Friday, January 31, 2014

Chic house

In 1902, the company founded in 1879 by Alfred Hugh Harman changed its name to that of the town it was based in. The town council objected, saying that merely being the town's biggest employer did not mean the company could automatically take over the town's name. Their objects came to naught, and the Britannia Works Limited became Ilford Limited. In the early 20th century, India was still a large market for British companies. Circa 1915, the city of Madras had an Ilford Company, which was probably bringing in film rolls from the principal's factory at Ilford, Essex. 

There is not much more about the Madras company's history that I have been able to trace. Probably its fortunes rose and fell with its British parent, which, by the 1960s was owned by ICI and Ciba; the Ilford Co., Madras was bought out in 1977 by Saurabh Mehta, who was a distributor for Hindustan Photo Films. That purchase gave Saurabh the ownership of Ilford House, on Woods Road. The building had little going for it, architecturally or aesthetically, in keeping with its function as a storage house for medical X-ray film stock. By 1997, demand for such film had fallen dramatically and a large storage facility made no sense to Saurabh. Cannily enough, he found the perfect buyer; Fabindia, established in New Delhi in 1960, was expanding nationally and it needed space in Chennai. Saurabh realized that Fabindia would be the ideal tenant and struck a deal. 

It is quite counter-intuitive; Woods Road is narrow, crowded and further cramped by haphazard parking. It is not a shopping destination. Maybe that helped, because folks would then not be distracted with other outlets and would shop only at Fabindia. Even though the chain now has several other outlets in Chennai, it is only Ilford House which provides the 'heritage experience'! 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hidden store

Walking around the Mada streets around the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, there is only one place to slake your thirst. The problem is, if you go looking for it, you are quite likely to be disappointed, for there is no indication that this store has anything capable of cooling you down. Even though the English lettering on the side indicates a 'Cool Drink Stall', the main Tamizh sign - and the display of its wares - point more towards an outlet for newspapers and magazines. 

The Kalathy store has been operating from the same location (the southern end of East Mada Street) for 87 years. When it began its operations in 1927, India was still a generation away from independence, ice was a rare - and precious - commodity and even the choice of magazines was limited. The store got by with selling home-made sweetmeats and cooling drinks, along with a lot of items needed for pujas, as well as those things needed for the devotees' material comforts. For a while in the 1960s and '70s, it was one of many stores that were selling the same things. But Kalathy outlasted them all with a killer app: their rose-milk. 

A glass of iced rose-milk here costs `12. But it is a monopoly, for none of the stores nearby have anything close to Kalathy's rose-milk. The drink takes you back to the days of playing in the dusty streets, and, clutching those 3 or 4 coins, getting a sticky toffee and the cool refresher that no mother could object to, not when it was essentially milk. Today, you can choose to have it by the glass, or if you like, you can buy a whole bottle of the essence for `80. But I am sure that I will not be able to blend the essence the way Kalathy does, to taste their signature product!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


It has been over 26 years since the man was called to act on a higher stage, but even today heads turn to take a peek at MGR lookalikes. Because he was a popular actor and an even more popular politician, his doppelgängers are in demand for all kinds of reasons. It could be to open an evening of political speechmaking, or to be the putative guest of honour at some cultural function. Any of them is an occasion for the "புரட்சி தலைவர்" (Revolutionary Leader) to be present. 

I am not sure whether there was any competition for MGR lookalikes happening on the Republic Day, but here was one man walking down to the beach, all costumed to resemble the former chief minister. He could have very easily walked right up to the stage, but on the way, there were a few people who engaged him in conversation. Being 'in character', as it were, the man could not but stop and chat with his fans.

In some ways, it is quite easy to play brand MGR. The main elements are the white fur cap and the dark glasses - they conjure up an instant image of the man, that no further prop is required!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Replica stone

My first introduction to Prof. Humayun Kabir was by having to study his poem "Trains" sometime in the 8th or 9th standard. With a name like Kabir, it seemed natural that he was a poet; and it was only as a poet that I had thought of him until a couple of days ago. Even as I saw his name on this replica, my first thought was, "That's nice. They got a professor of literature to inaugurate an institute of technology". Somehow that seemed very much in place with a higher order of things, where technology merges with poetry and we begin to see fluid mechanics in stones and poetry in the swing of a robotic arm.

