Madras Week 2019: Know your Chennai

A melting pot of cultures and trades

Handcarts seen obstructing free flow of traffic at Kothwal Bazaar in this 1961 photograph; a view of Narayana Mudali Street, Sowcarpet on Thursday.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives/R. Ravindran

From being a hub for financiers in Madras, Sowcarpet has evolved into a commercial centre for wholesale activity.

Estimates given by traders indicate that the turnover of this small neighbourhood in the north of the city is anywhere between ₹10,000 crore and ₹15,000 crore a year.

Old-timers say that the place gets its name from the Hindi word ‘Sahukar’, meaning trader or moneylender. “A few decades ago, this area was the hub for pawnbroking and moneylending,” recalls 70-year-old Ramprasad, who migrated to Chennai from Rajasthan in 1965. “Be it personal borrowing, business finance, vehicle finance, spot loans and even film financing, this is where it all happened,” he says.

Big draw

According to him, when he moved to Sowcarpet in the 60s, the locality had many Telugu-speaking Chettiars who engaged in trading. Among them were the Komutti Chetties and Beri Chetties. Even now if you walk down Govindappa Street or Mint Street, you can see boards on buildings and houses in Telugu. Around the same time, Sowcarpet also became home to the Jains and Marwaris. “We had Rajputs, Purohits and Agarwals. A lot of South Indians (traders from the southern part of Tamil Nadu) and Muslims also moved in here,” says Mr. Ramprasad.

It seems too soon, but it has actually been a full week of delving into the riveting past of various localities of Madras, now Chennai. The journey we undertook this year enriched us, as it does every year, and we hope that it made for interesting reading. As the city moves into its 380th year, we wish it a very happy birthday, and for its residents, we hope it is a great year ahead.

A financier on NSC Bose Road, who used to live in Sowcarpet until 2009 (and has now moved to Velachery), said that during the 1980s and 1990s, there were thousands of pawnbrokers and financiers. Even housewives were into the lending business. “After lending norms became stringent, things have changed and only a few hundred financiers still have their business here,” he said. In the last decade, many of them moved their businesses to other parts of Chennai, while some made their money and returned to Rajasthan.

Over time, many traders came in and set up their businesses. And now, the locality has become the wholesale hub for all kinds of products including clothes, artificial jewellery, utensils, stationery, electrical items and groceries. Retailers from across the State come here to purchase goods in bulk. Traders from other shopping hubs in Chennai including T. Nagar and Pondy Bazaar pick up their consignments at Sowcarpet. Ranjith Jain, Vice President, Federation of Madras Merchants and Manufacturers Association, says, “Sowcarpet is the hub for dry fruits in India. There are hundreds of traders into the dry fruits business.”


Akki Guru, proprietor of Kapdewala, says, “With the advent of social media, businesses here are slowly starting to feel the pinch and some of them have realised that going online makes economic sense. Now traders here are getting more tech-savy,” he adds.

Cramped for space

Earlier, Sowcarpet had spacious roads and only a few buildings. Today, space is at a premium. “Traders used to have their shops on the ground floor and their houses on the first floor of buildings. It was semi-residential. Now, you can see high-rise buildings with more shops,” Mr. Jain says.

Many buildings here are 60-70 years old and in a dilapidated condition. A resident of Mint Street says that many buildings have violated norms and authorities have turned a blind eye. “The traffic congestion and noise pollution levels have gone up in Sowcarpet. Just see that can see tricycles parked on either side with no space to walk,” he says pointing to a street nearby. Despite all this, real estate rates are quite high. Rents begin at Rs 1 lakh for shop space. Theatres that existed for years have now turned into shops and apartments. The old Select Theatre on Muthiyappan Street has now become an apartment complex.

Food and festivities

Sowcarpet is known for its North Indian food and snacks. The famous Kakada Ramprasad Sweets, which started operations in 1958, attracts a large footfall even now. At any given point in time, the shop has a 100 people standing in queue to collect their parcels. Similar is the case with Agarwal Bhavan at Govindappa Street.

Sowcarpet is famous for its Holi celebrations. Amit Kumar, a car dealer who resides on Thirupalli Street, says, “I spent my entire childhood in Sowcarpet and people here wake up 4 a.m. on Holi. But now the trend is slowly waning,” he adds. Raksha Bandhan is also celebrated on a grand scale.

It is the one area in Chennai where a ride around the narrow streets is best done in a cycle rickshaw. As for landmarks, the Shri Chandraprabhu Jain temple is one of the biggest and oldest here. Another significant structure is the government press on Mint Street. The street got its name during 1840s when the East India Company set up its coin-making facility here.

First Person: Parasmal Kothari, Sowcarpet

‘One family settles here and then brings in relatives’

My father came to Chennai in the early 60s. I have been a resident of Sowcarpet for over five decades now. My family was initially in the finance business. We slowly diversified into trading and other businesses. The streets here have always been busy as financiers, pawnbrokers, traders and jewellers flocked to it. With the advent of e-commerce, businesses here have slowed down.

In terms of infrastructure, many new buildings have come up in the last two decades. This place was home to many Marwari families. When one family settles here and establishes their business, they then bring in their relatives. That’s how the community grew. In the early 2000s most of these families moved out from here to Vepery, Choolaimedu and Kilpauk.

Festivals were celebrated in a grand manner at Sowcarpet. Holi was a big event here. Now people don’t play Holi here as they prefer going to grounds and resorts to celebrate. On Diwali, you can't even cross the streets – you can hear cracker bursting non-stop. Flying kites was also popular here then; over the years celebrating festivals is slowly fading.

The Kakada Ramprasad sweet shop was a small outlet when they started business here. Now that shop is a famous name in Sowcarpet. People used to throng the Krishna Prasad Hotel. The hotel is still in operation. For food lovers, Sowcarpet was a haven.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 2:01:29 PM |

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