A Tour of Tranquebar

February 25, 2015

A tour of Tranquebar

Fort Dansborg, Tranquebar

Fort Dansborg, Tranquebar

‘A rare Indian colony of the Danish empire. A place that fostered the modern printing press and Protestant Christianity in the subcontinent. A tourist haunt that was ravaged by the tsunami in 2004. This is Tranquebar, known as Tharangampadi, a charming coastal town in present-day Tamil Nadu.”

Thus begins Beyond Tranquebar, a collection of essays on the region, written by various scholars and edited by Esther Fihl and AR Venkatachalapathy. Tranquebar is indeed a rarity – a town dating to Pandian times and then becoming a base for the Danish East India Company. It is also a lucky town, for in these heritage insensitive times, it has been patiently and lovingly restored to its old glory, with some excellent work having been done on it by INTACH, the Department of Tourism, Government of Tamil Nadu and the Bestseller Foundation of Denmark.

There is much to see in Tranquebar and lots of fresh air by the sea to enjoy. This tour is dedicated to this out of the way heritage town. In addition, we plan to take in Chidambaram the temple town that has been a part of our glorious past since times immemorial. A living symbol of our religious faith, it traces its origins to the worship of Nature as God. The nearby mangroves that protect the coast from tsunamis and ocean ingress are filled with Thillai trees that gave the temple its name. Close by is the enormous Veeranarayana or Veeranam lake dug in Chola times and even now a source of water for all the irrigation in the region besides supplying Chennai with water.

The tour conceptualised and curated by Sriram V, will begin from Chennai early on Friday, March 27, and will end by the evening of Sunday, March 29, 2015, at Chennai. Those interested may register by emailing their name and phone number to walks@chennaipastforward.com for further details on cost and payment methods.

நாயா நீ? A citizens’ initiative to save Chennai walls.

February 24, 2015

To any casual visitor to our city or a concerned resident of it, one of the biggest eyesores is the plethora of posters disfiguring any and every available surface – compound walls, abandoned vehicles, corrugated sheets, roadside water tanks and rubbish bins – none of which is spared. The administration is largely indifferent to it apart from a few half-hearted notifications to the effect that the practice is undesirable. The political parties are, of course, the biggest culprits. At a time when the problem appeared to defy a solution, a citizens’ initiative to clean up the walls has just begun. This may yet be the best thing that could have happened to our city, but it is still early days yet.

#WakeUpMadras is how the group is identified on social media. And by its own description of itself, it is a coming together of concerned “men, women, boys and girls.” They prefer to remain unidentified, for they claim, and rightly so, that when a name is introduced, a number of other equations – of caste, gender and, in Tamil Nadu, much worse – political slants – can become involved and spoil the initiative. Their first effort is wall art, which they believe is a strong medium for bringing to the fore several social issues. They are also of the view that the public surfaces are not the domain of the vested political and commercial interests but those of the citizen. The first demonstration of their presence is a graffiti of a dog with its hind leg lifted up. Below that is a message that reads in Tamil, “Are you a dog?”, followed by the hashtag of WakeUpMadras. The target audience is obvious – that class of men who think nothing of committing what is euphemistically known as ‘nuisance’.

Hopefully, #WakeUpMadras will be allowed to peacefully exist and carry on publicising our social ills. However, this group is not alone. There are others such as Labs, which is another such initiative. The students of the Stella Maris College have now begun decorating their rather long frontage with some wonderful art. The Corporation, as we have seen, has also chipped in with some forceful messages on its flyovers where it has asked those who paste posters to think twice before doing so, for the walls have been painted with the taxpayers’ money. This appears to have had the desired result, for the pillars and walls of flyovers have remained free of posters.

And so are the days when we had to cover our walls with paintings of our deities or paste glazed tiles bearing their images to prevent any kind of misuse a thing of the past? Not really, for old habits die hard and political parties, private advertisers, magazines and film companies think nothing of disfiguring the walls of our city. But these citizen initiatives appear to have stalled them to an extent.

