The southern end of Broadway (Prakasam Salai) is a busy place. Standing there you get a fine view of the Law College but there is little time to think or reflect that this was where Nicollo Manucci, a colourful Italian once lived.
A Venetian, he ran away to India in 1653, when 14. He reached Surat in 1656, and from there Delhi, where he enrolled as a soldier in the army of Dara Shikoh, the eldest and favourite son of emperor Shah Jahan.
With his master’s defeat and death at the hands of Aurangzeb, Manucci drifted to Lahore in 1670 where he set up as a physician. He made his fortune in the court of Crown Prince Bahadur Shah (Shah Alam), having cured a royal lady of a strange illness.
When Shah Alam moved to the Deccan, Manucci followed and soon defected to the enemy, the Sultan of Golconda where again he cured a royal lady and was assigned the hefty salary of Rs. 700 a month. However, with the fall of Golconda being imminent and the victorious Mughals baying for his blood, he escaped to Masulipatnam and from there to the new city of Madras.
From here he moved to Pondicherry, planning to return to Europe.
There, Governor General Francois Martin persuaded him to settle down in India, advising him to marry and identifying a rich widow of Madras – Elizabeth Clarke, wife of Thomas Clarke, translator and interpreter and later Justice of the Choultry Court.
Clarke and later, his wife owned extensive properties, chief of which was a garden house at the southern end of Broadway.
Elizabeth and Manucci were married on October 28 1686. He settled down here in what was described as ‘Manuccha’s Garden’ and set up trade, once again as a doctor. ‘Manooch’s stones’ and his ‘cordials’ became well known as cures for fevers.
In his spare time, Manucci wrote his five volume ‘Storia do Mogor’, a racy and often steamy account of Aurangzeb’s reign.
Manucci’s reputation as an ‘Italian doctor formerly in the Mogull’s service’ made Madras governors, William Gyfford and later Thomas Pitt, consult him on matters relating to the Mughals. When Daud Khan Panni, the Mughal general began eyeing Madras, it was Manucci who was sent as emissary.
By then, he was back in the favour of the Mughal emperor and his intervention helped. Daud Khan was the guest of Manucci at his weekend retreat in St. Thomas Mount for one night and all was well. Manucci’s wife died in 1706. He stayed on in Madras, to complete his Storia and by 1711, was ready to travel, this time to Delhi to meet his old master and now emperor, Bahadur Shah.
But the latter’s death put paid to that and he moved to Pondicherry where, near blind, he lived on till 1717 or so.
The ‘Storia’, written entirely in Madras, is now considered one of the most authoritative accounts of Aurangzeb’s time. To think it was written in Broadway!
This article appeared under the Hidden Histories column of The Hindu dated 30th July 2013