Have you heard of Raja Hanumantha Lala Lane in Triplicane? If not, you would not have heard of the Kamakala Kameswarar Temple either. Historically, it is relatively recent, dating perhaps to the 1850s. What is startling is that a family belonging to the Kayasth community, which had its origins in present day Uttar Pradesh, built it.
The Nizams of Hyderabad had a tradition of employing Hindu Kayasths in the administration. The Nawabs of Arcot followed the same practice. Among the confidential munshis or secretaries of Nawab Mohammad Ali Wallajah (1749-1795) was Makhan Lal Khirat. When the ruler built the Big Mosque in Triplicane, it was this trusted aide who composed the chronogram for it, which is enshrined above the mihrab — the niche that indicates the direction of the Holy Kaaba. It is perhaps the only instance in the world, of a Hindu’s work adorning a mosque — a true illustration of the city’s secular character.
Makhan Lal was given the honorific of Rai Raja by the Nawab. A branch of the family, titled the Junior Line, was stationed in Hyderabad, where it managed the properties of the Arcot family in that city. The Senior Line, which remained in Madras, was headed after Makhan Lal by his son Rai Raja Tekam Chand Bahadur. The Junior Line was contrary to its name; it was the more powerful one, given its proximity to the Nizams of Hyderabad. By the 1850s, the branches were headed by cousins — both having the same name of Ishwar Das. The Madras one, Tekam Chand’s son, was born on 13 June, 1826. He was given the titles of Rai Raja and Dayavant Bahadur, while his cousin in Hyderabad was styled Rajwant Bahadur.
Both sides of the family came to grief in 1855, when the British terminated the rule of the Nawabs. The Hyderabad cousin fared better for he was taken into the service of the Nizam, styling himself thereafter as Ishwar Das Walajahi. The Madras Ishwar Das did not fare badly either. That he was clearly not wanting in wealth is evident from the British Government thanking him in 1890 for his public services and recognising the titles conferred on him by the Nawabs.
Rai Raja Ishwar Das Lala Dayavant Bahadur as he liked to be referred to lived off Pycrofts Road (now Bharati Salai) where a street is named after him. A parallel street is Raja Hanumantha Lala Lane, taking its name from a kinsman. It was in this street that Ishwar Das built a temple for Kamakala Kameswarar, installing a white Shiva Linga in it. Following his death in the late 1890s, his son Lakshmi Chand took over the management.
In 1924, Lakshmi Chand filed for insolvency and the temple’s administration came under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board of the Government in 1926.
With that its ‘localisation’ began, including the legend that it is ‘at least 800 years old’! It bears no trace of its Kayasth origins.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 30, 2014, under the Hidden Histories Column