Saturday, February 28, 2009

The city's Sarai

Abdul Hakim was a reasonably wealthy businessman in Visharam, a town about 150 km west of Madras. He had inherited a successful hides and skins business from his father; bursting with ideas, he must have travelled to Madras many a time to do business with the leather buyers who came to George Town from Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and the Punjab, not to mention the British, who were there for trading, anyway. The hides and skins business continued to be successful and Abdul Hakim, now with the suffix of Saheb, moved into public life through several charitable acts, largely directed towards education in his native Visharam. The Melvisharam Muslim Educational Society that he founded in 1918 continues to be active, most recently in setting up the C. Adbul Hakeem College of Engineering at Technology.

Influenced in some small way by his contemporary Rajah Sir Ramasamy Mudaliar, Hakim Saheb turned his attention to the traveller to Chennai and built a rest house near the Central Station, quite close to the Choultry built by the Rajah. So it was that bands of travellers to Madras in 1920 now had one more excellent facility to put up their feet and relax. Named after Hakim Saheb's father, Siddique Sarai has separate quarters for men and women, as well as a mosque for the men. The projecting balconies with their sloped shade keep the sunlight out and the traveller cool.

Unlike the choultry, the Sarai has been in continuous use since it was opened and is a shade better maintained than its neighbour!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Complex entrance

Here's one more rajagopuram; unlike the one pictured on this blog earlier, this gopuram is as old as the temple and not a later addition. Also, this is the entrance not just to one temple, but an entire complex, with at least 10 sannithis (sanctums), a goshala (dairy) and lots of space, both open and covered, for devotees to sit awhile. There is also a garden with 27 nakshatra lingams - according to lore, the 27 stars of the Hindu lunar calendar have worshipped at this temple at some time or the other.

It does appear to be a temple beyond time; the stones on the outer wall appear to be sagging from the weight of the ages, but most of the complex is reasonably well preserved. Inscriptions on the temple pillars date it back to the time of the early Chola kings, about 1500 years ago. Looking at it from the bustle of present day Chennai, or even British Madras, Tiruvottiyur appears a rather odd location for such a large and prestigious temple. The Thyagarajar temple (or more completely, the Thyagaraja Swamy udanurai Vadivudaiamman temple) is therefore a very visible reminder of the existence of a thriving town - one among several that have now been embraced by Greater Chennai - long before the British arrived.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Middle school

The Corporation of Chennai runs free schools for children from extremely poor families. Though these schools lack facilities considered rudimentary by those from the more privileged sections, that must not be held against them. Students in such schools come from a mileu where a healthy child not going to work is seen as a loss of revenue - the incentive for parents to pull children, especially boys, out of school is very high. As for the girls, education was seen as a burden: for, according to them, no man would like an educated wife.

With all those factors against them, the Corporation Schools continue to function reasonably well. They get through the basic syllabus and give their students a feel of the opportunities available. At the high school exams, students from these schools have been registering a 'pass-percentage' of over 90% consistently over the past 5 years.

This school - and others like it - together have over 142,000 students in them. When the Corporation began its schools department in 1912, there were 40 schools under their wing. Today, the Education Department oversees 360 schools, including a Urdu High School and a Telugu one!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sporting arena

Home - rather, office address - to almost all sports associations in the state, the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium is the best venue in Chennai for track & field events or football matches. It would be a great experience to watch an exciting match or soak in the thrill of serious running and jumping when the stands are full. But the capacity has rarely been tested, mainly because neither athletics nor football arouses serious passions in a Chennaite. Sure, Nallusamy Annavi first came onto the national scene at Madras about 20 years ago with his record setting high-jump effort, but he never considered himself a Madrasi and the fever his record created died out pretty quickly.

As for football, the stadium is rated for international games, but memory strains to recall a decent international football match here. There have been matches of the South Asian games and suchlike, but none that featured high-powered international stars - and there are few local stars in the game.

No wonder then that the stands appear deserted almost all the time. A few hundred spectators watching a league football match or a state-level athletics meet will hardly serve to fill the 40,000 seats in this stadium!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Crossing the street

It is rather difficult to believe that the humble pedestrian crossing turns 60 this year, having first been introduced at a thousand sites in Britain in 1949. It was done on an experimental basis, arising from the 1949 UN Conference on Road and Motor Traffic, during a 'Pedestrian Crossing Week'. In 1951, the pattern and the colours of the pedestrian crossing were formalised as the familiar alternating black and white stripes - within no time, they were being called 'zebra crossing'.

