Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rare, very rare

Can't think of too many 'theme' restaurants in Chennai; Sparky's Diner may be one only because there is no other diner, there are (were?) a couple of movie-themed restaurants a while ago, but the list more or less ends there.

And yes, there was (is?) the Rainforest in Adayar where the sounds of thunder and rain were supposedly more exciting than the food. The Cave, which opened about 6 months ago on Mount Road seems to be from the same folks who came up with Rainforest. Themed as a pre-Stone Age eatery, it certainly let's you know that right at the entrance - the gorilla and assorted monkeys sharing cliff-space with what's meant to be a stone age man. It seems to be that they've got the food part better this time around.

I prefer my meat very well done, though!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lone star

Just across the Binny headquarters on Erabalu Chetty Street is this "Star House", the Zonal Office of the Bank of India. The current holder of that title is the fourth to be so named - the other three of course died out long before this one was started.

The star logo of the bank was redesigned in 2006 to mark the centenary year of the bank. And thanks to that, this building has a crown that can be seen from quite a distance away!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Assemble here!

If you were in Chennai last Saturday - the 13th - you could not have missed the inauguration of the new Legislative Assembly and Secretariat building complex. After 53 years, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly met again within the Government - now named the Omandurar - Estate, having spent those years meeting at Fort St George.

It is the first Legislative Assembly in the country to be awarded the LEED-Gold Certification; that's not the highest level of 'Green-ness' for buildings. But it missed (or rather, opted to not go for) the LEED-Platinum certification for 2 reasons: using an air-cooled system for CO2 monitoring, which consumes more energy than a water-cooled system and having bright facade lights, keeping in mind security and aesthetic concerns.

But even then they can switch off the lights in the daytime can't they!

Monday, March 22, 2010

The 'Old Pagoda'

There is apprently a reference to this temple going back to 1652, but I have not been able to find that. However, James Talboys Wheeler, in his 'Madras in the Olden Time: 1702 - 1727' refers to a document "signed by President Baker, Agent Greenhill and Mr. Gurney dated in the year 1652", concerning the settlement of a dispute between the Right-Hand- and Left-Hand-Castes in the area north of Fort St George. That document names this temple as "Malley Carjun's old Pagoda", the use of the adjective supporting the claim that the temple is more than 500 years old.

Legends of the temple founding date it to between 800 and 1000 years ago: the discovery of a Siva lingam in the midst of a jasmine (malli) garden - apparently this area was thick with them - led to the construction of this temple. Today, the area is thick with various business establishments; many with tiny, one room offices, keeping the wheels of commerce moving through from the port to the city and beyond. In the midst of all that hubbub, the Mallikeswarar temple on Linghi Chetty Street is an oasis of serenity. In the past few years, the rajagopuram, built by a devotee in 1923 has been renovated and the teakwood temple car has also been restored; in 2008, the car went out on its festival run, after a gap of 58 years.

But if it is the 'Mallikeswarar' temple, how did it get corrupted as "Mally Carjun's Pagoda"? That's a riddle which will have to wait for another day!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Navroj mubarak!

Today is the day of the vernal equinox; and a day when Parsis celebrate Navroj (or Navroze), their New Year. A very happy Navroj to Chennai's small population of Parsis (between 200 to 300 of them).

I'm sure they'll be celebrating this Navroj with more than the usual celebrations, for 2 reasons: firstly, because this is the first one after the UNESCO included Navroj on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009 and secondly, closer home in Chennai, this year marks the centenary of the Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-Meher (the Fire Temple) of Chennai.

Here's a detail from that temple: Faravahar, a symbol reminding us that the purpose of life is to live in such a way that the soul progresses towards union with the supreme divinity!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Where are they?

The first ever World House Sparrow Day celebrated today seeks to put the spotlight on the plight of these little chappies, mainly because it is assumed they are in no danger of dying out. They were all over Chennai, once upon a time. Today, they are to be seen only in a few localities, places where urban development, in a sense, has remained where it was about a generation ago - like Linghi Chetty Street, where today's picture was taken.

