Tuesday, January 31, 2023


Not what one would expect a police station to be like these days, but we have to keep in mind that in 1926, a structure like this would have been a grand building. That was the year a police outpost was established here, in Sadras. It took another 40 years for the outpost to be upgraded to a police station, in 1965. 

Over the next 50 years, this police station grew to have a sanctioned strength of 29, led by a Sub-Inspector, who had 2 Head Constables and 26 constables under his (yes, at that time it was a male officer). Sadras seems to be such a peaceful, laid back place that even this seems to be far too many for the 73,500 people who were being protected by this force. 

The Sadras police station has moved to some other location; this building was empty when we stopped by about six months ago. Maybe they're thinking of building something here - there is certainly a decent bit of space available for the outpost to be upgraded into a network centre or something like that!



Monday, January 30, 2023

Paragon of justice

Interest in the Chozha dynasty was trending a couple of months ago, thanks to the release of Ponniyin Selvan, and it will once again see a spike in a couple of months when the second part of that movie releases. But Chozhas have (obviously) captivated the imaginations of folks from this part of the land for generations. One such, who has been held up as the epitome of impartial, unbiased administration of justice is Manu Needhi Chozhan, whose statue can be seen at the entrance of the High Court of Madras. 

"Manu Needhi" is the title given to him because of his impartiality in applying the law; his name was Ellala Chozhan - translating loosely as the "ruler of the borders". That is because his domain was present-day Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, where he ruled for about 40 years between 204 BCE and 164 BCE, finding for himself a place in the Mahavamsa, the 'Great Chronicle' of Sri Lanka's history. 

His sense of justice was so fine honed that he had his son punished for running over a calf to death. It is said that the calf's mother came to Ellalan's court, 'asking' for justice, and upon finding that it was his son's chariot that caused the death, Ellalan ruled that the prince be executed by running a chariot over him. That might be too high a bar to maintain, but at least the legend should help everyone seeing this statue remember that justice should be blind!

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Tail-less Tomistoma

The Tomistoma schlegelii or the false gharial is native to Malaya and Indonesia, where its habitats have been under threat due to spread of oil palm plantations and clandestine gold prospecting. It is estimated that there are less than 10,000 of these animals in the wild, which places it in the 'Vulnerable' category of the IUCN's Red List. 

If you are in Chennai, you don't have to go out to Indonesia to see a Tomistoma. A short drive, to the Madras Crocodile Bank is all that it takes. It was earlier believed that this was similar to the gharial because of its thin snout; but closer observation showed that, unlike the gharial's evenly slender snout, the Tomistoma's broadens at the end, placing it closer to the true crocodiles than the gharials. That was further strengthened by recent findings that the Tomistoma's diet comprises more variety than just fish, which is the only food for the gharial. 

Notice anything odd about this animal? Yes, you're correct, it doesn't have a tail. No, not because that is how it has evolved, but because this female got into a fight a few years ago and lost her tail. She seems to have learnt to live without it - possibly because it is much easier to do without a tail in captivity than in the wild!

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Market spot

They say India is a land of contradictions, and this picture kind of captures it. It is the entrance to a market in Saidapet. The sign says the market, or at least the land it is on, belongs to the Devasthanam of the Karaneeswarar Temple nearby. 

It is quite possible that in a particular manifestation, Mahadeva might have liked some fish, but I haven't quite heard of the deity of Saidapet being fond of it. So that could not have been the reason for this market to be entirely given over to fishes - there must be some better explanation there, one that clears the seeming (to me, at least) contradiction!

Friday, January 27, 2023

Going down

On the blue line, going towards the airport, the rakes of the Chennai Metro take it a bit easy as they come out from below ground after the Saidapet station. It does not appear to be a steep gradient to climb, but it is a kind of s-curve, so best be safe in leaping out into the light after coming all the way from Washermanpet through the underground tracks. 

The return journey also seems to be counter-intuitive; one would imagine that the rake would be reluctant to go underground, away from the sun. But these rakes do not lose any discernible speed. They seem quite happy to go underground.

Taken from across the road, early in the morning last week. The divider on Mount Road takes up a lot more space than it should!


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Question back

It was unreasonably exciting to be back at an open quiz after... well, quite a while. The Republic Day quiz began in 2002 as something of a counterbalance to the Landmark Quiz, which has morphed into something else, I think. 

