Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cleaning guard

Going merely by this picture, there is not much to guard around here, but for the flotsam deposited on the banks of the Cooum by the high tide. This building is however the Regional Headquarters (East) of the Indian Coast Guard, a force that is the fourth arm of the country's defence. Tasked with protecting the seas between 5 and 30 nautical miles from the coastline, the Coast Guard does it through their 1,200 officers and over 5,000 personnel, based at 42 stations around the coast.

The RHQ at Chennai is not the largest; its jurisdiction starts from just a little bit on the west coast - the village of Poovar in Kerala to Ichchapuram in Andhra Pradesh. It is handled by two District Headquarters and six Stations, with air support being provided by the base at Chennai and an Air Enclave at Visakhapatnam.

In spite of all that, one wishes the Coast Guard would do something about the junk that is piled up. Not just because of the calls for Swachh Bharat, but also because one of the stated responsibilities of the force is "To preserve & protect the marine environment and control marine pollution"!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Library - the first

Situated within the complex of buildings under the Department of Public Instruction, this building houses what is arguably the first 'lending library' in the country. It was not originally intended to be a library. Started as the Madras Literary Society in 1812, its objective was to be forum - a learned forum to present papers and discuss advances in science, geology, archeology, anthropology and sociology, and then to be a repository for these papers and related collections. 

Those papers and collections went on to be the seeds for starting several other institutions such as the University of Madras, the Connemara Library and even the state government's Archeological Department. Even so, it still retains about 80,000 books, which are lent out to the Society's ~200 members. The books are mostly door-delivered; keeping in sync with the institution, most of the members are senior citizens, who are grateful for this service. The library, however, does not lend its older books. Even though the members - at different points, the roster of members included Annie Besant, Dr. S. Radhakrishnan and Subas Chandra Bose - are very careful about handling the books, the library is careful to circulate only newer books: meaning, ones that were printed after 1950.

It is worth a visit to take a look at some of the older volumes. The oldest is probably a 1619 copy of Aristotle's Opera Omnia. There are of course several stacks of other reference material, going back to the early and middle 20th century. Of course it is a wonderful place for historic research in any of the subjects it specialized in. But if you are a true bibliophile, you must consider volunteering time to help the Society sort and categorize its collections. Otherwise, we might end up continuing to see 'Pride and Prejudice' displayed in the New Arrivals section!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Early buying?

The festival season is upon us. And very soon, we will have to think about shopping for Deepavali fireworks. Here's an idea. Head out to Bunder Street in George Town, that place where everything can be found and try to strike a deal with the wholesale traders. 

Nagoor Crackers may not be the only cracker in town, so make sure you do your research well!

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Music-maker's corner

As a child, he had to support himself from an early age. Barely four when his father died, Viswanathan was a burden to his mother and was forced to fend for himself. No school for him, but as a fetch-and-carry-boy in a cinema theatre somewhere in Kerala lit in him a desire for the silver screen and a love of music. He learnt music - it was the done thing for the lead actor to sing his own songs - thinking of it as the first step to stardom.

It was, but not the kind of stardom he initially dreamt of. He was turned away from his desire of becoming an actor, being advised to focus on his music skills. He was part of a music troupe and then, in combination with a fellow member, went on to become one of the most feted music duo of the 1950s and '60s. Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy was a guarantee of good music, and they delivered several hits, before deciding to go solo.

In that solo phase, Manayangath Subramanian Viswanathan achieved his stardom. In the fashion of the times, when stars were known by their initials rather than names - in the fashion of MGR or NTR - Vishwanathan transformed into MSV; the stardom that he sought was achieved in style. He has become a feature of the south Indian film firmament - and by extension, of popular culture as well. This is his place in the city: Vishwa Keerthi, on Santhome High Road. If you are lucky, you might get to hear a note or few!

Friday, September 26, 2014


Yes, there are several out-of-the-way places within the city itself. One of them is the Nanmangalam Reserve Forest. We have seen parts of this forest before - it is the one where the Great Indian Eagle Owl can be found. 

Getting into the forest a couple of weeks ago, we noticed something different from our previous trips inside. There was far less plastic than we were used to seeing. Bowers near the road, which used to have several empty liquor bottles rolling around, were mostly empty and clear. Saplings of teak and other trees had been planted here and there. And then, on our way, we ran into another group, but they were being guided by an Anti-Poaching Watcher of the Forest Department. He demanded to know how we got in to the forest without permission, but wasn't rude about it. Got his boss to talk to us over his cellphone and made us commit to drop by at the Forest Office on our way out. 