It may come as a surprise to many that Tamil Nadu was one of the first States to enact legislation preventing the disfiguring of public and private wall spaces. The Tamil Nadu Open Spaces (prevention of disfigurement) Act was passed in 1959! But it has remained only on paper, with the law enforcers turning a blind eye to its violation. In the last decade, at least one political party when in power, began an initiative of getting artists to paint murals depicting our State’s history and culture on the walls. This was a praiseworthy though short-lived effort, for a change in regime saw the plan being abandoned and the posters returning to the walls.

Ultimately, any law is effective if the citizens take to it. Similarly, it is for the citizens to protect their public wall spaces. Which is why initiatives such as #WakeUpMadras will hopefully deliver results in the long run.

A brief history of the General Hospital – a Chennai landmark

February 23, 2015
The General Hospital

The General Hospital

This is one of those institutions whose comprehensive history probably needs several books. Believe it or not, the history of the Government General Hospital goes back to 1644 or so, and it has been at the present location from 1772! And that is not all. Between those two years the hospital had nine incarnations, making the present one the tenth, or more accurately the eleventh, if you include the reconstruction of 2002!

Since we are dealing with the present location, we will confine our history to the period beginning from 1771 when the then site of the hospital was Armenian Street. The decision to shift had been taken ten years earlier and a new location had been identified – the land on which the Company’s Garden House had stood in the 1680s, on the lower slopes of Nari Medu or Hog’s Hill (most of today’s Central Station and its environs). But no action resulted for a while.

The hospital building was constructed at this site by John Sullivan at a cost of 42,000 pagodas and was formally open to patients from October 5, 1772. The Town Wall had an entrance fronting this and became known as the Hospital Gate from then on. The next major expansion was in 1859 followed by yet another in 1893 and a third in 1928, all of which resulted in the structures that are seen in the photograph above. At the conclusion of that third phase of expansion, Dr. Sir A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, the then Principal of the Madras Medical College, declared that “the Madras General Hospital now presents an inspiring pile of buildings of which Madras may well be proud and which delights the eye of every professional visitor to this city.” Over the years, the hospital grew, acquiring its neurology, cardiology and other speciality blocks from the 1960s onwards. The architectural styles of these largely detracted from the dignity of the main buildings that Dr Mudaliar had praised. The most major reconstruction to date was in 2002 when the two main blocks were pulled down to make way for the modern building seen today. The two chattries or domed structures that flank the entrances and house the statues of Dr. M. Guruswami Mudaliar and Dr. S. Rangachari are the only remnants of the inspiring pile of the 1930s. There are, however, several old structures still standing within the complex, with varying degrees of antiquity. All of them suffer from indifferent maintenance.

The hospital’s earlier nomenclature appears to have been Government Hospital and in 1692, Dr Edward Bulkley was appointed as its head. The next year he performed the first medico-legal autopsy in India when a senior Company official was killed owing to his medicine being prepared in an improperly cleaned dish that previously contained arsenic. Bulkley is also remembered for the first leave certificate on medical grounds, the first injury certificate and, more notoriously, for abetting in a sentenced man feigning illness and moving from the prison to a hospital, this being John Nicks, whose wife was a close friend of Elihu Yale and probably the first woman entrepreneur of Madras. It has since been a frequently used excuse especially by political prisoners! Rather appropriately, Bulkley is buried on land facing the hospital. The large granite tomb, not cared for in any way by the State’s Archaelogical Survey under whose protection it is supposed to be, is now within the Ordnance Lines that have come up across the hospital.

While the hospital’s move to this location in 1772 is fairly well recorded, the presence of a medallion near the Superintendent’s office stating ‘Hospital founded in 1753’ is intriguing. This is a plaque commemorating an earlier shift and which moved along with the hospital to its present site. It was only in 1842 that the G in the name began to stand for General when the facility became open to Indians. The hospital became a wholely civilian institution in 1899.

