Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Everest Hotel

April 22, 2014
Everest Hotel, Jaya Mansions

Everest Hotel, Jaya Mansions

This one is not strictly ‘lost’ but it is almost that. Everest Hotel (now Everest King Castle) is one of the best known occupants of Jaya Mansions, a classic art deco building constructed in the late 1930s by S.P. Jayarama Nadar, Merchant and Councillor of the Corporation of Madras, to serve as a commercial hostel for students of the Madras Medical College. By the mid-1940s it had become commercial premises with a number of shops and establishments renting the rooms in the ground floor. Everest Lodge, as it was known, the creation of Sundaram Iyer, took the upper floors.

Located as it was midway between Central and Egmore stations, it became a very popular place of stay. There was a rooftop restaurant as well, which also functioned as the premises for the Muthialpet Sabha. It was here on a full moon night that Tiger Varadachariar is said to have performed a pallavi in Raga Poornachandrika.

Sundaram Iyer married a well-known dancer Swarna Saraswathi en secondes noces as the expression is, and the couple later moved to Delhi where they lived till their passing.

The hotel changed hands and continues to function from the same premises though ill-advised attempts at modernisation have robbed the facade of all vestiges of art deco.

An interesting aside is that Everest also ran Zoo Café, which, as the name suggests, was a restaurant at the Zoo which at the time was just behind Ripon Building, barely a stone’s throw away.

Other Lost Landmarks of Madras

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Park with a past

April 21, 2014

Hidden Histories, after a hiatus has been revived and is now part of The Hindu’s Melange, which will come out every Saturday. The first article is on the May Day Park in Chintadripet.

May Day aka Napiers Park

May Day aka Napiers Park

Summers are best spent away from Chennai and if you are stuck here, it is best to remain indoors with a powerful air conditioner and a tall cooling drink by your elbow. But if you are the outdoors variety then May Day Park is probably one location that you could visit. Its tall shade-giving trees, green lawns and herbaceous borders are the most soothing sights on a hot day. You access it from Anna Salai, taking a left along Simpson & Co. And there, just opposite the Chintadripet MRTS station is the park, all 14.5 acres of it.

In 1849 or thereabouts, all of this area, Simpson, The Hindu, The Mail and P Orr & Sons included, was one large property, occupied by Burghall’s Stables, a firm that was into the hiring out of horse carriages and the manufacture of saddles and livery. In 1869, a part of its land was handed over to the Government for the creation of a park. It was named after the then Governor, Francis, 10 Lord Napier and 1 Baron Ettrick. Entrusted to the Municipality in 1879, it became in time a much-required green lung for the Chintadripet area.

It is quite likely that much of the lush greenery here is due to sewage. In the 1860s, when underground drains were yet to make their appearance, the largely organic sewage in various parts of the city was drained into specially designated farms. Napier Park received the sewage of entire South Madras. One of the first modern sewage pumping stations was set up here in 1932 and Pumping Station Road next to the park commemorates this.

There is very little apart from the greenery to see and admire in the park. At the extreme left, HT Boddam, a highly unpopular judge from the early 1900s glowers down at you from below an ornate canopy. At the opposite end is an elegant Ashok Pillar, unveiled in 1966 by actor S.S. Rajendran. In the middle is what is best avoided – a gruesome rockery, commemorating the change of name to May Day Park in 1990. Madras was the first city in India to observe May Day, way back in 1923 under the leadership of M. Singaravelar. The park itself had much to do with the city’s labour history, being next to what was one of the biggest employers before modernisation brought numbers down – Simpson & Co. Known for militant labour unionism in the 1960s and ’70s, it is here that the workers of the company meet even today, on May 1.

On January 25, 1965, thousands of students marched from Napier Park to Fort St George as part of the anti-Hindi agitation. The then Chief Minister M. Bhaktavatsalam refused to meet them and tear gas shells were exploded injuring many. That treatment of students is even now believed to be one of the reasons for the Congress defeat in 1967, after which it has never come to power in Tamil Nadu.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated April 19, 2014

Note: I have earlier written on May Day Park for this blog to protest against Metrorail taking it over. For some reason (and we must be thankful), only the playground was sacrificed. Metrorail has also promised to return the ground to its original state after the Metro becomes a reality.

