Some thoughts around the Madras High Court

CHENNAI, 25/11/2011: Statgue of Sir Vanbakam Bhashyam Iyengar, Advocate General and Judge, High Court at the Madras High Court. Photo: V. Ganesan.   | Photo Credit: V_GANESAN

Chennai — 600 104. This is the pin code allotted by the Department of Posts to the zone occupied by the Madras High Court. Any such “zone” has to have its boundaries. In our land, if there is a boundary, it has its own boundary deity. In the villages, this deity is called the sentinel goddess.

The High Court campus also has two sentinel deities. One, a statue of Rajaji in the north-east; the other, a statue of T. Prakasamgaru in the south-west. The two roads stretching northward from these two statues constitute the boundaries of the High Court. One is Prakasam Road (formerly Broadway), and the other is Rajaji Road (the old North Beach Road).

What is the link between these two eminent leaders enshrined as statues, and a campus reputed to house the largest number of courts in Asia (from the ‘small causes courts' to the High Court)?


Born on December 10, 1878, Rajaji after completing his schooling and undergraduate studies, did his Law course at the Madras Law College. He was Chairman of the Salem Municipality and also had a flourishing legal practice there. However, in the interest of his children's education, he landed in Madras with bag and baggage in March 1919. He had planned to practise at the High Court. But the fate of the nation changed that course. Gandhiji issued the call for a ‘non-cooperation movement' against the colonial government. Heeding this call, Rajaji plunged into the movement, not even bothering to unpack the boxes containing legal tomes. Soon enough, he expressed opposition to the visit of the Prince of Wales and was imprisoned.

A person who had the potential to become the foremost legal luminary in India, spent years in the darkness of prison. But history adorned him differently. Law's loss became the legislature's gain.

The Constitution of India came into force on January 26, 1950. It was Rajaji's privilege, as the first Indian Governor-General, to anoint Dr. Rajendra Prasad as the first President of India. What an honour!


The life of the south-western sentinel deity, Prakasamgaru, had been differently moulded. He studied in England and became a barrister. He registered himself at the Madras High Court, which had been denying opportunities to Indian lawyers, and achieved eminence in his profession. His reputation as a lawyer, and his professional income, were both legendary. He too responded to Mahatma Gandhi's clarion call, renounced his lucrative legal practice and threw himself into the freedom movement. He never again entered the High Court precincts. But, he came to be hailed as the Lion of Andhra (Andhra Kesari). It was said that a day before his arrest, he returned a fee of Rs.1 lakh to his client and plunged himself into direct political action. Rs.1 lakh was a hefty sum 90 years ago.

Both these leaders had renounced their legal profession in response to Gandhiji's call for non-cooperation. There were also other similarities. Rajaji became the Premier of the Madras Presidency in 1937, and Prakasamgaru in 1946. In 1952, Rajaji took over as the Chief Minister of the State of Madras (now Tamil Nadu). Prakasamgaru assumed responsibilities as the Chief Minister of the State of Andhra Pradesh in 1953.

The Lion of Andhra launched an English journal; Rajaji extended his support to this venture, naming it Swarajya. Later Rajaji himself took charge of publishing it. It is noteworthy that instead of pleading as lawyers before judges, they played roles in the very appointment of High Court judges. Rajaji played a key role in ensuring that Madras was retained as the capital of the State that is today Tamil Nadu. Thanks to his efforts, the Madras High Court is still with Tamil Nadu.

Having failed to make Madras City a part of Andhra, Prakasamgaru formed the State of Andhra and established a new Andhra High Court at Guntur in 1953, incorporating the Andhra districts which had until then been under the jurisdiction of the Madras High Court.

Is it any cause for wonder that these two stalwarts stand guard today as the sentinel deities of the Madras High Court?

The ‘SMS Emden'

A Tamil film titled Emden's Son was produced, and the title was ‘Tamilised' as Em Magan (Our Son) and released, in order to derive the tax benefits that a “Tamil” title would bring. The film producer offered the following clarification on the name: “SMS Emden” was a German warship that had hurled a bomb near the Madras Port during the First World War. The bomb splintered and landed near the High Court on September 22, 1914. A memorial tablet was installed at that site. We can still see that tablet some 10 metres behind the Rajaji statue.

There is a ‘Karjili” ditty in Tamil on the arrival of the “Emden” and the hurling of the bomb. Here is an excerpt:

Emden the German cruiser

On South-east Madras shore


To damage Fort and Light house too

Hurl they did some bombs

….. ………….

