Wednesday, February 6, 2013
How many times have you seen a shrine within a building? Especially when that building, from the outside, does not appear to have much to do with religion?
Paramananda Doss and Chotta Doss began their silk trade in Mint Street in 1888, becoming one of the first in south India to source cloth from Benares. They had printed catalogues detailing their products - embroidered cashmere shawls, Calcutta linen, China white silk, khilat and kincob pieces - all of which would have been quite exotic to the good people of Madras. Their prices were reasonable enough and the brothers were fastidious about quality to the extent that their patrons were comfortable in sending "their orders by post". In fact, their displays won "gold medals and first-class certificates" at the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition three years in a row - in 1903, '04 and '05.
With business being good, the brothers put aside some money to charity, constructing a dharmasala just north of today's Chennai Central station. It had the traditional central courtyard, open to the sky, around which were arranged rooms for travellers. Whether it was to cater to the spiritual needs of the travellers or to prevent them from getting too high-spirited, I am uncertain; but this shrine in the central courtyard came up a little after the building itself. The pujas and rituals continue here to this day. Sadly, succeeding generations of the Dosses seem to have got themselves mired in litigation and, as far as I can make out, the firm does not exist in its original form today.