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Modern Cafe

April 14, 2014
Modern Cafe, Esplanade

Modern Cafe, Esplanade

Featured here is the Modern Café,which was one of a chain of restaurants begun by K. Seetharama Rao, before he founded the Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road. Modern Café, Mysore (by appointment to HH The Maharajah) was the first. Modern Café, Madras, came next, by the early 1930s. Then followed Modern Hindu Hotel, with two outlets, one each in Mysore and Ootacamund.

The Madras one featured here was on Esplanade Road (now NSC Bose Road). It made its name catering to the lawyers of the High Court. In its heyday, the Modern Café ran a hotel at Hari Nivas, Thambu Chetty Street, and also two other restaurants called Modern Café, one in Egmore and the other at Basin Bridge. Seetharama Rao, whose motto was service, also began the first organised canteen on the Marina, next to the swimming pool, thanks to the encouragement of O. Pulla Reddy, Commissioner of the Corporation of Madras, in the 1940s.

You may want to read about these lost landmarks as well:


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Dasaprakash

April 10, 2014
Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road

Dasaprakash Hotel on Poonamallee High Road

The chief has been drooling over a Madras Guide of the 1950s which has photos of some famed commercial establishments of the city. The quality of print is terrible but still the photos evoke a memory. I have been given the enjoyable task of writing the notes for each.

The first of these is Dasaprakash Hotel. A wonderful art deco building, it was part of a chain built up by Kuttethoor Seetharama Rao who gave up a lowly Government job in 1921 to join his brothers in running a restaurant in Mysore. He later established others in Madras and Ootacamund, and the chain moved to North India in the 1970s and, thereafter, to the USA.

The Poonamallee High Road flagship hotel was inaugurated in 1954, as was its twin kalyana mandapam, Dharmaprakash. The hotel was known for its good Udipi fare, ice creams and comfortable rooms. In its time, its restaurants had seen visitors ranging from Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru to J.K. Galbraith.

Differences in the family and the five-star culture saw the closure of Dasaprakash in the 1990s. The building was demolished in 2010 to make way for highrise after the property changed hands.

Threat to Pulicat lake’s buffer zone

April 8, 2014

If a country had a magnificent lake that dates back to the Holocene period, rich in bio­diversity and history, what would it do? Protect it? Promote it? Neither, if the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India, is to be believed. In a startling move, the MOEF has proposed that the buffer zone around Pulicat Lake be reduced from ten to two kilometres! This unexpected blow has environmentalists up in arms.

The move comes following a decision by the Ministry of Shipping, Government of India, to develop Durgarayapatnam (Armagon of Francis Day fame) as a port and shipbuilding centre spread over 5000 acres. The proposed development, notified in September 2013, is expected to take over at least 5 km of protected area in the vicinity of Pulicat. It centres on Tuppili­palem (in Andhra) which happens to be just around 4 km from Pulicat Lake itself.

There are several questions about the sustainability of this port, but the Ministry has decided to go ahead nevertheless. It is to allow for this that the MOEF has, on January 3, 2014, proposed a restricted Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around Pulicat. This overrides the Andhra Pradesh Government Forest Department proposal for a ten-km ESZ around the Lake. That was mooted in 2007, following a Supreme Court order in 2004, asking for ‘shock absorbers’ around ecologically sensitive areas. That it has not yet been notified and remains on paper is yet another matter.

The Lake is of vital importance not only to the Tamil Nadu-Andhra region around it but also to international birdlife.

Firstly, around fifty villages, most of whose occupants rely on traditional methods of fishing, depend on it for their livelihood. The building of a port, however world-class it may promise to be, will immediately mean the end of a way of life. It must be pointed out that most of the fisherfolk here practise what is known as the padu system of fishing. Known for its ecologically sensitive way of harvesting fish, it is already facing a decline thanks to the setting up of the Ennore Thermal Power Station, which discharges effluents at elevated temperatures into the Lake.

Secondly, the Lake is a bird sanctuary that has international significance, located as it is on the Eastern Flyway of the Central Asian Flyway, a crucial migratory route. Birds while migrating across the globe, therefore, visit it and some of them are highly endangered species. Tampering with their habitats can spell disaster to some birdlife across the world. It is feared that the proposed port will impact not only the flight pattern of the birds but also the aquatic life in the Lake, which forms an important link in the food chain needed for the birds to survive.

