Eureka, the Castlets of Chennai

A file photo of Luz Church, one of the oldest churches in the city. Photo: R. Ravindran  

For years I’ve been trying to find out more about the Eastern and Western Castlets, particularly information about where they were and what has now replaced them. Bits and pieces of their story that I’d found, I had occasionally used in this column. But now, at last, things have fallen into place thanks to Sriram V’s latest book, The Rayala Story.

But to begin at the beginning. The two Castlets, mini-castles, with crenellated towers, were built facing each other off Mount Road by Major Fiott de Havilland as his home; in the first quarter of the 19th century would be my guess. Old maps of the area show them well off Mount Road, not far from the Cooum. I presume their location was based on the huge acreage they were situated in.

De Havilland, the company’s engineer, is best remembered for adapting the plans of junior engineers and creating St. George’s Cathedral (consecrated in 1816) and St. Andrew’s Kirk (1821) in the form we now know them today. Sadly, between the two consecrations, his wife Elizabeth, passed away and was, in 1818, the first burial in St. George’s Cemetery. De Havilland’s other major work was bolstering the sea-facing defences of the Fort for which he built the Great Bulwark, an enormous bastion now long gone.

After raising all these landmarks, including his home, he sold the Castlets in 1825 and returned to Britain to retire. Who bought the property and whether it was bought as a single property or two homes is not known. But Tom Luker, who acquired Addison & Co, a printing press at the time in Eastern Castlet, is thought to have bought the entire eastern half in 1886 for the multifarious activities he was planning (printing, vehicle dealerships and repairs etc.). The successor Addison & Co., owned by Amalgamations, then, well into the 20th century, pulled down the Eastern Castlet, that had been used as the company’s offices, to raise new showrooms.

Meanwhile, the Western Castlet was having a life of its own. And that would appear to indicate that de Havilland was very likely to have sold his property in two lots. Certainly it was bought as a separate property when it was acquired in 1931 by the South India Nursing Association as its headquarters and to run a European nursing home. The association, founded in 1920 by Anglo-Indian and European nurses, had absorbed into it that year the Lady Ampthill Nursing Service and Institute, a European nurses’ association founded in 1904. The acquisition of Western Castlet and its new avatar was under the patronage of Lady Willingdon, the Governor’s wife, and the property became known as the Lady Willingdon Nursing Home till it closed recently. The nursing home remained there till it built a more hospital-like property on Pycroft’s Garden Road and moved there in 1953.

While the nursing home was planning to move out, it began looking for a buyer for its property and found one in Attilio Bosotto, who ran the hotel and confectionery business of the same name on Mount Road, near Round Tana. He was thinking of establishing a second hotel in Madras (he had one in Ooty). But when he realised that the time was not right for foreign investment, he decided to dispose the property. His friend, M.R. Rajagopala Naidu, teaming with the Raja of Bobbili had, in 1942, formed Rayala (deriving from Rayalaseema) Corporation to distribute Swedish Halda typewriters in India and eventually manufacture them. Naidu was also attracted by real estate. And so Western Castlet passed into his hands. It was renamed Rayala Towers.

It was here, in a shed behind the building, that the first Halda typewriter assembled in India saw the light of day on March 13, 1956. Eventually, it was to have its own factory in Guindy, where Ashok Leyland is now headquartered. The Towers were put to commercial use in due course and in the early 1980s were pulled down to raise a modern Rayala Towers. That has, overcoming a host of problems, only come to pass from 2000 onwards.

So, now I know – Eastern Castlet has been overtaken by Addison’s, Western Castlet by Rayala Towers. I only wish someone would send me pictures of the Castlets as they once were.

First church on the East Coast

Celebrations of its 500-year history have got underway almost unnoticed at Mylapore’s Luz (‘u’ as in ‘push’) Church, the oldest church on India’s east coast. With Madras Week around the corner it might not be too fanciful to say that the seeds for Madras were first sown when some Portuguese sailors in distress at sea off the Mylapore coast followed a light to land and on the forested spot from where the light had seemed to shine they built a shrine to Our Lady of Light (Port: ‘Luz’).

Legend apart, it was between 1507 and 1509 that two Portuguese merchants kept coming to Mylapore’s shore in search of a tomb they had heard about, the tomb of St. Thomas. And following Diogo Fernandes and Bastiao Fernandes, a small Portuguese monastic settlement grew on the coast. Whether Friar Pedro de Antogia, a Franciscan, was one of the pioneers of this settlement or was even part of it is not known, but some way inland he built a small church. And record of that is found on a black stone plaque in Luz Church, which states that the church was built by him in 1516. Tying legend and church together is the popular Tamil name for it, ‘Kaattu Kovil’ (church in the jungle, though today’s jungle is one of stone and concrete).

It is an article of faith to accept that date, but other indicators tend to date the construction of the church of today to between 1547 and 1582 and several reconstructions thereafter. Renovation has been done even in the new Millennium. But whatever has happened over the years, that black stone plaque is the oldest Western inscription on the East Coast of India. And indicates construction of a church. Why not Luz Church?

Luz Church is today officially called the ‘Shrine of Our Lady of Light’. May its antiquity be respected.

When the postman knocked…

1. C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar (Miscellany, June 22) was a High Court vakil first and after he had developed a huge practice was enrolled as Advocate, writes Dr. R.K. Balasubramaniam. And the person who moved his enrolment was Sir K. Srinivasa Ayyangar, he adds. Balasubramaniam further states that this was not the end of their link. When Srinivasa Ayyangar became the first Law Minister of Madras Province in 1921, CP succeeded him as Advocate General. Later, when Srinivasa Ayyangar resigned as Law Minister in 1923, when the Agricultural Bill he had introduced was defeated, CP succeeded him as Law Minister. Srinivasa Ayyangar himself was a great lawyer and became a Vice Chancellor of the University of Madras in 1920.

2. That was indeed the home of the E.A. Watch Company, writes C. Suryaramaiah, referring to the building in the rather moth-eaten advertisement I had featured in Miscellany, July 27. Interestingly, he adds, there were several other ornate buildings like it in those days. I wish I could get some pictures of them. The time Suryaramaiah refers to is 1955 when he bought a “Favre Leuba Sandow round-shape watch from E.A. Company for Rs. 180”. A few months later he bought a watch chain for Rs. 5 from the same place and on both occasions was served by a “fair and handsome, British-mannered man”. Both watch and chain are still with him.

3. V. Janaki sent me this picture (refer images above) and wonders why toilets like these can’t be installed by the Corporation at street corners in the City. They could get sponsorship from nearby business establishments if necessary, she adds. Why not, indeed?

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 11:00:06 PM |

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