Thursday, December 31, 2009

New dawn rising

The sun rises over the Bay of Bengal, as seen from the Marina beach. May the New Year bring a lot of light, cheer, joy and prosperity to everyone, everywhere - have a great 2010, folks!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The main devotee?

One of the occupational hazards of being a 'dubash' (from 'dvi' = 'two' and 'basha' = 'language') with the East India Company was having your name twisted around and being anglicized beyond local recognition. Resilient people they were, the dubashes took it all in their stride, comfortably straddling two worlds separated not just by language, but also by customs and cultures.

One such dubash was Alangatha Pillai, who was prominent enough to be one of the first 12 aldermen of the Corporation of Madras - he was named in the Charter itself. Apart from being a dubash, Alangatha Pillai, or Allingall as he was referred to by the British, was also the chief merchant of the British East India Company in Madras, coming to that position in 1680. Even in the days before he became the chief merchant, Alangatha Pillai had built up a good deal of coin with his dubash skills. Like many good folk, Alangatha Pillai deployed some of his earnings to religion. While he was likely generous in his donations to several temples, it is believed that Alangatha Pillai was specially fond of Ekambareswarar, the deity at Kanchipuram. He was a regular visitor to that shrine until the governor (was it Streynsham Master?) put it to him that if he were to build a temple near the Fort, a great deal of travel could be avoided*. Putting that idea to work, Alangatha Pillai had the Ekambareswarar temple built on what was then the Washers' Street.

However, there are other versions which claim that the temple has been in existence for over 500 years now, dating it to a time before the British. In which case, Alangatha Pillai probably financed the temple's renovation, endowing it richly from his personal fortune. Because of his munificence, the temple was marked in the official records as "Allingall's Pagoda"; that name did not catch on and the temple continues to be known as 'Chennai Arulmigu Ekambareswarar Temple'. There is, just as soon as one steps inside the temple, this carving on one of the pillars, showing a devotee. It is believed this represents Alangatha Pillai, the chief devotee at one time!

* A similar story is said about the Varadaraja Perumal temple at Kaladipet, but that'll have to wait for another post!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Where's the bike?

That's a Rajdoot Yamaha RX-100, if I'm right. An old model - this bike is probably being overhauled ('overoiled') to be as good as almost-new!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Gateway to history

The calm of this stately gateway is a stark contrast to the bustle at the neighbouring Zam Bazar. There was a time when shehnai artistes would sit in the shade of the gateway, their music lifting the spirits of evening shoppers. Those days are long gone, but music still remains a passion for the residents inside this complex, the Amir Mahal.

At their head is the current Amir-e-Arcot, HH Mohammad Abdul Ali, who is the eighth Prince of Arcot. The first Prince, HH Azim Jah Bahadur, was granted the title in 1868 by Queen Victoria. That was to compensate, in some measure, for the vast properties seized by the British after the last Nawab of Carnatic, Ghulam Muhammad Ghouse Khan, died heirless in 1855. Out of the chaos surrounding the British governement enforcing the 'Doctrine of Lapse', Ghulam Muhammad Ghouse's uncle, who had served as his regent, was created the first Prince of Arcot. Part of that deal was that the family would move from Khalsa (or was it Kalas?) Mahal, where the Nawab's family continued to stay even after it had been taken over in 1859.

Amir Mahal was over 70 years old even at that time and needed a fair amount of renovation. The Royapettah Police Court, which was then functioning in the premises was moved out, and several repairs and modifications made to the buildings before the formal investiture of the title "Prince of Arcot" was made on April 12, 1871. The first Prince, though, never lived at the Amir Mahal - he requested that he be allowed to continue living at Shadi Mahal and so the first occupant was Sir Zahir ud-Daula, who succeeded to the title after his father's death in 1874!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Shore landing

In 1834, Thomas Babington Macaulay set off from Falmouth, and reached Madras on June 10 that year. Writing to his sister Margaret*, he says: "I do not know whether you ever heard of the surf at Madras. It breaks on the beach with such fury that no ship's boat can venture through it. The only conveyance in which people can land with safety is a road boat made and guided by the natives. It is a large, clumsy barge-like looking thing, made of rough planks stitched together, and so elastic that it readily yields to the pressure of the waves. A boat of this sort was sent off for us, and a dozen half-naked blacks, howling all the way the most dissonant song that you ever heard, rowed us with great skill to the shore...."