Once the zoological reference had been made, Britain seemed to wade into it time and again when naming their pedestrian signs. Apart from the zebra, there is the Pelican (Pedestrian Light Controlled) crossing, the Puffin (Pedestrian User Friendly Intelligent) crossing and the Toucan (Two-can) crossing - and then there is the Pegasus crossing, found near race courses. For more explanations of these crossings, click here.

Chennai doesn't have any animal crossing, other than the omnipresent zebra. This zebra moults, so it's coat has to be re-painted every once in a while. And here are a couple of policemen at it, early in the morning before the traffic starts to pick up. In 2007, the then Joint Commissioner of Police (Traffic) submitted before the Madras High Court that the city has 310 zebra crossings. That would take some painting, for sure!

And all along, one thought it was only the chicken that crossed the road!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Tangy stuff

What would south Indian cuisine be without this fruit? There would have been no sambar, rasam or puliyodarai without this tangy fruit to give them their distinctive flavour. It is a challenge to eat this fruit by itself, straight from the tree - not too many people would do it because the flavour is sharp and if you haven't ever tasted it, will wake you up double quick!

Almost every part of this tree can be used; the leaves and flowers are used in several dishes. The fruit, of course is the most commonly used part - eaten raw, pounded into a pulp with sugar added to it, stored in earthen pots and brought out a little at a time to add heft to the stock for sambar or rasam - a few years ago, small globules of these, sweetened with sugar, almost became a competitive advantage for one of the airlines, forcing everyone else in the skies to serve the same sweets.

For all that, this is not a native Indian tree. It came to India from Africa, but that move happened a very long time ago. Even the name - which has its roots in the Arabic phrase for 'date of Hind'- has a double dose of India in it. With a name like Tamarindus indica, it would be pointless trying to prove its foreign origins!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Heritage building

Arvind Adiga, author of 'The White Tiger', the Man Booker Prize winner for 2008, has strong ties to Chennai. To put it another way, Arvind's great-grandfather, Dr. U.Rama Rau was a man who contributed significantly to the development of Madras. Among the many things that Dr. Rama Rau did was to nurture the Music Academy, be a co-founder of the Indian Medical Association, establish the south Indian arms of the Red Cross and the St John's Ambulance Association, edit medical journals such as the Antiseptic and Health, all without neglecting the practice of medicine from his clinic on Thambu Chetty Street in George Town.

On a recent walk down the street, I was looking for some evidence of Dr. Rama Rau's descendents, many of who are still medical practitioners in Chennai. The closest I could get was this building: Sudharsana Building, dating from the early 20th century, housing Dr. U.Venkata Rao's clinic. It is as likely to be someone entirely unconnected with Dr. Rama Rau as not. But the combination of a heritage building (the picture of Krishna reminding one that Dr. Rau also had a pharmacy called Sri Krishnan Brothers) and the names of the doctors practicing there tilt the balance towards this being the same premises - 323, Thambu Chetty Street, George Town, Madras - that Dr. Rama Rau ran his practice from!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rest a while

Hotel Tamilnadu is a brand owned by the Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC). In most places around the state, Hotel Taminadu properties are recent creations, built by the Corporation itself. It is therefore somewhat curious that the Hotel Tamilnadu in Chennai is housed in a building which is more than a hundred years old. There is no record of the exact date when this building was completed, but it is reasonably estimated as being a late 19th century edifice - sometime around the 1880s. The TTDC took over this building a few years ago and has taken some care to clean up the facade and give it a lick of paint; thanks to that, one is inclined to forgive them the tacky 'Hotel Tamilnadu' sign that's up there.

