Chennapatnam, legacy of a 370-year-old city

Though Chennai has grown tall in diverse fields in the last few decades, deep in its heart still lies the ancient city of Chennapatnam. Let us take a look at how the city was founded a few centuries ago.

Located along the coast, it was originally an unpolluted and pristine area in the province of Tondaimandalam. It lay between the Pennar river of Nellore and Pennar river of Cuddalore. Slowly the city grew by merging a few villages such as Thiruvotriyur, Tiruallikeni and Tirumylai along the Coromandel Coast.

The Nayak of Poonamallee was the local chieftain who owed allegiance to the Rajah of Chandragiri.

The English who came here in the 1630s acquired a small piece of land (about 3 sq miles), from the king of Chandragiri, and built a factory to store goods. They were lured by the cotton cloth that was woven by the innumerable weavers. They exported it to England and other parts of the world.

In a few years there evolved a group of people who could speak two languages (English and Tamil; English and Telugu). They came to be known as ‘Dubashis'. They acted as the middlemen between the weavers and the British. These Dubashis indulged in many shady transactions and slowly became powerful and rich. Even today, many streets in George town are named after them. Thambu Chetty Street, Malayappa Chetty Street, Errabalu Chetty Street, to name a few.

The British began to build a fort in the 1640s. It was built in stages for a number of years. Out of this famous Fort St. George grew a few settlements. The Indians lived here and it was referred to as the Blacktown by the British.

But in 1746, the French came up the coast and the English could not put up any resistance and they moved to Cuddalore. The Fort and the town came under the French control. After three years, Madras was returned to the British. Then the English decided that there should be a clear line of fire between the fort and the town. They demolished buildings such as Chennakesava Perumal Koil, British graveyard and a few others and moved the town a few kilometres away.

To mark the new boundary they erected 13 pillars (of which one still stands next to EID Parry Company). The road abutting the town was known as Esplanade area. Now in the same area stands the Madras High Court, Raja Annamalai Mandram and the Law College.

The new town was divided into two halves — Muthialpet and Beddanaickanpet which were separated by a huge, long ditch. But this area was purchased by Stephan Popham, a lawyer by profession. He convinced the British that Hogg's Hill (the present Central Station area), small hillock should be flattened for security reasons. The area in which the hillock mud was strewn came to be known as Mannady. The ditch which was also filled up with the same mud became a fashionable thoroughfare — Broadway.

The town is interspersed with places of worship and work. Before the French period Mint Street was dominated by bleachers. It was also known as Bleacher's Street. Kothawal Chavadi, a major vegetable market, was developed on the land (50 acres) belonging to Sri Kannikaparameswari Devasthanam. It was one of the earliest organised market in the city. Rattan Bazaar, Mat Bazaar and Flower Bazaar, though their remnants still exist in George Town, have moved to various parts of the city.

Walltax Road was the main entertainment area between 1800 and 1850. Near the salt cottaurs, Circus, musical performances and plays were staged. Otraivadi Theatre, which has now been transformed into a transport godown was one of the popular theatres of those days. The British began to build a thick wall around the town in the 1770s when Haider Ali's invasion began. But it was completed only on the North and West parts.

This thick wall still forms the back bone of many houses and shops opposite the Padmanabha Theatre on Walltax Road. The biggest example of the wall still intact is the Madi Poonga on Old Jail Road, a park put up on top of the wall.

Now this sprawling neighbourhood of wholesale markets bustles with business throughout the week. The North Indian community which dominates this area is said to have settled here nearly three centuries ago. The buildings are lined so close that there is scarcely any space. To prevent its collapse, enforcement of special laws and zoning requirements is a must.

(With inputs from scholar V. Sriram)

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2021 4:02:45 PM |

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