With elation evident

Declared a British Worthy

Rolled three bombs

Near High Court

No damage, ha, no damage.”

The ditty was published in 1914 by Vijayapuram Na.Sabhapati Pillai at the Mannarkudi Bharat Press.

The “Emden,” which had caused consternation in Madras, has since become a part of Tamil folklore. But the film producer, eager for a tax privilege, made a mess of that name.

Not many know that the engineer of that ship was a Tamil: his name was Shenbagaraman. An association in his name still honours his memory, offering floral tributes at the tablet outside the High Court premises each year.

The unique lighthouse

In fact, the “Emden's” target was not the High Court, but the lighthouse that stood majestically next to it. How at all did the lighthouse get located in the High Court complex? That is an interesting story.

During the early 19th century, the vast area of land west of Fort St. George held a fascination for the British. That was the buffer zone between the Black Town and the fort — today's George Town at G.T. Till 1762, the Chenna Kesavapperumal temple and the Chenna Malleeswarar temple flourished in that area. Suddenly a fire destroyed these temples. Immediately, the colonial government took over that land and provided funds and land near the Flower Bazaar to construct the temples anew. Till this day, no one knows if that fire was indeed an accident or an engineered one. A new lighthouse was constructed on the land where the temples stood earlier. That lighthouse functioned from 1838 to 1844. Firewood was lit at the top of the structure to provide light. That lighthouse still exists in the High Court complex. It is under the watch of the Department of Archaeology, as a protected monument.

This lighthouse was only 125 feet in height. So the British government decided to build a new, taller lighthouse. In that vast area of land, the foundation was laid for a new (High Court) building.

Based on a proclamation by Queen Victoria, the Madras High Court, which was created in 1862, started functioning in the old Collector's office on Rajaji Salai (the present Singaravelar Mansion). A new High Court building was constructed at a cost of Rs.12 lakh and inaugurated on July 12, 1892. At the top of the main tower of the building (175 feet high), a new lighthouse was constructed. It was then the tallest structure in Madras. Till the 1970s, the public was allowed to climb up the lighthouse. This has been stopped over the past 35 years. A new lighthouse has been put up near the Gandhi statue on the Marina.

The lighthouse was not only guiding sailors in distress on the high seas, but was also serving as a beacon for legal clients in turmoil. This is unique to the Madras High Court. Two such buildings do not coexist in the same complex in any other State in India.

First Advocate-General

See the lighthouse and go to the northern side of the High Court (that is, the Subhas Chandra Bose Road: formerly China Bazaar), and you can see the statue of V. Bhashyam Iyengar. It is planted on a lofty pedestal. Who is this person, you might ask. He was the first Indian Advocate-General. A very eminent jurist, he became Advocate-General in 1897, and served as a judge in the Madras High Court from 1901 to 1904. While many were amazed at his independent attitude, the white judges of that period refused to allow his statue to be installed in the court premises. But thanks to the relentless efforts of lawyers, a statue was eventually installed in 1927. He was denied a judgeship for long due to his fearlessly independent attitude and was granted the judgeship when he had less than two years of tenure left.

The white judges who had refused to countenance the proposal, were later obliged to have a darshan of this statue on a daily basis. Every time they entered the court through the southern gate, they could not do so without seeing Bhashyam Iyengar standing majestically on a pedestal.

It is indeed a cruel irony that the passage between the southern and northern wings of the court has been taken over for the use of administrative offices, and turned into record rooms.

A High Court judge

Those who proceed from the Fort rail station to the Island Grounds should necessarily pass by an important bridge — Sir T. Muthuswami Iyer Bridge. Who was he? Born into a poor family, he read his lessons under a street lamp. Eventually he held many important positions and became a Judge of the Madras High Court in 1878. The first Indian to become a High Court Judge: Thiruvarur Muthuswami Iyer.

His statue, sculpted in white marble, has the pride of place in the midst of all the courts on the first floor. He served as a judge of considerable repute for 17 years. He died on January 15, 1895. His statue was installed in 1898.

His statue had been so positioned that it appeared to be watching the court of the then Chief Justice. Curiously enough, he never served as a Chief Justice of the court.

Are you wonderstruck at so many stories around the Madras High Court campus? Well, this is but a small sample!

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 9:19:54 AM |

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