Before Madras

Once again, it’s that day some of us say is the birthday of Madras (forgetting the faintest possibility that it might be July 22, which would necessitate several logs to be wrong instead of just one is the case of August 22). That day has gone beyond a half-day celebrations into a Week that celebrates the city that has grown from what was three square miles of sand gifted to the English East India Company by a couple of the Vijayanagar Nayaks.

Now, all this has been said before and in recent years there have been challenges to this theory. In fact, there are a few talks this year that speak of “before Madras” or “Madras before the Colonial era”, the latter forgetting that the East India Company was a business house and not a colonial power for over a century, no different from the Fords and Hyundais of today, who enjoy considerable concessions from the local government. But that is not my focus; what is, is the view that the beginning of Madraspattinam (not Chennaipattinam) was not with the English East India Company.

Let’s face it. There was Mylapore going back in the view of people like me to Biblical times (St. Thomas, a resident), there was the great port of the Pallavas in Mylapore, near what is now the Adyar Estuary, there was Tondaimandalam from Kanchipuram to the coast, and there was Portuguese San Thomé, coastal Mylapore, a hundred and more years before Fort St George. Of course, there was habitation and civilisation in the area long before the East India Company. But, if there was a Madraspattinam, why did Fort St. George have to bring in settlers from what is now Andhra Pradesh?

Inscriptions are aplenty in the temples of Mylapore and Triplicane, Tiruvottriyur and Manali, all parts of Madras today; but these areas did not grow into Madras, they were integrated into Madras in one way or another.

Prof. P Rajaraman in his Chennai through the Ages, tracing the origin of the word Madras, says that a Maratha Brahmin in the Arcot Court wrote an account of the European arrival in the area and says the “Poligars” gave the English “four villages: Madrascoopam where the English built a fort, Chennaicoopam, Arcoopam and Maleput”. The Nayak’s document of grant refers to “our port of Madraspatnam”. And a later Vijayanagar grant refers to the “the village of Madraspatam”. But was the ‘coopam’ referred to of sufficient significance to grow into the Madras of today? In fact, there is a later reference to “the new town which has grown up around Fort St George” being “commonly known as Chinapatnam.”

None of the towns and villages mentioned above grew into the Madras of today, the metropolis whose growth is being celebrated. That megacity grew from Fort St. George absorbing the four kuppams of the Mahratta document and “our port” and, elsewhere in the document, “village” of Madraspattinam. That ‘port’ and ‘village’ did not give us the city we have known for over 375 years. The city developed only with the founding of Fort St. George and that gives us a date or a time to celebrate it.

To add a footnote to all this, I have not been able to trace any family in all the areas mentioned who go back to before 1640. But one family, the Ketti family, has convinced me and others of their descent from Beri Thimmappa, who conducted the negotiations with the Nayaks on behalf of Andrew Cogan and Francis Day. These negotiations and grant of 1639 mark, to me, the beginnings of the Madras that is Chennai we know today. And that is a city to be celebrated.


A Bank’s beginnings

Every time I read a story narrating the history of India’s biggest bank, the State Bank of India, I keep finding that its roots in Madras are regularly forgotten. The latest story I read in a local business paper had it that the first ‘Presidency’ bank was established in 1806 as the Bank of Calcutta and it was renamed the Bank of Bengal. It goes on to state that when it merged in 1921 with the Bank of Bombay, founded in 1840, and the Bank of Madras, established in 1843, the Imperial Bank of India that was to become the State Bank of India was born. All well and good, but I’ve always wished that researchers would go a little before the Bank of Calcutta days. After all, there was Madras before Bombay and Calcutta, both cities like Madras having some citizens wanting to go back to fishing village days (presumably even for banking). And that Madras had banking a bit before the other two port cities.

As far as back as 1682/3 the first Western bank was established in India, Governor Gyfford and his Council setting up the Government Bank, basically to borrow money for the Council. The first formal bank to be set up in Madras and incorporated as a joint stock company was the Carnatic Bank with its headquarters in Fort St. George. It opened its doors on June 1, 1788. The founders were Josiah du Pre Porcher and Thomas Redhead of Calcutta. There were six other shareholders, each investor contributing equally to the 120,000 Star Pagodas capital. In 1791, the Bank was permitted to issue its own notes (presumably predecessors of cheques).

The Carnatic Bank was still in business in 1795 when what was called the British Bank was formed, with John Hunter, the cashier of the Carnatic Bank, steering the new bank as Secretary. Whether this bank changed its name to the Bank of Madras or whether the latter was set up separately is not clear, but the Bank of Madras was in business from 1795. There followed in 1804 the Asiatic Bank and 39 years later it was to merge with the Carnatic Bank and the Bank of Madras to become a major banking institution, the Bank of Madras. But the roots of all going back a long time earlier.

The Bank of Madras built its handsome headquarters on First Line Beach (Rajaji Salai now) in the latter half of the 1890s. The building is now the main branch of the State Bank of India, but many door panels of this heritage building still bear the insignia of the Bank of Madras.

When the postman knocked…

• In that MCC alumni picture (Miscellany, August 8) there were two persons wearing turbans, One was, of course, Radhakrishnan, the other (third from left) was R.V. Krishna Ayyar, “the Parliamentary legend”, writes Dr. R.K. Balasubramaniam. He adds, the earliest of eminent personalities to graduate from MCC was G.A. Natesan, the editor of Indian Review, who was responsible for persuading Gandhiji to attend the second Round Table Conference in 1931. Then came, R.V. Krishna Ayyar “who stood first in class from infant class to ML, surely a record of some sort” and who, an authority on legislature practices, was Secretary of the Madras Legislature 1937-39. Next was a friend of Krishna Ayyar, S. Radhakrishnan. And there followed the Mudaliar Twins, Lakashmanaswami and Ramaswami, one to become a legendary doctor and a Vice Chancellor, the other to become a statesman, representing India at many an international fora. There then followed S. Satyamurti and Mohammad Usman, who had contested against each other for Alumni Association Secretaryship, and T.T. Krishnamachari. Satyamurti was a Congress leader in the South, Usman was to become the first Indian Governor of Madras during the Raj, even if it was only an acting appointment, and TTK was a Nehru Minister who served long in different capacities.

• T Chari writes: “Have you recently passed the Hindi Prachar Sabha? If you have, did you notice the road sign? It reads ‘Melloni Road’! To make sure, I looked at a city atlas and found it was what I thought it should be, ‘Malony Road’. Why can’t the Corporation get someone who knows the city to help them with writing the correct names on signboards?” But that’s a thing the publishers should do too. The correct name should be Molony, J Chartres Molony, (Miscellany, June 23, 2014) who, ironically, was a major presence in the Corporation once upon a time.

• My friend told me that a sportsman from Madras has won a Gold Medal at the Olympics before. Is he correct? asks 12-year-old T. Robin. It’s true, Robin, but it was a team gold medal, not an individual one. It was won by Vasudevan Baskaran when India won the hockey competition at the Moscow Olympics in 1980; Baskaran was captain of that team.

M.J. Gopinath might well have won a team gold with the 1936 Olympics hockey team but he opted to go to England with India’s cricket team and never got a Test there. But another Madras player who did win a hockey gold was Ernest Cullen, a Madras Medical College student, who, some say, took Gopalan’s place when the Double Blue turned it down.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 2:08:22 PM |

Next Story