Though we eventually did go to the Office and make all the required entries in their register, staying around inside the forest dulled our sense of time. So much so that the APW came back cycling to look for us, wondering if we were lost. In a way, we were; by that owl sighting, but also because there were some places like this that we couldn't tear ourselves away from!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Multiple sports

One of the landing approaches to the airport at Meenambakkam takes the aircraft over Guindy. Once upon a long time ago, Guindy used to be thickly forested. It still boasts of one of the smallest national parks in the world (and also one of the few completely contained within a city). Institutions nearby - the IIT Madras and the Raj Bhavan (the governor's residence) retain enough of tree cover for the air passenger to look out and see a green carpet.

Which is suddenly broken by this stretch of grassland. Forming a rough, round-cornered triangle, it has long patches of green and brown. Well, that is one of Chennai city's three golf clubs; this one is run by the Madras Gymkhana, which started off their golf links on Island Grounds before moving to this location sometime around 1887. Even though they have moved inland from their original location, the course is still styled as links. 

It is a 6690 yard, par 72 course. Though it was only a 9 hole course when it started off, it graduated through 14 and 16 holes before becoming a full fledged 18-hole course. Given the nature of the terrain - with its scrub jungle pedigree - it was a course where players played off the browns for nearly a century. It was only in the 1980s that the transformation to greens began; as you can see, the browns are not giving up so easily. Despite being small and treeless, it is supposedly a tough course to play on, thanks to the narrow fairways, challenging roughs and swirling winds. If that is not enough, you will also be distracted by horses running around - this is probably the only golf club in the world that is fully ensconced within a horse race track!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mixed languages

The meaning remains the same, but the way it is written indicates a mix-up between the Portuguese and English versions of the road's name!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A different church

Even though it is a rather big building, it is not very eye-catching because it is set in a side road off Nungambakkam High Road. The building has been around for a while - the design seems to be from the 1960-70 timeframe. It is the building of the Laymen's Evangelical Church, an organisation that was set up in 1935 by a former mathematics teacher named Daniel. His son, Joshua Daniel took the organisation forward, and like several similar institutions, the third generation of family has stepped into the business. 

Though it is not a business, they claim. The organisation makes no appeals for money and sustains itself through charitable donations. They also affiliate 'tentmaker missions' - which do not depend on a central organization for funds, but carry out other professions to raise the money they need (the reference being to Paul the Apostle's practice of making tents to support himself rather than depend on church money) - around the world.

They are quite spread out: 337 missions across India and more than 20 globally. Their services are offered in five non-Indian languages. Radio and television broadcasts, supplemented with a YouTube channel and a publication division, all help the Laymen get their message out to the world. I am not sure what that message is, but a line from their website: "...'intellectual bat-chasing in the dark' which men oft-times call religion today..." had me grinning away!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Fear over the city

September seems to have been a bad time for the city of Madras. If it was the French yesterday, it was the Germans today. Of course, they were separated by 168 years - the German attack was in 1914, but the similarity continued with Madras as being the prize (or target) in a war that did not involve it directly. La Bourdonnais took over Fort St George in 1746, but by 1914, the city of Madras was much larger than the fort and Kapitan Karl von Müller had other landmarks to target. 

The story of how SMS Emden bombarded Madras on the night of September 22, 1914, is well documented. Apart from the damages to property in several places around the port, the shelling damaged a picture hung in the Royal Madras Yacht Club, which the Club still displays proudly. Next to that picture, the RMYC also has this framed newspaper clipping, describing how the Emden terrified Madras. Apparently, the targeting was helped by Dr Cempakaraman Pillai, who was on the ship when it attacked Madras; this, however, is not as well documented.

The newspaper clipping was not from the next day's report. The Hindu, writing about that evening much later, says, "Surprisingly, there was no report in The Hindu about the shelling on the following day or the day after". It must have taken the city, and its papers, several years to get over the panic of the "Emden"!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Old damage

This is one of the buildings inside the Fort St George complex. At some point, it would have served as the barracks for the troops stationed inside the Fort. Maybe it was also housing for some of the administrative staff in the Fort - remember, most of the big names of Anglo-Indian history began their careers as 'writers' with the East India Company. Did they stay in these kind of lodgings?

The damage to these has been caused by neglect and nature, rather than any planned hand. But on this day in 1746, after a couple of weeks of aggression, the French forces under Bertrand-François Mahé, Comte de La Bourdonnais, entered the city of Madras - basically Fort St George - having called upon the English to give up all their possessions and suffer themselves to be prisoners of war.

