There are three thoroughfares in Mylapore that connect North Mada Street and Kutchery Road that runs parallel to it. The first is narrow Kutchery Lane and the second is Chengazhuneer Pillayar Koil Street, which has an eponymous temple to the elephant-headed God at its intersection with Kutchery Road. The third is Mathala Narayanan Street, whose name has always been a mystery to me.
One of the conjectures is that it commemorates a drummer in the service of the Kapaliswarar Temple. The fact that there are shops here that specialise in musical instruments is often cited in support of this theory. But I am yet to come across any documentation that has a mention of a legendary drummer called Narayanan who lived in Mylapore. It is also significant that those who were in the service of the temple, such as the celebrated dancer Mylapore Gowri, lived in Kutchery Lane. And so, could Mathala Narayanan be a corruption of some other name?
One strong contender is Mandala Nayak, who was a General in the Golconda Army. Known to the French as Motelnaif and Mondelnaigue, he appears in British records as Madala or Muddala Naigue, which could have over time metamorphosed into Mathala Narayanan.
Mandala Nayak, along with Baba Sahib and Trimbak Bassora Raja (Trimourboursouraja to the French) formed a triumvirate that led a force estimated at 6,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 horses to liberate San Thome in 1672 from the French. Mandala Nayak was in particular the prime mover and in an unbelievably short time, through forced marches, brought the army close to the walls of San Thome fort. He was to however meet his match in the French General de la Haye, who strengthened the fortifications and occupied the Kapaliswarar Temple as an outpost.
A long siege followed, eagerly watched by the British from their tiny and rather precariously located Fort St George. Governor Sir William Langhorne noted in his despatches that Mandala Nayak’s men were deserting him for want of pay, this despite the fact that the General had pawned all his jewels to ensure that their salaries were given on time.
The action hotted up in September 1672 when pitched battles were fought around the Kapaliswarar Temple and a smaller shrine behind Chitra Kulam. In February 1673, during a sortie to gain control of the Kapaliswarar Temple, Mandala Nayak was killed. His troops lost heart and retreated to Poonamallee from where they negotiated for their General’s body. The French acquiesced and he was cremated with due honours. In 1674, a second siege took place during which the Dutch joined hands with the Golconda forces and drove the French away. Could the victors have named the street after their late lamented General who had been killed in the vicinity?
The years that followed saw San Thome passing from the Golconda Sultanate to the Moguls, the Arcot Nawabs and finally to the British. Could Mandala Nayak have become Muddala Nayakan and later Mathala Narayanan in those years?
This article appeared in The Hindu dated September 6, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column.