This building has always been a rest-house; look closely at the black band below the sign and you'll notice it says "Rajah Sir Ramasamy Mudeliar Choultry", in Tamizh, English and Telugu. In colonial India, especially south India, choultries were free rest-houses, where travellers could stop overnight. With rail travel booming in popularity in the late 19th century, there was a need for such a rest-house close to Madras Central and the philanthropist Raja Sir Ramasamy stepped in to fill the need. Raja Sir Ramasamy was a self-made man, having to fend for himself (and probably his family, too) when his father was declared insolvent soon after moving to Madras from Pondicherry. Ramasamy started off as a dubash (interpreter) for an export-import company and must have done very well, for he had several titles - Rao Saheb, the CIE, the first Indian to be Sheriff of Madras (after 157 Britishers), the knighthood in 1887 and then the title of Raja for all the work he had done. With such a string of titles, it is pretty clear that he was no ordinary dubash, but a fine human being. There are many other charitable insititutions he founded - but I'll hold on to those for a separate post, sometime later.
This building itself is rather quaint; one enters through a thinnai to a series of rooms arranged around small courtyards; there were six such series, one of which was reserved for the Raja and his family. The other five were open to general public on the basis of their religion and caste: one for Mudaliars, Naidus and Pillais, one for Brahmins, one for Chettiars and Marwadis, one for Mohammedans and finally, one for native Christians and Eurasians. Hotel Tamilnadu makes no such distinctions, of course, even if some of the rooms are out of bounds!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Old and new

A locomotive in front of the Tambaram EMU workshop. Not sure how old this one is, but it is certainly not as old as the workshop itself, for it was installed there only in 2006, to mark the platinum jubilee of the workshop.

"Ancient Platinum", indeed!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Cut the clutter

It took me a long time to understand that 'mess' had another meaning than just a clutter. Until that knowledge took the charm away, it was fun to imagine a building where army officers would drop their stiff, disciplined, spit 'n' polish image and start mucking around. As a kid, everytime I saw this sign at St Thomas Mount, it took me to an image of officers behaving in the most un-gentlemanlike fashion.

In fact, even after learning that 'mess' could also describe a dish, or a place where meals are served to a specifc group, it was difficult to wipe away the earlier image. It was merely modified to one where the officers were being extremely clumsy about eating their food!

This was one of the two signs which fascinated me as a child; the other one is here

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Music hall

That's not really a fitting description of this building currently. But when it was opened in 1953, it was meant to be the premier hall for music concerts. The Music Academy was more a wandering minstrel rather than a court musician in those days, the inauguration of its permanent home almost a decade away. In the meantime, Raja Muthiah Chettiar was consolidating the musical legacy of his father, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar; a legacy that was based on bringing Tamizh music to the level of the Carnatic stage. The Raja was passionate about it, and had even started a college for Tamizh music as far back as 1929.

In 1943, he founded the Tamil Isai Sangam; given that his house was farther to the south, it might today seem somewhat surprising that the 62-year old Raja chose to base his Sangam in the Esplanade area. But in those days, there were still enough lovers of classical music in George Town and further north. Plus, the concentration of Carnatic music fans in the south of the city might have prompted the Raja to get as far away from them as possible. In 1953, when this building was inaugurated, it became the headquarters of the Tamil Isai Sangam.

Raja Annamalai Mandram, as this builiding was named, is but one of the several reminders of the enormous influence of a giant of Madras. It is a pity this building does not get its share of public mindspace as a temple of music!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Counting bars

The last inmate walked out of the door a couple of years ago, towards the end of 2006. Well, he may not have walked out, but would have been taken out in a vehicle, being moved to his new home at Puzhal. Since then, the Central Prison at Park Town had been lying empty, waiting for the wreckers. Until a few days ago, when the DGP (Prisons) decided that the gates would be open for public to visit the prison compound and take a look at the prison blocks. The public, of course, came in their thousands. For the vast majority of these visitors, the only image of a jail was a little room in the movie, where the convict with the heart of gold, when being released would tell the warder, "Aiyya, naan poyittuvaren": to which the official would reply, "'Poyittuvaren'nu sollatheppa, 'poren'nu sollu"*. Reality was ghastly - the less said about it, the better.

Built over a 11-acre space in the middle of the city, the Chennai Central Prison was built in 1837. It replaced an older debtors' jail which was itself close to the 'Blacks Town', and was used for almost a century. The prison blocks reflect the thought of those days, the cells stern and unforgiving, the walls high enough to deter climbers and yet not so high as to cut off all view of the free world outside. Later, with the suburban trains passing just outside the western wall of the prison, inmates would be reminded every now and then of the rush of the world outside. The Chennai Central Prison was not the largest in the state, for it was originally intended as a transit remand camp, where convicts would be housed for a few days on their way to one of the larger jails: pre-Independence, it was a holding point en route to Kala Pani in the Andamans. Later, it became a stopping point by itself.

