Friday, September 7, 2012
In 1834, the Asiatic Journal reported that, "the cause for extra subscriptions to the Monegar Choultry no longer exists, the poor creatures having been all forwarded to their native places....on the 31st of August, only 1,079 distressed objects remained...". It is hard to imagine that the 'objects' being talked about were actually people; people who had to be sheltered at the Monegar Choultry to help them tide over the famine of 1833-34 that killed nearly 200,000 across Guntur, Nellore, Masulipatnam and Madras. There is nothing to show how many were saved by the kindness of Monegar Choultry, which was arguably the first public charity of the city of Madras.
The Choultry was set up in response to an earlier, even more miserable famine: that of 1781-84, which probably left upwards of a million dead. (One report says 10 million, but that seems too fantastic a figure). The Famine Relief Committee rented a building just outside the North Wall of the city - maybe by design, to keep the destitute outside the city walls, or maybe it was just the only one available - to serve as the soup kitchen of its time. Or maybe it was because there was a village headman - a manaiyakkaran - running a kanji centre nearby; people would know where to go to be cared for. So manaiyakkaran became 'Monegar' and the Choultry grew famous under that name. So famous that, despite being renamed as the 'Raja of Venkatagiri's Choultry', the old name continues to be displayed and referred to all around.
This building is the oldest - but certainly not from 230 years ago - survivor of the Choultry's history. An even earlier practice, that continues still, is that an inmate's relatives (who probably cared little for him/her during the lifetime) have no claim to the body after his/her death. The cadaver is automatically sent across to the nearby Stanley Medical College's anatomy department. The destitute, in death, trying to ease the burden of the living!