Madras Miscellany: The Raj Bhavans of Tamil Nadu

The Raj Bhavan in Guindy.  

That’s the name of a pictorial history to be released at Raj Bhavan, Guindy, on Wednesday. It will focus on the Guindy mansion and the Raj Bhavan in Ooty. A sneak preview of the publication revealed a large format book lavish with splendid photographs, but a quick look at the text had me more intrigued with the story narrated.

Starting with the foundationless ‘Castle’ for the Agent with four walls surrounding it — a complex grandiosely called Fort St. George in 1640 — the story takes you through Agents becoming Presidents then Governors in 1661 and, in 1693, moving The Castle eastwards to new premises called Fort House, the core of today’s Secretariat. The story continues with the Governors using Admiralty House in the Fort — now called Clive House — as their town house and a house in Chepauk — later to be known as Government House in Government Estate and recently pulled down to build the new Assembly and Secretariat — as their country house. The Chepauk house, acquired in 1753, became Government House c.1800. When Governor Thomas Munro thought even Government House in its spacious surroundings didn’t give him the peace he required to concentrate on work he persuaded the Council in 1821 to acquire Guindy Lodge that had been mortgaged to the Government Bank. This property, which was till l946 the new country house, became Raj Bhavan after Independence.

The second story told in the book is of Governors spending time in Ooty from the 1820s. The annual exodus to the hills for long stays began with Lord Napier in the late 1860s. In 1879, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos moved into a permanent residence he had built for Governors in Ooty — the present Raj Bhavan — and it was formally decided the Government would spend six months in the year in the cool of the hills. What is now the Government Arts College in Ooty — John Sullivan’s old Stonehouse — was used from 1870 as the Secretariat and next to it was built a Council Chamber. The formal practice of going up to the hills ended in 1947 but it informally went on till the mid-1960s.

What comes as a surprise in the book is that as early as 1919, when there were three Government Houses being maintained in Madras Province — Chepauk, Guindy and Ooty — there was discussion about surrendering Chepauk to the Government to serve as the Secretariat for a burgeoning bureaucracy. The debate went on inconclusively for years, each Governor having a different view, but that there was quite a debate will come as a surprise to many a reader. In the end, it was left to the last British Governor of Madras, Sir Archibald Nye, to hand over to the Government in 1946 the Chepauk property for whatever purpose it wanted to use it — it became a hostel for MLAs — and he moved to Guindy, which, before long, became known as Raj Bhavan. The Ooty property also got called Raj Bhavan — but it was thereafter strictly a holiday destination for the Governor, the President of India and other VVIPs, when they took a break. What splendid mansions — probably the best maintained Government buildings in the State — they appear to be, judging from the eye-grabbing pictures in this glossy presentation of history.

The Palayakrat brand

It’s Deepavali day as I write and my mind goes back to Deepavalis long past, when the male household staff would strut around in their new white shirts and starched checked Palayakat sarongs that moher had shopped for, with me dragged in tow, at Moulana’s or Palayakat on Colombo’s Main Street. It was many years later that I learnt that the sarongs had been introduced to Ceylon by the Portuguese but popularised by the Dutch and that they derived their name — that had become almost generic — from Pulicat, one of whose many local versions was Palaya Kadu. It was about the same time that I learnt they were also called Madras Checks, under which name they had become internationally known.

Over the years of search, I’ve long found it difficult to access material based on Portuguese records. Dutch records, particularly based on their trade, have always been easier to find and that’s where I had learnt that as early as 1603 the Dutch exported to Java (Banten/Bantam) and to the Moluccas (Amboina), the Spice Islands, 28 varieties of cloth from Durgarayapattinam (Armagon), Pulicat, San Thomé and Nagapattinam. By 1612, Pulicat was being described as “he left arm of Dutch trade in Asia and the Moluccas the right”; t was said that without the textiles of Pulicat the spice trade of the Moluccas would die!

Textiles were also exported from Porto Novo, Nagore, Tranquebar, Devanampattinam (Old Cuddalore) and Pondicherry, but the second major export port of the Dutch was Nagapattinam from 1845, its supplies coming from Salem and Tanjore. This was a trade that thrived not only on exports to Java and the Moluccas but from there to the Malay peninsula and Sumatra and other island sultanates in the archipelago. The trade was so successful that it was able to withstand the challenge of cloth woven by the Javanese from 1684. The Javanese specialised in creating decorative patterns on the cloth using the batik technique, whereas the textiles of the Coromandel favoured check patterns, large and small, as well as stripes. The Dutch tried to get the Pulicat weavers to adopt the batik patterns and techniques, but the quality of the output was poor and so checks it was again — and the Dutch found a market still available for Coromandel textiles. It was around 1700 that the Dutch began to expand that market with exports to Europe.

Textiles exported by the Dutch in the early 1690s were worth about a million florins. This doubled by 1700. But the supply remained short of demand — even when the Dutch invested over 3 million florins on the Coromandel Coast and in Salem and Tanjore in the early 1700s to ensure supplies.

The investments were made with local merchants, mostly Telugu Chetties in Pulicat, Tamil Chetties in Nagapattinam and Marakkayar all along the coast. The first Chief Merchant of the Dutch in Pulicat was Achyuthappa Chetti and he was followed by his brother Chinnana Chetti and then Lakshmi Chetti. Agents and kinsfolk of many of these Chetties and Marakkayar settled in Banten, Makassar (Malacca), Aceh in Sumatra from the 1670s, and even earlier in Colombo; their descendants have to this day retained their identities in these places. The Dutch also recruited several Chetties to serve as accountants (kanakapulles) in Java and Ceylon.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 10:23:07 AM |

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