The age of the Thiruvetteeswarar Temple in Triplicane is a mystery. A passing reference to a Vedicchuram in Appar’s Tevaram has been cited to show that the shrine was in existence even in the 7th century. However, several other temples in Tamil Nadu lay claim to the same line as proof of their antiquity.
The Shiva Linga here is probably much older than the temple, for it was discovered in the 18th century by Samudra Mudali, a ‘conicoply’ ( kanakkupillai or accountant) of the East India Company. It was in a sandy tract through which a small river (probably the Triplicane River that no longer exists) ran. The property was owned by the Nawab of the Carnatic and Samudra Mudali purchased it, building thereafter, “from his private resources a fine temple, with four streets around it, having houses for the temple servants.” This then was the origin of Thiruvateeswaranpettai, the colony that surrounds the shrine. Samudra Mudali later purchased lands in the Pudupakkam (now part of Royapettah) area from a Muslim noble and donated them to the temple.
A long-drawn case in the Madras High Court, concerning the lands belonging to the temple, gives further details. The East India Company confirmed the grants of the Pudupakkam lands in two documents dated November 1, 1734 and August 10, 1787. These were shrotrium endowments, meaning that the precinct was meant to house Brahmins who could recite the Vedas. In the last two centuries, the area has changed character considerably.
After serving as accountant at the Customs House, Samudra Mudali, whose name appears in Company records variously as Somadru, Sumadru, Sumadrue and Sumdrue, became dubash (translator) to Governor Francis Hastings. The latter is not to be confused with the illustrious Warren Hastings, later first Governor General of India. Francis Hastings had been Deputy Governor in Cuddalore and then became Governor of Madras in 1720. He did not get along with his council members, and one of the chief opponents, Nathaniel Elwick, got him dismissed in 1721. Hastings lingered for three months in Madras, dying in the process and thereby becoming the first Governor of Madras to be buried in St Mary’s Church in the Fort.
Elwick ordered a thorough enquiry into the affairs of his predecessor, and in the process it was discovered that a shipment of coral worth pounds 1,200 had been delivered to Hastings and the suppliers were demanding payment. The coral was nowhere to be found but it was soon rumoured that Samudra Mudali had sold it for a handsome profit. He was interrogated, but by sticking to stout denial, and refusing to take an oath by claiming that none in his family had even done it, he managed to throw the investigators off the chase.
Some of the proceeds of that coral sale may have gone into the building of the temple. Certainly, Samudra Mudali retired into affluence and lived well thereafter. A street in George Town still commemorates this colourful personality.