Saturday, August 30, 2014

Nucleus of a garden

This house and grounds have not changed since the time I first saw them as a school-kid, over 30 years ago. But in the 220 years or so since Dr. James Anderson built his house, the property has undergone several changes - and a lot of shrinkage. Dr. Anderson landed up in Madras in 1761, having completed his MD from Edinburgh, looking for a fortune in the territory of Fort St George. It took him a few years to be appointed as the Company's Assistant Surgeon at the Fort; that was in 1765 and over the next couple of decades, he rose to become the Physician General at Fort St George.

Dr. Anderson was keenly interested in botany. He set up the first botanical gardens in India, a 2-acre plot in Saidapet. That was not merely a hobby; the garden, more specifically called a nopalry, was intended to rear cochineal insects, whose secretions of carminic acid were the basic ingredient for carmine dye (used today in lipsticks and food colouring). These insects are native to South America, which meant that Spain controlled much of the carmine market; a situation unacceptable to the East India Company, which is why Dr. Anderson's nopalry was funded by them. The nopal cacti (g. Opuntia) are the cochineals' preferred hosts and with the nopalry, the East India Company was (probably) able to break the Spanish monopoly. 

With that, Dr. Anderson was as close to royalty within the East India Company. It was therefore no surprise that he was given a 110-acre grant of land in Nungambakkam. That grant covered the land between the Nungambakkam edge of the long tank - what today is Pycroft's Gardens - and extended all the way to the banks of the Cooum. (I am being a bit fanciful here, as I haven't really looked at any map from those years!). It was in these gardens, that Dr. Anderson built his second botanical garden - this time to grow mulberry bushes and silkworms. This was not as successful as the nopalry had been. Very early in the 19th century, Edward Clive (the 2nd Baron Clive) then Governor of Madras, had all the mulberry and silkworms packed off to Mysore - a move that over time led to Mysore being the home of sericulture research in India.

After Dr. Anderson's death in 1809, Anderson's Gardens was fragmented and acquired by various Company notables. This house, named after the man, on the road named after him, became part of the estates of the State Bank of India. Today, it lies in poor condition, used as dumping ground for the bank's furniture. A sad state of affairs for this house - to be overrun by worms and insects other than the ones its original owner grew!

For other school-kids who passed that way with me: No. Cochineal insects had nothing to with Cochin House being just a couple of hundred metres away.

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