The fall of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) has been attributed to several factors, from modern buildings not having the eaves preferred as nesting sites by the sparrows, to microwave radiation from cell-phone towers. Some of them seem reasonable but some border the consipiracy-theory category. This is not just a Chennai-only phenomenon, but really a global concern; as yet, the IUCN does not regard the P. domesticus as being a 'vulnerable' species, though they acknowledge that the population trend is declining. Researchers too are hard pressed to come up with an explanation that covers all the facts, especially when many still believe that the house sparrows continue to be as common as it was during their childhood - even if they can't remember having seen them near their apartment.

One reason, from a Chennai newspaper a few years ago: "With diminishing tolerance among the younger generation, sparrows are denied entry into houses to nest and breed. People even enlist expert opinion on how best to get rid of nesting sparrows." Well, they did create a lot of noise and a bit of mess in our house during my childhood, but I'd rather take that than have these little birds go extinct!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hello, strangers

Three boys, posing for the camera in front of what was once the Crown Theatre on Mint Street.

I know little else about them - unlike my friend Ram, who runs the other daily photo blog on Chennai (and who runs a once-a-week post on 'People'), I take very few pictures of people that I normally have no idea who they are!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

No more dynasties

As early as 1947, the Government of Madras entered the business of providing bus services, introducing a fleet of 30 buses in Madras city. In the early 1950s, the government imposed its monopoly on the city's bus services. The takeover of private bus services in the rest of the state was pursued more vigourously in the late 1960s: the policy of "progressive nationalisation", as it was called, first resulted in the long-distance services becoming state-owned in 1967. In 1972, four more corporations were formed, to run bus services in four cities of the state.

They were named very aptly: the three dynasties which reigned during the golden age of the region gave their names to the transport corporations of their former capitals - Pandyan for Madurai, Cheran for Coimbatore and Chozhan for Thanjavur. Though a lesser dynasty, the Pallavas were renowned enough for their name to be bestowed upon Madras' service; and so, in 1972, the Pallavan Transport Corporation was formed, as a company, rather than a government department. For almost 20 years, these four - and the Thiruvalluvar Transport Corporation, handling long distance services - were the only companies providing transport services. In the late 1980s, however, politicians began splitting these corporations and naming them after lesser lights. A spate of such renaming in the 1990s saw the state having 19 such. The last straw was when the Virudhunagar Division of the Pandyan Transport Corporation was spun off as 'Veeran Sundaralingam Transport Corporation' in 1997 - mobs aggrieved that their idol (whoever that was) was overlooked in favour of Sundaralingam burnt the buses with his name - a spree that went on for quite a few days, until the government decided that enough was enough.

So now, the state has 7 Corporations: the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) which handles Chennai, the State Express Transport Corporation which handles long-distance services and 5 variants of the Tamilnadu State Transport Corporation (Villupuram, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Salem and Coimbatore). For many Chennai residents, the buses of the city are still PTC - for Pallavan Transport Corporation, even though that connection remains only in the name of the MTC's headquarters - Pallavan Illam, seen in this photo!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The second lighthouse

If you think the column in the foreground is a completely un-functional piece of work, you would probably be right. The major functional element of this column used to be what was on top of it; 120 feet above the ground was housed the arrangement of Argand Lamps and reflectors, supplied by Chance Brothers of Birmingham, flashing signals to the traffic on the Madras Roads.