But no. My imagination had got ahead of my ignorance. It turns out that Prof. Kabir was much more than the writer of "Trains". In fact, he is more famous as a union minister than as a poet / writer. And it was as a union minister that he had come to Madras on July 31, 1959, to inaugurate the third of the Indian Institutes of Technology. The good folks in charge of running the institute have taken the original inaugural plaque for safekeeping. Visitors to the institute can take a look at this replica, which is positioned just outside the Central Lecture Theatre. 

The lettering is faded and it is a challenge figuring out Prof. Kabir's portfolio at the time of the inauguration: Union Minister for Scientific Research and Cultural Affairs. As I struggled to read it, I was thankful that Prof. Kabir was not one of those prolific poets, whose works are thrust on to unsuspecting schoolkids. "Trains" certainly made for more tedious reading than the words on this plaque! 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Empty road

They had blocked eastbound vehicles on Radhakrishnan Salai at the Citi Centre and had to try and find other ways to get close to the beach. Unfortunately for them, the entire stretch of Kamarajar Salai, and most of Santhome High Road was out of bounds for a few hours last morning. The Republic Day parade was taking place and it was not to be interrupted by private vehicles zipping about. 

Problem was, they weren't allowing cameras, either. At least not near the Gandhi statue, so one had to go around through the parking area of Queen Mary's College to get to the main road. By the time we got there, the martial parade had gone past and it was the dancers and musicians who were strutting their stuff. 

It was wonderful to see the number of people who had turned out to watch the parade. Kamarajar Salai looked strangely narrow, with the spectators spilling out on to the road itself, giving the cops a tough time. As the greeting telegram (No.19) of yore would say, "Long Live the Republic"!!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Twin towers?

Of course, neither can be called a tower, by any stretch of the language, or imagination. But this rather straightforward building, the Church of the Holy Rosary is something that passers-by would miss observing from the road. It is one of the many edifices that predate British Madras, having been built in 1635 by the Portuguese. Since then, the church must have been restored several times, but it has not lost its original contours or details. 

Inside the church, there is a great deal of natural lighting; the north-south orientation of the altar and hall allows the sun to come in through the many windows on the eastern and western walls of the building. The solid walls, easily a metre in thickness, do not let the heat come through easily and the interior of the church is cool - the ideal design for a Madras building. 

As in many other churches of the era, the interior walls also carry a few memorial tablets. The main entrance is through a door on the southern side. Being very close to the road, that entry seems quite cramped, with little space between the building and the compound wall. Most of the worshippers enter from the east, where a stubby, tiled passageway funnels them in from the grounds of the Rosary Matriculation School. It is a tough choice to make between the convenience of the entry and the chance to admire the grandeur of this 379-year old church!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Theosophy in Triplicane

The words "Theosophical Society" immediately call to mind that lovely 250-acre campus of Huddleston Gardens, on the southern bank of the Adyar river. That is quite fitting, since that campus is indeed the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society. However, there is at least one other place that carries the name, even though it is today a forgotten footnote in the history of the Theosophist movement itself.

This building on Raja Hanumantha Street in Triplicane, is named the "Mani Ayyar Hall", after (Sir - he relinquished the knighthood later) Subramania Iyer, who was one of the Vice Presidents of the Society in the early twentieth century. 'Mani Ayyar' died in 1924, by which time he had had a rift with the Theosophical Society. Therefore, this building was in all likelihood constructed by his followers, who may have styled themselves The Triplicane Theosophical Society, for that is what it says on the facade of this building. 

It is difficult to imagine now, but this building once hosted the annual conference of the Music Academy. The first conference of the Music Academy was in the Senate House, in 1929 and the next year, the conference moved a little further inland, to the Mani Ayyar hall!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Well named

From here, if you want to get to the soda factory, you don't have to ask anyone, really. All you have to do is to just follow the sign. Because I did not, there is no photograph of the factory itself - yet. Maybe it will still be in operation when I do get there!

Thursday, January 23, 2014


This picture was taken a few months ago. Did not pay much attention to what was being clicked at that time, but in the days since, have managed to figure out that most of the aircraft parked down there belong to Kingfisher.

It has been quite a while now since Kingfisher has shut down its operations. Maybe this was in the initial days, when they were still allowed to use their parking slots. Wonder whether they continue to be parked there today!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Hospital annexe

The Kasturba Gandhi Hospital in Triplicane has been serving the women of Chennai for well over a century. Though the hospital was initially established somewhere in Nungambakkam or Egmore, it moved to its current location at Triplicane very early on and has been functioning from there all this while.

