“Come, O ladies, let us go see the Lord of Srirangam,” sang Tyagaraja when he visited Trichy in 1836. I should have known that he was predicting a heritage tour of the area and, sure enough, did one recently with an all-woman audience.
AURA is a women’s association in Trichy which does much by way of social causes. It also invites speakers to address its members. I had done so in 2009. That year they decided that I must lead them on a heritage tour of Trichy. I was most reluctant. My knowledge of the town was limited to my going there on holidays. But it had a history that would make any enthusiast’s mouth water. And so, as it always happens when I try to get women to see my point of view, I ended up being convinced instead and committed to the tour.
As Trichy has a story to tell at virtually every corner, keeping time, traffic and temperature in mind, we decided to restrict the tour to the Rock Fort and its environs and within that space to a select dozen locations that would give an idea of what Trichy’s heritage was. As I set about researching the locations to visit, I was helped by numerous people, including my parents (“How can you not visit Coronation Park?”), Karthik Bhatt (“What? A tour of Rock Fort without Tawker Lane?”) and Dr. Chithra Madhavan (“There are two caves and not one. Try and see the Pandyan cave temple also”).
I sent the list of places in advance to the club and the members, together with local enthusiast and trekker Sridhar Bharati, set about identifying them so that we did not have to search for them during the three-hours’ morning tour by van and foot.
At 6.30 am we were at the Natharvali Dargah. This historic shrine, said to be 1100 years old, is just outside the Rock Fort area. It is the burial spot of Hazrat Dada Nathar Auliya, one of the great Sufi saints. He came from Istanbul and settled in South India, dying in Trichy in 1069 CE. The Nawabs of Arcot particularly venerated Nathavali and there was even a move in their time to rename Trichy as Nathar Nagar. It is significant that three personages from the family – Chanda Sahib, Mohammad Ali Wallajah and Umdat-ul-Umrah – the latter had spent much time in Madras – are buried here.
The next stop was in the shadow of the Rock Fort, this being Nadu Guzili Street. This was the old Gujarati quarter and their connections with the town go back almost 600 years. Close by is Diamond Bazaar, where most of the Gujaratis made their fortune. A lane off Nadu Guzili is Tawker Chattram Lane. This commemorates one of the best-known Gujarati families of Trichy. The Tawkers, almost all of whom had the initial T to indicate that they came from Trichy, were one of the oldest Gujarati families to come South. They were known for their success in the trade and their acts of philanthropy. One of the latter was the Tawker Chattram which stood till recently by this lane. The Tawkers were to establish a powerful presence in Madras by the close of the 19th Century. Their showroom on Mount Road, their residence on Peter’s Road (now New College) and their sensational collapse following a sale on credit to the Nizam of Hyderabad in the early years of the 20th Century are all the stuff of legend. Interestingly, a Tawker Chattram still survives in Ayanavaram, close to the Kasi Viswanatha Swami Temple, also built by the Tawkers. As I was relating the story, a middle-aged man joined in to listen keenly. At the end of it he shyly introduced himself. He was Shankar Tawker. That was too good a photo-op to miss and we all posed with him.
From here we walked through streets with names such as Periya Chetty, Sourashtra, etc., and came to Theradi Bazaar Road. The Rock Fort loomed large at one end of it. Here, completely lost among a warren of shops stands Coronation Park, an unbelievably sylvan oasis. Sponsored by the plantain brokers of the Teppakulam area, it is a tree filled park whose foliage is so dense that it remains dark for most of the day. In the evening, birds in their thousands come to roost and the music they make is to be heard to be believed. Strewn about in the park are vestiges of past grandeur – derelict fountains, broken ornamental lights and dried up tanks. In the middle, standing beneath a bower, is a statue of Queen Victoria, which from its floral garlands of recent vintage appears to be in worship! Below the statue is a plaque that states that the park was inaugurated in 1901 by R.H. Shipley, the Collector of Trichy. The park commemorates the coronation of King Edward VII which took place that year.
Just behind the park stands Mangammal’s Durbar Hall. An ornate octagonal Indo-Saracenic marvel inside, it is completely hidden by later British additions. This is the Government Museum now. It was yet to be opened for the day when we got there, but a look at the environs gave a hint as to the level of upkeep inside. A long lane separated the Hall from its more modern neighbour and this passage doubles up as a local latrine. We braved it in the hope of seeing the Hall from the rear. But we were in for a disappointment as high walls at the rear hid the Hall from view. A plaque, put up during the Raj and akin to what we see on Chepauk Palace and Clive House (in Fort St George), stated that this had been the Durbar Hall of Mangammal of the Naik Dynasty, circa 1700.
According to local tradition, the Durbar Hall is but a small remnant of what was a much larger palace built by Mangammal’s husband Chokkanatha Nayak. The construction was made possible by cannibalising the Tirumalai Nayak Mahal in Madurai when Chokkanatha shifted his capital to Trichy in 1665. When Chokkanatha and his son Rangakrishna Muthu Virappa died in quick succession, it was left to the former’s wife, Mangammal, to steer the kingdom through a tough period of 12 years when her grandson Vijayaranga Chokkanatha was a minor. Her diplomacy and determination saw her through several attempted invasions. Sadly, her grandson did not have her vision. His coming of age in 1704 saw Mangammal vanish and it is rumoured that she was starved to death. The grandson did not do much beyond composing songs on Ranganatha in a long reign till 1731. His death saw his wife Meenakshi attempt a Mangammal-like act but that was not to be. Chanda Sahib took over in 1736 and Meenakshi’s suicide saw the end of the Nayaks. From then on what happened and how Trichy, along with the rest of the Carnatic, became a part of the British empire is well known.
To be continued…