The boat which Macaulay writes about would most likely have been the 'masula boat', but even in those times, catamarans (from 'kattu-maram', meaning 'logs tied together') such as the ones in the photo would have been very much in use. Though motor boats and mechanized trawlers are preferred by many fisherfolk today, those who operate on a smaller scale continue to use these catamarans - of course you can see these boat bringing in the catch of the morning, a commonplace sight every day.

It is not easy to imagine what Macaulay meant when he writes about the fury of the surf at Madras; the hundreds who come to the Marina would imagine it is a different Madras. A different Madras indeed it was five years ago, when the tsunami of 2004 hit the city, taking with it over a hundred lives. The surf was indeed furious that morning - let's hope it does not happen again!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Resident's road

Like many of Madras' roads, Boag Road was also named after a senior civil servant who had his official residence there. It is likely that it was the only house on the road, when it came up sometime in the early part of the 20th century. In any case, the road leading up to Sir George Townsend Boag's house came to be called Boag Road, and continued to be called that until almost at the end of the 20th century.

Boag's name did survive for almost fifty years after he left India in the wake of the country's independence. His residence was then taken over by Kysamballi Chengalraya Reddy, the first Chief Minister of Mysore state. K.C. Reddy didn't stay there for very long, for his political ambitions and interests were outside Madras. In 1959, the house was purchased by Sivaji Ganesan, who was by then a very popular movie star. It was probably during the renovation carried out by Sivaji that the building acquired its Art Deco frontage; that renovation took quite a couple of years. When he moved into the house, Sivaji re-named it "Annai Illam" ("Mother's
Abode") - was it because he was also acting in a film of the same name during that time?

In 1995, Sivaji Ganesan was awarded the title of Chevalier of the L├ęgion d'Honneur; in 1998, South Boag Road (Theyagaraya Road had cut across Boag Road by then) was renamed 'Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan Salai'. Though the actor moved on to a higher stage in 2001, the house continues to be occupied by his sons, who consider it a memorial to their father. Surely, Sivaji's name will live on in the road much longer than that of Sir G T Boag!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Look out, above!

The idea was to get disabled-friendly, I guess. A ramp leading to an elevator which goes up to the overhead road crossing will certainly help senior citizens and those on wheel chairs to get across to the other side.

The shutters are still locked up, waiting for a formal inauguration. Would they open to allow everyone in? Or is there someone going to watch over the entrance and open it only for those who "really need" to use the elevator? Does anyone use this crossing at all?

Actually the first person who used the new construction was someone who got on top of it last week and threatened to jump off - luckily the Fire Service personnel got him before he leapt!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Room under the stairs

It was in 1793 that the "citizens of Madras", as represented by the Council in Madras, sent a letter to the President of the Royal Academy in London, expressing a desire to memorialize the military achievements of General Charles, the 1st Marquess Cornwallis. During his tenure as the Governor General of India between 1786 and 1793, Lord Cornwallis defeated Tipu Sultan in the 3rd Anglo-Mysore War. That was the crowning glory of his military career; a career that might have been consigned to the ashes when he surrendered to George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau after the siege of Yorktown in 1781. Luckily for him, King George III was favourably disposed to him and instead of being left in the cold, he was sent to India as the Governor General, where he redeemed himself in no small way.

And so the request from the Council at Madras, that the Royal Academy send them a statue executed under the "inspection of the Academy". The Academy assigned the task to Thomas Banks; the final sculpture, 14.5 feet tall, showing Cornwallis in all his lordly mien, standing upon a pedestal reached Madras sometime in 1800. One account has it that the statue was erected in Fort St George, while another says its first home was under a cupola at the junction of Mount Road and (today's) Cenotaph Road. That's a fine point, but the statue did spend time at that junction, which was when Cenotaph Road got its name.