The picture shows the out-patient department, across the road from the main hospital buildings. These must also be the same vintage as the hospital itself, judging by the nature of the building and the materials. The difference is that the OP department is a single storey-ed structure while the main hospital is housed in much taller buildings.

Unlike the namesake railway station, whose name has been effectively converted into a mockery ("Kasturibai") of the original, the hospital is still sticking to the Kasturba spelling, at least in the English signboard. The Tamizh version has gone out tentatively, claiming it to be the Kasturiba hospital!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Follow the herd?

Just when you thought the animals were all outside the city limits, here's something that makes you think again. But then, how else would you get fresh milk!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Not just the soul

You might remember that, in Chennai, the patron saint of drivers is the 'Bodyguard' Muniswaran. That appellation came about because of where the Muniswaran's shrine is located, but many drivers are firm in their belief that it is because of the special powers of this deity to protect the bodies - their own as well as that of their vehicle's. 

Further up Mount Road, a little after Pallavan Salai, is this board that is truer to the origins of the Bodyguard title. The Governor's Bodyguard was raised in 1778 and unlike many other units of the army, retained that title until it was disbanded. Though it started off as a Europeans-only unit, later expansion meant that it had to include the natives, of which there was a fair number of Musalmans. The unit had its barracks to the south of Fort St George, across the road from where Madras Gymkhana is today. The Europeans had their places of worship within the fort, but the troops had to make their own arrangements for worship. It appears that sometime towards the end of the 19th century, a mud-and-thatch structure was being used as a mosque; in 1904, with some public subscriptions, a more permanent structure was raised, and a full-fledged mosque began functioning there, with the Mullah being provided a room within the sepoy lines. 

The Governor's Bodyguard was disbanded in 1947. Some of the space that the troops were using was retained with the army, and most of the rest was handed over to the state Transport Department. The land where the temples and the mosque were located were of course handed over to the trusts that continue to administer them to this day. And yes, the sign points to the minaret of the mosque itself!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Fresh stuff

There are still a great deal of people who do not believe in stocking up on vegetables, but would rather buy them from day to day, or at least every other day. The vegetables are fresh and there is a belief that these have been spared any preservatives that the chains would soak their stocks in. That may be debatable. Each of these pavement vegetable vendors has to exhaust their stock at the end of the day, so the chance of vegetables rotting because the freezer was turned off at night (the store manager says he is under pressure to reduce power consumption in the store!) are nil.

This was once the default mode of buying vegetables anywhere in Madras. Today, most localities have one of the chain stores catering to the residents. Markets like these have been in retreat for a while, with just a few bastions clinging on. In fact, a more organized vegetable market at Thaneer Thurai, not very far from this one, has given way to a commercial complex. These vendors survive because they don't have any infrastructure - they can set up a stall by the roadside and start their chorus of extolling the vegetables' virtures. 

You could argue that such fragmented sellers will not give you the choice that comes from walking through the aisles of a large store. But hey, forget about an aisle, you have a whole street here to choose from!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Float on the water

The steps leading down to the temple tank of the Kapaleeshwarar temple were packed all around with devotees who had come to see the final day of the three-day Theppam festival at the temple. The Theppam is the float, of course, especially made for the festival and large enough to carry a sanctum, and a large number of devotees on it, around the edges of the tank.. 

The float moves through the water thanks to the efforts of a group of devotees who walk along the edge of the tank. It all looks very easy, but it surely must be quite an effort to pull it around nine times - and that was just on the final day, yesterday. On the first day, the theppam went around five times and then seven times the next day. 

It is not just the float that has been decorated and lit up; the temple gopuram was also all bright and colourful, as well as the mandapam in the middle of the tank. All together it made for a grand spectacle, especially when the moon rose and held its own for a while against these artificial lights!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Sports college

The first person to represent India at the Summer Olympics was the Anglo-Indian Norman Pritchard, who, it is said, was holidaying in Paris at the time of the Olympics in 1900 and was therefore persuaded to represent the country at the games. For the next twenty years, there was no India at the Olympics. In 1920, Sir Dorab Tata spearheaded the mission to send a contingent to Antwerp. That contingent comprised six sportsmen, who did not do anything that was newsworthy. That wasn't a surprise, for they had been hastily selected, and their travel uncertain, what with the money pledged coming to only about two-thirds of the estimated cost. It was Sir Dorab's personal contributions that enabled the team to go. 