The French occupation lasted for just a couple of years. These buildings came up much after the 1746-49 occupation of Fort St George by the French. But if things continue to go the way they are right now, the demolition of the Fort will be completed by sheer inaction!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

White wearing

When thinking about places of worship in Mylapore, the first one that comes to mind is of course the Kapaleeshwarar temple. And then one thinks about all the other gopurams that adorn the locality, temples to various Gods of the Hindu pantheon. 

But there is also this temple to Vasupujya Swami, the twelfth Jain Tirthankara, on Kutchery Road. And like all other Jain temples, it is built with white stone, with the main deity at an elevated level. 

It is quite easy to miss - even when you are looking out for it!

Friday, September 19, 2014


On the average, about 40,000 passengers pass through the Chennai airport every day. That's just under 15 million passengers a year. They fly in or out on one of the 125,000 aircraft which use the Chennai airport. By that reckoning, an aircraft takes off, or lands, at the airport every four minutes.

However, there are certain windows of time when the frequency is much higher. Early morning is one such, and aircraft get on to the high-speed runway nose-to-tail. We were waiting for the one ahead of us, and there was the next one coming up behind us already!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Daily cleaning

Every day, the tide comes in. And every day, the tide goes out. Each flow of the tide moves a lot of sand and silt. The motion of the sea waters off the Chennai coastline causes the sand to gather along the Marina, having been pulled away from further north. 

Of course it is a problem if the sand blocks up the mouth of the Cooum. There is a permanent effort to keep the sandbars away from the path of the river waters. A couple of dozers and a backhoe-loader-digger are stationed at the northern end of the Marina beach to ensure they carry out the clearing operations in time.

They can't stay there when the tide comes in. Every evening, like some beasts from an industrial age, they go away to roost, moving up above the tide line and then returning to their foraging grounds in the morning!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


The white-on-blue signboards are not only on shops. This one directs visitors (of course it can't be for the residents) to the housing complex within the Regional Meteorological Centre, Nungambakkam.

It is certainly not the oldest meteorological observatory in the country - but it has been around for long enough for this sign to be considered of recent vintage!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Nearer river

A city needs rivers to survive and to thrive, and today's Chennai has the Adyar, the Cooum, the Otteri nullah and the Buckingham Canal. The last named is a man-made creation, but more of that elsewhere. In 1639, when Francis Day and his boss Andrew Cogan were negotiating with the Nayak of Poonamallee for a lease-hold on the beach, they used the Cooum as the southern boundary of the area they wanted. On the east, the Bay of Bengal limited their territory. The northern end was not so well defined - there probably was an existing settlement which couldn't be encroached upon. To the west, there was a river, one that is not often remembered today.

The River Elambore was closer to the 'factory' established by the British East India Company. But over the years, it has lost its identity and, in the early 19th century, it became a part of the Buckingham Canal - and in today's maps, it is described as a loop of the Cooum rather than a river by itself.

This picture was taken along the Flagstaff Road, and it shows the river flowing in from the west, forming the northern border of the Island Grounds.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mix and match

The most vegetarian of breakfasts, with the poster-boy for flesh eating folks. That is a rather interesting combination. Kozhi Idli on Avvai Shanmugham Salai has a very simple menu. There is idli and there is kozhi. The chicken comes in different combinations: kozhambu, thokku, rasam, paniyaram, cheese ball and puttu

The idli is of just one kind. And oh, there is kulfi, by the way!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What a sighting!

The Nanmangalam Reserve Forest starts at the fork of the Tambaram-Velachery and the Medavakkam Main Roads and spreads over about 800 acres, with Greater Chennai surrounding it on all sides. It is the home of the Great Indian Horned Owl (Bubo bengalensis), also known as the Indian Eagle-Owl. Most of the forest is scrub jungle, but it also contains a few abandoned granite quarries within it. The quarry pits, with their rock faces, have enough crevices for birds to nest and several species do.

We missed the owl by a whisker at the first quarry we went to this morning. It heard us coming and away it flew, getting beyond eye-range even before our eyes could reach where it had been. We trudged around to the next quarry - a larger, deeper piece of work - but because it was slightly less accessible than the first one, we felt the owl would have a hideout there as well and we hoped it would get there sooner than later. 

