History & Culture

Where moats made way for motorways

SURVIVING THE TEST OF TIME: The West Gate of the old Fort of Madurai. Photo:G.Moorthy

SURVIVING THE TEST OF TIME: The West Gate of the old Fort of Madurai. Photo:G.Moorthy

After squeezing through narrow lanes and by-lanes, we turned to broader streets this time. Even the outer streets of Madurai, said to have developed later, have a history behind their names.

The four long and wide ‘Marret' and ‘Veli' streets bring to light an important point in the history of modern Madurai – the time of British rule in the city, its famous collector Blackburn and his contributions to the town.

Among the concentric streets, the name ‘Marret' sounds peculiar. Unlike the other streets, named after the Tamil months, this set of four streets was named after the English surveyor Mr. Marret. “The city during Naick period was only within the limits of Masi streets,” explains D. Devaraj, retired Tamil teacher. “The present Marret streets formed the moat of the Madurai fort. It was Blackburn who pulled down the fort, converted the moat into streets and expanded the town. Surveyor Marret and Perumal Maistry (supervisor) played a major role in the process and hence the then newly formed streets were named after them.” Many also say that even now the Marret streets quiver when busses pass through as they used to be the moat.

The mighty fort of Madurai has only been written about in literature. There remains only an old structure next to the Kattabomman junction on West Veli Street that might have been part of the fort wall. A plaque on the wall reads, “This building was formerly the West Gate of the old fort of Madura.” Today, it houses a reading room. “It could have been a ‘kothalam' (watch tower) of the fort,” speculates Narayanan, who owns a four-decade-old tea shop near the place.

According to J. Fathima, retired Tamil professor, the wall of the Naick fort had 72 ‘kothalams' and many ‘kaaval deivams' (guardian angels). She also states that after the demolition, the deities were shifted inside the city and streets were named after them: Sappani Koil Theru, Jadamuni Koil Theru and Thalavirichan Sandhu.

As we walk through these lanes, we come across a quiet stretch called ‘Mela Pandian Agazh Theru' and only then realization strikes that nothing of the glorious Pandyas remains in the form of street names – except for this street. Soon, we thought three more similar streets should be there. ‘Agazh' again refers to ‘agazhi' – the moat around the fort.

But wasn't it the Marret streets that formed the moat? C. Santhalingam, retired Archeological Officer, clears the confusion. “The Pandiyan Agazh streets fall inside the Masi streets and hence refer to existence of a fort different from the one demolished by Blackburn. The latter belonged to Naicks, while the former indicates the fort of the Pandyas.”

Of the four ‘Agazh' streets, Therku Pandian Agazh Theru, has now been named ‘Pacharisikara Theru', branching out of the Khansa Maettu Theru. Vadakku Pandian Agazh Theru is now called ‘ Sangeetha Vinayagar Koil Street'. There is no trace of Keezha Pandian Agazh Theru, according to Ms. Fathima.

In her thesis, she also states that Madurai saw expansion twice. The Naicks demolished the fort of the Pandyas and expanded the city as far as the Masi streets and the British in turn pulled down the Naick fort to form the Veli streets. “Pandian Agazh Streets show that the city boundary was only up to the Avani Moola streets before the Naicks,” she says.

“Though the medieval history of Madurai is hardly found in records, references of the street names could be seen in W. Francis' gazetteer and S.J. Chandler's ‘Seventy Five Years in the Madura Mission'.”

Certain street names also refer to a brief Muslim rule in Madurai. During the rule of Maravarman Kulasekara Pandian, one of the first Khajis (Qazi, religious head), Taj-ud-din, arrived here and is said to have relieved the king of illness. In return, the king gifted lands to him. The street where he lived came to be known as ‘Khajimar Theru'.

The Khajimar Pallivaasal is supposed to be one of the oldest mosques in town and said to be built in the 14th century.

Each street name in this temple town hints at a piece of history. A breathtaking panorama opens up each time you visit these streets. Our story ends here but the stories of the streets and their names will last for generations to come.


Khansa Maettu Theru is supposed to be the place where ‘Yusuf Khan', the Commandant of Madurai during British rule, lived. After his execution, his house was demolished and the heap of debris remained for a long time. Hence the word ‘Maettu' (heap) was added to the street name.

According to D. Devaraj, the road leading to Old Kuyavarpalayam from the St. Mary's Church was previously known as ‘Rendall Street'. The name takes after Rev. John Rendall, an American missionary who was also the Chairman of Madurai local body in 1878.

Yanaikkal is named after an elephant statue that can be seen at the junction. The statue is said to be a part of the Mahal which was later installed in the present position to honour Collector Blackburn.

Town Hall Road was named after the Victoria Edward Hall, built in 1905 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII.

‘Menkattu Pottal' refers to the place near St. George's Church. It was known as the Main Guard Square as the British Army camped here.


Singarathoppu streets branch out of Manjanakara Street. According to J. Fathima, the place is located on the western periphery of Thirumalai Naick Mahal. The king maintained a beautiful garden with varieties of flowers and hence the streets later came to be known as ‘Singarathoppu'.

Pathuthoon Sandhu (10 Pillars Lane) was part of the ‘Rangavilasam' section of the palace and the ten tall pillars were used to tether elephants.

Navbatkhana Street branches out of South Masi Street. ‘Naubatkhana' in Persian means a place where musical instruments were made and played. Govindasamy Iyer's ‘Thirumalai Naicker Charithram' states that 18 types of instruments were played during morning and evening strolls of the king.

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Printable version | Jun 26, 2022 1:19:59 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture//article59802257.ece