The Isle of Sights
Come December and exhibitions, largely sponsored by the Government will be held on the vast expanse of ground near the War Memorial just off the beach. The exhibitions will continue till April or so and provide an opportunity for showcasing the local craftsman’s skills in making large cut-outs and displays of papier-mâché and other such materials. Sometimes we have circuses here and at other times of the year this is a deserted spot except when mega sport events are held at Chepauk when this place becomes a parking lot. Rather incredibly, this open area is an island! And that is how it gets its name of Island Grounds.
Shortly after the English were granted a piece of land by the beach to conduct their business in 1639, they cast their eyes north west, a parcel of land bounded by the river Cooum and what was called the North or Elambore River (now a part of the Buckingham Canal) being particularly attractive. This was acquired and used to make salt. Later, the two rivers were joined by cutting a channel and with this the island came into existence.
Thomas Pitt became Governor of Madras in 1698 and converted the place into his pleasure garden. Later this was used for military activities. In 1715, the first bridge, today’s Wallajah Bridge was built connecting the city to the island. Later other bridges including the Willingdon (Periyar Bridge) were built.
A part of the Island is controlled by the army. This is where we have the Area Command’s Headquarters. We also have the Gymkhana Club here, which was founded in 1885 mainly for army officers; it later opened its doors to civilians as well. Having tea on the club lawns on a summer’s evening is still heavenly, the sight of the verdant army grounds being a treat to the eyes.
The first Western theatre in Madras also existed on the Island. Called the Playhouse, it vanished in the 1780s. Curiously enough, almost 200 years later, a German, Ludwig Pesch, who had come to Madras to learn the flute, succeeded in getting a small thatched auditorium put up here for chamber recitals. This has sadly vanished. The extreme end of Mount Road cuts across the Island and right in the middle of it is a statue for Sir Thomas Munro, which deserves a separate article.
Standing in the middle of Fairlands, which is the name given to the part that houses the exhibitions it is possible to get a panoramic view of some buildings of old Madras, including St Mary’s-in-the-Fort and the High Court. The Government has recently announced plans of making Fairlands a permanent amusement park and recreation centre.