We took our places at the edge of the quarry pit, looking down to the water that had collected in the pit, forming a nice little water body. And we looked across at the sheer rock face on the other side, trying to figure out where its nest could be. Then we heard the hoots. They seemed to be coming from the left and behind us: but with the quarry pit creating some echoes, we couldn't be sure. And then, I turned left and saw the big bird, gliding towards us. Dumbstruck as I made eye contact, I was sure it would either attack us, or swoop away, for there was no way it couldn't have seen us. But, it hadn't. Banking gently, it landed on the rock just below where I was sitting! For a few seconds, none of us moved. And then, I gently sent my arm out, camera at the end to take a picture. Managed to get a couple, before the bird looked around. This time, recognition followed eye-contact. Away it went, to the other side of the quarry, where it sat for quite a while, hidden by some foliage. You can see a picture taken by my friend, but the photo here is probably the only one I will get of a bird from above and behind it!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Learning law

As early as 1855, the Presidency College had established a Department of Law, which was upgraded to the status of a college in 1891. With that change, it was necessary for students to have a campus of their own. Who should be in charge of getting that done but the architect-builder do of Henry Irwin and Namberumal Chetty - and it was obvious that the style was going to be Indo-Saracenic. The design blended with that of the Madras High Court, which was just to the east of the site for the Law College. 

In fact, the site of the college was once upon a time the cemetery of the old "Whites' Town" of Fort St George. The layout of the college buildings is quite distinctive - an irregular hexagon around a central courtyard, with large, rectangular classrooms that could seat over 150 students. The towers flank a carriageway, but the more pedestrian entrance is at the opposite face of the hexagon. 

Sometime ago, the college was renamed Dr Ambedkar Government Law College, and is a constituent college of the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University. The tower on the right lost its finial last year, thanks to the work of the Chennai Metro. Maybe they will restore it, once the Metro is up and running. If they refuse to, would the students sue them?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Icecream on my mind

Would love to have some of that now. Too bad it would have closed for the day by this time!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

King governor

Part of the interest in this foundation stone is the organization itself. The Triplicane Urban Cooperative Society (TUCS) has been around for such a long time that their head office building considers itself to be in "New Buildings", even though those buildings were opened in 1952. 

The buildings took a little less than three years to come up. The foundation stone, dated 8th December 1949 is interesting for another reason. It was laid by the last monarch of the Gohil dynasty, which ruled Bhavnagar - and it precursor Sekjakpur - since the 12th century CE. 

Though the foundation stone credits his royal title, it was not in that capacity that he was present on this occasion. Though he was the last of his dynasty, Maharaja Raol Shri Krishna Kumarsinhji Bhavsinhji Sahib Gohil, KCSI, had a first to his credit. He was the first Indian Governor of Madras (his predecessor Lt Gen Sir Archibald Edward Nye was the last British governor) - and it was in that capacity that he was here!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Universal wish

As soon as you get inside the Theosophical Society's grounds, you get to see this sign. Can't help wondering if Earth has to fade away for peace to prevail!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Old boathouse

The campus of the Women's Christian College in Nungambakkam sits on the southern bank of the Cooum. In days past, some of the colleges in the city had the practice of inter-collegiate classes. It is said that students from the Queen Mary's College, on the Marina, would come over to the WCC for some practical classes.

Even during the mid-50s, this practice of mixed classes continued. And it was not only from the QMC that students came; students of the Presidency College, also on the Marina, had a few classes jointly with the WCC students. The classrooms alternated each week, so the students would have got know both campuses fairly well. 

The easiest mode for students from both Presidency and QMC to come to the WCC campus was by boat. Even though the QMC was a bit of a way away from the river, that was apparently the favoured mode of transport. Presidency College, being closer to the river, would have had an easier time, even if they had to go against the flow to reach the WCC. At the WCC itself, there seems to have been a boathouse for the students to shelter in. It has been a long time since boats moved on the Cooum. It is therefore a wonder that the boathouse, unused for a long time, continues to remain standing inside the WCC campus!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Quiztime, again

Saturday afternoon, and it was probably the last big event of this year's Madras Week celebrations. The Murugappa Madras Quotient Quiz for school kids was held on the 6th. The Sir Mutha Venkat Subba Rao Concert Hall was packed - teams from over 250 schools took part in the quiz. 

The kids seemed to be having a good time. That's one of the enthusiastic team captains jumping up to get the answer sheet for her team!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Happy Onam!

Can't call it the Onam day celebrations, because, for one, Onam is a multi-day festival and for another, this happened yesterday, the Uthradam day. Ente Keralam had put together an Onam sadya along with a performance of Ottamthullal

Even though it was supposed to be for the patrons of the restaurant, the performance was staged just outside it. Passing by, the traffic was thick enough for me to get more than a glimpse of the dance, even if I wasn't able to make out the lyrics. 

Happy Onam, everyone!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Blue board store

Here we have another of the 'blue boards' that were the last word in store signage several decades ago. It is not an enamel board, and it has other colours than just white letters on a blue background. That's probably some of the concession to modernity that Shri Nataraja Stores made when they opened for business. The board has been around for a while; the city's English name is still being used on this one.