The GH takes pride in Col C Donovan’s discovery in 1903 of the organism that caused the dreaded Kala Azar. By the time the news was transmitted to England, the organism had also been identified by Dr Leishman, leading to Donovan having to share the honours. The bacteria was, therefore, named Leishman Donovani. But, the organism was most probably isolated by Donovan at the Royapettah Hospital of which he was in charge at the time of the discovery. Not so well known is Dr. W J Niblock, who documented in India the first successful gastrojejunostomy for gastric outlet obstruction due to peptic ulcer at the GH on March 2, 1905. He is also the one who wrote the widely quoted article on “Epidemology of cancer in India” as early as 1902. Niblock’s work on gastroenterology was to be brought to public notice by Dr N Rangabhashyam in 1975 when under his guidance the GH acquired a gastroenterology department. It is not clear if Ronald Ross worked at the GH or elsewhere in Madras during his short tenure here but his close associate John Maitland worked at the GH and did pioneering work on filariasis. He became Senior Surgeon at the hospital in 1896, holding the post till his death in 1908.

The GH was headed by a Superintendent from 1858 onwards, the first incumbent being Lt Col William Evans of the Indian Medical Service. The first Indian to hold that post was Lt Col M N Choudhri ims. The post of Dean of the Government General Hospital and Medical College, Madras, was created in 1950, with the first occupant being Dr. R V Rajam.

A busy hospital today, the GH has the same problems that face all Government-run health facilities – bureaucracy, overcrowding and a perpetual battle in which facilities are forever in a process of being geared up to face an ever-increasing demand. But this is where the not so privileged can readily go for medical treatment, confident that their illnesses can be attended to at a fraction of what it will cost at a private hospital. To them it is always the GH, irrespective of whatever be its present official name, necessitated by political consideration/or convenience about a decade ago.

You may want to read the following stories on other landmarks of the city:

Government Hospital for Women and Children, Egmore

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2015/01/19/landmarks-of-c…i-guindy-races/”>The Guindy races</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2015/01/14/the-victoria-t…rk-institution/”>Victoria Technical Institute</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/lost-landmarks…-aasi-building/”>The AASI building</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/12/02/moore-market-a…-lost-landmark/ ‎”>Moore Market</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/chennai-landma…egmore-station/”>The Egmore Railway Station</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/the-old-meenambakkam-terminal/”>The Meenambakkam Terminal </a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/10/21/the-gurudwara-…gn-chetty-road”>The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road
<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/lost-landmarks…ivanar-arangam/”>Kalaivanar Arangam</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/lost-landmarks…orporation-zoo/”>The Corporation Zoo</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/lost-landmarks…-victory-house/”>Victory House</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/lost-landmarks…gemini-studios/ ‎”>Gemini Studios</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/old-woodlands-hotel/&#8221; title=”Old Woodlands Hotel”>Old Woodlands Hotel </a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/lost-landmarks-of-chennai-the-hotel-oceanic/&#8221; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – The Hotel Oceanic”>The Oceanic Hotel</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/my-ladyes-garden-another-surviving-landmark/&#8221; title=”My Ladye’s Garden – another surviving landmark”>My Ladyes Garden</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/the-connemara-hotel-an-enduring-landmark/&#8221; title=”The Connemara Hotel – an enduring landmark”>Connemara Hotel</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/lost-landmarks-of-chennai-airlines-hotel/&#8221; title=”Lost landmarks of Chennai – Airlines Hotel”>The Airlines Hotel</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/lost-landmarks-of-chennai-everest-hotel/&#8221; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Everest Hotel”>Everest Hotel </a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/lost-landmarks-of-chennai-modern-cafe/&#8221; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Modern Cafe”>Modern Cafe</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/lost-landmarks-of-chennai-dasaprakash/&#8221; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Dasaprakash”>Dasaprakash</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/eastern-and-western-castlets-of-de-havilland/&#8221; title=”Eastern and Western Castlets of de Havilland”>The Eastern and Western Castlets</a>

<a href=”https://sriramv.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/de-havilland-and-the-madras-bulwark/&#8221; title=”de Havilland and The Madras Bulwark”>The Madras Bulwark</a>

Stage Shocks

February 19, 2015

Continuing from part 1 here on how the Man from Madras Musings was invited to speak at a college.

The audience was a group of bored students who had apparently been suffering a two-day symposium on the same subject. They looked as prepared as MMM to make a quick dash for it had they not been restrained by attendance rules.

