He is a historian and an archaeologist, and when R. Nagaswamy looks into the past, he builds bridges to the present. The former director of the state department of archaeology uses his memories, passion, inscriptions and stray remnants of the city’s antiquity to join the dots. He effortlessly treads from one century to another, while reconstructing the history of this city, believed to have had one of the earliest human settlements.
“I came to Madras almost 60 years ago from a small village near Karur, and have been a lover of the city ever since,” he says. The pace of life, like the trams, was such that anybody could hop on. “I lived with my wife in a one-room apartment with all amenities in Triplicane, at a rent of Rs. 10, and was completely happy. My salary was Rs. 130 and my annual increment was Rs. 3,” he recalls.
“For those from outside, the city was synonymous with China Bazaar opposite the High Court. You would get small but novel things such as belts, fountain pens and watches. Pondy Bazaar was uncluttered and its pavements were unoccupied. Those were real bazaars,” he says, adding that life has to go on. “I don’t miss that life, because I know it is not possible to preserve anything,” says Dr. Nagaswamy. But for him, the story of the city begins much before its modern history.
“There is a claim that one of the oldest human settlements was around Poondi, just a few kilometres from Madras. Old stone tools belonging to the paleolithic age were discovered in Pallavaram. The Pallavas have left titles in early Pallava script at the cave temple in Pallavaram which date back to 600 A.D.,” he says establishing the archaeological significance of the region.
It is a joy, he says to discover the history of this city and trace its development over the centuries. “What is Kodambakkam today was once called Puliyur, and the area near Meenakshi College was a nearly 1,000-year-old revenue district called Puliyur Kottam. The Cholas had a great administrative system; the feeling, that I live in what was once a great system, will always be there,” he says.
As a historian, he says, he visualises the city, and as an archaeologist, looks at it holistically.
Once you settle into a job, or a neighbourhood, it is basic human urge to know what happened before you got there, he says. “Fulfilling this basic urge should be a part of our education, and not just for marks,” says Dr. Nagaswamy who tries to find the place’s ancient connection and modern surviving traits.
Talking about the need to conserve heritage, he says that beauty lies not just in the structure, but also its significance and surroundings. “We preserve monuments and structures to recall the way of life in the past, to trace civilization,” he says.
He came to Madras almost 60 years ago, from Karur, and
has loved the city ever since, says