Thirdly, the Lake itself depends on three openings to the sea, the northernmost of which is at Durgarayapatnam. It is the view of conservationists that the port will result in the sealing off of that outlet following construction activities. This particular mouth is of immense importance, for it is from here that the seawater enters the lake, the openings in Tamil Nadu serving as exits. If this is to be shut off, the lake will be starved of fresh water supply. The impounded water will evaporate in summer, resulting in hypersalinity, which will kill the aquatic life.

Lastly, India is a signatory to the Ramsar Agreement that aims to protect water bodies. This is “an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the wise use, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories,” to quote from its website. To what purpose such agreements if they are not to be implemented at ground level?

Recording of my talk on V Krishnaswami Aiyar

April 1, 2014

The talk is up in full on Youtube at this link:

You can also read accounts of his life at:

Parts 1 and 2

100 years of a statue

The Man who saved The Marina

A talk on V Krishnaswami Aiyar

March 26, 2014
V Krishnaswami Aiyer's statue outside Senate House

V Krishnaswami Aiyer’s statue outside Senate House

This great personality has featured often on this blog. This being his 150th year of birth, his family members are commemorating the same with a get-together at the Sanskrit College Mylapore on 29th March, Saturday at 4.30 pm.

I have been asked to give a talk on his life. All are welcome.

In you case you are not free, you can read about his life at

V Krishnaswami Aiyar, parts 1 & 2

A 100 years of a statue

The man who saved the Marina

Fondly remembering Lafond

March 25, 2014

Lafond was an Anglo-Indian of the 1860s. He was also probably the first among non-Europeans to rise high in the Madras police force. He became Deputy Commissioner. His track record is of a kind that today’s politicians would have loved. In 1860, he, under the instructions of his boss Boulderson, stood aside to watch the Wesleyan Mission being ransacked by ‘majority’ community members. The latter were protesting the conversion of Vijayaranga, who in turn claimed he was changing over voluntarily.

The Government of Madras was not amused and strictures were passed against Lafond. Vijayaranga converted in any case and became a lay priest or something of that kind. But, and here is where the mystery is, Lafond is remembered in a street just behind the Zion Church in Chintadripet. Only his spelling as can be seen, is causing a lot of confusion, or should we say conpusion?


Whoever painted that sign knew enough French to realise that D is often silent when appearing at the en of a wor. And we have no ‘F’ in Tamil (oh Puck!). The B instead of P is probably a #bathma or #kogul.

Then came the realisation that Lafond was not French. But we still have no F and so…


But why is he remembered at all?

On the evolution of wedding gifts

March 19, 2014

The Man from Madras Musings is breathing easy, now that the wedding season is over. His good lady, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed has now gone on to other things to expend her surplus energy leaving MMM alone and free from the care of attending weddings. But the spate of marriages had MMM musing on the way wedding gifts have changed over the years.

MMM is aware of a dim past when diamond necklaces, silverware and other such gifts were de rigueur but he was born in a more prosaic age. Among MMM’s earliest memories is of a doctor aunt getting married. A patient of hers gifted her with a ghastly steel cup (or was it a set MMM forgets). The aunt having put it away, rather absentmindedly gifted it back to the same patient when the patient got married. A couple of years later, the cup (or was it a set), came right back, when a second aunt got married. That aunt migrated to another city where no doubt the cup (or the set) was launched once again onto the gift circuit where it probably still orbits.

Mind you, a steel cup (or set) though hideous, is still better than the plastic ones that began doing the rounds a decade later. The era of the plastics was generally the worst for gifts and has mercifully got over. There are days when the mood is despondent and MMM can recall those cream coloured melamine cups with printed floral designs that were the most favoured gifts, at least from the giver’s point of view. If you got plenty of those, there were other excrescences as well. Who could forget the milk cookers – those aluminium creations in which water circulated and boiled in a chamber that surrounded the one in which the milk was poured? The water boiled first and the cooker whistled to warn you that the milk was next in line. It all worked well for the first month or so after which the whistle got choked with whatever whistles get choked with. The consequence was that the milk boiled over, the water having evaporated by then. But you did not have to worry, for you had at least half-a-dozen milk cookers on standby – all from your wedding and if you had not gifted them to others by then that is. If you were married in the 1970s or 1980s, milk cookers were the standard gifts, closely followed by electric irons. A close third was the ice bucket, perhaps because our city has hot weather throughout the year.