The programme began with the gushing lady introducing MMM and the other guest. “We have in our midst the great NNN,” she declared. And then proceeded to read out a bio data that MMM was fairly certain belonged to NNN whoever that was but certainly not he. It was only halfway through it that MMM realised it was an old profile of his, something that was at least ten years old when MMM was a mere mmm. After that wound its way to an end, MMM got onto the mike and held forth for ten minutes, returning to his seat to thunderous applause, no doubt owing to his having been brief.

Then came the turn of the main speaker. And listening to him, MMM realised as to why history was such an unpopular subject. Beginning with a simple statement that he would hold forth on the post-orientalist subaltern colonial approach to history or something that sounded like that, the speaker went on to dwell at length on post-empiricism, post-structuralism and the linguistic turn. He then waxed eloquent on epistemological violence where truth is power and thundered about bourgeois Indian nationalism which, he said, had elided from something to something else that MMM has quite forgotten.

He had a presentation that was in essence every word of his speech and this played on in the background. MMM, whose vision is not of the very best, decided to spend his time usefully by treating the power point presentation as a sort of eye test, trying his best to read all the words as they passed everyone by. MMM also occasionally stole a glance at the audience. A group of girls at a far corner were giggling away. Two teachers dozed off and their heads nodded in unison. MMM waited to see if they would collide and was soon rewarded for his penance. The commotion caused by the two of them knocking their heads and waking up caused a few others to stir. And all the while the professor spoke on about the empiricists and the structuralists. Having exhausted that he said he had set the stage for the present-day situation and then spoke on something called the Cambridge school for a few minutes. And then, just as he appeared to be all set to go on for the entire afternoon, he suddenly finished and sat down. The result was stunning. The audience, realising that freedom was nigh, clapped uproariously.

Driving home, MMM could not help wondering if any of the students had taken back anything worthwhile by way of history from the talk. MMM is not blaming the professor who spoke, but he belonged to a different strata altogether, that of senior dons at a high table discussing matters of pith and moment. It was hardly the kind of speech that would inspire students to take to a career in history.

The only one who appeared pleased was the gushing lady. She had achieved the task of conducting a two-day workshop. But then, certificates were given and everybody went home happy.
Back home, The Man from Madras Musings declared that he would rather not attend another college event if he could help it. To this his good lady, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed, said rather tartly that all MMM had to do was to write about it in his column and his wishes would be fulfilled. She also said something about not having any friends ever since MMM began writing ‘that dratted column’ but MMM opted not to hear that. Trust the good lady to come up with a solution.

College Confusions

February 18, 2015

The Man from Madras Musings was rudely woken up from his reverie by the phone ringing. Who could be calling at this early hour, MMM wondered. Perhaps the Chief over that mix-up with the photographs in the last issue? But the voice was that of a female who appeared to be all agog with some information. In fact, she had evidently begun speaking even before MMM had answered the call. It was only after some time that MMM managed to register what she was saying. It appeared that sometime in the dim past, of which MMM had no recollection, the lady had invited him to come to her college to speak at a function and the event was on that day. MMM rather feebly protested that he had received no communication since the day of the call, but the caller was quite firm that she had sent an email. MMM made bold to ask her as to when it was sent and then got to know that it was just a minute or two before the phone call.

Not wishing to disappoint the caller, especially after she had given MMM a terrific build up (“Sir, I am a great fan of yours, I read everything you write”) and realising that it involved speaking to the students for about ten minutes on history, MMM agreed and duly presented himself at the college at the appointed hour. MMM does not know about your experience but, being a veteran speaker at many colleges and schools, MMM realises that all of them have one thing in common – the security at the gate is never informed about a guest coming into the institution. MMM is usually stopped at the gate and asked a million questions. He is told to fend for parking space and then, asking as to where the event is taking place, is usually waved onwards with a vague gesture. MMM then wanders around the campus like the lonely cloud that floats on o’er vales and hills till he comes upon a crowd, a host of giggling students. This campus was no different and it was only after asking several students, teachers and others that MMM located the place where he was to speak.