And the Quiz did not disappoint. Great questions, great participation, a celebration of the trivial and the esoteric. The school kids - there were quite a lot of them participating - were all enthusiastic to the extent that the Quizmaster had to shush them up every now and then, for fear that they'd give away the answers to the teams on stage. 

Came away feeling that it is time to get back into the quizzing groove. Soon, soon!


Wednesday, January 25, 2023


A grey heron, seemingly lonely, at Sholinganallur. 

But don't get taken in by the loneliness. There is quite a lof of bird life at this place,  and I'm sure it will be packed with the participants of the Chennai Bird Race on Saturday. 

For now, let us just enjoy this picture from last year!

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Leftist Le Pen!

Every time there is a presidential election in France, the Alliance Française de Madras gears up to enable a few hundred French nationals in Chennai to cast their votes. It is not as far-fetched as you might think; there are quite a few joint-ventures with French firms based in Chennai (Think Saint-Gobain, Michelin, Areva, Alstom, Faurecia...). Pondicherry, with many more French citizens, had to put up two polling booths. Chennai needed only one, and last April, the AFdM became a polling booth. 

There were pictures of the candidates displayed at the AFdM; it must have been done before election day, I assume. This picture was taken on April 10, the day of the first round of elections last year. And all these pictures were stacked up beside the stairs leading up to the cafe / auditorium, not a location where it would easily catch your eye. 

And the way the candidates are ordered. Surprised, aren't you? Marine Le Pen is not the first leftist name you can think of and I daresay you know that Fabien Roussel is hardly ever on the right. But here they are, on their own opposite sides, in faraway Chennai!


Monday, January 23, 2023

Chinese dentistry

Walking along Evening Bazaar Road, you might not be taken aback at this sign. After all, Madras has always attracted visitors and quite a few of them have made this city their own. But now you start looking at these signs more closely. You find that Thou and Jennifer are not the only Sens in the game; Christopher is a short distance away. More competition comes in the form of Dr. Peter Chen, whose name when written in Tamizh, is the same as 'Sen'. There is also Dr.Hubert Gerard Hu's Chin Shyn Dental Clinic, with a board dating its origins back to 1933, beating out Drs. Sen & Sen, who started off more than a decade later. But Dr. Thousen's trump card is that he has certification from Beijing, which probably makes him a more authentic Chinese than the others. 

And that is how it should be. Dr.Shieh Thousen will turn 74 this year, and he is the senior-most of the eight Chinese-origin dentists in the area, all of them tracing their roots back to Hubei province, but having grown up in Madras. Dr. Shieh Thousen and his brother (also a dentist, also on the same road) fled Hubei with their father Dr. Say Maw Seng and a few others, fearing communist persecution in pre-WWII China. They landed in Madras via Burma and gravitated towards George Town. Although they weren't registered as dentists then, their treatment worked well for both the locals as well as those passing by. They settled down and grew roots. Dr. Shieh Thousen and his brother went to school, and dental college, in Madras. Their children have also followed that route; Doveton Corrie, Don Bosco, Saveetha, Meenakshi Ammal are the names dropped. 

The fourth generation is now in the business; but then, many of the original families have already moved out of Chennai, both within India and outside, to USA, Australia, Canada or the UK. Others have become 'more integrated', marrying locally and becoming fans of SuperStar or SPB, celebrating Deepavali with gusto. But they apparently still gather together for the Chinese New Year, even if none of them has any memory of celebrating it in Hubei! 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Books all around

This gentleman was obviously very pleased to be at the Chennai Book Fair, which is in its 46th edition this year. The last day is today, and if you haven't gone over yet, do so as soon as you can. There are at least 700 stalls there - and there are a whole bunch of un-numbered stalls, so if someone tells me that there are 1,000 stalls there, I would believe it to be true - especially if you count all the booksellers on the pavement outside the YMCA Nandanam, who are there only because of the Book Fair, to also be book stalls. 

This year, for the first time, there was an exclusive International Book Fair built into the regular event. Although that was only over 3 days, it had publishers from over 30 countries participating. Didn't have a chance to see how that was, but from all accounts, it will be back next year. And a Sri Lankan publisher seems to have become part of the main event itself, so the international representation will continue even after the IBF has formally ended.