Much taller than its predecessor on top of the Fort Museum, this Doric column lighthouse was designed by Capt J.E.Smith. It took about 6 years to build it and it became fully operational in 1844, although it was in intermittent use as early as 1841. The column was placed in the Esplanade, outside the walls of Fort St George. A photograph taken circa 1855 shows the lighthouse with its crown; a crown that was given up to the city's third lighthouse in 1894!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Breaking the pattern

The otherwise regular pattern of buildings along Mount Road is broken by this facade opposite the LIC building. Must say the building is rather photogenic, it certainly looks better in the picture than it does in reality - does startle you for a moment when you see it suddenly!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Patron saint

In the early 18th century, a few families of Durgarayapatnam heard about the wonderful opportunities for boatmen who were ready to risk the surf at Madras and handle the ship to shore traffic for the traders. And so they came, to stay in the shadow of the new Fort St George, bringing in cargo and crew from the Madras Roads to the fort. Over the next few years, many of them turned to fishing, while other families joined them. By the 1740s, these seafaring people had thrown in their lot so much with the British that when the French took over Fort St George in 1746, the Chepauk community moved to Fort St David (at Cuddalore) with the British and then helped the British navy in their quest to re-possess Madras.

Fort St George's gratitude had a good memory; when changes were made in the way goods were delivered on the Madras shore, the fishermen - and other 'boat-people' had to move. To compensate for the move, Fort St George granted them about 45 acres of land further north of the fort. The fisherfolk moved there in 1799, built a church for St. Peter, their patron saint. In 1824, they decided that their church was to be re-built - the revised version was consecrated in 1829.

With the new church came disputes over ownership. It was only in 1867 that the Madras High Court handed it over to a board of trustees set up by ecclesiastical authorities. Since then, the church has been developed - the structure seen here is not so old, but the church itself has been around in some form or the other since 1799 - giving name to the area: Royapuram, for Rayappar, the Tamizh name for Peter!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chennai Super Kings!

Oh, well, it is just a photo-of-a-photo. The photo was on the wall at the office of ShowSpace, who were managing Chennai Super Kings. It is a picture that dates back almost two years, to the first season of IPL, but hey, I'm off to watch today's match, so enjoy the colours here - if you aren't at the stadium already!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Local bank

Ever since I learnt that the man's first job was with this firm, I couldn't pass this building without thinking about Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. One reason could be that it was definitely more English looking than its neighbours, being in the Edwardian style rather than the Indo-Saracenic which is more common along Rajaji Salai. The effect is heightened by the gleaming white exteriors, contrasting with the red-brick of its neighbours, especially the Chennai GPO and the State Bank of India buildings.

Though the building was completed in 1923, HSBC got its hands on it only in 1959, as part of the takeover of the Mercantile Bank of India, which had its offices here. The site itself has an older provenance, having been the offices of 'The Mail', one of the earliest daily newspapers of Madras!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Where elephants dared?

Once called 'Anaikara Konan Street', the name was shortened after references to caste were removed from public names. Because it is close to the Elephant Gate, it is easy to figure this as having been the place where the mahouts gathered.

But then again, it might have been anything else - street names sometimes lack logic, you see!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Escaping the heat?

Chennai is moving towards its 'hotter' season and folks are already getting tired out, thinking of ways to beat the heat this year. Such thoughts are undoubtedly a common thread we have with the city's yesteryear residents. One such must have had this building as the ultimate answer to the Madras summer - in rather grand style, it is named 'Summer House'.

Coming up just before Zam Bazar, on Bharathi Salai (Pycrofts Road), there is not much else around to indicate who the house belongs (belonged) to or why it was thought of as merely a seasonal residence!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Break journey

Looking at the time this picture was taken - 0833 hrs - I assumed that the Chennai Central was experiencing that slight lull when the first rush of the morning's work has given way to thought about that cup of coffee.

However, there is no real break worth its name for more than 15 minutes at Chennai Central; trains are either coming or going at all hours of the day, except between 2345 when the last trains for the day leave (the Ahilyanagari Express, Raptisagar Express and the Korba-Thiruvananthapuram Express) and 0215 when the first trains (Chandigarh-Chennai Express and Dehra Dun - Chennai Express) arrive.