The preliminary meeting was all that MMM could wish for. The teacher who had invited him gushed and showered encomiums on MMM whereupon MMM blushed and tried to look modest. He was asked whether he would have tea or coffee and when MMM asked for black tea sans sugar he was served milky coffee with enough sweetness in it to fill a confectioner’s order for the day. Having digested that, MMM was introduced to another gentleman who, MMM learnt, was a respected figure in historical circles and was scheduled to speak after MMM. This half had not been told unto MMM, felt MMM, as the Queen of Sheba said on meeting Solomon, but a closer scrutiny of the invitation’s email print-out revealed that it had all along been there. MMM assumed that the learned professor would speak for ten minutes like MMM but this hope was soon dashed to the ground for, the don having enquired from MMM as to how long he was to speak, curved his lips in a scornful smile at the mere ten minutes and said with mournful pride that he, a learned professor, was scheduled to harangue for a good 45 minutes.

There was nothing that could be done (or, as they say in Chennai, MMM could not able to do anything) other than grin and bear it and so off everyone went to the auditorium, the gushing lady, the blushing MMM and the knowledgeable pedagogue.

To be continued…

How some devotees saw Shiva

February 17, 2015

I wrote this sleeve note in 2006 (how long ago it all seems) for Charsur’s CD Shivam. I suddenly recalled that this had never been put up on the blog. Rather an apt reminder for Shivaratri. The write up is tailored to the songs featured in the CD and so cannot be construed as a comprehensive write-up on His devotees.

Kapali close up, rShabha vAhanam festival, 2014

Shiva is defined today as one of the Trimurtis, the three Gods of the Hindu Pantheon and is said to be the destroyer. However, to his devotees, Shiva is all compassing, involving Himself in the five fold task of shrishti – creation, sthithi- being, vilaya -dissolution, tirodana- lifting the veil and anugraha- blessing. Shiva’s devotees are numerous in our puranas and also in recent times. It is interesting to see how each one the devotees saw the Lord in his or her own light. This CD offers a selection from the works of several devotees of Shiva.

Tirugnanasambandar saw the Lord as his father. He was born at Sirkazhi in the 7th Century AD as the son of Sivapadahrudayar and Bhagavatiyar. When he was three, he was taken by his father to the temple tank and left on the steps even as the father stepped in to bathe. The child becoming hungry cried and Lord Shiva appeared with His consort and instructed Her to give breast milk to the boy. The act of having the Goddess’ milk made Sambandar God’s son. The real father, his bath completed returned to find milk dripping from the child’s mouth. Asked as to who it was that fed him, Sambandar burst into the song “tOduya seviyan” which describes Shiva. Having attained enlightenment by the divine milk, Sambandar set out on a pilgrimage covering several Shaivaite shrines. Together with Appar (or Tirunavukkarasar) he challenged the Jains and defeated them. He is said to have composed several thousand verses in praise of Shiva at various shrines. At the age of 16, after his marriage, he along with his wife and several other devotees, merged into Godhead at Chidambaram.

Appar or Tirunavukkarasar was a senior contemporary of Sambandar and he viewed Shiva as his master. Born at Amoor to Pukazhendiar and Mathinyar, Appar chose to join the Jain faith first and rose to become one of its chief monks. Referred to as Marulnikkiyar, he was greatly respected in that faith. An incurable colic seized him and his sister Tilakavathi, who had remained a staunch Shaivaite asked him to come to the temple at Thiruathikai where she cured him with Shiva’s vibhuti. Appar became a staunch devotee of Shiva after that. The Pallava king who ruled over the land was a Jain and he tortured Appar in various ways for his conversion. But Appar survived them all and took to a life of devotion to Shiva. Touring far and wide and visiting many shrines, he made the hoe his implement and used it to weed out grass from the pathways and walls of Shiva temples. Appar composed several hymns on Lord Shiva which go by the name of Tiruviruttam, Tiruthandakam and others.

Sundaramurthy Nayanar, like Sambandar and Appar is one of the 63 Nayanmars or devotees of Shiva. He is the last as his Tirutondarthokai sings the praise of 60 Nayanmars at the end of which he has added his own name and that of his parents making the total 63. Sundaramurthy Nayanar believed Shiva to be his companion. True to nature Shiva not only helped His friend at every turn, but also walked twice down the streets of Tiruvarur to make peace between Sundaramurthy and his first wife Paravayar. Later when Sundaramurthy visited Tiruvottiyur, he fell in love with another maiden Sangiliyar and once again Shiva played go between. Sundaramurthy, called such because of his handsome appearance, took to visiting several shrines associated with Shiva. He too composed several songs of which “ponnAr mEni” is one. Sundaramurthy moved to Chera country towards the end of his life and lived in the company of the king Cheraman Peruman.

