Saturday, February 21, 2009
Rest a while
Hotel Tamilnadu is a brand owned by the Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC). In most places around the state, Hotel Taminadu properties are recent creations, built by the Corporation itself. It is therefore somewhat curious that the Hotel Tamilnadu in Chennai is housed in a building which is more than a hundred years old. There is no record of the exact date when this building was completed, but it is reasonably estimated as being a late 19th century edifice - sometime around the 1880s. The TTDC took over this building a few years ago and has taken some care to clean up the facade and give it a lick of paint; thanks to that, one is inclined to forgive them the tacky 'Hotel Tamilnadu' sign that's up there.
This building has always been a rest-house; look closely at the black band below the sign and you'll notice it says "Rajah Sir Ramasamy Mudeliar Choultry", in Tamizh, English and Telugu. In colonial India, especially south India, choultries were free rest-houses, where travellers could stop overnight. With rail travel booming in popularity in the late 19th century, there was a need for such a rest-house close to Madras Central and the philanthropist Raja Sir Ramasamy stepped in to fill the need. Raja Sir Ramasamy was a self-made man, having to fend for himself (and probably his family, too) when his father was declared insolvent soon after moving to Madras from Pondicherry. Ramasamy started off as a dubash (interpreter) for an export-import company and must have done very well, for he had several titles - Rao Saheb, the CIE, the first Indian to be Sheriff of Madras (after 157 Britishers), the knighthood in 1887 and then the title of Raja for all the work he had done. With such a string of titles, it is pretty clear that he was no ordinary dubash, but a fine human being. There are many other charitable insititutions he founded - but I'll hold on to those for a separate post, sometime later.
This building itself is rather quaint; one enters through a thinnai to a series of rooms arranged around small courtyards; there were six such series, one of which was reserved for the Raja and his family. The other five were open to general public on the basis of their religion and caste: one for Mudaliars, Naidus and Pillais, one for Brahmins, one for Chettiars and Marwadis, one for Mohammedans and finally, one for native Christians and Eurasians. Hotel Tamilnadu makes no such distinctions, of course, even if some of the rooms are out of bounds!