Madras Miscellany History & Culture

The park atop a wall

Let me greet the New Year with a bit of news that should please all citizens.

An example set on the south bank of the Adyar River in Kotturpuram is to be duplicated in Central Madras and North Madras, with the NGO Nizhal, the community in the respective areas, and the Corporation teaming together to give new life to old parks. The Kotturpuram Community Park, one of the city’s favourites today, was established a few years ago with Nizhal advising the Corporation on how to make it a popular, ever-green park and roping in the Kotturpuram community to help with its development and inputs.

The result is a much-used park that sports an inviting look. But now the Corporation has gone a welcome extra mile and come to an agreement with Nizhal to permit the NGO to manage the park and advise the Corporation and other authorities concerned on maintaining the property. The welcome news is that Nizhal now has similar agreements for a park in central Madras, still to be identified, and for the Terrace Park (‘Maadi Poonga’) in North Madras, a heritage site if ever there was one.

When my photographer asked his driver to take him to Maadi Poonga the other day, he was met with a blank look. Eventually they worked out it was a long wall with a smallish gate that led to the top of it where what was left of the wall had been restored as a fairly well kept park.

But it’s the wall that has a heritage story to tell. Between 1746 and 1747 Madras had been threatened from the North and West by the French and Hyder Ali (the Cooum River protected the South). The East India Company decided in 1769 to protect the city by building a wall on the two sides. The northern stretch along Ebrahim Sahib Street-Old Jail Road, running for 31⁄2 miles and with 17 bastions, was completed by 1772. The contractor was that excellent builder Paul Benfield (who did Chepauk Palace) but who was not the most scrupulous of persons in financial matters. This stretch had seven gates: Boatman’s Gate near the Port Trust quarters (once called Clive Battery), Pulley Gate near the road leading to Royapuram, Tiruvottriyur Gate next to

Stanley Hospital, Ennore Gate near Mint, Elephant Gate, Chucklers’ Gate near the Gujarati choultry, and Hospital Gate near the General Hospital. The only one that survives is Pulley Gate, garishly restored as the entrance to Maadi Poonga.

By the time the North Wall and a bit was constructed, the money sanctioned had run out. So, to construct the rest of the West Wall, the Governing Council in Fort St George proposed a tax to be levied from the citizens. Strong objections from the public led to the scheme being abandoned and the wall not built. But the road that ran alongside where the wall was to be built was named Wall Tax Road.

It may now be VO Chidambaranar Salai, but it’s still Wall Tax Road to most people, though locally it is Moolagothralam, the dry fish market.

With the English very much in control in South India by 1800, parts of a wall no longer needed were pulled down early in the 19th Century. Much of what was left was pulled down in the 1950s, leaving only the Ebrahim Sahib Street-Old Jail Road stretch intact. On this was developed Maadi Poonga.

The Park got a facelift in 2009 at a cost of ₹7.5 lakh and though it began to look much better than what it had been, it could never quite get rid of the reputation of being an illicit open-air bar with ‘attached’ latrines. It is to be hoped that Nizhal will succeed in cleaning up things here as it has done in Kotturpuram and improve on the modest 2009 restoration that has the park looking like it does in my picture.

At 13, he was riding winners

I no longer follow racing as closely as I once did, but I do skim what news that comes my way. And the other day I noticed that My Opinion was the favourite to win the South India 2000 Guineas.

With a name like My Opinion, could there be a connection with Own Opinion, a winner of nine Classics and considered his finest horse by MAM Ramaswamy of Chettinad who once ruled the Indian Turf? Sure enough My Opinion was from the some stable as the legend, the Chettinad establishment, but was no progeny of Own Opinion. Another part of the story intrigued me even more though and that was that the favourite was to be ridden by A Imran Khan.

And that was a name that was to take me back to September 1993 when I featured in Madras Musings a young teenager under the headline ‘The country’s youngest riding pro’. No one till then had noticed this 13-year-old apprentice jockey from the Madras Race Club Riding School who was riding with the best and winning races. That was Imran Khan, son of BK Amanullah Khan, a jockey who became Principal of the MRC Riding School.

Shortly after featuring Imran Khan, I bumped into MAM one day and asked him whether he shouldn’t be giving the boy some rides considering what he had achieved — eight wins in his first 48 races. MAM thought the boy was too young, that he needed to iron out a few technical faults and he was not too sure whether he was a champion in the making. Ironically, 25 years later, the same Imran Khan was riding winners for the House of Chettinad — though not bringing in My Opinion as a winner in the ‘Big’ Un’.

Imran Khan started riding when he was five years old. A year later he had graduated from ponies to horses. At eight he was riding in Gymkhana meets and at nine won his first race at such a meet. He got his Apprentice Jockey’s licence when he was 13 and weighing 35 kg. He started his first year with winners in Madras and Ooty. At that time he considered racing as a hobby and wanted to become a doctor. But the racing bug must have bitten him hard and he is one of the best jockeys in India today.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 3:44:20 PM |

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