The new complex at Puzhal, covering Central Prisons I & II, has a capacity of accommodating 2500 prisoners; that's double the capacity that the Chennai Central Prison had. But spread over 212 acres, the Puzhal complex would surely have no sight of freedom for the inmates looking out through its bars!

* Transliterated, the dialogue is "Sir, I will go and come", with the jailor replying "Don't say you'll 'go-and-come', just say you're 'going'".... a line that has become hackneyed over decades of use! See more pictures of the Chennai Central Prison complex here.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bigtop backyard

The circus is not what it used to be. The government banned lions and tigers from performing in travelling circuses a few years ago and that was one of the last nails in a coffin that seems to be waiting for the final one. The ban no doubt helped hundreds of the big cats to be rescued from a life where they were caricatures of their natural self; at the same time, it brought down even those companies where the animals were being treated with care. Today's circuses do not offer much by way of wildlife, depending on human skills to keep the audience enthralled.

And there are still many who are in awe of the performers. Acrobats and gymnasts in their glittering costumes, the dare-devil motorcycle riders defying gravity and motion-sickness as they spin around inside a globe, the clowns trying hard to be funny: there is still an audience that takes them all in. In Chennai, that audience knows where to go when a circus is in town. Shows have always been at the South India Athletics Association ground, no matter which company is putting it up. Once the cirucus comes to Chennai, it takes a while for it to go back; with high cost of transport for the human and animal performancers, and the set up costs at a new location, the circus stays on in a city for at least three months.

The picture here is the backyard of the Gemini Circus, currently on at the SIAA grounds in Chennai. One of the old-time companies - Gemini had its first performance on Independence Day in 1951 - it still struggles to find ways to meet costs, while competing with movies, TV and the X-boxes. Away from the crowds, the glitter is gone, just the dull grey remains!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The land of the King

Of course India claims the game for its own, because it has evolved from the ancient game of chaturang or shatranj, both of which even sound similar to 'chess', as the game is known now. Chaturang ('four arms' or 'four divisions') is reputedly the more ancient game, known so because it simulates the four sections of the armies of yore - elephants, chariots, cavalry and infantry. During the 6th and 7th centuries, chaturang spread to Persia, where it became more formalised. Some of the common terms used today were adapted from the Persian descriptions (e.g., 'Checkmate', being derived from 'Shah mat', meaning 'the king is dead'), as the game spread from Persia to Europe, where the rules of modern game were crafted.

Tamil Nadu, and Chennai, can lay claim to having fostered India's current high profile in the world of chess. Though chess in India is most commonly associated with Viswanathan Anand (read his piece in 'Time'), India's first Grandmaster, the game's popularity was earlier nurtured by Manuel Aaron, the first ever International Master from India, and the first chess player to be honoured with the Arjuna Award for Chess. Aaron moved to Tamil Nadu from Burma (then a British colony), where he had most probably leant his basics; Anand whetted his appetitie for chess as a seven-year old in the Philippines. Thanks to Aaron's efforts and Anand's fame, Tamil Nadu has been a force in the national chess scene - and the Tamil Nadu State Chess Association has several tournaments conducted under its banner throughout the year - almost one every fortnight, on an average.

At this tournament over the weekend - the Chennai district selection tournament - there were only 3 categories: under-7, under-11 and the senior open. There were about a 150 children taking part in the under-7 & -11 categories put together - and there were several children who were in their early teens, or even less, taking on the seniors in the open category. Talk about catching them young!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chaos Central

That's what it seems like, doesn't it? The Chennai Central railway station has such a fascinating - and distinctive - forecourt that one can actually spend hours watching the ebb and flow of life at its doorstep.

As I watched this afternoon, the crowd seemed very disciplined; they were waiting for the light to change. It did, to allow the vehicles to make their left turn on to Poonamallee High Road. The crowd, too, chose that exact moment to dash across the road. There are a couple of cops, and a prowl car, too, in this photo (can you spot them?), but what's one man or a car against half-a-hundred determined jaywalkers!