The other first for this event is an exclusive stall for LGBTQ+; works by and for members of the community, published by Queer Publishing House, an arm of the Trans Rights Now Collective. They have managed to stay on at Stall No. 28, which was the one originally allotted to them, despite attempts to push them out of sight. BAPASI, the association that has been running this Book Fair has certainly taken a leap of faith with letting them participate; hope they continue to keep the faith in the years ahead!


Saturday, January 21, 2023

Break. Timepass

Hey. You've come all the way to Besant Nagar, seen the SPACES... how can you go away without tasting some of the beach goodies?

Nothing better than getting some of the grilled corn, right when it is hot. Enjoy!

Friday, January 20, 2023

Performance space

At the end of Elliot's Beach Road - rather at its start, for the address is 1, Elliot's Beach Road - is a secluded space, born of one woman's vision: the dancer Chandralekha wanted to establish an artistic-human space within the city. She wanted artists and performers on their human scale to be juxtaposed against the eternal "elemental scale of the sea and the sky". The beach at Besant Nagar was another performance space for her, and it was appropriate that her vision took shape right next to it. 

Established in 2000, SPACES is nestled in a corner at the northern end of Besant Nagar beach. From the road, one does not see any buildings; the stone walls and the wooden gates seem to contain just some greenery within them. But there is more. Chandralekha wanted it to be known over the world as "a Performance Space - a Sacred Space - a Sun and Moon Space - a Sky and Sea Space". And so within the walls, there are a few buildings: a stage with a tiled-roof (and minimal arrangements for lights / audio), a kalari (arena) and some office-cum-residential quarters. There is also the Chandralekha archives, but I haven't had a chance to see those yet.

I'm not sure about the last 3 kinds of spaces, but SPACES is certainly a favourite with teachers / learners of kalaripayattu, and with performers who are keen to explore alternate forms and interpretations, which may not find favour with more traditional performance venues. It is also a good place to rehearse for a performance elsewhere. You will be undisturbed, there is enough elbow room to simulate what you might wish to do on an even bigger stage. And that is what the folks here are trying. No, don't worry about them, they're all okay. In fact, they are all quite superb performers. It is just that they're loosening up in a seemingly unsynchronised fashion before beginning rehearsals for their play. SPACES does that to one!

PS: If you would like to see them on stage, that's easily done. The next show of the production they were rehearsing for is on January 27 (2023) at the Narada Gana Sabha. Get your tickets by clicking this BookMyShow link. 
Bonus - you get to watch me, too :)

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Bring down the lights

Have you ever thought about what it takes to keep the city lit at night? No, neither did I, but watching these two people service the lamps on a high-mast lighting installation at the junction of Mount Road and Adams Road / Swami Sivananda Road, I did wonder about those numbers.

The website of the GCC has been helpful in figuring this out. Although I've not been able to understand how updated it is, this site says the GCC maintains 286,558 lights across the city (okay, there is a bit of a mismatch in the numbers in the text and in the infographic). 

If we were to assume the typical high-mast light to be like this one, that's 8 lights on a mast. The GCC has 426 such high-masts across the city, which makes for, well, a lot of lights!

Wednesday, January 18, 2023


Passing by this building a couple of days ago, I was struck by something that I'm sure is entirely coincidental. You see, this building, which is the new Ladies Hostel of the Madras Medical College stands on the spot where the Chennai Central Prison used to be. 

This prison was the new jail; though it was established in 1837, it continued to be the 'new jail' until the Puzhal prison came up in the late 1990s. That was because there was an older Debtors' Prison, which was a little further to the north, in the Mint area. That stopped functioning in the 1830s, and since then, those buildings have been put to other uses.

And what did that end up being? Well, the Old Jail Road runs from the Mint Street Clock Tower to the Bharathi Women's College. As I had said, it is entirely coincidental that the spot which supports women's education was once a jail, much like this one here. Entirely coincidental!


Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Living up to their names

Buffaloes are not sea creatures, so it is a bit of a surprise to see some of them come out of the backwaters at Pulicat. Small herds of these domestic animals are quite often seen moving across from the mainland to one of the many islands nearby. It is not as difficult to do it as one might imagine: the water is shallow enough for most of them to keep their heads above water.

