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Over 250-year-old heritage building facing demolition threat

D. Karthikeyan
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A view of the Villakkuthoon police station in Madurai.— Photo: S. James
A view of the Villakkuthoon police station in Madurai.— Photo: S. James

The more than 250-year-old heritage building (fort), which houses a modern police station at Vilakkuthoon, is facing the threat of the bulldozer.

The fort, historians believe, could have been built during the brief Maratha rule in Madurai from 1740 to 1743 (or even earlier) going by the plaque on its right compound wall that reads Cutwal's Choultry (kotwal chavadi) Police Main Guard.

The modern police station is nearly 100 years old and came into existence on July 9, 1912. However, colonial records say the choultry was functioning as a police main guard since 1850.

In a case cited in the ‘Reports of Criminal Cases', Government vs Nagalingum Asary Case, R.R. Cotton, acting Sessions Judge of Madura, says the prisoner Nagalingum on April 6, 1858, after committing a murder, proceeded himself to the Cutwal's Choultry and confessed his act of crime. (Cited from Reports of Criminal Cases, Determined in the Court of Foujdaree Udalut, 1858, East India Company).

Sahitya Akademi Award winner and novelist Su.Venkatesan told The Hindu that the Kotwal Chavadi (Cutwal Choultry) police station at Vilakkuthoon (Light Tower) could be the first police station in the southern part of the State covering the stretch south of Tiruchi to Kanyakumari.

His book ‘Kaaval Kottam' talks a lot about the local police system and policing methods in pre-colonial times, until these were replaced by colonial institutions.

Stating that Kotwal Chavadi was functioning both as a police station and tax collection point during the 1850s, he said that in fact East Masi Street functioned as the heart of the colonial administration during those times, the district collectorate and courts were functioning from the Mahal.

Incidentally, the East Gate church was also built during 1843 and completed in 1845.

Mr. Venkatesan believes that heritage sites such as these should not be allowed to be demolished.

“Heritage is conceived in terms of memory and identity; historical centres have an impact on everyday life, and also in the people's imagination. Heritage, perceived in spatial terms through these historical centres, has come to form an emblem of identity of a bygone era.”

The Madura District Gazetteer states that police reforms were introduced in all the districts in 1816. As a result of the recommendations of a Special Police Committee, the Kaval System prevailing in Madurai was abolished; all their fees and ‘maniums' were resumed and the police was recognised under the heads of villages, the Tahsildars, the Zamindars, the Amins of Police and the Kotwals; the magistracy and the control of the police were transferred from the Zillah Judge to the Collector. The Kotwals and peons were appointed under the Tahsildars chiefly for furnishing supplies for travellers.

The district has a number of choultries which were built during the Nayak rule and among whom Tirumala Nayak and Queen Rani Mangammal share the credit for having constructed roads and erected choultries to feed the travellers.

Conservationists say Madurai is the only city in Tamil Nadu to become a member of the UNESCO-supported Indian Heritage Cities Network. There is a plan to conserve the urban heritage of the city. UNESCO has prepared a heritage tool kit for various local bodies to use while implementing JNNURM projects. Members of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) say attempts to demolish heritage sites in the name of modernisation need to be stopped.


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