Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gardens by the river

In the late 18th century, there was a proposal to plant a hedge to mark the limits of the city of Madras. Even though the proposal did not come to fruition, enough work was done on it to leave behind a record of the city's limits as they were in 1775. In those years, much of the city's development was to the north of Fort St George, because the larger trading posts of the British East India Company were in that direction. The northern boundaries were therefore regularly surveyed and updated, but to the south, the spread of the city was designated by rather arbitrary lines. It must have been natural for traders, with their newly earned wealth, to look for spacious real estate to the southern ends of the city, rather than to the crowded areas of 'White' and 'Black' Towns to the north of the Fort. The river Adayar thus became a natural boundary for real estate development by the nouveau riche of the 18th century; the 'hedge survey' of 1775 formalized the status of the Adayar river as the southern boundary of Madras city.

Right at the edge came up spacious garden houses. One of these was built by George Augustus Underwood, a former colonel in the Madras Corps of Engineers. Underwood had gone on to become a trader after leaving the services of the East India Company and had done very well for himself. His family however, was not too keen on the romance of the East and so after his death, the wonderful garden house he built, with steps leading to the Adayar river (maybe there was a boat house there, too), passed on to his creditors. In time, Underwood Gardens came into the possession of the Presidency Bank of Madras, when the bank was formed in 1843. In 1921, the Presidency Banks of Madras, Bengal and Bombay were amalgamated to form the Imperial Bank, which later became the State Bank of India (SBI).

Many of the neighbouring garden houses have been razed; Underwood Gardens still remains, as the residence of SBI's Chief General Manager (South Zone). Parts of the grounds have been given over to other goverment agencies and there is talk that Underwood Gardens is also due for 'modernization' - hopefully it will be done without destroying the old world charm of this garden house!

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