MADRAS MISCELLANY History & Culture

Madras miscellany

Our confusing heritage

This whole business of heritage, particularly built heritage, has had me confused over all these years I've been hooked on the heritage of Madras that is Chennai. Just let me cite three examples and see whether anyone can put me straight.

First, we've had great feats of engineering and art a thousand years and more old in Tamizhagam. Like the Grand Anaicut, the great temples of Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram, rock fortresses and large tanks feeding ingeniously created drainage channels. Can anyone tell us who the engineers were who created these masterpieces and how they created them? Are there any manuals providing instruction on such engineering? Is there even an attempt to conduct research and discover the skills and knowledge that made these feats possible? Less said on the subject the better; let us just remember the glory of the creations themselves —and remember them as heritage about which we know little.

Next we come to the much maligned ‘colonial' era, forgetting that above 175 years of that 350-year period was an age of trade, when we welcomed the foreign trader, granted him settlements, and allowed some to prosper as much as some of us did here. No different from what is going on today, when each State competes in getting the highest number of multinationals and the greatest amount of foreign investment (with no one talking about how much money leaves the country and how much some local individuals prosper from it all). What gets remembered is the latter half of that era — that left us with colonial buildings, colonial education and knowledge banks, colonial languages, and colonial sports.

We accept some of them, we are ambivalent about others, but ‘colonial' buildings alone get ‘rejected' as our heritage, merely on a label, forgetting that except for the design, every one of them was built, in Tamizhagam, by Tamil artisans, using local materials and local building techniques. How much more local must a building be to qualify as a bit of local heritage? Apart from the fact we've used them for decades without a question.

Finally, let's look at the buildings of today in Madras that is Chennai. We get German and Singapore and American architects to design them, use labour that is mainly from other parts of India, produce them with materials mainly imported or, if Indian-produced, clones of foreign materials, and create them to look like the glass-steel-and concrete structures seen around the world. They may not be colonial, but they are international; certainly, not national and, worse, not even regional. Are these what we should take pride in, forgetting the buildings of a thousand years ago which we know not how to build, forgetting the ‘colonial' buildings built by Tamils using materials and men from Tamizhagam? Is this what we want to call ourheritage? How hypocritical can we get?

We glorify heritage we have little detail about, some of us shun heritage we describe as ‘colonial' and ‘imperial' despite so much detail of the Tamil contribution to it, and others pat themselves on the back for new heritage of which great detail is available revealing the ‘foreign hand'. It all gets so confusing.

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Elephants in the city

The recent story about an elephant from the nearby forest straying into Mysore city and going on the rampage reminded me that Madras too has a couple of stories about elephants, but none so exciting.

Subramania Bharati returned to Madras from his refuge in Pondicherry in 1919 and settled in the house in Triplicane now known as Bharati Illam in Thulasinga Perumal Kovil Street. From here, the ailing and frail Bharati would go daily in the morning and evening to the Parthasarathy Temple. And on his way back he'd feed the temple elephant with the coconut halves and plantains from the prasadam. One morning in July 1921, he stopped as usual to feed the elephant he considered a friend. The elephant was facing away from him, so he summoned it, it was related later by a friend who was with him, with the words, “Here I am, Mara, with my offering of fruit to you.” Whether his voice startled the elephant or it was in a bad mood — some claimed it was in rut — it turned around suddenly and swung its trunk. Bharati received the full force of the blow and fell. The elephant turned back to face the temple wall and Bharati's friend quickly lifted him up and led him away from the animal.

According to Bharati's daughter, when she returned to the house a couple of hours later, he had “a cut on the upper lip and abrasions on the head. They were not serious injuries. Father's turban saved him.” Bharati himself, after he began visiting the temple again and returned to feeding the elephant, said, “Had the elephant wanted to harm me, he could have trampled me to death after I fell down. Instead, he turned away.”

On September 12, 1921 Bharati, the great poet, passed away. He had been a sick man for a few years, but did the fall, after being struck by the elephant, hasten his end? Some thought so, but many more didn't; he had just been physically wasting away in the last years of his life, they said. The jury is still out.

