New glitter to the old

March 13, 2011 03:46 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 09:30 pm IST

Chennai: 06-03-2011:Historic and offical residence of "Amir Mahal"  illuminated  on the occassion of inaugurating the Darbar Hall  by Governor of Tamil Nadu on Sunday on Sunday. Photo: R_Shivaji Rao

Chennai: 06-03-2011:Historic and offical residence of "Amir Mahal" illuminated on the occassion of inaugurating the Darbar Hall by Governor of Tamil Nadu on Sunday on Sunday. Photo: R_Shivaji Rao

In a curious coincidence, all three items this week have to do with the Wallajah family. Much of what follows only emphasises the need for a solidly researched history of the Nawabs of the Carnatic and their successors, the Princes of Arcot.

Amir Mahal in Triplicane, the home of the Prince of Arcot, wore a sparkling new look the other day when its renovation was celebrated with gracious, old-world hospitality.

The palace, that for many decades had sported a shabby appearance, has been restored over the past 18 months by the Central PWD, but while purists in the heritage conservation business will debate endlessly over whether its Madras Terrace roofing ought to have been replaced with concrete, the fact remains that the building not only has been given a new life but much of its past glitter has been restored.

The prince and his family themselves had no little role to play in this, as the restoration of the antique furniture and the interior arrangements, including numerous old-world lighting fixtures, ensuring a gleam, a glitter and a colourfulness that have been missing here for several years now were done by them.

The annexation of the Carnatic by the British in 1801 — and all India followed — was a consequence of the British Government settling Nawab Wallajah's debts.

The abolition of the ‘Nawabocracy' followed, a sequel to the British suspecting Nawab Umdat-ul-Umrah of being in touch with Tippu Sultan. A Titular Nawab was created, but that was only till 1855 when the British annexed all the family's Chepauk properties and, in return, Queen Victoria granted the family by treaty hereditary rights to be called the Princes of Arcot (Amir-e-Arcot) and enjoy various benefits of protocol.

With Chepauk Palace being taken over in an auction that was a sham, the family moved to Shadi Mahal on Triplicane High Road, the Muslim High School now a part of it.

In 1870, the British gave the Arcot family Amir Mahal , which had been built in 1798 and been used by the Sadr Adalat — the Chief Court of Civil Judicature for the trial of appeals from the Provincial Courts of Appeal that had been established in 1802 after the Supreme Court of Judicature was created.

With the Arcot family not keen to move into it, the Royapettah Police Court functioned there from 1872 to 1875, the Sadr Adalat having, by then, been abolished.

In 1876, the Arcot family eventually moved into Amir Mahal and its 14-acre grounds, after it was suitably refurbished. The latest renovation is the first major one since then.

A palace awaiting restoration

Every speaker at the celebration of the renovation of Amir Mahal referred to the family's first Madras home, magnificent Chepauk Palace . Not one, however, called for its restoration. What a shambles the building is in. Yet there are few heritage buildings more important than it in the city and there are not a few people who might even justify a world heritage status for it, in recognition of not only its history but the fact that it is the beginning of Indo-Saracenic architecture in the country, nearly a century before the better-recognised creations in that style which culminated in Lutyen's and Baker's New Delhi.

Muhammad Ali Wallajah of the Carnatic (1749-95 — his reign), had sought the permission of the Madras Government to live under the protection of Fort St. George's guns, and so the Chepauk site was granted to him, to build a palace worthy of a territory that had stretched from Nellore district to Kanniyakumari and almost up to Bangalore inland. Paul Benfield, a Company engineer who became a civil contractor, is believed to have designed and built the Palace, with dominant Mughal features, but including numerous Hindu and Classical elements, and had it ready for occupation in 1768. His claim for building the palace was a substantial part of the Carnatic Debts referred to earlier.

By 1770, the palace grounds were 117 acres in extent, stretching from Bell's Road to the Beach, from Pycroft's Road to the Cooum (where a bathing pavilion was built for His Highness!). Once, the palace was surrounded by a wall, and the main entrance, a massive triple-arched gateway on Wallajah Road called the Naubat Khana, had music wafting from its top storey every evening.