Far worse than the milk cookers, were the glowing lamps. MMM is fairly certain that the younger generation among his faithful readers will not know about these. They were hideous, comprising two metal florets, which held a coloured, transparent plastic cylinder between them. This cylinder contained water within. All simple and innocent you may imagine. The lamp was however a nasty bag of tricks that revealed itself only when connected to electric power. The water inside began to glow and what was worse, revealed several tapeworm like floaters that shone and darted about hither and thither. This was bad enough but some others had music in them as well. The only good thing was that the whole ensemble lasted a week or ten days at most at the end of which the water drained out. A rather cynical uncle told MMM that the lamp was popular as a wedding gift as it symbolised marital bliss and only lasted that long. But that, as MMM hastens to add, was his, the uncle’s and not MMM’s view.

One excrescence that is still going strong is the statuette of white metal. Nothing can be uglier than this, no matter what shape it takes – a Venus, the elephant-headed God or a horse.
And then, there were some thrifty souls who got away with the simple expedient of sending a greetings telegram. These used to be ceremoniously read out as well. More on them later…

If you liked this you may want to read about cash gifts as well.

This is also worth a read – Still more wedding gifts

Better times for Chepauk Palace?

March 18, 2014

At long last, work is to begin on the restoration of Khalsa Mahal, one of the two wings of historic Chepauk Palace. This is a little more than two years after it was gutted in a fire. The tardy beginning notwithstanding, it is a matter for cheer that the authorities have considered restoration as an alternative to demolition – something that they are more familiar with.

One wing of Khalsa Mahal

One wing of Khalsa Mahal

Khalsa Mahal was burnt down in January 2012 following a short circuit. The building was asking for it, as had been repeatedly pointed out in this publication. Shoddy maintenance, adhoc electric wiring, seepage of water due to arbitrary construction of toilets and the dumping of old files and wooden furniture, all of them contri­buted to a deadly combination that did its work thoroughly when the fire accident happened. The building has remained a mouldering ruin ever since, awaiting official action.

But there are some positive elements to the story. Barring a hasty announcement by a Minister in the immediate aftermath of the fire that the building would be demolished, the administration made it quite clear that it was interested in saving the structure. A committee of three experts was asked to study the possibility and, though this body did not have a single conservation architect in its composition, the final recommendation was for restoration, even if the terms for it were vague at best. This by itself was a marked departure from earlier incidents of fire in historic buildings – Moore Market, Spencer’s and Gandhi Illam being three examples – where restoration was not even considered, despite pleas.

What was even more encouraging was that the Government in June 2012 decided that it wanted to make the restoration of Khalsa Mahal a model exercise, which would be the blueprint for such restorations in future. It was then said that the restoration, as and when it happened, would not be on the basis of the stifling PWD norms, where the rates and terms of contract were always based on new construction. It is not clear if that same generosity of spirit has survived and if the proposed restoration is on those lines. It has, however, now been announced that the work is to begin in the next few weeks. The task is being entrusted to a Mysore-based ­conservation architect, who has ­earlier worked on the restoration of the Madras Club and Ripon Building.

There are bound to be great difficulties and challenges ahead. The work is going to be labour intensive and whether it will be possible to complete it within the specified one-year period is doubtful. It also makes you wonder at the ways of the bureaucracy – two years to ­decide on restoration and then just a year to complete it! The contract has strict terms to use the existing materials as far as possible. How feasible this will be, given that most of it has ­survived as debris exposed to the elements for the past two years, is open to question. And it is to be hoped that restoration will be faithful to the spirit of such an exercise and not like what was done at the Madras GPO after a fire ravaged its ­central hall. That was a sham restoration where the only cause for joy was that the ­structure was allowed to ­survive.

What is sad, however, is that there is no move to restore the other wing – Humayun Mahal – which is in a precarious condition after a roof collapse. Why does the Government not take up this also and give us a splendidly restored Chepauk Palace, a precinct that we can be ­justifiably proud of?

For further details on Chepauk Palace, read the links below:

Chepauk Palace history

Its sad state prior to the fire

The fire that ravaged Chepauk Palace

The dithering on the restoration of Chepauk Palace


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