The other elephant story is more prosaic. It relates to the Nawab of the Carnatic's elephants which used to be stabled (!) in the Chepauk Palace grounds. They were taken in procession daily to a nearby tank to be bathed. The tank, after land-fill, is today the site of the Ice House Police Station, but old-timers in the area still speak of it as Yanaikulam. More significant elephant reminders were the high porticos of erstwhile Amir Bagh (later the Spencer's/Ambassador Hotel and now the site of the Indian Overseas Bank's Training Centre) and Chepauk Palace (which can be spotted if you find your way through the warren of construction that surrounds it). They were built to allow easy access to liveried elephants bearing in howdahs VVIPs arriving for formal dinners and entertainments. One who often arrived in this fashion, it is stated, was Lord Edward Clive, Governor (1798-1803), who just loved a party.

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When the postman knocks…

*I remember Monteith Road (in Egmore) as a tamarind tree-shaded road in the 1960s when we lived there, the smell of ripening tamarind fruit a part of life there every season, wrote Sashi Kumar recently. But who was Monteith, my correspondent had long wondered. From what I've been able to discover, Monteith, as was usual in the case of such road-naming in the past, was not anyone of great eminence, he just lived there. But that's getting ahead of the story. Monteith Road apparently existed in 1768; it's not very clear whether it was a road that existed, but nameless, or whether it existed with the name. The question arises, because there's no trace of a Monteith dating to that period. But there is record of a William Monteith from 1809, an officer in the Madras Engineers. It is quite possible he built Monteith House on that road, a house recorded as being post-1822 and resulting in the road name. With William Monteith being made a Lieutenant Colonel in 1826, that could well be the year the house was built. The house is marked in a map of 1837 as belonging to a Col. Monteith. The Colonel kept rising in the ranks and became a Lieutenant-General in 1854. Interestingly, an early 19th Century map, pre-dating 1822, shows the entire area between Monteith Road and Commander-in-Chief Road (now Ethiraj Salai) divided between two houses, College Bridge House and Ottershaw, separated from each other by a road connecting the two base roads already mentioned. ‘College Bridge' refers to the bridge over the Cooum River at the junction of Pantheon Road and Commander-in-Chief Road, which led to the College of Fort St. George (much written about in this column before) where Civilians studied the South Indian languages and which gave its name to College Road.

*Referring to the Rao Bahadur N. Subrahmanyam about whom I had written some time ago (Miscellany, January17, 2011) in connection with his founding of the Kalyani Hospital (named after his mother), Ronald Smith-Ansari, a fund of information on old Madras Christian families, writes to tell me that Subrahmanyam married a widow with two sons, Mary Venkataramaiah, a Mangalorean Brahmin who had converted to Christianity. Subrahmanyam, he adds, left his “palatial bungalow in Mylapore, The Hermitage, jointly to his grandsons and the Kalyani Hospital. The Hermitage, which was sold in the 1930s, boasted a swimming pool and tennis courts.” The grandsons referred to were the children of Subrahmanyam's two stepsons and they went by the family name Rama Rau. These Rama Raus were kin of the famed academician Sir Samuel Runganadhan, once Vice-Chancellor of Annamalai University.

*What was Attapallam, wonders Sunil Simon. Through the wasteland that separated the two halves of New Black Town (now George Town), Peddanaickenpet and Muthialpet, ran a drainage channel and this was what was called Atta (deep) pallam (ditch). This drain, which emptied into the Elambore, or North River, now part of the Buckingham Canal to the west of Fort St. George, was filled in and the space it once ran through was further raised to create (Stephen) Popham's Broadway. The fill used was from the levelling of Hog Hill, a mound that existed where the Park Town Post Office, the MUC grounds and hospital buildings now constitute a part of Park Town. Was this what was also called Kelly's Drain or was Kelly's Drain developed alongside Broadway after it had been created?


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