Where a thousand lamps burned

ACROSS FROM the Victoria Technical Institute and all the way along Mount Road to Thousand Lights were once mansions in acres of garden which have now given way to commercial development. These were the homes of rajahs and zamindars of the northernmost reaches of the Madras Presidency, what is today northern Andhra Pradesh and southern Orissa. They preferred to live closer to the seat of imperial power. Among those with homes on this stretch — and about whom, as I mentioned last week, I know little - were Bobbili, Kirlampudi and Jatprole with Jeypore further down and to the rear of the place of worship that is my focus today.

Of these homes, only Jeypore's survives. Given a new lease of life by a kinswoman, it is now known as `Amethyst'. Simple restoration for imaginative re-use shows how old buildings, heritage or otherwise, can be revitalised.

The fate of the other gracious homes that were on this stretch has not been as fortunate, but has certainly benefited the new developers. Huge automobile workshops, brightly lit automobile showrooms and a host of shops occupy the space. Amongst those ensconced here are the T.V. Sundaram Motors workshops spread over five acres, bought in 1945 at a lakh an acre. It was then the Rajah of Bobbili's Gopala Bagh and by it were Kirlampudi House and Kesava Bagh. I wish there was more information than merely names about this whole area, in which still survive once popular shops Dawn Stores and Nanking Shoes. Dawn was where Madras' expat population used to shop for tinned food and preserves before Amma Naana and the Food Worlds came along. And Nanking is where they still make shoes to customer measure. Modern commercial Madras has, however, dwarfed shops like these that were very much part of the ethos of the city 50 years ago.

Dating to at least a century before is what is popularly called the Thousand Lights Mosque. In its Assembly hall were once lit a thousand oil lamps by the Shias assembling during Muharram. The mosque has long been a landmark on what came to be known as the Great Choultry Plain, the area on either side of Mount Road. The plain is believed to derive its name from the `Woodlundy Choultry' shown in the records of 1721 as occupying the triangular wedge formed by White's Road and Mount Road. A similar wedge that Peter's Road and Mount Road form was where the Thousand Lights Assembly Hall was built about 1810 by a member of the Nawab Wallajah's family. Across from it was a well-known 19th Century Madras locality, Mackay's Gardens. This was the first garden house built on the Choultry Plain and had been raised by an erstwhile Mayor, George Mackay, in 1785. The name remained long after the property was acquired for his grandson Azim by the Nawab Wallajah in 1798 and renamed Azim Bagh. This acquisition resulted in the area developing as a Muslim locality and the names of several members of the extended Wallajah family were later lent to the numerous lanes that followed residential and commercial development on either side of the stretch of Graeme's Road.

To meet the religious needs of this growing Mackay's Gardens population, a member of the Wallajah family, Ghulam Asadullah Doula donated a further 80 grounds to the Assembly Hall (Ashoorkhana) that he helped rebuild. And on the gifted land facing the hall was raised a mosque sometime around 1820 for around Rs.1 lakh. This mosque was rebuilt around 1900 and renovated in 1936 by the Khaleeli Shirazi family, that eminent Madras-Bangalore family of Persian descent whose story deserves to be told to the wider public one day.

When the c.1900 mosque was assessed in the 1970s as needing major renovation as well as expansion, it was decided to build a new mosque. And in 1981, after construction was completed in a year, there came up the stylised new mosque seen today with the Abu Dhabi influence seen in the modernistic, onion-shaped domes and 63-foot tall twin minarets, with stairways inside, that face Mecca. The new mosque that can accommodate 1000 worshippers at a time was built at a cost of about Rs. 8 lakhs according to a blueprint supplied by the donor, Alhaj Ali Muhammad, an Abu Dhabi businessman. The architect was K.M. Asadullah Basha.

The striking features of the mosque are its five domes, four 16ft. high domes at the corners and a 30 ft. high, 20 ft. diameter central dome taking the height of the building to 52 feet. Another feature of the mosque is the green ceramic tile-panels that run around its inside and outside walls. The Arabic and Persian scripts used for the Koranic verses featured on the panels have been baked into the tiles.

Another feature of the mosque is the space provided for women worshippers on a special mezzanine floor, accessed from an exterior staircase and recessed behind a screen of wooden slats. A 20 ft. by 12 ft. tank, 4 � feet deep, for the faithful to wash before prayers, a garden, a library and a guesthouse are also part of the complex.

The modern mosque and the Ashoorkhana that stylistically belong to another age even after restoration, provide contrasting but striking architectural styles. It is a landmark that becomes vibrantly alive, particularly during Muharram.


Recommended for you