A garden of long ago

Published - May 29, 2015 05:20 pm IST - Chennai

The street that was John Pereira's garden

The street that was John Pereira's garden

In my efforts in documenting Chennai's past, several people have helped me. One of these is PB Subramaniam of Rasappa Chetty Street, Park Town. He has not let difficulties in his vision impact his love for history and heritage. A couple of weeks ago, he asked me if I knew of Pereira Street off Wall Tax Road near Central Station. The locals, he said, refer to it as Jamla Thottam.

This narrow thoroughfare establishes a link to the 1650s when our city was in its infancy. It was once a vast garden that belonged to John Pereira, a Portuguese merchant. Known initially in East India Company records as Senhor Joan Perera de Faria, he was practising his business at Nagapattinam in the 1650s. His ships sailed to Indonesia and the king of Macassar (now the provincial capital of South Sulawesi) in that country had appointed him agent for supplying “necessaries from the Indian coast.” His contacts and trading skills made him close to Agents Aaron Baker and Thomas Greenhill of Fort St George. By the late 1650s, Pereira had shifted to Madras where he had a house in Fort St George. In 1678, when Governor Streynsham Master imposed the city’s first conservancy tax, which applied to a few houses in the Fort and in Black Town, Pereira’s residence was among those included.

For his rest and recreation, Pereira acquired in 1671 a garden just outside the Fort measuring 36000 sq ft. To water the 250 coconut trees in it, he had three wells dug. He also erected a small tiled house and a private chapel. He bequeathed the garden to his granddaughter Antonia de Carvalho da Silva after his death in the 1680s. The good woman assumed that it was hers for perpetuity only to discover in 1719 that the land was never Pereira’s to pass on. He had merely leased it for a period of 31 years. At her request, the lease was renewed on the same terms. In 1739, she requested the Company to give her the land in perpetuity, in view of her family having paid the rents for over 60 years. This was refused, but she and her daughter Josepha de Silveira were allowed use of the house during their lifetimes.

In the 1740s, with the area surrounding old Black Town (present-day High Court) being cleared, the dispossessed families were settled in what came to be known as John Pereira Thottam (Tamil for Garden). This later morphed into Jambura/Jamla Thottam. What was once an upmarket area for garden houses degenerated rapidly thereafter. The Trinity Chapel was constructed here in the 1830s, and then in the late 1890s came the biggest landmark of all — Central Station with its appurtenances such as the Rail Mail Sorting Building and the Goods Shed, all built on the garden and the adjoining Hog’s Hill. It’s a wonder that despite all the changes, John Pereira continues to be remembered. Chennai moves in mysterious ways.

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