Kalavai Chetty, commemorated in a Chintadripet street and referred to in records as Colloway Chetty, is first mentioned in 1691 when he was declared insolvent and sentenced to prison by the Mayor’s Court. Governor Elihu Yale, commemorated in Yale University thought differently after Chetty’s relatives met him and a surety of 1000 pagodas (the then currency) had exchanged hands. He demanded the immediate release of the “eminent Merchant of the Hon’ble Company”. It was perhaps the first instance in Madras of political interference in the execution of justice.
By 1708, Chetty was clearly prosperous enough to rent the villages of Tondiarpet, Purasawalkam and Egmore from the East India Company at 1750 pagodas per annum. Within a few months, Governor Pitt, of whom Chetty was clearly a favourite, encouraged the latter to take on the villages of Tiruvottriyur, Nungambakkam, Vyasarpadi, Kattupakkam and Sattangadu, which he did at a rent of 1200 pagodas per annum.
Kalavai Chetty formed a joint stock company, a private limited in today’s parlance, through which he and other investing merchants supplied cloth to the East India Company. Apart from Kalavai, the shareholders were Sunkurama, Balu and Kalathi Chetties, all commemorated with street names in North Chennai. But Kalavai Chetty’s continuing involvement in caste riots ensured his dismissal from this venture in 1717. He was soon back in favour, this time on payment of 40,000 pagodas as a surety.
His various dealings prevented him from regularly visiting the Kachapeeswarar shrine in Kanchipuram to which he was greatly attached. He decided to build a temple for the deity in Madras itself. His garden on Armenian Street was made over for the purpose and on it came up the temple then referred to as the Kachali Pagoda and now known as the Kachaliswarar Temple. Like the shrine in Kanchi, the Shiva Linga here is mounted on a turtle depicting Mahavishnu. The Goddess here is Saundarambika, just as in the Kanchi temple. The temple today has several sub shrines, including some hideous recent structures that ought to have never been erected.
Among the more aesthetic ones is a sanctum for Ayyappa. This has an interesting story behind it. In 1952, when the temple at Sabarimala was damaged by fire, a new idol was made and taken in procession to various parts of the country. When it came to Madras, it was housed at the Kachaliswarar Temple. When the idol was taken back to Sabarimala, a portrait of the deity took its place and was worshipped. In the 1980s, this portrait was replaced by an image.
The temple forms a square, on three sides of which is the Kachaliswarar Agraharam, marking the traditional residential area. Was this endowed by Kalavai Chetty? To the rear of the shrine is a large tank. And fronting the temple is Kachali Pagoda Lane, a throwback to the old name. In the 18th century, this was the principal dancing-girl quarter of Madras. It has no vestige of that colourful past now.
This article appeared in The Hindu today -http://www.thehindu.com/arts/history-and-culture/article3621524.ece