As you reach the southwest corner of Fort St George, you see a long road cutting across the Fort from the south to the north. This runs parallel to Charles Street, continues along the western face of Parade Square and the wall of the Kings Barracks before culminating at the northern wall of the Fort. Intriguingly, this thoroughfare does not have a signboard announcing its name any longer, though it is historically significant. The old books refer to it as Palace Street.
During our exploration of Charles Street, reference was made to the fact that the Nawab of Arcot, Muhammad Ali Wallajah petitioned George Pigot in 1758 for a house in the Fort where he could retire in the event of a necessity. This was granted, though we do not know how long the ruler really lived there before shifting back to Arcot. Ten years later, circumstances had so arranged themselves that the Nawab felt safer in Madras than in Arcot. He moved into Mylapore, probably near the Devadi Street area, for that thoroughfare was originally Deorhi Sardar ul Mulk Dilawar Jung Bahadur, thereby indicating that it was the Deorhi (doorway) to the house of Sardar ul Mulk Dilawar Jung Bahadur, all of those words being honorific titles of Wallajah. He later petitioned Governor Palk for space within the Fort where he could build a suitable residence. This was granted and the road that ran along the allotted area came to be referred to as Palace Street.
What happened thereafter is not entirely clear. It is said that the Directors of the East India Company were not happy with the idea of the Nawab living within the Fort. Others have it that his advisors pointed out to him that if he moved into the precincts he would end up a prisoner of the British, just as Chanda Sahib had once been in durance vile at the hands of the French. The palace when it was eventually built was outside the Fort, at Chepauk. Its triple arched entrance gate was to the southwest of the Fort. The road on which it stood, accessed via Mount Road, was originally named Benfield’s Road, after the contractor who built the palace for the Nawab. Today we know it as Wallajah Road.
Between 1768 and 1805 at least, there would have been considerable comings and goings between Chepauk Palace and Fort St. George. Considering that the southwest corner of the Fort was closest to the palace, it was perhaps natural that the bastion that stands there became the Wallajah Bastion and the gate the Wallajah Gate. They retain their names to this day and, along with Wallajah Road, form an interesting connect between the British and Nawabi histories of Madras.
Wallajah Gate is an arched tunnel on the western inner wall of the Fort. You can walk through it and, as you do, pause for a while to look at the thickness of its walls. At the other end, you come into a wilderness of sorts through which cuts the road to the outer Wallajah Gate. The moat runs in between and is crossed by a bridge here. The two gates are at sharp angles to each other, making you realise that any enemy who managed to penetrate the outer gate would never know who was waiting in anticipation in the inner gate. There are steps on either side of the outer Wallajah Gate that allow you to climb up and stand on top. You get a panoramic view of the western side of the Fort from here. On your return journey back into the Fort, you will notice a vast empty space to your right, now enclosed within grille gates. This was once the tennis court of Fort St George much used by officers when a garrison was stationed in the Fort.
Today it is possible for pedestrians to walk in and out of Fort St George via the Wallajah Gate. Vehicles drive in and out as well, but in the past, it was mostly one way, though whether it was for entry or exit kept changing over the years. In 1845, it was for entry only, though as the United Services Gazette noted rather cattily, such regulations were meant only for ‘little men’, a situation that has sadly persisted in Chennai till now. The then Governor of Madras, the Marquis of Tweeddale considered himself above such rules and one afternoon, being “in an extraordinary hurry to get home from council” ordered his carriage to exit the Fort via the Wallajah Gate. Unfortunately, the timing of his exit coincided with that of the entry of a civilian into the Fort. The two carriages faced each other under the archway thereby creating an impasse. His Lordship refused to consider retreating and insisted that the civilian ought to do so. This, the latter was willing to do, but his horses were made of sterner stuff and stubbornly stood their ground. The Marquis according to eyewitnesses, “waxed mighty wrath” and directed the corporal of the guard to unyoke the horses of the civilian’s coach and push the vehicle aside. This was done and the gubernatorial cavalcade could pass, but not before Lord Tweeddale had ordered the impounding of the offending civilian’s carriage at the Town Major’s office. The civilian was able to retrieve it after some time, though he was in no way at fault.
In 1865, the Wallajah Gate area was back in focus, once again in not very edifying circumstances. The toilet arrangements then, as now, were not great in the Fort and all that existed then were twenty ‘ill ventilated cells’, their filthy condition ensuring that most men preferred to relieve themselves in public. That year, efforts were made to distribute toilets all across the Fort and one of the first came up between the Wallajah Gate and bastion, for the exclusive use of the employees of the Arsenal and other military offices in the southwest corner.
Given that it was one of the principal entrances (or exits depending on which period of history you are reading about) to the Fort, the Wallajah Gate was also the venue for many processions and pageants. One of the earliest accounts that survives dates to June 3, 1799 when the standard of Tipu Sultan was brought from Mysore and entered the Fort in ceremonial parade following his defeat and death. Present on the occasion was the Governor General Lord Mornington, shortly to be elevated in the peerage as the Marquis of Wellesley, as well as the Governor of Madras, Edward, the second Lord Clive. With a royal salute being fired by the garrison and answered by the ships in Madras Roads, the standard was taken in procession by Lieutenant General Harris into the Church of St Mary’s.
It was also customary for troops to form two facing rows stretching from Wallajah Gate to the Sea Gate each time a General of the Madras Army retired from service and left for England. The Wallajah Gate was also where the Governors of Madras were traditionally handed over the keys of the Fort amidst great ceremonial. An account dating to March 5, 1839 is perhaps the most detailed. The new Governor, Lord Elphinstone had just arrived at the Sea Gate and after taking the necessary oaths of office was escorted to the Wallajah Gate where the Town Major presented him with the keys, after which he drove to Government House.
Standing at Wallajah Gate today, you can merely imagine all these happenings. It is now a functional entrance, and suffers from poor maintenance. Its massive wooden doors still survive, though, judging by the soil that hems them in, it is clear that they have not been shut for quite a few years. The space, however, is one of the most charming spots of the Fort and, being slightly isolated, is very peaceful.
This article is part of a series, to commemorate 375 years of Fort St George. You can read the earlier parts in the following links:
- The Fort, its topography
- The Flagstaff
- The Sea Gates
- The Moat
- The Cornwallis Cupola
- The Assembly and Secretariat
- The Parade Square
- The Barracks
- The Great House on Charles Street
- Arthur Wellesley’s House
- Charles (and James) Street
- The Church of St Mary’s
- The yard of St Mary’s
- The interior of St Mary’s
- Some funerary monuments in St Mary’s
- The romance of Church Street
- St Thomas Street