This animal, Bubalus bubalis was first domesticated almost 6,000 years ago. Their ancestors were quite at home in the rivers, and in swamps. Their fetlocks are extremely flexible and their hooves are adapted to splay out to get a good grip on the marshy ground of swamps and riverbeds.

They love spending time in the water, preferably remaining submerged with only their eyes and nostrils showing above. And that's why they've been referred to as the water buffalo; this herd is probably going to a favourite spot to spend the day lolling about! 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Another LIC building

If this tweet is true (and there is no reason it shouldn't be), there is little change in the Bombay Mutual Building over the past 60 years. The colours are slightly different and it has lost the words identifying it, even though you can spot traces of where they were. The building is a great example of the Art Deco aesthetic of mid-20th century Madras. 

The 'original' occupant of that space, sometime from the 1850s, was the Madras Christian College, which built the Anderson Hall as part of its presence in 'town'. When the college shifted to Tambaram, they seem to have sold, or pledged the Hall to the Travancore & Quilon National Bank in 1937, which at the time was the fourth largest bank in the country. In what should be story for another day, the T&QNB was brought down by a run on the bank, which was allegedly orchestrated by CP Ramaswamy Iyer, the then Diwan of Travancore. For our limited purposes here, this resulted in the Government of Madras auctioning off the Anderson Hall to the Bombay Mutual Insurance Company in 1938. 

After a few years, the BMIC decided it would build a fresh structure here. J.R. Davis, of the architectural firm Prynne, Abbot and Davis, who had designed the facade of the Connemara, as well as the Dare House, provided the design for this building as well. The construction was by Coromandel Engineering and the building was inaugurated by the Governor of Madras in 1955. Within a year, BMIC had been merged into the LIC of India, who are the current owners of this building; hopefully they will preserve it much better than they have done with the Bharat Insurance Building on Mount Road!

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Your move

It has been nearly a year since the Russia-Ukraine war began. Chennai was affected by that in many ways, especially with medical students from the city having to return early on, with the changes in fuel prices affecting everyone across the world and with re-routing of air and sea routes affecting supply chains marginally. 

One of the positive fallouts was the shift of the 44th FIDE Chess Olympiad. Originally scheduled to be held in Moscow (it had been moved there from Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia), it became untenable in the wake of the conflict. Chennai stepped up to pitch for hosting rights, and won, thanks in part to its sustained legacy of chess champions. 

In the run-up to the event, many parts of the city went 'colourless' - rather, they just went bi-colour. People were worried that this chessboard pattern on bridges (and some roads) would distract drivers and cause accidents. Thankfully, it seems to have got people to concentrate better on their moves!


Saturday, January 14, 2023

Fullish moon

From a few months ago, close to the northern end of the beach at Besant Nagar.

Would the beach be better without the high-mast lights? I guess so, but then, a whole lot of people have to make sure it stays that way for everyone!

Friday, January 13, 2023

Top cop the first

A couple of days ago, I was wondering about the first Indian to be the mayor of ChennaiMadras. By some coincidence, I came across this photo of the first Indian to have become the Commissioner of Police of Madras. Both those appointments were from roughly the same time-frame; T. Vijayaraghavacharya served as mayor of Madras in 1916, while the first Indian top-cop of the city took charge in 1919. 

Pasupuleti Parankusam Naidu was born in 1867. When he was 20, he joined the service of the Government of Madras as a clerk in the Water-works Department. But it appears that the young Parankusam was fascinated by the police force, and after three years of dealing with waterworks, he goes off and joins the police. Even if it was at probably the lowest level of the cadre, he was now an officer - a 4th Grade Inspector of Police. Over the next twenty years, he appears to have served with distinction (though I've not been able to access any official records), and in 1911, we see him as the Deputy Commissioner of Police. 

And then, the wait seems to have gone on for a while. Parankusam Naidu's next promotion was in 1919, when he broke the white-plaster ceiling to be the first Indian Commissioner of the city's police force. The Dewan Bahadur title came later, most probably after he retired from service. When that was, or what Parankusam Naidu did subsequently seems to be a mystery even the Chennai Police might shy away from!


Thursday, January 12, 2023

Why's the twist?

