It’s easy to miss, but the arch gateway on Triplicane High Road has a fascinating history. Pale green and labelled ‘Azeempet’, the arch was once the entrance to the palace of Sultanunissa Begum, sister of the third ruler of the Wallajah dynasty of the Nawabs of Arcot, Umdat-ul-Umra.
“It was believed that Sultanunissa Begum was the power behind the throne in the late 1790s. She had hoped that her son would succeed Umdat-ul-Umra,” says historian and film-maker Kombai S. Anwar, addressing a group of about 60 persons on the last Friday of Ramzan.
That slice of history is one of many Mr. Anwar revealed to the group, leading the way through the streets of Triplicane and Chepauk during the Ramzan Heritage Walk that was held in the city for the second year in a row. The walk began at the Mohammedan Public Library on Triplicane High Road — an East India Company officer, Edward Balfour, was instrumental in setting it up in the 1850s, Mr. Anwar says.
Sultanunissa Begum, however, did not get to see her dream fulfilled. Umdat-ul-Umra wanted his own son to succeed him, and his sister, embittered by his choice, did not even allow her brother’s coffin to be carried out through the arch near her palace, and so, Mr. Anwar says, a wall had to be broken to take the Nawab’s body for internment.
Swirls of vermicelli
The streets of Triplicane are invariably crowded and Friday evening was no exception. Amid blaring horns, autorickshaws and buses bearing down, and motorbikes wending their way through gaps, the group forged on. On the right, the pavement was lined with large tubs containing white swirls of vermicelli — rumani semiya — used to make sheer khurma. Book and perfume stalls line the street.
A turn to the left brought the group to CNK Road, dotted with tiffin centres. A further right led to Big Street where the Masjid e Anwari stands, named after and perhaps built by the first Nawab of the Wallajah dynasty, Anwaruddin, in the mid 18th century. Smaller than the Wallajah Mosque, which is the next stop, it served the needs of the Muslim community then.
Community is diverse
The Muslim community in Chennai is diverse — there are those who speak Tamil, who trace their roots back to the 7th century when Islam entered the region through maritime trade, says Mr. Anwar. Subsequently, other communities came in — the Urdu Muslim community, which arrived along with the Golconda Sultanate and increased in numbers when the Nawabs of Arcot came in, and the Gujarati Muslims who came in for trade. Today, there are also other communities, including the Malayalam-speaking Mappila Muslims, Telugu-speaking Muslims and the Konkani-speaking Nawayath community in the city, he says. There is also a considerable population of Shia Muslims.
It is 6.30 p.m. and almost time for the fast to be broken. Wallajah Mosque or Big Mosque, which was completed in 1794 and was the Nawab’s State mosque, is a grand edifice, with dozens of people streaming in. Adjacent to the mosque is a building that is now a lodge but what was once the Ottoman Turkish consulate, says Mr. Anwar. The mosque is lit with an orange glow.
The men in the group head to the main mosque, while the women go into the dargah by its side. A range of foods are offered: nombu kanji , followed by cold coffee, aloo bondas, dates, bananas, kadal pasi, a white sweet made of agar agar , a sweet made of Bengal gram flour and dry fruits, and another bread-based sweet.
The group tucks in, taking photographs, while food and drink continue to be served.