Madras Miscellany | History & Culture

The towers of justice

As we head towards Madras Week, starting on August 20 and remembering Madras as the ‘First City of Modern India’, the Bar Association, the oldest in the country, is taking a head start by organising a meeting on July 12 to mark the inauguration of the High Court buildings on that day 125 years ago. This was a new home for justice in Madras and has remained with us to this day.

The beginnings of that system of justice was the establishment of the Choultry Courts soon after 1640 when Fort St George became the seat of Government for the territory it was granted and for other British settlements on the Coromandel. The Chief Justice of the Choultry Courts was the President (Governor) and his powers were enhanced by the 1661 Charter which permitted trial of all persons, European or Indian. This court held the first trial by jury in India, Mrs Ascentia Dawes being tried in 1665 for killing her maid (Miscellany, February 24, 2014). Thirty-six persons were summoned from whom a jury was to be selected. The accused challenged three of them. From the 33, six English and six Portuguese were sworn in.

In 1678, the Choultry Courts were superseded by the Court of Judicature, a court of appeal, and the former became magistrates’ courts. In later reorganisations of the judicial system, the Court of Admiralty, the Mayor’s Court, and a Court of Small Causes were additionally established. In 1796, a Recorder’s Court took the place of the Court of Judicature. The Recorder’s Court was replaced by the Supreme Court from December 26, 1800 with Sir Thomas Strange the first Chief Justice.

The Supreme Court functioned from Choultry Gate Street in the Fort, then in a palatial rented house where Tipu Sultan’s two sons had been held hostage, and, finally, in Bentinck’s Building (later the Collector’s Office) from 1817.

The High Court of today replaced the Supreme Court on August 19, 1862, with Sir Colley Scotland the last Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and first Chief Justice of the High Court.

Nearly 30 years later, the High Court moved with due pomp and ceremony into the majestic building purpose-built for it. Governor Lord Wenlock ceremonially handed over the keys of the new building to Chief Justice Sir Arthur Collins. Besides Sir Arthur, the first justices to sit in it were T Muthuswami Ayyar, the first Indian to grace its Bench, Sir George Parker, Francis Wilkinson and Sir Horatio Shepard.

The Governor in his address said, “The style of the building is Hindu-Saracenic, freely treated according to local requirements…Almost all the material used in the construction…with the exception of heavy steel girders…and some ornamental tiling, were manufactured locally…government kilns supplying all the bricks and a large quantity of the flooring tiles… A novelty is the lighthouse tower.”

The Chief Justice, responding, ended with stirring words: “I fervently hope that long after you and I, Your Excellency, have passed away to that undiscovered country, of which we know so little, there may also continue to be found men of ability and courage who will administer the law in these courts without distinction of class, creed or race.”

May the 125-year-old building, under restoration, celebrate during Madras Week the splendid service of its 155-year-old occupant.

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A great patron of Tamil

Born 150 years ago was the man who founded in September 1901 the Madurai Tamil Sangam, called by many the Fourth Tamil Sangam. Pandithurai Thevar of the Palavanatham zamin was kin of Bhaskara Sethupathi, the Ramnad rajah who, at a political conference in Madurai, backed to the hilt his kinsman’s call to revive the Sangam. Unanimously elected President of the Sangam, Pandithurai said he would follow the traditions set by the three sangams established by the Pandya kings.

A Tamil scholar from his youth, Pandithurai Thevar began carrying out his plans no sooner the Sangam was formed. His Madurai residence he donated to it. He established a Tamil college named after the Sethupathis and manned it with three leading Ramnad Tamil pundits, R Raghava Iyengar, M Raghava Iyengar and Tirunarayana Iyengar. The first-named, the Ramnad Court Pundit, he appointed editor of Senthamizh, a magazine devoted to promoting classical Tamil literature. He founded the Pandyan Library focused on the Classics and many of these he reprinted at a printing press he started. Till his death in 1911, when only 45, he headed the Sangam and ensured it played a significant role in creating a Classical Tamil renaissance in Tamizhagam and Jaffna. He made this possible by the college turning out Tamil pundits after rigorous examination and the journal publishing texts only after meticulous scrutiny at a time when Madras University was reluctant to institute a Chair for Tamil.

Pandithurai himself was a skilled writer of both Tamil prose and poetry, but he was best known for his Tamil oratory. He was a regular speaker, usually while presiding, at Tamil and Saivite conferences in the South. He was also a patron of Carnatic music. Scholars and musicians of the time benefited considerably from his generosity. So did VO Chidambaram’s Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company in 1906.

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 7:25:06 AM |

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