The pedestal shows Tipu Sultan giving up his two sons as hostages, to be held until Tipu was able to pay the multi-million pound indemnity to win them back. Many thought this particular depiction was in poor taste (compounded by poor execution - the work on the base of the statue suffers greatly in comparison with the detailing of his Lordship) and that was probably one reason why the statue was moved to the Fort in 1906, overlooking the Parade Ground. In 1925, it was moved to the gates of Bentinck's Building, the then collectorate of Madras. That location was too close to the sea and the salt air did not agree with his Lordship. In 1928, he was moved to the Connemara Library and then, in 1950, he was moved to the newly purposed Fort Museum - and here, he only has room under the stairs!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dry market

A while ago, I'd written about the waning-but-still-there desire to buy fresh vegetables as directly as possible from the farm. Seeing this lady at Zam Bazar, I was reminded that it is not just the vegetables, but also meat which is sought fresh. There are several people who do not want to go anywhere near a cold storage, but prefer to get their meat fresh.

It is not like the 'wet markets' of Hong Kong or Singapore, but with no blood being spilled here, it doesn't need to be washed. But you'd better watch out for all the dust!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The final bend

That's what it is, the River Cooum turing due east as it heads out to the Bay of Bengal, marking the end of its 65-km run. During the past few days, there has been some renewed interest in the project to beautify Cooum, what with the Deputy Chief Minister reiterating the government's committment to not only beautify, but also restore the river to its glory days.

In those glory days, boating was quite common on the Cooum. Although there have been no boats for quite a long while now, skeletons of the boat houses are still around - you can see one on the right, just over the wall. It is rather surprising to see them standing even today!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Beam of justice

I don't think there is any other court of justice of which it can be literally said that it cast its beacon of light nearly 35 kilometres around. That honour can only go to the High Court of Judicature at Madras - that is because its tallest minaret, at about 175 feet, was taller than any other structure nearby when the court buildings were opened in 1892. Although I haven't been able to find anything to support it, my guess is that the minaret was designed to play the role of a lighthouse. It holds the record for being Madras' longest serving lighthouse, having been used for about 83 years, from 1894 to 1977.

The first lighthouse at Madras became operational in 1796 and was little more than a lantern with reflectors, housing a dozen coconut-oil burning lamps, placed on top of the Exchange Building (the Fort Museum of today). It was used for almost 50 years, when it was moved to the Esplanade, atop a Doric column built for the specific purpose of serving as a lighthouse. That column, which came into use in 1841, still stands inside the High Court complex, having given up its crown to be housed in the minaret of the Court. The Argand Lamps and reflectors, which began flashing on January 1, 1844, was supplied by Chance Bros., Birmingham and was replaced - rather, improved upon - in 1927 and by all accounts continued to be used until 1977.

So which is Madras' fourth lighthouse? All of you from Chennai would have seen it at the south end of the Marina, but that's subject for another post!

The minaret may not look so tall from this perspective, but an older post shows it standing head and shoulders above its cousins!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Letters, anyone?

The first formal postal services - maybe it is better to call them the Company's first postal services - in Madras were fairly rudimentary, with a dak runner to carry the Bengal mail. Madras got its first Postmaster General only in 1774, which was also the time when the company mail began to carry, for a charge, private letters also. Over the next few years, the public was likely fleeced with erratic charges for their private letters - and they were subsidising the expense incurred by the government, for all letters of Company employees were carried free. Mr. John Philip Burlton, a "junior civilian of eight years' standing" (now, what does that mean?) first wrote to Lord Macartney and then to the acting Governor of Madras, Alexander Davidson, in 1785, with a proposal to "establish a regular Tapall or Dauk upon a Plan similar to that at Bengal". It found favour with the authorities after a few rounds of consultations with civil servants of Bengal.

Meanwhile, Governor Davidson was succeeded by Sir Archibald Campbell - he wanted his private secretary A.M. Campbell to be in charge of the Post Office, with Robert Mitford as his deputy. That was not acceptable to the Company headquarters, since neither were Company employees; they favoured Burlton as the chief of the Post Office. As often happens, a compromise was struck and on June 1, 1786, the General Post Office opened near the Sea Gate of Fort St George with Mr. Richard Legge Willis as its chief. For the next 70 years, the GPO worked within the Fort. It was only in 1856 that it moved out to Garden House, in Popham's Broadway.

Nearly 30 years later, in 1884, it moved to this building on North Beach Road (now Rajaji Salai). The architect was Robert Fellowes Chisholm, who incorporated elements from Travancore, Bijapur and Gujarati architecture to come up with this building, which continues to be Chennai's General Post Office today. Though a fire in 2003 ravaged the rear of this building, the facade still stands as a striking example of Indo-Saracenic architecture!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Delhi, they call it...