There is still a lot of tradition around the board, as befitting an old shop in Triplicane. The mango leaves adorning the board is not something that you would find in the modern trade. And yet, they are not so traditional to have the store opened at the crack of dawn!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The teacher's place

This stately bungalow sits away from the road, being both aloof and in the middle of the bustle at the same time. Much like its most famous occupant, who entered politics rather late in life, and was not too closely associated with any particular political movement. And yet, he was a significant enough politician to be made the first Vice-President of the Republic of India.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher, teacher, statesman and the first Vice-President of the Republic of India rose from humble origins to become the first citizen of India. He is one of the two Presidents of the country who did not come through a political party or through the political system. Radhakrishnan's stature as a scholar of philosophy propelled him to several awards and appointments, including the Bharat Ratna. His birthday, September 5, is celebrated as Teacher's Day.

Dr. Radhakrishnan bought this property in Madras during his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of the Benares Hindu University, in the early 1940s. When his term ended, Dr. Radhakrishnan came back to this house, where he finished his masterful commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which was published in 1948. But he didn't stay here long. With India becoming a Republic on January 26, 1950, Dr. Radhakrishnan was chosen to be the first Vice President and then went on to become the second President of the country. He returned here in 1967, and lived here until he passed away in 1975. The road - until then called Edward-Elliots Road - was renamed Radhakrishnan Salai in his honour. And yet, there are several Chennaiites who are surprised to learn that this was where the man lived!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The other leg

The focal point of the bronze gallery at the Chennai Government Museum is the Natesha at the far end of the ground floor. But that is not the only statue of Siva as the dancer. One half of the first floor of the bronze gallery is given over to a display of about a dozen Nataraja idols. Despite all the irritants in getting a proper view of them, this is something that everyone should have on their must-see list. 

The Natarajas range in antiquity from sprightly 500-year olds to more solemn 1100-year olds. They have been collected mostly from Madurai and Thanjavur; with one or two from Nagapattinam, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallore. They are wonderful examples of Chozha bronzes, prized by collectors the world over. There are several more such, which continue to be present in their temples and shrines, being used as objects of worship even today. The ones in the museum were recovered from their hiding places; they were hidden from rapacious invaders and very often forgotten for centuries before turning up on a farmer's ploughshare. 

They are much sought after by "collectors" the world over and have attracted unscrupulous middlemen, who think nothing of bribing, threatening or browbeating temple-guards in remote villages and spiriting away similar idols across the world. One of the most notorious of such antique smugglers, Subhash Kapoor (who is now in the Puzhal prison, facing trial) had managed to get several of them out, over several years, selling them not just to secretive or unscrupulous collectors, but bizarrely, even to the National Gallery of Australia. That last one is now on its way back, but many of the others would remain out of reach. The returning Nataraja is 900 years old and is in the regular posture, with its left leg raised. It is reportedly worth $5.6 million. Imagine what this one, from the 9th century CE, in a rare posture of raising the right leg, would be worth - at least now, go take a look at it!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Marriage hall

Even without any decorations on it, the entrance to this marriage hall looks quite grand. Nice place to get married in, don't you think?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What the Dickens!

That is quite an unusual way to name a store selling silks. Okay, it doesn't restrict itself to just silks, what with the display of an innerwear brand on its shutters. That still doesn't give us any reasons for the store's name. 

Let us just guess that the founder-owner is a fan of Dickens!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Rust and ruin

These gateposts mark what was once upon a time an entrance to the palace of the Maharaja of Cochin. While the post on the right shows the Maharaja's ownership with the words "The Cochin House", the one on the left bears a plaque saying "Tullock's Gardens". They would have been put up when the Maharaja bought the property from Tullock, whoever he was.

The property was itself part of a much larger expanse, that of Dr. James Anderson. Over time, it seems to have been acquired by someone named Halliburton, for a map in 1822 marks it as such. A few years later, in 1837, another map names it Tullock's Gardens, or, as  Henry Davidson Love, writing about this, says ,"Tulloch's Gardens". Was it a printer's devil in Love's work (for the gatepost very clearly shows the 'k' in the name)? Or, was it a stonecutter's devil, with the mason mishearing the last letter?

Whatever that be, little evidence of Tullock or the Maharaja remains today. A small part has been given to the Asan Memorial Association. Kerala Tourism has set up a hotel in one corner of the property. However, most of the Maharaja's property is today used for housing policemen, with those quarters having been constructed many decades ago. They are not all rust, but certainly given an appearance of being a ruin - or getting there very soon!

Rust and ruin around the world can be very aesthetic, if photographed by the CDP bloggers. Go over here and check it out for yourselves!