Four years later, Sir Dorab was at it again. But this time, he was better prepared. He had enlisted the help of a pioneering institution in Madras - the YMCA School of Physical Education, which had been founded in 1920 by an American, Harry Crowe Buck. The Director of the YMCA, A.G.Noehren was made the secretary of the Indian Olympic Association and the selection of the sportsmen was through the 'Delhi Olympic Games'. The final contingent of eight members was evenly split between 'natives' and British / Anglo-Indians. Three of the eight were from Madras: Lakshmanan (Hurdles), Heathcote (High Jump) and Venkatramaswamy (the Mile) and the others were from Bombay, Bengal (2), Patiala and the United Provinces. H.C. Buck was the chef-de-mission and while the athletes did not really cover themselves in glory, they acquitted themselves well enough to ignite the Olympic movement in India. 

Since 1920, India has not missed any of the Olympics. The school started by Buck has now grown into the YMCA College of Physical Education, working out of a 64-acre campus in Nandanam, in the centre of the city. The picture shows one of the fields on the campus. The runner appears to be more fitness enthusiast than Olympic hopeful!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Words and music

There they are on stage, two of Chennai's favourite sons. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the elder one, is in conversation with T.M. Krishna, a star on the Carnatic music circuit. I can claim to be in the same class as Mr. Gandhi, for he said he knows little about music. (While saying that, he also reminded the audience about MS Subbulakshmi's response when Mahatma Gandhi praised her singing: What does he know about Carnatic music?) As the Mahatma's grandson, Gopalakrishna Gandhi was only being true to his heritage. 

Krishna's heritage, on the other hand, is steeped in the Carnatic music tradition. As one of the younger generation, he has - in my limited understanding - enhanced the tradition by trying to break out of the structures that had become ossified around the art. Of course that has brought him detractors, but it has also endeared him to the younger crowd, even those who might not be able to tell a ragam from a talam

What is the singer doing at a lit-fest? Well, primarily because the conversation was around Krishna's latest book, "A Southern Music - The Karnatik Story". Of course it was informative and entertaining - Krishna did a little bit of a lec-dem routine - and the Q&A session was fun. Even though Krishna did address it in a tangential way in the beginning, the question "Why have you narrowed South Indian music to Carnatic music?" did not get a full answer at the end!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Yesterday was Pongal, the harvest festival, marking the start of a new season of plenty, after the drab - in agricultural terms - month of margazhi. The winter cold is on its way out, now and the days begin to get longer. On Pongal day, the tradition is to worship the Sun God; it is the first day of uttarayanam, when the sun moves to a new constellation. 

Given the mismatch between the definition of a 24-hour day and the actual movement of the stars and the planets, the actual start of Pongal would shift every year. I know many people who did not celebrate Pongal at sunrise this year. They waited for the moment of the constellation shift (yes, they know.) to start their pujas and gaiety. 

The sun, of course, rose around the time it usually does and lit up the waters of the Bay of Bengal, as well as the sands of the Marina!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

City No.26?

The weekend that went by was quite packed. Apart from the Mylapore Festival that I had mentioned a couple of days ago, the weekend also saw the third edition of The Hindu's Lit for Life happening. The festival ended yesterday, but the photo is from Sunday's discussion about what India's Megacities represent to the country's people. Some part of Saturday was given over to the Mylapore Festival, including a wonderful talk on the Devadasis of Madras by Pradeep Chakravarthy (more about that coming up soon elsewhere!). So on Sunday, it had to be the Lit For Life. 

Any thought about the choice having "been made" was a bit premature. The Lit Fest had a few parallel events, and it was difficult having to flip a coin on where to go to. I do think we managed to cover 'all' the good ones... or maybe not.

The other highlight of the weekend was this article in the New York Times, placing Chennai at No.26 on the list of 52 Places to Visit in 2014. There was a lot more that the contributing writer could have written about the city. However, given that the music season is winding down, the Mylapore and literature festivals are done, the Book Fair under way, and hey, Happy Pongal, everyone... there is not much arguing with how she describes Chennai - "A cultural capital"!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Reserved parking

What better way to ensure that someone does not block your parking gate!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Decorated street

What happens when a hundred ladies converge on the North Mada Street of Mylapore of an evening, for four days in January? Well, one outcome is that a part of the street is completely cut off to vehicles, because the ladies would have come up with these intricate designs - the traditional kolams. The biggest differences between these and the rangoli that is more popular these days are that kolams are outlines and all in white, while rangoli allows one to fill in the spaces with colours of their choice.