One of the hangovers of the Madras Presidency days is that many people in the northern parts of India consider anything 'south of the Vindhyas' as being "Madrasi". And that was the explanation given to me by the shopkeeper at Dilli Haat when I asked him why this product was called 'Madrasi Saunf': "ye toh south mein log bahut khaate hain" - people in the south eat this a lot!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Who won?

It is quite characterless today, but 'Victory House' is a building that has seen a lot of action going on around it since the late 19th century. It was originally built for Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co., a Calcutta firm (here's a picture of their headquarters) which had branches not only in India/Pakistan but also in Ceylon, Burma and the Malay Settlements. It is not known what the building was called when it was built for Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co., but one story has it that after the Allied powers prevailed in the First World War, Whiteaway (or equally likely, Laidlaw), in a fit of pride, named the Madras branch 'Victory House'. Though the firm was quite successful in its other locations, it could never overtake the Spencer's of Madras and post-independence, found its clientele further dwindling.

The building was then bought by C.R.Srinivasan of the Swadesamitran for the newspaper's offices - their presses were in Royapettah, but perhaps Srinivasan was carried away by the symbolism: taking over 'Victory House' from its British owners reflecting the success of the newspaper's strident calls for 'self-rule'. Maybe he named it 'Victory House' after he bought it, celebrating that success. In any case, the newspaper itself fell away and was almost bankrupt by the mid-1970s.

It was sometime around then that The Swadesamitran Ltd began asking its tenants to move out of the Victory House, claiming that the century-old structure was unsafe for occupation. One of the tenants, who was paying a monthly rent of Rs.7,000/-, offered to buy the 10-ground property for Rs.20 lakhs. The situation became messy, with Swadesamitran going to court for an eviction and the tenant filing a counter-case arguing that Swadesamitran was backing out on their deal merely to raise the price. While I do not know the details of the arguments, or even the final judgement, it is easy to assume that the tenant won the case. Over the years since, that former tenant - VGP & Co. - has converted the entire building into one huge stockpile of consumer electronics and durables. Victory House has lost its earlier charm (you can see the earlier building in this picture, on the right) and has become one more nondescript structure on Mount Road!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Proof of herit-age

In their earlier avatar, Harrison's Hotel did not find any need to advertise their age. When you turned your vehicle into their tree-shaded front yard, you knew that this was an institution with a lot of years behind it. The low round cane tables with their red-and-white-checked tableclothes, circled by cane chairs, out on the verandah of their bar - or was it the restaurant? - proclaimed the elegance of an era that was long-gone even in during the 1980s. Once there, you were transported to some plantation far away from the city. Sadly, even the cuisine was modelled on the spartan aspect of the plantations, so it was truly a 'throwback' place.

No wonder that it was losing out on its clientele in the beginning of the 21st century. So, away went the front yard, and the two-storied structure. In its place came the swank new boutique hotel - Harrisons. Even now there is some debate about what it was called in its pre-renovation days: was it Harrisons, or Meenam (which is one of the restaurants in the new hotel), Queens or O'Papa? All four names seem to have been in use earlier, but today it is unequivocally Harrisons, with the words 'Since 1885' under it.

There does not seem to be any document going all the way back to the 19th century, though. In the lobby of the Harrisons, there is this framed letter dated March 10, 1914, from the then Governor of Madras, Lord Pentland, appointing "Messrs Harrison & Co., to be Caterers and Confectioners in ordinary to His Excellency...". In the new-age lobby, few people bother to even glance at this relic. Those who do might wonder what this has to do with the current avatar - the cursory caption does not really capture the heritage of the institution!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Waiting to fly

It was said this flyover would be ready in a year's time. It has now been fifteen months since work began on this, the latest Chennai 'high-rise' and it looks good enough to drive on. Problem is, the approach and side roads at both ends of the Cenotaph Road - Turnbulls Road flyover are in a state of complete mess, so it doesn't look like the flyover is going to be put to use just yet.

That's good news for a few of the kids from around the place. They have been using the nice, flat surface of the road as a cricket pitch over the past couple of weekends - at least there's some kind of 'driving' going on there!