On Musiri Subramaniam Road, just before you turn off to Vivekananda College on your left, you should open a keen eye to your right. That way, you will spot this rather non-descript shop at the corner where you would turn to get to the Luz Church. The shop is a throwback to the 70s and 80s, run by two gruffly-friendly brothers who seem to have been there forever. In recent times, they have a younger helper and post-covid, they seem to have spruced up the signage with a fresh coat, even if the shop itself remains as it has always been. 

Speaking to the young man, I learnt that the shop has a formal name: "Lakshmi Cool Bar". GoogleMaps tries to be more helpful by adding that it is also called "Mani kadai" (Mani's shop). Neither of those names feature in this board, according to which the shop is "Oliver Twist"!

Apparently, the younger of the two brothers was a voracious reader in his youth, and Charles Dickens was a favourite author. He was therefore insistent on getting a Dickensian connection to the store's name. The sharp turn in the road is the inspiration for the 'Twist'. But can you guess why 'Oliver'? Ah, yes, that's correct: before it was given its current name, the road was called Oliver Road! 

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The man behind the sun

Chennai got back to having a mayor in 2022, after almost 6 years of it being suspended; many believe the current mayor, Priya Rajan is the first woman mayor of Chennai. That honour however, goes to Tara Cherian, who served a term from December 1957 to November 1958. And then there was Kamakshi Jayaraman, who was the mayor of the city during 1971-72. With the post now being reserved for women, it will be a long while before Chennai gets to see a male mayor again, if at all. So here is something about one man who was the city's mayor.

Thamarapakkam Sundara Rao Naidu was born in 1891. A lawyer by training, he involved himself in social causes, joining the Justice Party in the 1920s. He was captivated by the movies, but he seems to have been more interested in their potential for communicating social messages than merely as a business. In the 1940s, he acquired a cinema hall, which continued to function until the '90s, well after Sundara Rao passed away in 1949. 

The Corporation of Chennai, having been established in 1688, is the second such in the world. Sundara Rao's tenure as mayor came a good 30 years after that post was first held by an Indian. However, he was the city's mayor when India became independent in 1947; there is a park named in his honour in Egmore. I am not sure if his statue is in that park, but this one can be seen at Sun Plaza, where he once had his cinema hall!


Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Time to take-off?

Granted, the only Chennai thing about this is the location. This particular airline was one of the earliest off the blocks when the aviation sector was opened up in 1993; it was one that stayed on for quite a long while, even becoming the largest domestic carrier by passenger volume in 2010. And through the 2010s, it continued to hold on to its full-service philosophy, when the markets boomed with LCCs - the low-cost-carriers trying to squeeze revenue out of everything possible.

Jet Airways' fall to bankruptcy was quite rapid, bringing up once again the old saw about how the easiest way to become a millionaire is to start with a billion and buy an airline. Maybe it was good for them that they were non-operational during the pandemic; but in a cut-throat sector, it might be a big challenge for the airline to come back after a 4-year break. (Has it been only 4-years? It feels like a generation ago!)

Their plans for restarting are not going at the pace they expected; but it would be good to have one more option for the Indian skies - so here is hoping they are able to fly again soon!

Monday, January 9, 2023

Festival returns

The Sundaram Finance Mylapore Festival got back after a 2-year break and yesterday was the last day of this edition. 

Having been away from Chennai over the weekend, I do not have any photos of this year's festival to offer. You should be able to find quite a few of those here, eventually. 

What I have for you is a picture from the festival a few years ago; this year's kolam competition was (as usual, I guess) restricted to 75 participants. The whole of North Mada Street would have been given over to these traditional designs - only pulli kolams are allowed!

Sunday, January 8, 2023

The more things change...

If Wallace Misquith was to time-travel from 1842 to the current day, he would not give a second glance to this display in the foyer of the Sathguru Gnanananda Hall on TTK Road. His firm, set up in 1842 in Coonoor where he had some good business as a piano tuner, was styled Misquith & Co. The idea was to import 'music saloons, pianos and organs' to supply those who were partial to western music - and there would have been many even in those days. From Coonoor, Misquith branched out to Madras, and then to 14 other locations, including Bangalore, Vishakapatnam, Mandalay and Penang. Wallace died in 1888 and his son Wille took over the business. A spell of ill-health seems to have sent Misquith & Co., into a spiral (it must have been several years after its founding) and we see a Frenchman, (Edgar Allen) Prudhomme buying out the Madras branch sometime in the 1920s.