The lack of crowds at this time was probably a freak phenomenon; like one of those ghost traffic-jams, a ghost break-in-the-journey!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Peeking in, peeking out

Kids at the entrance of the Thirusoolanathar-Tirupurasundari temple, trying to find out what is happening with all the photography. In the distance, one of the peaks of the Pallavaram hills.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Curtain raiser

It is the newest of the city's concert spaces, but it is more than a just a stage. With a grand semi-circular frontage, Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall offers a great venue for performances. Within two years of being open to the public, it has become the venue of choice for not only concerts, but for art exhibitions and any kind of performance in general.

The superb acoustics of the hall are complemented by the excellent equipment. Comfy seats let you enjoy the performance without having to twist and turn for that correct positioning. And there is adequate space for parking - the advantage of being able to use the space of the Lady Andal School after hours.

And though I haven't had a chance to see one such yet, the hall has a provision for providing 'surtitles' - projected on the stage, above the performance space - to enable translations of plays into another language, should it be required!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lonesome George

Under the pretext of easing traffic flow around the new Assembly complex being constructed on Mount Road, the magnificent statue of King Edward VII which was there has been carted away. Even more mindlessly, and shamefully, the statue of King George V near the War Memorial was also hacked off - both father and son are now covered in sackcloth and dumped somewhere on the grounds of the Government Museum. Sad.

The argument that the statues were reminders of the dark period of imperialism may have been valid at some time, but both Eddie and George had become part of the city's landscape over the years. If nothing else, the statues were much easier on the eye than several others that had come up at various street corners.

Now, the only statue of King George V that remains is the one on NSC Bose Road. Presumably, it has been left standing because it was put up by public demand and sponsored by Govindadoss Chatoorbhoojadoss, who was Sheriff of Madras in 1914 when this statue was unveiled. Today it stands alone - but keeping a watchful eye on all the vehicles around!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Half-a-dozen names

Founded in 1869 by the Maharaja of Vizianagaram and funded by Sir P.S.Sivaswami Ayyar sometime in 1918, this school has gone through five names and is currently on its sixth. It is quite likely this name would not be changed and the school will continue to be known by its current name - Lady Sivaswami Ayyar Girls' Higher Secondary School.

Some say that Sir Sivaswami Ayyar sold his house to finance this school; there doesn't seem to be any direct link between the one and the other. However, it does appear that the money he bequeathed to this school came, at least in part, from the proceeds of selling his bungalow, Sudharma, to the Amalgamations group.

The names this school has carried over the last 140 years reflect its benefactors - the Maharaja of Vizianagaram initially and then, the name of the Society which has been in charge of running this school - The National Boys' and Girls' Education Society, Mylapore. It is only after Sir Sivaswami Ayyar's death in 1946 that the school was named after his wife - a name that has now lasted for 64 years with just a minor change!

Friday, March 5, 2010

They get their man!

This is truly an image from another era; maybe even forty years ago, the sight of policemen on horseback would have been enough to deter a miscreant in the mob. Their vantage point, looking over the heads and shoulders of people in a crowd, would have helped them spot suspicious characters from a distance; a policeman on foot, or even from a prowl car, would not have had that advantage which comes from sitting tall in the saddle.

There is no predicting how much longer we can get to see the Mounted branch of the Chennai Metropolitan Police in action. Even as far back as 1860, the Police Commission Report stated that the "mounted bodies are exceedingly expensive" and that they were "more lawless" and "less amenable to control" than foot constabulary. Though that report also conceded that a mounted force is useful, for instance, to "check large Organized bodies of lawless marauders", it argued that the existing "Establishments of Horse placed on the lowest scale in regard to numbers". The police force of Bombay disbanded their Mounted Branch in the 1930s (though they're thinking of bringing them back, now); the Delhi Mounted Police, on the other hand, was set up in the 1930s. With a sanctioned strength of 95 mounts, they could have been the leaders, but they have only 62 horses on the street and thus fall behind Kolkata Mounted Police, which has 67 - and a history going back to the 1840s. Chennai can probably run Kolkata close in the history, but is far behind in horses - Chennai's force has only about 32 currently. The good thing is, that number has been holding steady for some years now, while Coimbatore and Trichy have had their mounted branches being eroded completely within the past 3 years - and Madurai is barely holding on, with just 4 mounts.

