Madras Week 2019: Know your Chennai

Windswept tales from the coast

The building we are inside — on the dusty lane leading up to the Thiruporur temple tank — was built in the 1930s, and from outside, looks run down. But once you step in, the dilapidated stone holds beautiful sculptures emerging from the walls.

This is just one of the many heritage landmarks that Ramanujar Moulana, founder of Cycling Yogis (a group that discovers heritage spots in the city) came across on his multiple trips across Old Mahabalipuram Road and East Coast Road. While the former is associated with housing the IT crowd of the city, and the latter with breezy scenic roadways, Ramanujar believes that when it comes to historic significance, for long we have let distant Mamallapuram take the cake.

So this Madras Week, Ramanujar shows us that the archaeological value of the route to Mamallapuram, dotted with areas such as Padur, Thiruporur and Nemili, is of just as much importance. He has specially designed a circular route for MetroPlus, that starts in Thiruvanmiyur, takes the OMR and heads up to the Nemili Bridge, crosses The Great Salt Lake, and comes back to the same place, via the ECR.

Windswept tales from the coast

We meet Ramanujar at Kottivakam, from where our car sets off. It’s 10.30 am. Our time starts now.

Writing on the wall

11.30 am, Padur (Minute 60)

The image of OMR is that it’s an up and coming neighbourhood, thanks to the IT boom. But what if there was tangible proof that could push its antiquity to the Chola period? For this we veer off OMR, a left from Padur Main Road, to the Manikandeswarar Temple.

Windswept tales from the coast

“If you look at the base of this temple, it is engraved with inscriptions that are believed to be from the Chola period,” says Ramanujar, who found them with the help of his friend, Veludharan. Balaji, the caretaker of the temple, says, “When this temple was constructed, the swami (deity) inside was at the same level as this base. Subsequently, it was renovated in 1980, 2000 and 2016.” It now wears a shade of blue, and the grey stones below are almost unnoticeable.

Windswept tales from the coast

A few metres away, crossing skipping goats and lazing calves, lies the Padur pond — dry enough to reveal a stone statue inside the marsh. “The locals call it a Budhha statue,” says Ramanujar, “However the caretaker believes it could be part of the temple itself — of Siva sitting in a meditative state — that got misplaced over the years.” We leave the statue that’s guarded by rocks on all sides, to move to our next stop.

Getting salty

1 pm, Kelambakkam (Minute 150)

Windswept tales from the coast

Two refreshing mango juices later, we drive from Kelambakkam towards Kovalam, to visit the Covelong Salt Factory. The plaque at the base of the red and white pillared structure announces itself to have been laid down on April 12, 1893, by the then Salt Inspector, RM Thurley.

Its dusty doors rest, locked now; locals claim the factory stopped functioning a decade ago. This area, from Kovalam to Nemili, that surrounds The Great Salt Lake factory, is known for salt production. The lake, named after the one in Utah, US, invites seawater through tides and during dry periods, evaporates to reveal stretches of salt. As if to prove this, opposite the factory, is a recently extracted 20-feet-high shimmering mountain of salt.

Windswept tales from the coast

Sit down, rest

2 pm, Thiruporur (Minute 210)

All the salt-mountain climbing has left us thirsty, and we have stopped for a lime soda opposite the Thiruporur Police Station. This is a century-old station, located near the famous Thiruporur temple, inaugurated in February 1907. But we are more interested in this area’s vernacular houses down the same road.

Windswept tales from the coast

Just like spoken languages, the language of design too has a vernacular: an architecture characterised by the needs and traditions specific to a locality. Case in point, the Kartikeya Murugesa Mudaliar Chatram. With a tiled roof and a row of columns upholding the shade to the front porch, the structure is reminiscent of those in Mamallapuram.

Windswept tales from the coast

“The chatram was a place where functions like wedding receptions and annadaanam were held. The front porch provides shade for weary travellers,” says Ramanujar. We step inside the arch leading to the centre of the house, which is a courtyard. The high roof overhead has a single skylight, and is enclosed by four walls; a bar window runs along the width of each. Intricately designed sculptures of gods, kings, their subjects and mystical creatures such as the part-lion, part-elephant yali, stand sentry on the walls, staring us down.

Windswept tales from the coast

“My grandfather used to be the caretaker of this place. Now, I am the third generation here,” says 55-year-old Amudha, adding, “The building comes under the Nagavedu Murugesa Mudaliar Trust in Parry’s.”

Windswept tales from the coast

Guesthouse for the ages

3 pm, Kovalam (Minute 270)

Windswept tales from the coast

After looking at the vintage houses of Thiruporur, we take the Nemili Bridge across The Great Salt Lake to reach Dargah Street in Kovalam, home to another unique structure: the Kareem Beedi Bungalow, named after the builder’s association with the Kareem family. It is a long house with Madras terrace flat roofing; the rooms lead to a backyard with a well. The house is currently crowded; children run across the space, and their parents follow huffing, in formal clothing. “This is a landmark guest house. Pilgrims from far and wide come to visit the Hazrath Thameem Ansari Dargah nearby,” says Ramanujar. We make a stop for a quick lunch at Ice Cap in Kanathur, and head back to Thiruvanmiyur for our final pit stop.

Remains of the day

4.30 pm, Thiruvanmiyur (Minute 360)

In this busy locality of Periyar Nagar, inside the Ramaniyam Sanjivini apartment complex, are two stones that honour Madras’ most famous doctor-couple, Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy and her husband, Dr T Sundara Reddy. While the latter is under a mandapam surrounded by potted plants and creepers, the former is out in the open air. According to an earlier report in The Hindu, the land belonged to Dr Reddy and her son lived there. So when the new builder purchased the land, he kept the memorial as it was.

Windswept tales from the coast

Dr Muthulakshmi, founder of the Adyar Cancer Research Institute, was India’s first woman medical graduate. “Dr Shantha (Chairman of Adyar Cancer Institute) still comes here every year on Dr Reddy’s death anniversary,” the building’s watchman informs us. Paying our respects to this great doctor and social reformer, we call it a day.

Watch | The hidden gems of Chennai's OMR and ECR

This is the first of a five-part series through a 380-minute tour of heritage sites that celebrates Madras Week

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 12:20:57 AM |

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