Friday, February 13, 2009

The pillar

Though Anna Nagar was the first properly planned and laid out part of Madras, it was not the city's first attempt at creating a 'colony'. That honour goes to a part of the city that was once a vast guava grove, just beyond the place where the Nawab of Arcot used to stable his horses. The stable doors were bolted after the horses disappeared quite a while ago; the groves stayed on for longer. Sometime in the early sixties, in a fit of national pride, a large clearing was made in the grove and a tall pillar was erected. The pillar was topped off with the Lion Capital from Sarnath - which is the National Emblem of India.

Within a year or so, four roads radiated out from the pillar and they were criss-crossed by others. In a limited way, the area was segregated into housing, commercial and educational sections. Circa 1964, when it was kind of ready for occupation, naming it was easy though it went back all the way to the 3rd century BC. Emperor Ashoka, who ruled over most of today's India in those years, who set up several 'lion capitals' over his empire, also lent his name to the township.

Ashok Nagar shows little signs of its original plans today. The pillar continues to tower over it; and 'Ashok Pillar' continues to be one of Chennai's most recognizable landmarks even today!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Birds of a feather

Islands of Barringtonia at the Vedanthangal sanctuary; and no, the white specks are not Barringtonia flowers or jasmine buds. If you click on the photo, you'll get to see they are all birds and that most of them are made from the same feather. Those are the egrets; somewhere in between them are a few grey herons. It is easy to make them out for they are not only slightly larger, but have grey feathers unlike the all-white egrets.

200 years ago to the day was born a man who looked not only at the feathers but also the beaks of small birds that he saw - and collected - on a voyage to a group of islands as a 22-year old. It took him another 28 years to put together all his thoughts into a coherent theory, one that shook up the world of natural science. It is a nice coincidence and somehow appropriate that the world celebrates both the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his work "The Origin of Species" this year.

Celebrations of the man's birthday in Chennai are muted. There were a few posters around which indicated that the significance of the day has not been entirely missed!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reverse image

'Just Married' vehicles are not a common sight on Chennai roads. Also, the cars - limos, if you insist on calling decorated sedans that way - hired during weddings usually come with windows covered with sun-control film in several shades darker than what's seen on this car.

So it is very likely this car is a wedding gift, to be parked outside the marriage hall for the guests to marvel at. While the newlyweds would not use it to travel on their honeymoon, it would be the one for their use when they settle into domestic bliss. At least that is how it used to be; a couple of months ago, there was this newspaper article about a 'gift-car-market' having blossomed in north India. That was around the same time this photo was taken... is there such a market coming up in Chennai too?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

From Maharashtra to Madras.

It looks like just another temple. If it is a Friday, you'd probably be sure that it is just another of those 'Amman' temples which become animated on Friday afternoons with the womenfolk coming by to offer 'koozhu' to the Goddess who is the main deity here. Add those crowds to the packed mass of bodies that is Thambu Chetty Street and you have a potential recipe for a longjam lasting into next Wednesday.

That's what comes of having a gopuram which seems to be mass produced rather than one created just for this temple. The rajagopuram seen in this picture is just about a couple of decades old, having been set up in the late 1980s. What the it hides is a temple that has been at this spot for at least 300 years; legend has it that the temple was originally closer to the sea, but was re-located to this spot in 1640. That may not be borne out by available data and records, but more reliable is the visit of Chhatrapati Sivaji to this temple. On a campaign to south India, Sivaji stopped overnight at the nearby Armenian Street. He then offered prayers at this temple on October 3, 1677. Inside the temple there is a picture of Shivaji and a plaque recording his visit.

No one seems to know what the outcome of Shivaji's campaign of 1677; it must have been successful, for Shivaji became a nuisance beyond any borders for the British!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Messenger for Peace

It really didn't matter what the lady spoke about; the platform was 'Roots and Shoots', but having been founded by her, it still hasn't grown to such an extent that it can ignore the cachet that comes from being a 'Program of the Jane Goodall Institute'.

Of course there was talk about the chimpanzees, the ones that Dr. Jane Goodall, D.B.E., studied and lived with during the 1960s and the 70s. It was thrilling to have her speak in Chennai, to encourage everyone to get involved with some effort - any effort - to make the world we leave behind an environmentally safer one than what it is today. Having a local showpiece - the Olive Ridleys nesting in Chennai - made sure that anyone inspired after her talk yesterday could kick into action right way!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Laid-back house

As with most things old and stately, this house - Mithila - on TTK Road would also be easy to miss, but for the sudden contrast it makes with its neighbours. Where all the other buildings along the road try to get as close to the road as possible, this one stands back, allowing a sweep of driveway to get to the house. Walking down the driveway, one gets a chance to admire the different trees that have been planted all around the house, creating a feeling of it being more jungle lodge than house.