These traditional kolams are part of the Mylapore Festival, which is in its eleventh year in 2014. This is probably the only 'competitive' item of the festival - and in the four days of the celebrations, it attracts the greatest number of visitors. Walking through the narrow space between the kolams, each of which is restricted to a 4x4 space, is itself a performance sport for many of the festival's patrons. 

If you want to see more of the designs, head over to the Festival's Facebook page. You will be amazed! 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Old hall

Edward, the second Lord Clive, during his time as the Governor of Madras, wanted to commemorate the Company's victory over Tipu Sultan. His wish culminated in this building, in 1802. John Goldingham, more famous as the astronomer of Madras, was the one who designed this magnificent structure. 

Does it remind you of the Parthenon at Athens? That was apparently the effect that Goldingham was aiming for. The original flight of steps leading up were much narrower, but flanked by sphinxes. These broader steps have added to the grandeur of this building, which was originally called the Banqueting Hall. Apart from the grand banquets hosted by the governor, this hall was also used by the University of Madras in its early years for its convocations. Much later, in the late 1930s, this was the seat of the Madras Presidency's legislature. 

After India's independence, this was renamed to honour the first Indian Governor-General, C. Rajagopalachari. Rajaji Hall became a warren of government offices and a spot for filming movie sequences. At least it was in the public eye then, but now, with most of the surrounding buildings of similar vintage having been demolished, Rajaji Hall sits rather uncared for!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Marker stones

Everyone knows that, over the years, Madras became smaller and smaller. First, it was the Madras Presidency, lording over almost the entire east coast of India, going all the way up to what is today the Ganjam district of Odisha; and then on the west coast, the Malabar and Canara regions, with the kingdoms of Travancore, Cochin and Mysore popping up like chocolate chips in the cookie, leaping across the waters to keep the Laccadive Islands in its folds.... Madras was grand. After independence, it was the Madras State, which lasted for a rather short term before the states reorganization in 1956 left it pretty much with the current outline of Tamil Nadu State. That re-naming of the state happened in 1969, leaving Madras as the name of its capital city.

And then, in 1996, there was no more Madras. Not as a geographical location. Chennai is nearly a generation old. But the name keeps popping up in different places. The two stones in this picture are from what is today the Radisson Blu Resort's Temple Bay at Mamallapuram. When it was first built, it was a government Guest House, later given over to the ITDC to build a five star hotel in the late 1960s. The ITDC's Temple Bay Ashok was much later privatised and passed through different hands before ending up in its current avatar. 

Somehow, it is nice that these stones from the original building have been preserved; I am fairly sure this was not their original positioning, but even if it was, it is nice to see how it has been blended in with the new layout. Coming upon these stones, one stops short, surprised at being yanked back in time in what one thought was a contemporary hotel! 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Crunchy snacks

No part of a city can claim to be a bastion of traditionalism unless it has some of the markers needed to prove it. No, not just curios or knick-knacks, but stuff that the owners / users / sellers do not consider anything other than real, everyday things, no matter how quaint it appears to outsiders. Getting into the Triplicane area, many Chennaiites would be completely at sea; even allowing for the antiquity of the temple and its environs, few would be prepared for such signs on what seems to be the door to a residence.

The sign clearly says that it is an appalam store. Vedas Appalams functions here at specific intervals of time in the morning and evening. Five-and-a-half hours of work split by an equally long siesta seems a wonderful way to get through the day. But then, how many appalams can you sell in an hour or five? To bad that it was a Sunday and the store was not going to open anyway. Any thoughts about asking the neighbours about appalams were frightened away by the words on the door: "If the door is closed, do not trouble any of the neighbours" - maybe I shall be back one day, to check these appalams out!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


The streets of Madras were first lit up by oil lamps in 1785. I have not been able to find much information about what kind of lamps they were, but they were surely engineered very well, to be able to continue to burn brightly even through the strong sea breeze that would set into the city every afternoon. 

