularly that period of midlife crisis in the Company's history when it couldn't quite make up its mind whether it wanted to be the trading partner it had been for its first 125 years in India or whether it should move on from offering guns for hire to becoming an imperial power.

The horse guards' boxes at the main gates of Government Estate were once meant for the Governor's Bodyguard on daily sentry duty. Those guards were pretty as a picture - scarlet and gold tunicked, white Jodhpured with gleaming black boots, wearing immaculately starched turbans, pennons fluttering from lances held die straight. And their groomed-to-a-gloss horses added to the picture postcard effect. At least that's what comes through from memories of a childhood long past. And that memory also retains a picture of the changing of the guard at these gates that's more vivid - and more impressive, in rose-tinted-glasses' recollection - than the changing of the guard that continues to this day at Buckingham Palace.

With Governors having moved out of Government House - NOT Admiralty House as the Police, now in occupation, and others insist on calling it - and Rajaji Hall no longer the Banqueting Hall of Governors, the horse guards' boxes have been allowed to run to seed. In fact, they are more often used as urinals in which vagrants sometimes seek shelter on those rare Madras rainy nights. As for the Governor's Bodyguard, it occasionally turns out on a State occasion - but the public no longer get to gawk at it with admiration as they once did. Even the Bodyguard Lines on the Island are no more, the Area Army Headquarters taking over the space. And Bodyguard Lines Road is now Pallavan Salai.

But if the Governor's Bodyguard no longer offers citizens and visitors to the city an opportunity to see a bit of military colour and precision - and I don't see why they can't make that offering of an evening at Raj Bhavan's gates - I don't see any reason why a rather similar ceremony cannot be revived elsewhere. Memories out of that childhood long past are also of the Police every evening sounding the Last Post and lowering the flag at its Headquarters on the Marina in a moving ceremony preceded by its band entertaining the beach crowd. Now why, I wonder, can't the police revive the idea, especially with its headquarters building now a landmark to appreciate, particularly when lit up. That building and its lawns would be the perfect backdrop for such a revival which could serve the Police well as a splendid public relations exercise.

To get back to Mount Road, opposite the Army's area headquarters is another memorial as much to horsemanship as to governance. The statue of Sir Thomas Munro (in India from the 1780s and Governor of Madras from 1820 to 1827) is usually referred to because of its lack of saddle and stirrups, leading to such conjectures as to whether the sculptor, Francis Chanterey, forgot it in his 1839 work or whether he consciously recalled that Munro liked to ride bareback. But one thing he got right, and that was to put Sir Thomas on a lofty pedestal. Even Rajaji was to later approve the thought, describing Munro as the model civil servant and an immense contributor to the development of southern India. Munro, who died of cholera in Gooty in today's Kurnool District during his farewell tour of the territories he had nurtured with so much care, was one of the few British administrators who sought to put Indians in high office and who insisted that British rule was alien. And so, "when in the fullness of time your subjects can frame and maintain a worthy Government for themselves, (you should) get out and take the glory of the achievement and the sense of having done your duty as the chief reward for your exertions", he had stated.

Munro, befitting his office and stature, is buried inside St. Mary's in the Fort. But most other British of the period were buried in St. Mary's Cemetery on the Island, between the horse guards' boxes and the Munro statue and on Pallavan Salai leading to the Stanley Viaduct. St. Mary's Cemetery was originally where the Law College came up and here, there still remain the Hynmer's Obelisk, beneath which Elihu Yale's son David is buried - Elihu Yale married Hynmer's widow - and the Powney Vault. When the Esplanade was created between 1749 and 1763 to the north of the Fort, the tombstones from this oldest British cemetery in South India were moved into St. Mary's in the Fort and today many of them are part of the paving around the Church. And from 1760 St. Mary's Cemetery on the Island was developed as the main burial place of the British.

Today, the cemetery has a well-kept War Graves section, a fairly well kept Roman Catholic section and a completely untended St. Mary's section where burials have not taken place since 1954. Completely over-run with growth, you can no longer even spot many of the tombstones and monuments here, many of them of historic figures in Madras's past. When the undergrowth was less tangled and less dangerous, I'd been there with several visitors to see the tombs of Laurence Hope, the poet - `Pale Hands by the Shalimar... ' etc - and her husband Major General Nicholson. It constantly surprises me the number of visitors from Britain who wish to visit the cemetery and catch up with an ancestor. But the wild jungle the cemetery has become defeats them; maybe things will be better before long for future visitors. There has, over the last few years, been talk of restoring this cemetery as a garden of peace, but nothing has come of it. More recently, there has been a little more positive discussion and perhaps this time talk will translate into action and a beautiful garden memorial to the past created.

The last of the relics of the past on this start to Mount Road is the Gymkhana Club, founded in 1885 and till around 1920 restricted in membership to Garrison officers. From World War II years, an Indian membership was also admitted. It was the Gymkhana Club that gave Madras both codes of football - Association of Soccer and Rugby, tournament play for the former being from 1895 and the latter from 1900. Golf too was the contribution of the Gymkhana. Alas, like elsewhere in India, the two footballs have begun to take a back seat - and, sadder still, they have no place in the Gymkhana, where tombola has become the biggest attraction!


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