Ambattur OT – the many stories behind the name
Around a year ago I embarked on a project of documenting Chennai by PIN code. I gave up writing in detail somewhere around Chennai 600025 as it was too exhausting. And then I decided to do them as one-minute reels on Instagram. That has met with good response, and I am now nearing Chennai 600060. Writing (talking really) about the old areas is easy enough but the new ones are challenging, for the available documentation on their past is negligible. That anyway is the real purpose of such an exercise.
Invariably, the history of Chennai place names remains the most elusive. And those who watch the reels tend to repeat the usual myths that keep circulating on WhatsApp. There was an interesting exchange on the origin of the name Ambattur. A follower had it that the site marks the 51st of the Shakti Peethams dedicated to the Goddess, which are all over India, and hence the name Ambattur (from Aimbathi Onru for 51 in Tamil). I asked for the whereabouts of the temple at present and was rewarded with an answer – it is the Vaishnavi shrine at nearby Tirumullaivoyal. And that had me smiling, it is easy enough to locate a convenient temple anywhere in the city.
Origin well documented
Unfortunately, or should I say fortunately, the origins of this temple are well documented. The patriot Ambujammal in her memoirs Naan Kanda Bharatham writes at length about it. Her brother Parthasarathi, who was one of the promoters of Prithvi Insurance Company, retired to the confines of Tirumullaivoyal in the early 1950s, following the death of his son by electrocution. There, Parthasarathi established a small temple for Vaishnavi on his farm, the deity having been gifted to him while he was residing in Mylapore by a renunciate. This, over a period of time, expanded to become the Sanmarga Sangam or Vaishnavi Ashram as it is better known among the locals. I distinctly recall visiting the place when I was a child, and meeting Parthasarathi himself, who had by then become a sanyasi. Going there recently, I found the peace and quiet unchanged. And so that puts paid to the Ambattur name theory. Interestingly, Wikipedia too gives the Shakti Peetham theory though it does acknowledge that citations are lacking.
And now I come to the next discussion: Ambattur OT. What is OT? I always understood it to be Old Town. There is an Old Town Park there and also an Old Town Road. But some of the permutations that came up were interesting, to say the least. One was that there was an overhead tank and that was why the place came to be called OT. The next and the most plausible was that it stood for Old Terminus. The person who sent me this information was convincing enough in his argument — he was a resident of the area for over 40 years and nowhere had he seen this sign but on bus boards. He claimed that the concept of OT was a recent one and came about only because a new bus terminus was built.
There are enough references to Old Town in The Hindu’s archives. But just to make sure I looked up Ashokamitran’s Oru Parvayil Chennai Nagaram. In his chapter on Ambattur, he clearly states that OT stood for Old Town. And as though in anticipation of this argument, he adds that while Ambattur has an OT, it has no NT (New Town), unlike Cuddalore, which has both. That seems to settle it. But fanciful interpretations of Chennai place names will continue.
(V. Sriram is a writer and historian.)