Bridges of Madras — A link to the past

In a two-part series Anusha Parthasarathy discovers some of the oldest bridges of Chennai

April 09, 2013 06:21 pm | Updated June 10, 2016 08:48 am IST

The Periyar Bridge. Photo: S. Abhishek

The Periyar Bridge. Photo: S. Abhishek

Some of the earliest images of Madras show a fishing village, with its cloak of nets, lengthy boats and turbaned men rushing towards the waters of the Marina as tall palms sway in the background. As this village grew, the need for connecting the villages that lay across various rivers and canals, and not just by boats, grew. Bridges were built, first of wood and then of brick and mortar, and villages grew closer and closer until they became the city of Madras. Some of these bridges, as old as the city itself, continue to exist (albeit in different forms and names), even today.

While there is some documentation of the bridges that existed in the British era, it is rather difficult to determine their exact location now (some of them are visible in Thomas Pitt’s map of 1711 and others in maps that were drawn as the city grew) given the evolution of the city in the last three hundred years. This two-part series tries to locate these bridges and record their existence.

Hemachandra Rao, an architect by profession and a lover of old Madras, has been chronicling the history of its bridges over many years. “You must remember that they were constructed to hold bullock carts and not cars,” he says, “all built out of brick, mortar and lime but their architecture and strength are evident, as they continue to bear the weight of the city’s traffic. Madras has about 29 beautiful arched bridges that have been a part of the city for many years.”

Among the oldest bridges on record is what used to be called the Barber’s Bridge in San Thome. While popular theory attributes it to a Hamilton, the Vestiges of Old Madras by Henry Davidson Love goes back even further. It mentions that a natural drainage channel on the north side of St. Thome was crossed by Barber’s Bridge. While it was initially called Hamilton, a name that was corrupted into Ambattan by the locals, the original bridge was probably built by the Portuguese, as there is a mention of it during the French occupation of San Thome in 1672-1674 (On the 3rd October De La Haye led the troops to a bridge on the north side, 500 paces distant, where a skirmish took place). This is, of course, prior to the British influence over the area. The Hindu Archives even has a photo of a plaque that used to be on the old bridge, according to which the bridge was built ‘at about 1600’, before it was rebuilt.

H.D. Love’s book also says that Ensign James Hamilton, an engineer who was killed at Madura in 1764 was the only known person with that name, further making us wonder if he had rebuilt it in the 1700s. The bridge still exists in a different form just adjacent to Citi Centre mall (it was recently renamed Dr. Ambedkar Bridge).

Following close behind is the Armenian Gate Bridge, which connected Black Town and Peddanaikpetta. According to H.D. Love’s book, it is said to have been built around or a little before 1677, as it was called the ‘new bridge’ then. During the floods of 1720 and 1721, the bridge was damaged, as it was built with timber on brick abutments. It was rebuilt in 1725. It was demolished when the French briefly occupied the fort between 1746 and 1749.

Egmore bridge, which is described as the ‘cut connecting the Elambore and Triplicane rivers’ was erected as early as 1703. There were problems and the foundation was washed out and rebuilt. Soon, an arch gave way and the bridge was again repaired and put up in 1728. It still exists as the St. Mary’s Bridge (probably because of its proximity to the St. Mary’s cemetery, which leads us to think that this might be the bridge that leads to Central Station as you take a left from Periyar Bridge). The old bridge seems to have made appearances in movies such as VaranamAayiram and Madrasapattinam . Because platforms were built on both sides, the arches of the old bridge and the canal are no longer visible.

The exact location of the bridge is recorded in the Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume , which says Noah Cosa Major’s (after whom Casa Major Road is named) house was “in the north-west corner of the island, between the roads leading to Egmore and Chintadripetta. The latter, in fact, forked beyond Cosa Major’s house, one branch leading to Egmore Bridge, and the other to Triplicane Bridge and Chintadripetta.”

The Armenian Gate Bridge and the Egmore Bridge are recorded in Pitt’s Map. “The bridges in the city were distributed over three rivers,” says Hemachandra Rao, “Cooum, Adyar and Buckingham canal, all built in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with arches. These arches were built so that the bridges were stable.” It also enabled navigation by river.

To be concluded…

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