In Government hands, the building housed the School of Engineering and various Government departments whose growing needs made Robert Chisholm add considerably to the palace. Like all Government buildings, however, it has been allowed to deteriorate and cries for restoration. Why weren't voices calling for such restoration of an important part of Madras, nay, Indian, history heard that evening in Amir Mahal? I wonder whether this lesser voice will be heard?

The Triplicane controversy

S. Anvar has not only come up with a clearer picture of the events leading to the Triplicane fatwa, which excommunicated those who supported the Harris School (Miscellany, February 21). More importantly, he sent me a significant quotation that I hadn't come across before. Thomas Munro, about whom I've written in this column on several occasions, is one of those civilians I've long admired — following in the footsteps of Rajaji (Miscellany, December 12, 2003).

Munro's words were in a minute written to the East India Company during his governorship (1820-27). He said, “In every country, but especially in this where the rulers are so few, and of a different race from the people, it is the most dangerous of all things to tamper with religious feelings; they may be apparently dormant, and, yet when we are in unsuspecting security, they may burst forth in the most tremendous manner, as at Vellore; they may be set in motion by the slightest casual incident, and do more mischief in one year than all the labours of missionary collectors would repair in a hundred. Should they produce only a partial disturbance, which is quickly put down, even in this case the evil would be lasting; distrust would be raised between the people and the government which would never entirely subside, and the district in which it happened would never be so safe as before.” His deprecation of missionary activities, however, fell on deaf ears.

Governor Harris, who was responsible for the Harris School had stated at a meeting of the Colonial Church Society held in Christ Church, Mount Road, in January 1858: “Newspapers, Corporations and Religious Societies (in Britain) all with one accord have lifted up their voices and demand that for the future, our Christian cause shall no longer be kept in the background, but put forth before the people in all its Majesty and Excellence. This, the (British) people loudly call for, and are preparing to do. I ask you, are the friends of the Gospel in this country to sit still? No, let us share the signal honour of going forward in this religious cause, and unite all our efforts in the furtherance of this blessed end…”

These words and other words spoken at another meeting by Lord Harris were cited in a petition the Madras Native Association and several Muslim and Hindu residents of the city sent to the Secretary of State for India, Lord Stanley, in London. In it they stated, “Lord Harris, Governor of Madras (1854-1859), in the month of January 1856, he as the Right Honourable the Governor and with considerable display, laid the foundation stone of a building in Royapettah, with the object of bringing Christian proselytism to bear upon the Mussalman community of the locality. This particular object being rendered transparent by the fact that, for the purpose of secular education, no such establishment was needed, there being a school, founded by His Highness the late Nawab, called Madrissa-i-Azam, in Triplicane – since his death transferred to the government, by which it has been placed under the control of the Director of Public Instruction, and the Koran class, associated with it from its commencement, abolished; although the school was and still is for the education of Muslim youth alone, who are thus prevented from receiving instruction in their own religion (G.O. No. 1044, Pub. Dept., dated 9-7-1859, para 8) — and another of many years date, supported by the inhabitants Hindu, Mahomedan and European, containing 235 pupils in Royapettah, the very next door to which was selected for this educational institution; as if to mark out the jealousy and hostility of His Lordship, in the public attempt to introduce a missionary religious seminary in such close proximity, with the intent of drawing off the scholars of, and basing its success on the ruins of a detested rival. The edifice was denominated on that occasion the ‘Harris School'…”

Referring to a government grant to the Harris School, the petition went on to say, “The management of this seminary was assigned to the agents of the Church Missions Society, and in the return of the Director of Public Instruction, it is entered as the ‘Harris School for the instruction of the Mahomedans in Triplicane'. In the first year of its existence, it obtained some half a dozen scholars, and now their number in the report of the same officer for 1857-1858 is not more than 15, a proof that except as a lever for government proselytism, the school was not required, and that the government money, being that of the people, has been wantonly and offensively misappropriated.”

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