It may be archaic, but these policemen on horses seem to mean business far more than constables sitting an chatting in one of the prowl cars!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Forgotten escape

Although the Japanese did not make too many serious efforts to attack Madras during World War II, the threat of air-raids was real enough for the city fathers to change the landscape and create an underground shelter. The Japanese did make an attempt, however. Some say that it was only a training run by a Mitsubishi Zero (or a Rufe, the Zero's seaplane version) which dropped a bomb near the Fort St George and then never came back.

Not much is known of the bombing; unlike the half-hour blitz by the S.M.S.Emden in 1914, which added the word emden (or emenden, if you like), meaning 'fearsome' to the Tamizh lexicon, the Japanese bombing seems to have been too mild to be remembered. Indeed, memories of the threat seem to have eclipsed the fact of its having happened. The official website of Chennai district lists it as a 'historical event', though with the rather dry entry, "1943 Japanese Fighter Plane dropped bombs on City and disappeared". A more tangible memory of that bombing is displayed in the Fort Museum - a fragment of the bomb itself, mounted on a brass plaque alongside a similar fragment from its 'illustrious' predecessor.

Another memory, though a tangential one, is the film 'Andha Naal' - the main character ('Sivaji' Ganesan), a traitor leaking secrets to the Japanese during World War II, being murdered on the night the Japanese bombed Madras!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

English chapel

This building, in the grounds of St George's School on Poonamallee High Road, was built between 1883-5 as the house of prayer for the girls who were housed in what was the Female Orphans Asylum. Mr. Muthiah, that venerable chronicler of Chennai that was Madras, calls it "a little church that is straight out of a picture postcard scene of rural English chapel".

That it certainly is, the 'Englishness' highlighted by the use of the Celtic cross; it is probably a nod to the fact that the Asylum had its origins in a charity school of the Church of England. The fish-scale tiles on the roof are also a style that is not very commonly seen in these parts - one other building that has it is also on Poonamallee High Road!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Easy rider

It is not all that easy being a cycle-rickshawman these days. There are restrictions on these vehicles entering the main roads, so their trips are confined to the side streets. There was a time when they were all over the place, but from a high of 3.5% of total trips made (in 1992), their share has dropped down to 0.3% of total trips, in 2005. The drop has not just been in percentage terms, but in absolute numbers as well - from 35 lakh person-trips in 1992, to about 30,000 person-trips in 2005.

That's only to be expected, in the face of competition from autorickshaws and the growing two-wheeler population. Yet, there is still some hope for these vehicles. The II Draft Master Plan for Chennai specifically talks about using them as a viable para-transit option and specifically about encouraging cycle-rickshaws to operate between residential areas and transit routes. It may be an easy ride for the commuter then!

Monday, March 1, 2010


Happy Holi!

It is not a 'local' festival, but that doesn't stop people in Chennai from celebrating Holi; in fact, the celebrations began early! Because Holi this year fell on a Monday, the fun part began during the week-end itself. After the first round of colours - gulal smeared, coloured water sprayed with pichkaris - it was difficult to figure out who was who (and in the case of the kids, who was whose!)

In north India, Holi marks the killing of the demoness Holika; alternately, it is the celebration of spring's arrival at Vrindavan. For some reason, south India does not have an analogous festival - the spring festivals of the region are rather more prosaic. But that hasn't stopped folks from going around spraying colours or using the occasion to have more than a few swigs of bhang, a cold milk-shake laced with a herbal extract (?!).

And in true traditional style, the colours of the afternoon gave way to some excellent bhang - given its potency, I'm glad that I had just the right quantity of the stuff!