City Explorer Design

Temple of education cries for attention

Pachaiyappa's school on NSC Bose Road. Photo: Special Arrangement  

If you've been to Greece, you would not have missed the Temple of Hephaestus in central Athens. It's said to be the best-preserved ancient Greek temple in the world. It is also called Theseum (Theseus) because in those Byzantine times people (wrongly) believed the bones of the legendary Greek hero Theseus were buried here. Some 170 years ago, the architect who built the large hall attached to Pachaiyappa's College Higher Secondary School on NSC Bose Road, chose to design it on the lines of the Temple of Theseus- maybe as a tribute to its stately structure.

From across the busy road, you can see it rising majestically above the humdrum business outlets on either side. Once near, you will likely miss it. The entrance is narrow, and is lost in the commercial chaos the road is famous for. Find the board that announces the school, and look up to admire the tall Doric columns and the word ‘Pachaiappan’ prominently embossed on the tympanum. The word is in Tamil - and this was the first school established by the British to teach English to the “natives.”

The school is the first example of an enterprising Indian's wealth being used for mass education. “Pachaiappan” is Pachaiappa Mudaliar, who, born in 1754, rose from poverty to become a “dubash” (translator) and later loan arranger, revenue collector, Dewan of Tanjore and a very wealthy man. He had a disappointing personal life, and that perhaps made him will his large property to charities to benefit society. The money was embezzled, but George Norton in the Advocate-General's office recovered much of it and prepared a scheme to allot funds for educational institutions. The Lord Elphinstone government made it legal and a Hindu trust was formed to carry out the true intent of Pachaiappa Mudaliar's will.

A school — Pachaiappa's Central Institution — opened in January 1842 in Chennai. Its purpose was to teach English to the “poorer classes of the Hindu community” along with Tamil and Telugu. The school flourished and on October 2, 1846, a group of distinguished locals watched George Norton lay the foundation stone for the present “Temple”. They returned to applaud Sir Henry Forttinger when he opened the school on March 20, 1850.

The school has crossed many milestones. In 1865, the junior department became Govindu Naicker's Primary School. The high school under Basil Lovery, the first principal, did very well in academics and sports, and began to win praise as the “best Hindu School” from DPIs, especially E. B. Powell, pioneer of western education in south India. In 1880, under Principal D. M. Cruckshank, its status was raised to Second-Grade College and, in 1889, under John Adam, to First-Grade. Pachaiappa's College joined Madras University in 1923, and the inclusion of Honours courses placed it on a par with other well-known colleges.

Meanwhile, F. W. Thomas, Collector of Chennai, secured the maidan opposite on lease from the government to be used as a playground for the college-school. The school celebrated its first centenary in 1942, became a Higher Secondary in 1979, and hit its150th year in 1994. Chennai owes a lot to this institution for its “spread of enlightenment” where Sanskrit was a “reading language” till 1911.

It is hard to accept the condition in which the school finds itself today. Most of the original structures are in shape — the strong wooden stairs, the beautifully ornamented pillars, the Madras terrace, Burmese-teak reapers, the walkways between blocks, and the large breezy rooms that need no lights, ACs or fans. “Can't poke a nail into the solid walls,” say teachers. But the window panes are missing, the masonry is crumbling, and the quadrangle where prayers are held needs sprucing up. “Our staffroom faces the Bay of Bengal and, therefore, there is adequate light and air,” says K. Sundar, HM-in-charge. “The hall, an annexe to the school, which can seat 1000-plus people, once saw Mahatma Gandhi and Vivekananda give inspirational speeches.” Sports are the high point of the school. Student Ajit Kumar won four events and the championship in the 2014-15 zonal meet, and will participate in the district-level competition. “Our tradition of cultural values and academics is famous,” said teacher J. Venkateswaran, “Annadurai studied in the college before it was shifted.”

I come away thinking of the care taken to build the strong edifice and students who take a bus/train from Royapuram, Thiruvottiyur, Ponneri, Ambattur, Avadi, Thirunindravur, Urapakkam, Tambaram, Velachery and Adyar to study here and play on the grounds. With repairs, this historic school will continue to play its educational part in Chennai for perhaps another 200 years.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 9:06:08 PM |

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