M. Prudhomme was not a musical person; but he seems to have been a shrewd businessman. His first task was to rebrand the firm as Musée Musical. He then got on board Mrs. Amy de Rozario, a British lady of Spanish origin as a Director. Mrs. de Rozario was the music teacher at Doveton Corries and Church Park at the time. I daresay she had a captive market for the instruments being imported - business boomed and a third partner / Director was brought in - Mr. M.Giridhar Doss, with a diploma in accountancy, was soon taking most of the load of running the business and servicing customers which by now included even the Governor or Madras. 

As we get into the 40s, we see Mrs. de Rozario preparing to go back to England; of M. Prudhomme's clan, there is no news. Musée Musical is now with Mr. Giridhar Doss, who brings in his son Haricharan Das to help him with it. Though trained as a lawyer, Haricharan moved completely into running the business after his father passed away in 1966. The business had also diversified. All kinds of music instruments were available here, and its partnership with the Trinity College dates from the early 1900s. Today, Musée Musical counts Veena Balachandar, L Subramanian, Karikudi Mani, GV Prakash and the Grammy + Academy Award winner A.R.Rahman among its alumni. And so, the only thing that Wallace Misquith might recognise in this display is the city's name - but even that is an anachronism!

Saturday, January 7, 2023

The shop that never moved

For at least 45 years, the address 4-6/181, Kutchery Road had only one occupant, one so famous that no one needed the address to find it. It was the fixed point on the Kutchery Road compass, the only true north that one needed to navigate that road.

The Dabba Chetty Shop started its business with a slightly different spelling, as you can make out from the photo. It was spelt 'Dubba', then, and it didn't start off with the country (herbal) medicines that it later became synonymous with. Krishnaswamy Chetty tried his hand at selling hardware and assorted equipment, when he set up the shop in 1885. But he seems to have very quickly pivoted to purveying herbal medicines, including concoctions made of his own research. It is not very clear if the existence of such an outlet spurred Chetty's Iyer namesake to start his Ayurveda dispensary a little further along Kutchery Road, or if it was the dispensary that helped Chetty's shop gain prominence. In any event, from about 1905 onwards, this was the go-to place for 'delivery lehiyam' (post-natal medicines) and Deepavali lehiyams (to offset the heaviness of over-indulging in festival sweets). Krishnaswamy Chetty used to store the various powders and other ingredients in tin boxes, neatly stacked over each other; that led to the store's colloquial name, which in a stroke of genius, was adopted as its brand.

Krishnaswamy Chetty, Rajamannar Chetty and then Kanniah Chetty; the shop passed from grandfather to grandson, and then, in the 1970s to Kanniah's son Koonala Badrinath, who runs the shop with his wife Shobana. He had no intention of moving from here; in fact, in the many years since this picture was taken (2016), he had put up an awning over the signboard and modernised the space a bit for customers to be able to walk in. But two weeks ago, on Christmas eve, a notice was pasted on the shutter, saying the shop has moved to No. 9, North Mada Street. Just a little distance away, of course, but there is no saying if it would be able to move back. That is entirely in the way the Chennai Metro comes up on Kutchery Road!

Friday, January 6, 2023

A New Tree

It must have been quite a bold decision to go with this design for a Christmas Tree. One is accustomed to thinking of lush dark green pines, spruce, firs or cypress at Christmas time. Evergreen conifers, whose branches form helixes or whorls around the central trunk, their leaves having evolved into thin green needles. From what I can recall, the options for such trees in India, especially in south India are limited. The country's north has a few species of pine, or cypress, which can be a very nice Christmas tree. Far too often, an artificial tree substitutes for a real one. 

Tamil Nadu's state tree, the palmyra (Borassus flabellifer), on the other hand, can't pass of as any kind of a conifer. The tree has no branches and its leaves grow directly from the trunk, falling off as they get old, leaving their marks behind on the trunk. A fully grown tree, holding its crown of leaves right at the top is distinctly different from the conifers' foliage, which envelopes almost the entire trunk. The leaves of the palmyra too, have 'needles' - sharp black teeth on the petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf to the trunk / branch of a tree), but the leaf itself is large, fan like, and as far different different from the needles as possible.