It was a little over a century ago that street lighting in Madras was electrified. In 1910, when electric lamps were introduced on to the city's streets, they had to replace about 6,500 oil lamps. The lamplighters now had to ensure that the switches were turned on at the right time. Or maybe, like it still happens in some of the semi-urban and rural areas, they had to plug in the fuse carrier at dusk and yank it out again at dawn. 

What you see in the picture (you can click on it to blow it up) are two lamp-posts from the early days of electrical street lighting. No, not the fixtures - as you can see, they have been crudely fastened on to the old posts. But I do not think that all the posts were quite so short, for I have seen at least one that is taller. What with the kind of cherry-picker trucks these days, today's lamp posts don't require the crossbar that you see on these; without that support, the lamplighter would not have been able to place his ladder firmly on these posts!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Chennai's music season is drawing to a close, and as usual, I have missed every concert that was on offer. Of course there was some kind of a list that was drawn up, of where to go to listen to who, but it just remained on paper. All the greats - legends as well as contemporary idols - of Carnatic music performed at the usual spots. 

One of those spots is the Ayyappan-Guruvayoorappan temple at Mahalingapuram. The "gaana gandharvan" of Carnatic music, Padma Bhushan K. J. Yesudas. Since 1974, he has not missed his annual performance at this venue even once - I remember that I first saw him singing here in 1977. Over the last four decades, it has ceased being remarkable that a Roman Catholic unfolds a plethora of devotional, as well as other songs at a Hindu temple. We had landed up at the temple without knowing that it was the Yesudas evening; the only spots free of audience were in front of the sanctums. All attention was focused upon the man with the divine voice. 

I don't think anyone was disappointed that evening. Except us. We had to preserve our 100% record of not attending any concert this season; we were unable to spend any time to listen to the man. But he will be back next year, and Deo volente, so will we!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Bladeless fan

You see, Watson, but you do not observe!

As the world’s first consulting detective Sherlock had good reason to be observant. I started looking closely at – observing – the brands of bathroom fittings in airports, cinemas and other public spaces only after our firm started working with one of the manufacturers. Even then, the other paraphernalia in the rest rooms were not bestowed with my attention. Again, it needed a personal connect for the brand to catch my eye. 

I had read a profile of this British inventor a few weeks ago; even that article stood out from the others because a cousin had signed on with the firm a couple of months ago and he was not sure if any of his firm’s products were being used in India. A lot of things coming out of the firm seem to be very cutting edge, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what a ‘bladeless fan’ could be like.

Until a few days ago. The loo at Escape. Suddenly noticed that I could dry my hands in this – the bladeless fan. Dyson Technology calls it the Airblade, but now that I have used it, I can’t figure out how it is significantly different from the wall-mounted hand dryers that one usually sees at such places!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New dawn

The new titular head of the Royal Family of Travancore, Moolam Tirunaal Rama Varma, was formally anointed last Friday. That is a good reason to think of the last monarch of Travancore, or to give it its vernacular name, Thiruvithamcoor, who decreed that temples are not exclusive to any group of people. It might sound trivial today, but a century ago, entry into temples was restricted only to “caste Hindoos”. That was the prevailing practice across the whole of India, and it was a young ruler from South India who opened the floodgates with his “Temple Entry Proclamation” in 1936. 

Chithira Thirunaal Balarama Varma Maharaja was barely 24 when he declared that "...there should henceforth be no restriction placed on any Hindu by birth or religion on entering or worshipping at temples controlled by us and our Government", thereby putting an end to centuries of discrimination. The decree was welcomed by both the British government as well as the Indian nationalists. Therefore, when there was a move to erect a statue of the Maharaja in Madras, it met with little resistance. Of course, it was projected more as a commemoration of the event, rather than the man. The statute of Maharaja Balarama Varma came up in the Travancore Maharaja Park, opposite the Raja Annamalai Mandram in Esplanade. 

