With the ongoing Mylapore temple festival, my mind refuses to think of any other subject. And so, at the risk of being monotonous, I am writing once more about the same area. This story is about an otherwise innocuous rest house or choultry, located on South Mada Street that comes to life once each year, during the 10 days of the annual festival at the temple.
Earlier known as the ‘Chittira Chattiram’, now it is called the ‘Bommai Chattram’ or the Dolls’ House. There is a good reason for the names, for during the temple festival, the building hosts a display of clay dolls, paintings and leather puppets. Most of these are over 150 years old and were collected by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar (1803-1869), the builder of the edifice.
The man’s taste is evident in the construction of the chattram, though his descendants have since then been doing their best to detract from it. Two broad stone platforms supporting granite pillars flank the heavily carved door, which leads to the central hall that has the proper exhibition. It would appear that in later years, in order to save the entrance area from vagrants, an arched enclosure was built. This has recently been let out to shops that have fitted steel shutters. Another not so aesthetic addition is a first floor that is in no way in keeping with the architecture of the rest of the building.
The inauguration of the chattram in 1851 was a gala event. The great Tamil scholar Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai happened to be visiting the city. He composed 100 verses on the building and its founder, which came to be collectively known as Chittira Chattira Pugazhchi . Pillai’s most illustrious disciple U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, quotes a sample verse; apparently the remaining three streets around the tank felt jealous of the South Mada Street for its good fortune. Pillai was gifted 100 gold sovereigns for his work and the poem was published as a book in 1856.
Vinayaka Mudaliar decreed that the building would be run as a wedding hall on all days of the year barring the temple festival period. It was to be administered by a Trust that had to feed Brahmins at the chattram on the 12th day of the waxing phase of the moon. And whenever Kapali came out in procession, camphor would be lit and waved before Him at the chattram entrance. To support the maintenance of the place, a shop on NSC Bose Road and a grove in Nungambakkam were gifted to it. The Trustees would be Mudaliar’s male descendants and those of his brother.
It is said that Mudaliar began the tradition of the dolls’ display and it has continued unbroken ever since. In the recent past there has been an unfortunate tendency to touch up the dolls and the paintings with modern materials. This has done much to mar the beauty of the exhibits. But we must be thankful that the tradition has continued.
Sriram V. is passionate about Chennai history and Carnatic music, and has several books to his name.