So, to see a Christmas tree made of palmyra leaves was a pleasant surprise. It is an artificial tree, not the traditional dark, or striking green, the leaves are fan-like, rather than needle-like, but with all of that, this tree in the lobby of the ITC Grand Chola was created to demonstrate the 'sustainability' theme. The gift boxes under the tree were kottans and koodais made by weaving together tender fronds of the palmyra are again very different from the traditional boxes wrapped in bright gift-wrap paper. Quite apart from all that, let us hope the palmyra goes back to being as plentiful as it used to be at one time!

Thursday, January 5, 2023


This is one of the first images of Mamallapuram that one encountered as a school-kid a few decades ago. The state-government-supplied school notebooks had a closer view of the two elephants on its cover; I don't remember that series of notebooks as having anything else of 'Mahabs'. And for many years, this was the closest that one got to Mahabalipuram / Mahabs in school. Roughly 60 km south of Chennai, this seashore town was not easy to access in the 70s and early 80s; a visit there meant the whole day would have to be budgeted for. Mahabs has become closer these days. One can set out early in the morning and be back home for lunch. But with so many more dining options available all the way between Chennai and Mamallapuram, it is not easy to get back home for lunch. Somehow, one gets the feeling that such ease of access has made us rather blasé about this - it was among the first in India to be inscribed in UNESCO's List - World Heritage Site. 

This particular structure was commissioned by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman (Mamallan) to celebrate his victory over Pulakesi of the Chalukyas in the late 7th century CE. (The shore temple, also part of the UNESCO list, was built later, in the 8th century). Strangely though, the popular names for this do not have any reference to Mamallan's victory. A natural cleft in the rock, around which most of the figures have been chiseled, allowed water to gush through during the monsoons (There is supposedly a tank at the top of the cleft, but I believe that to be a more modern addition; I'm willing to be corrected, though!), giving this its international name: the Descent of the Ganges. A hermit-like figure, standing on one leg, arms raised in prayer could then be Bhagirata, whose unflinching austerities convinced Ganga to come down to earth. But then, Siva seems to also have the Pashupatastra with him, so that sage might also depict Arjuna supplicating Siva for that weapon; hence, we know this also as Arjuna's Penance. 

Siva, Bhagirata/Arjuna, Ganga, the elephants; these are just few of the images. With over 100 other individual bas-relief sculptures making up this monument, there are possibly a lot of stories that can be extracted from them. The guides at Mamallapuram will happily tell you a whole lot of them - and with a little bit of imagination, you possibly can, too. The presence of a lot of frolicking monkeys nudges me to think of the Tirukutrala Kuravanji, no matter that it came about a millennium later!

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Forgotten five face

A percussion instrument is called an 'Avanaddha Vadyam' in India. It seems logical to assume that such instruments, played by the performer striking on a taut membrane stretched over a hollow space, can have at most two sides, or faces, to them. But before we jump to that conclusion, let us gently stretch through the different categories of avanaddha vadyams; played by hand, by sticks, using both hands and sticks, struck on one side and stroked on the other, and those that are self-struck. (Maybe an additional category, for the 'stringed percussion' instrument - the bhapang is sui generis, I believe). 

Even the bhapang is a two-sided instrument, and is not one seen very often. An even rarer sight is the panchamukha vadyam, literally the five-faced instrument. I haven't seen one played, ever. For that, I am told that one has to go to Tiruvarur, where it is played during the Trinity Music Festival. Legend has it that the panchamukha vadyam has its origins in the kudamuzham, which was played at the wedding of Siva and Parvati. Looking very much like a pot, the kudamuzham has a large central, circular opening with 4 smaller such openings around it. Hoary literature also has it being one of the instruments played when Nataraja performed the celestial dance. Sculptures from the Rashtrakuta (8th-10th century CE) and Chalukya (10th-12th century CE)  periods show the kudamuzham being played by Nandi, or one of the other Bhutaganas. 