It is a house, of course, one that has been well maintained by Mrs & Mr Nagoji Rao. The high ceilings, topped off with the Madras Terrace - something that I had not seen for long years - helped to keep the heat off one's back. At first look, the house appears symmetrical, but it is not entirely so. Of course, the verandahs on the sides have now been covered with grilles and are therefore quite different from the one in front. But it is the corner rooms that are fascinating; two of them are heptagons and the other two are hexagons, something that is not recognizable until one is actually inside those rooms.

The house was built in 1931 by T Ramachandra Rao, who was a descendent of one of the oldest Maharashtrian families to have settled in Madras. Ramachandra Rao was a successful businessman, and was also very much into public life. It is certainly not a coincidence that the Maharastra Nivas in Chennai is just a couple of doors away from Mithila!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Terrible lizard

Sir Richard Owen searched around for a word to describe the creature whose fossils he had found and chose to make a portmanteau of the Greek words deinos (fearful) and sauros (lizard). He probably didn't realize that the word would go on to become a cover-all for an entire set of creatures that came and went over a span of 65 million years. Today, kids under 10 will reel off the names of at least 20 individual species of that era without once thinking of them as dinosaurs - but that's the only way adults seem to be capable of describing them.

It is heartening to see that the Children's Museum in Chennai does not pander to adults, but gives the Tyrannosaurus its proper name on their website. This fibreglass model was installed, along with that of a Stegosaurus, about 25 years ago and has been quite popular with the visitors; in fact, there is a museum at Palayamkottai which has replicated it for its display. Even allowing for a liberal interpretation of what the Tyrannosaurus might have looked like, the eyes make it out to be more fearful than fear-inducing; the colours have been changed over the last generation. I seem to remember both animals being ruddy-brown when they made their first appearance, rather than the green-and-cream scheme they've been bestowed with now.

Interestingly, Greek mythology also describes Deino as a gray witch, who shared one tooth and one eye with her two sisters. This dino does not have to do things like that, at any rate!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sports day

'tis the season to be sporty!

Sun's not too cruel, most of the acads are done, the exams are just that couple of days away - so, have fun on school sports day!!

Thursday, February 5, 2009


As kids, it was an outing that we looked forward to with a mixture of excitement and horror. The trade fair (The All India Tourism and Trade Fair) was the place where one could gorge on panjumuttai without the grown-ups pouring cold water all over it, where their barriers to buying bubble blowers or camphor-fired boats were waiting to be smashed down, where one could walk around aimlessly for a few hours watching all the glories of 'India is my country'. That was the excitement part of it.

The horror came in several forms; the dread of being separated from the group and becoming an easy target for one-eyed kidnappers - well, that's how all the movies showed them, whenever the kid was to be napped from a fairground: the revulsion on seeing pictures of careless jaywalkers smashed to pulp on the posters urging everyone to use pedestrian crossings: the pickled embryos of chicken, sheep and such other beasts that the Animal Husbandry department threatened us with, year after year.

Things haven't changed too much, but the fair has become an 'Industrial Fair' and is more gaudy than it used to be. There is no horror now, however, for it is all 'fun' and 'joy' all around. A few embryos are still floating, but are 'presented scientifically'. The cotton candy still wisps in the breeze; but the breeze brings the real-world stench of the Cooum and the Buckingham Canal - they can't do much about that traumatic reality!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

That's the limit

If you remember, the site of today's Dare House was, in 1758, the site from where Comte de Lally shelled Fort St George with his cannons. Today, it is not possible to see the Fort from there; but 250 years ago the only structures between the cannons and the Fort were the dwellings of the first 'Blacks Town' that had come up outside the north wall of the Fort. The cannons therefore had a pretty clear view of the Fort and pounded it with their fire. It is likely that the British were unable to retaliate - the Fort's guns, having to fire through the embrasures would have sent the cannonballs just over the houses of the Town, maybe even hitting some of the taller structures. That would have put them at a considerable disadvantage against the field cannons of the French, which could carve a parabola over the Town and into the Fort.

