By George, let’s go back to the Town

As Chennai turns 375, celebrating its oldest modern neighbourhood, built along with Fort St. George

August 05, 2014 08:07 pm | Updated April 20, 2016 05:01 pm IST - Chennai

CHENNAI, 04/08/2014: A view of King George V statue at Rattan Bazaar in Chennai on August 04, 2014. 
Photo: K_V_Srinivasan

CHENNAI, 04/08/2014: A view of King George V statue at Rattan Bazaar in Chennai on August 04, 2014. Photo: K_V_Srinivasan

I can count on my fingers the number of times I have visited north Chennai — George Town to be precise — in the past, say, three years. Thrice to Gem Pens and Co. to add to my collection of fountain pens, and twice to Govindappa Naicken Street in search of old-fashioned table lamps.

At the same time, I know of Chennaiites who have never set foot in George Town and are unlikely to do so in the years to come. Why should they, when they have no friends living there, when their workplaces are in Tidel Park or in Sholinganallur, when all their needs are met in the other parts of Chennai that they live in?

George Town, after all, doesn’t boast of pubs or restaurants that offer fine dining or luxurious multiplexes. If anything, it always makes news for the wrong reasons: a murder at Mannadi, chain-snatching at Elephant Gate, a drunken brawl between two rowdies on Wall Tax Road.

But George Town boasts of something that the rest of Chennai can’t: a strong whiff of history. And with Chennai, or Madras, turning 375 years old this month, a pilgrimage may be in order so that you understand the city’s existence on India’s map—and your existence in the city—better.

 Madras, the British-built city that we live in today, was born in north Madras — in the sense that once the city was born, it slowly began to grow southwards and there came a time when the starting point became the North.

This is true of every big Indian city. They all grew southwards — and never northwards, one wonders why. Look at their maps and you will find the oldest settlements located in the North. South will have all the affluence and amenities, North all the hardship and history.

Black Town came up along the northern perimeter of the fort and grew into a bustling township — known as Chennapatnam by the natives and Madraspatnam by the Europeans

The township of Madras was effectively born on March 1, 1640, when the East India Company began the construction of Fort St. George on a strip of beach it had leased from the native ruler. The lease was signed a few months earlier, on August 22, 1639 — which explains why the date, of late, is being celebrated as Madras Day. Along with the fort, came up Black Town, inhabited by natives who not only helped in the construction of the fort but also catered to the needs of the sahibs living inside. It came up along the northern perimeter of the fort and grew into a bustling township — known as Chennapatnam by the natives and Madraspatnam by the Europeans.

At the time, most of the neighbourhoods of present-day Chennai were either non-existent or existed only as villages — such as Triplicane, Teynampet, Nungambakkam, Royapettah and so forth. It was only much later that the British acquired these villages.

The city of Madras, therefore, originated in Black Town, India’s first modern native settlement, built alongside Fort St. George. Historically, Black Town is a contemporary of the Mughal capital Shahjahanabad — now known as Old Delhi — inaugurated by Shah Jahan in 1639. So now you know how old Black Town is. It was shortly after 1905 — when George V, still the Prince of Wales and not yet the King, visited Madras — that Black Town was renamed George Town. By then, anybody who happened to be somebody either lived or had an office in George Town. Madras  was  George Town.

With the city celebrating 375 years of its existence, we bring you, over the next two weeks, the flavours of George Town, where Chennai is still pretty much Madras.

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