Saturday, June 14, 2014
In the mid 1800-s, the start of the Great Choultry Plain was marked by a large garden, next to St George's Cathedral, belonging to the Madras Horticultural Society. This society was established in 1835 and may quite possibly have been inspired by the one that was established in Calcutta in 1820. Dr Robert Wight, the Scottish botanist who was the driving force behind the Society was certainly a man who got around. The Calcutta Monthly Journal for 1836 describes Dr Wight sending a dissertation on Joomlah Hill Rice to the Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society of India; that Journal also describes the General Meeting of the Madras Agricultural and Horticultural Society on October 8, 1836.
Strangely, the Calcutta institution did not take the Madras Society in its fold. There does not seem to be any one reason for this, but it could be due to the Governors of these cities trying to be one-up over the other. The Governor of Madras was the chief patron of the Society and he was probably loath to hand over control to his Calcutta counterpart. The 22-acre space given to the Society was probably well used by Dr Wight to conduct his experiments as well as to document the specimens that were collected from all over south India. Helping him in the documentation were 'native artists' Rungiah and Govindoo. Much of their work was shipped to England. The Royal Botanic Garden at Edinburgh has the works of Dr Wight and his artists in their collection.
When Cathedral Road was built, the Society's gardens were divided; the part on the south side was comparatively neglected and in 1962 was handed over to Krishna Rao, a restauranteur, who created the first drive-in restaurant in India. The title to the gardens were in dispute for a very long time; finally, sometime in 2008, the courts ruled in favour of the Government, which has now full control of the Agri-Horticultural Society. The drive-in closed in 2008 and was developed into the Semmozhi Poonga. The part on the north side of Cathedral Road continues to be a woodland, with a nursery and this building having the Society's offices (?) inside. But the composition of the Society itself seems to be a mystery - all that is known is that it is run by the state government!