At least that seems to be the reason why the British decided to clear the area around the immediate vicinity of the Fort; it was now a major prize and had to be made unassailable. So, an esplanade was created, extending up to the point(s?) where de Lally's cannons were based (Sure, they did not account for technological advances...) and the new Blacks Town was created beyond those limits. A survey in 1772 fixed the boundaries of the esplanade by raising six obelisks, each rising about 20 feet high.

Only one remains; maintained by the Murugappa Group, it is painted in the same colour scheme as Dare House is; that is one reason why the passer-by will miss the inscription on the granite slab at its base, saying "Boundary of the Esplande, 1st January 1773"!

(click on picture to enlarge - the inscription can then be seen)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Keep the fires burning

This is a real throwback - mainly because I haven't seen such a thing in Madras even when I was a child. LPG has become so ubiquitous that it is difficult to remember what it was like in the days before it was so easily available. Memory goes back to several kinds of stoves that used kerosene as fuel; it was fun to muck around with cleaning the wicks, draining out the dregs of kerosene and getting the stove ready for another day's cooking. Many of them were like the ones shown on this site; they were refined, keeping safety and efficiency in mind, to look something like the ones here.

Still, all those memories are of kerosene stoves only; wood stoves and Madras do not appear together and it was with a snooty look that we kids would look at the wood stoves in the kitchens when we went back to our villages for the holidays. City kids, not knowing that wood-fired stoves would one day become something that was accessible only to very few, that wood-fired cuisine was more haute than not.

Here's this kitchen in a house - no, a 'pile', as Wodehouse might say - where wood is a must to cook the day's meal. Scant consolation that there is an LPG stove; the cook told us that it was used to get something ready for sight-seers like us!

Monday, February 2, 2009

High Price!

Someone remarked a few years ago that the only advertisements on Malayalam TV channels were for umbrellas, wedding sarees and gold jewellery. Since then, a few other categories have been added, but gold seems to be ruling the roost even today. Tamil Nadu has several other advertisers, but even then, advertisements for gold jewellery are common enough to be noticed. For those with upward economic aspirations, gold is a significant measure of their having arrived - to the extent that McKinsey Global Institute titled their recent report on consumerism in India as 'The Bird of Gold', recalling a description used by traders in the first millenium CE.

Today, it looks like only those who are at the top of the pile can think gold once again; prices have touched a 10-year high and are expected to break the $1000 / ounce barrier soon. The grouchy investment scenario does not offer too many alternates to the metal and jewellers are probably having a good time.

This 10-storey showroom of Joy Alukkas in Chennai was inaugurated barely a year ago; touted as the largest exclusive gold jewellery showroom in Asia, it is symbolic of the firm's plans to become the leading gold jeweller in the world by the end of the decade!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Road to riches

Theoretically, at least two, if not actually three sedans, can go abreast on this street, though the last time such tricks were tried must have been quite a few decades ago. These days, the wise man does not bring his car into Thambu Chetty Street, or any of the other business passages adjacent to it. With no pavements, everyone on foot is right on the road itself. On either side, is a mix of commercial- and residential-use buildings; the ground floor is given over to the shop, showroom or warehouse and the upper floors are used by the family and possibly some living quarters for those working in the shops.

Thambu Chetty was one of Beri Thimappa's aides; over time, he grew to become a Chief Merchant of Madras. It is likely that he would have lived in this street, or at least very close by. This area, north of Fort St George, was called Blacks Town and was settled by the native traders who had come to this part of the world, drawn by the newly created 'factory'. Much later, in the early 20th century, it was renamed George Town, to commemorate the visit of King George V. With its proximity to the harbour and to the industrial belt of North Chennai, George Town has been a hub for all kinds of businesses; many prominent industrial firms had their first offices along one of these streets and several retain them, if only for sentimental reasons.

These paths are always choc-a-block; there are no windows to shop at, unlike retail shopping spots like T.Nagar. Every pedestrian is intent of getting somewhere, and quickly, keen to make that one deal which will propel them out of these streets!

As with the first of every month, today is 'Theme Day' for City Daily Photo Bloggers; view the various interpretations of the theme 'Paths and Passages': Click here to view thumbnails for all participants