Manikkavachakar is considered to belong to a slightly later period than the Nayanmars. He was born in Vadavur and was referred to as Vadavurar. The Pandyan king on coming to know of his wisdom made him a minister and gave him the title of Tennava Brahmaraya. Once the king sent his minister to purchase some horses that had just come in at a port town. En route at Tiruperunthurai, Manikkavachakar met a yogi who initiated him into the worship of Shiva. Enraptured, Manikkavachakar used up all the money meant for horses in renovating the temple at Tiruperunthurai. The king on coming to know of it ordered the arrest of Manikkavachakar but spared him on the assurance that the horses would come in the month of Avani (August/September) when the asterism moola was in the ascendant. On the appointed day the horses arrived, but later that night changed into jackals and vanished. The king ordered Manikkavachakar’s arrest and subjected him to several tortures but the minister remained immersed in his devotion to Shiva. He was soon released and he at once took to the life of renunciation. He composed around 600 songs in praise of Shiva and these are called the Tiruvachakam. To Manikkavachakar, Shiva was love.

Papavinasa Mudaliar, an 18th century composer, who lived near Tiruvarur, specialised in Ninda Stuthi, the art of seemingly insulting the Lord, all the while praising Him. Only three of his songs apart from an opera Kumbhesa Kuravanji are extant today. To him Shiva was familiar enough to be made fun of and at the same time be the Supreme Lord.

Nandanar or Tirunalaippovar is one of the 63 Nayanmars. His story, that of a lowly farmhand, yearning to have a darshan of Lord Shiva as Nataraja in Chidambaram, spans only one set of verses in the Periya Puranam, the text that gives the lives of the Nayanmars as written by Sekkizhar. But in the hands of Gopalakrishna Bharati (1811-1881), Nandan Charittiram became a grand opera whose songs still evoke deep devotion and piety in all those who sing or listen to it. Bharati himself lived a life of simplicity and donated whatever he earned to charity. To him Shiva was the Supreme Being that needed to be attained.

Ramalinga Swamigal (1823-1873) saw God as light. Born in Chidambaram, he later moved to Madras where he became famed from an early age for his discourses on the Periya Puranam. Known as Vallalar, he expounded a casteless society where the light of inner bliss permeates and is the manifestation of God. Vallalar composed a number of hymns. He established a Dharma Sala in 1865 which feeds the poor even today. He also began a Gnana Sabha in 1870 which is a temple to light having an eternally burning lamp in it. Vallalar merged into the absolute by locking himself into his room at Mettukuppam and vanishing forever. This was recorded by the British collector of the area.

Karamanai Neelakanta Dasa (1839-1900) was born in Padmanabhapuram, Kanyakumari rose to become a district magistrate. But it was singing bhajans that really drew him and giving up his job he began composing bhajans even though he had no prior musical training. His mudra is Neelakanta Dasa. Greatly honoured in Travancore and Cochin he chose to reside there for most of his life.

Papanasam Sivan (1890-1973) was Neelakanta Dasa’s disciple and really needs no introduction for he is the great Carnatic miracle of the 20th century. In these modern times he lived the life of a true vaggeyakkara, composing freely at will some of the most outstanding kritis in the Tamizh language and rightfully earned the name of Tamizh Tyagayya. To both Papanasam Sivan and Neelakanta Dasa, Shiva was the subject of musical devotion.

Though each one of these devotees saw God in their own light, a common thread that runs through them all is absolute surrender to the divine. This is what makes their compositions truly immortal.

Where the Lord played Cupid

February 14, 2015

Valentine’s Day is today. Coincidentally, February/March is also when the Magizhadi Sevai is celebrated at the Tiruvottriyur Thyagarajaswami Temple. This commemorates the romance between the devotee Sundarar (c 7th to 9th century CE) and the flower girl Sangili.

Sundarar was an exalted devotee of the Lord, having the status of his friend. While at Tiruvarur, Sundarar had fallen in love with Paravai, a girl dedicated to the temple. The Lord appeared in the dreams of the village elders and instructed them to conduct the wedding of Sundarar to Paravai.