The Raja of Travancore had large tracts of land in Adyar, which is where his Madras 'camp' palace was. As Adyar developed into a residential area, Balarama Varma granted the new residents' request to provide land for a temple, the only proviso being that it should be dedicated to Padmanabhaswamy, the presiding deity of Travancore. So it was that the temple came up in what is Gandhi Nagar today. That grant helped the Raja's statue as well; by the early 1990s, the Travancore Maharaja Park had become a parking spot for buses and the city formalised it by converting the park into a bus terminus. The statute was sadly out of place and was in danger of being vandalised. Luckily, it was shifted to a corner of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, where it stands, appropriately holding the proclamation that lets anyone with faith enter the temples!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The other temple

Of course it is extremely unfair to call it so. But somehow, Mylapore has been more media savvy over the centuries, managing to find mention in Ptolemy's writings. It's neighbouring village to the north, Triplicane, has been more reserved, featuring only in regional works such as the Nalayira Dhiva Prabandham. But the Parthasarathy temple here is believed to go back to the 8th century CE, which makes it a little older than the current Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore. 

You can only see the gopuram of the temple in the distance - the blue structure to its right is the shed housing the temple chariot. The temple pond in the foreground is also the one from which the village took its name: Thiru-alli-keni, the holy lily pond. It is said that a millenium and more ago, the forests around this temple were so thick that sunlight couldn't enter, except to play on this pond. The legend is that the Goddess Vedavalli was born on one of the lilies in this pond and then went on to become the consort of Sri Ranganatha, one of the deities of this temple.

The forests are long gone, of course. There weren't much of them around even when the British, in the middle of the 17th century, were getting their act together at Fort St. George, just a couple of kilometres to the north. It was one of the first villages to be annexed by the British, as they expanded their territory around the fort. Even today, the streets around the temple are a throwback to a much older age; it is easy to imagine, from a single street in Triplicane, what most of Madras would have been like a century ago!

Friday, January 3, 2014


If ever you take a train out of Chennai Central, you cannot miss this trio. Well, yes, at night time you will not be able to see the colours so clearly, but the chimneys are lit up, so they are not easy to miss. A generation or so ago, these chimneys weren't around, but you would know that you are crossing the Basin Bridge power station because of their predecessors - massive concrete structures, which looked pretty much like chimneys, as you can see from this picture.

The Basin Bridge power station was modernised by GMR and was commissioned in 1998. Since then, it has been supplying about 200MW of electricity to the state electricity board. GMR claims that it does not use any water from the city, but treats the city's sewage to generate the water it needs for its operations. They boast a 75% recovery rate from the sewage - I am not sure if that is a high benchmark, or just regular operations. 

So, the next time you go out of the Chennai Central station, don't forget to say goodbye to these chimneys!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Jam your liver

It is one of those buildings that, by having been around for so long, makes you feel guilty asking about the origins of its name or any such thing. Had heard of the Jammi Buildings in Royapettah a very long time ago; if I remember right, it housed some big time office of the TN Civil Supplies Corporation in the late 1970s. Dad talked about having to go there for something to do with the ration card, but it was the name that caught attention. Jummy!

It was much later that I heard about Dr. Jammi Venkataramanayya and his miracle ayurvedic cure for problems of the liver. Jammi's Liver Cure (as it says on the board)  must have been like one of Jeeves' pick-me-ups for Madras' Woosters. Minus the raw egg, of course. But I have not come across anyone who has actually used Jammi's product, which makes me suspect that everyone has been treated with it. Dr. Jammi's early success was to target the product to specifically treat infantile jaundice - and in the early 20th century, when he began his practice, such success would have given him a God-like aura.

The firm that he started continues as Jammi Pharmaceuticals today. Headquartered in the Jammi Buildings itself, they are very modern - you can get in touch with them online or even buy their products as capsules and syrups. Do you think you need one of those after the night-before-last?!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Red Madras

It may be the New Year, but there are some places where 'old' memories remain. Like the name 'Madras', for instance. In 2014, it will be eighteen years since the city was renamed as Chennai. There are still several places, however, where 'Madras' continues to be used: the IIT Madras, the Madras High Court, the University of Madras... and there would be many more such. 

The picture shows some lesser known users of the 'Madras' appellation. These sheep are native to the Chennai and Kancheepuram districts; with a startling excess of imagination, they were named 'Madras Red'. Once they have been named so, it is only fitting that the Chennai district today has less than a thousand of them; the bulk of them are in Kancheepuram, which has about 200,000 of these, just under 20% of their total population. (The rest are distributed across Tamil Nadu). 

This herd is part of the research station at Kattupakkam, just outside Chennai. And there they are, looking forward to the New Year, when they would be distributed to some farmer or the other, and might end up as mutton on your plate, if you have such tastes. In any case, here's wishing you a wonderful time in the year 2014!