Over the next couple of centuries, the kudamuzham seems to have evolved into the panchamukha vadyam; the five faces became more or less the same size (the central one a tad larger, sometimes), they were named after Siva's five aspects (faces): sadyojatam, isanam, tatpurusham, aghoram and vamadevam. There is some way of distinguishing which is which, because the performer is supposed to stand on the side of the vamadevam while playing this instrument. One day, I will get to see it being played; until then, watching this exhibit at the Tol Isai Kalanjiyam will have to do!

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Memory remains

In 1718, Arumugam, the son of a Cuddalore merchant, was forced to leave his family and move to Tarangambadi. Arumugam had earlier studied at the Mission School in Cuddalore and had been influenced by books on Christianity; in Tarangambadi, he was baptized by Ziegenbalg, the first Lutheran missionary in India. Arumugam took on the name S. Aaron - the S most likely referencing Savarimuthu, the teacher who introduced him to Christianity. Savarimuthu was also one of the candidates, along with Aaron, who was considered to be ordained as the first native pastor; the teacher withdrew his candidature in favour of his student. Thus, in 1733, Aaron became the first Indian protestant pastor.

Aaron's great-grandson seems to have taken after him. In 1863, we see William Thomas Sathianadhan being assigned to the Chintadripet Church. He established himself in this position, and seems to have done much for the people to remember him by.  After his passing, the Chintadripet Church - by now renamed the Zion Church - constructed a meeting hall in his memory.

Going down the Arunachala Mudali Street in Chintadripet today, you will most likely miss this building; it stands way too close to the road and you would rather pay attention to the traffic than let your eyes wander up this facade. But if you choose to pause, and wonder, I am sure it will be worth your time!

Monday, January 2, 2023

Going Dutch

If, as they say, Madharasapatnam was the original name of the city that was once called Madras, what would you imagine Sadurangapattinam was known as? Even though it was not the British who discovered this place, their fellow colonists adapted this town's name, referring to it as Sadras, before settling down to build a fort to protect their factory here.

Even though it was the Dutch who took the lead (after the Portuguese, of course) in building trading settlements along the east coast, they discovered Sadras about a decade after Cogan and Day had set up their factory at Madras. The Sadras Fort was set up in 1648. Compared to Fort St George, this fort at Sadras is a very spartan affair; thin redbricks packed in place with mud seems to have been the default option for the walls of the Sadras Fort and buildings inside it. Very few of those buildings remain standing; those that do seem to have served as warehouses or granaries. There is also a dilapidated elephant mounting (or loading?) station. But for the most part, the space enclosed by the fort's walls is bare and the walls themselves do not look like they could survive a sustained onslaught.

And the fort gate. Unlike Fort St George, with its multiple gates, the Sadras Fort has only one, on the landward side. It is quite easily accessed from the road; the two cannons at the gate remind you it was once a much coveted spot, which moved from Dutch hands to the British in the early 19th century and remained with them until 1947. Today, there are no tourists here. The ASI does a fair job of keeping it the way it is. It is likely that the bulk of the visitors to this fort would be folks who come to the nearby Madras Atomic Power Station, who look up to the two bastions on the seaward side and take the effort to explore the other side!


Sunday, January 1, 2023


Have you been to Chennai recently? If you haven't, then you may not know about the changes around the Chennai Central Station. The Central Square of Chennai, which is supposed to come up around the station, has started showing signs of progress. Some buildings near the station - Victoria Public Hall and Ripon Building - have had space in front of them cleared and you can get a far better sense of the grandeur of these buildings than you could earlier. 

There is still a lot of work going on around the place. The Chennai Metro still has a lot of digging and shaping to do. There is talk of a massive underground car park. The Central Square of Chennai, when it is complete, would have other buildings (the Southern Railway Headquarters, the Moore Market Complex, the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital and of course, the Chennai Central Station itself) contained in its 8-acre spread. There will be other heritage buildings - or, as in the case of the Ramaswamy Mudeliar Choultry, just a vestige marking the spot - around this square. 

It would take a few years to be complete, but I hope all of this will not only provide open space for the people to chill (there are quite a few doing so these days anyway) but will also bring back the Victoria Public Hall as a performance space. From the outside, it looks much better than I remember it anytime over the past 15 years; but the inside is still very crumbly. One looks forward to taking in a show, or a lecture, at this hall before... well, 2028?