All would have been well had Sundarar not set out to see the great shrines of Shiva. When he came to Tiruvottriyur, his eye fell on Sangili. She had declared that she would only marry someone who had received the grace of God in full. Her parents had brought her thereupon to Tiruvottriyur and left her at the temple where she strung flower garlands. Smitten by her beauty, Sundarar appealed to Shiva for help. The Lord duly appeared in Sangili’s dream and proposed the match. Sangili informed Shiva that she would only marry someone who promised never to leave Tiruvottriyur, the oath to be taken in the sanctum of the temple. When Sundarar heard of this he realised that this was an impossible commitment and requested that at the time of the oath, the Lord should leave the sanctum and stay under a Magizha tree in the temple precinct. Shiva, wanting to teach Sundarar a lesson, agreed, but immediately informed Sangili that she should insist that the oath be taken under the Magizha tree and not at the sanctum.

The next day, when Sundarar proposed to Sangili, she informed him of the oath to which he readily agreed. What surprised him was her request that it be taken at the foot of the tree. He had no option and promised her solemnly after going around the tree three times. The wedding was conducted with all gaiety. But Sundarar was of a peripatetic disposition. He soon longed to be back at Tiruvarur where the temple festival would be conducted in all glory. He also missed Paravai and so one night he stole away from Tiruvottriyur. He was struck blind for this transgression. He somehow struggled on, his prayers resulting in one eye being restored in Kanchipuram and the other at Tiruvarur. But he had not contended with Paravai who shut the door on him for his perfidy. The Lord played go between and convinced Paravai to forgive Sundarar.

The records are silent on Sangili’s fate. She presumably returned to her temple duties after the brief romantic interlude. The Magizhadi Sevai at the temple recreates the promise that Sundarar made to Sangili. It will be observed this year on March 4.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on February 14, 2015.

Awards for urban mobility – but what is the reality?

February 12, 2015

A month ago, there was a small news item that may have escaped the attention of many. Our city’s Corporation received an award at Urban Mobility India, a conference conducted by the Union Ministry of Urban Development. The award, we learn, was for the civic body’s continued efforts to make our roads a comfortable place for pedestrians and non-motorised transport users. That may come as a surprise to many. What is even more surprising is that the Corporation claims to have put this policy into practice on 26 important thoroughfares and is planning to take it up in 29 more.

And so what has really happened to these roads? With the help of city-based organisations that have for long been fighting for better utilisation of available space, the Corporation has provided continuous and accessible pavements, relocated obstructions such as electrical boxes and garbage bins, created safe cycle paths and streamlined traffic. The new pavements have been designed according to Indian Road Congress standards and are aimed to provide “continuous and unhindered walking” and “reduce conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.” There are photographs to back these claims as well. But a recent visit to some of these places indicates that matters are still in a nascent stage and the Corporation’s claim of progress may be premature. In short, its intentions are good, but there is very little to back this by way of action.

The Chennai Corporation is a pioneering civic body in that it adopted a Non Motorised Transport (NMT) policy. This was in 2012 when it was decided that solutions to the road woes of the city would no longer come from flyovers but by sensitively redesigning the city space and enhancing pedestrian infrastructure. The NMT policy mandates that 60 per cent of a city’s transport budget ought to be directed towards walking and cycling initiatives. The policy also aims at zero pedestrian and cyclist death by 2018.

It must be mentioned in this context that Chennai, which once had a high proportion of non-motorised transport users, has since lost out on this edge, thanks to a completely misplaced emphasis on catering to the comforts of the owners of passenger cars. This despite the fact that cars occupy less than ten per cent of the available road space in the city! The Corporation is largely to be blamed for this. Beginning with 1996, it has worked overtime in reducing pavement space, putting up huge flyovers that have completely altered street topography and not monitoring the illegal takeover of what little space that is left by vendors, political parties and private owners. Now it would appear that all that is set to change.

But can it become a reality? A simple survey would reveal that the Corporation may have the best intentions, but if it is to implement them successfully, it needs to change the mindset of just about every other stakeholder, including its officials. Pavements have been lost to makeshift car parking thanks to commercial establishments and residential complexes that have come up without any parking spaces planned in them. Who is to blame for this? The CMDA and the Corporation which, after all, are in charge of licensing such construction and monitoring them! Most new buildings are now on high plinths requiring steep slopes for vehicles to enter and exit and the ramps have to perforce extend on to the roads. Why do the buildings have to be constructed on high surfaces? Because the road surfaces keep rising in our city! And why do they rise? Because the Corporation does not adhere to road laying norms. These are just two small examples of how the Corporation’s own NMT policy may come a cropper thanks to its own practices.

And so, those who give awards for the civic body’s good intentions may have jumped the gun somewhat. If only all of our Corporation’s well-meant resolutions made it to action, we would be a virtual heaven on earth.

Government Hospital for Women and Children, Egmore

February 11, 2015

Continuing our landmark series, here is a brief history of a landmark hospital of the city:

The Women and Children's Hospital, Egmore

The Women and Children’s Hospital, Egmore

This landmark institution began life in May 1844 as the Government Maternity Hospital. Its first home was near the Egmore railway station, facing the Cooum River. This was thanks to public subscription. The Government met the cost of the staff and the dieting of the patients. The place was run under the supervision of a committee of six medical officers who gave their services free of cost.

In 1847, the Madras Medical College instituted a professorship in Midwifery and the Government appointed the incumbent, Dr. James Shaw, as the Superintendent of the Hospital. Two new wings were added to the old building in 1852 but by the 1870s it was time to move.

Laid out in the shape of a female pelvis, the new structure came up on Pantheon Road, under the guidance of Major General G.G. Gifford, who is commemorated with a block in his name on the campus. The new hospital was completed in 1881 in Egmore and by 1900 had expanded to five blocks with a total of 140 beds. The hospital was to be headed by several noted medical practitioners among whom was Lt. Col. A.M. Branfoot who in March 1886 successfully saw the imprisoned ex-Queen of Burma – Supayalat – through a difficult delivery.

The Maternity Hospital, or MH as it came to be known, was the only one of its kind in this part of India for several decades. It was in that capacity that it hosted the first All-India Obstetrics and Gynaecological Congress in 1936. The venue was the Museum Theatre and inaugurating it was Dr. Ida Scudder of CMC Vellore, with Dr. Sir A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar in the chair. He was also the first Indian to be the Superintendent of the MH, occupying the post between 1939 and 1942. It was to be 1984, however, before a woman came to head the institution, the first one being Dr. Lokasundari Selvaraj.

A children’s ward came up in the hospital in 1949 with 28 beds. In 1963, the Government sanctioned a separate hospital for children and this came up in the Arni House compound. When completed, this became the Government Children’s Hospital, with 250 beds.

The hospital became a teaching centre with postgraduate and diploma courses in 1930 under the Madras Medical College. In 1952, it became one of three postgraduate institutes of Madras city, and that marked the beginning of the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the MH. Dr. R.K.K. Thampan was the first Director.

The hospital is today a recognised centre of excellence and delivers around 22,000 babies annually.

Here are some more landmarks:

The Guindy races

Victoria Technical Institute

The AASI building

Moore Market

The Egmore Railway Station

The Meenambakkam Terminal

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Heritage Walk at China Bazaar

February 10, 2015

Why did so many insurance companies flock to China Bazaar Road?

National Insurance Building, NSC Bose Road

National Insurance Building, NSC Bose Road

And they all built in the Art Deco style!

State Bank of Mysore building, NSC Bose Road

State Bank of Mysore building, NSC Bose Road

Not that it is just 20th century history here. This temple was probably built by Ketty Narayan, son in law to Beri Thimmappa, one of the co-founders of Madras.

Prasanna Venkateswara Swamy Temple, NSC Bose Road

Prasanna Venkateswara Swamy Temple, NSC Bose Road

All this, and a lot more will be revealed during the next heritage walk on February 15th.The walk, priced at Rs 500 per head, will begin at 6.00 am and will last till 8.00 am followed by breakfast at a historic eatery on the same road. Dont worry, we will be home by the time the India -Pak cricket match gains some momentum!

We are full up folks! See you next time!


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