CPM Street is one of the main thoroughfares that branch off Harris Road/Adithanar Salai at Komaleesaranpet. Contrary to what it seems, the name does not commemorate a political party but Conjeevaram Pachaiyappa Mudaliar (1754-1794), the well-known dubash who is today remembered for his philanthropy. The street was so named because it ran close to where he built his house.
In Pachaiyappa’s time, Harris Road did not exist. A thoroughfare ran parallel to the Cooum and this was known as Pagoda Street, for its southern end was at the temple of Komaleeswara, which even now stands at the same place, on the bank of the river. The northern end of Pagoda Street was the aristocratic quarter of Komaleeswaranpet. The Cooum, known then as Vrddha Kshira Nadi (Old Palar or the Old River of Milk), suddenly takes a northward turn here, a geographic phenomenon that is considered auspicious in any river. In the bend formed by this turn lies the locality of Chintadripet and in it lived Kuzhandai Perumal Pillai, a wealthy personage who was a close friend of Pachaiyappa’s. The latter, wishing to reside near him, chose the opposite bank of the river and built his house at Komaleeswaranpet. The property was numbered 26, Pagoda Street. A neighbour, at 25, was Swami Naick, Chief Dresser of the East India Company and who has an obelisk commemorating him just outside his property.
As is evident, Pachaiyappa had become a successful dubash by the time he built his house. As per accounts, he spent a fortune on the construction and the edifice, when built, resembled a temple. It extended all the way from Pagoda Street to Chandrabhanu Street and made up in depth what it perhaps lacked in width. It was here that Pachaiyappa indulged in his favourite pastimes – enjoying the verses Thevaram, Thiruvachakam and other Saivite works, sung and performed on the veena by artistes even as he conducted his poojas, listening at night to the tales of Siva and His devotees, celebrating the birth asterisms of the 63 Nayanmars, feeding many monks who came to call on him from Saivite mutts, planning his numerous acts of charity and feeding people on a lavish scale. The food served incidentally was never different from what he ate. The place naturally became one of the landmarks of the city, to which every needy person beat a path. Keeping the dubash company here were three formidable women- his sister and mother in law, Subbammal, his niece and first wife Ayyalammal and his second wife Palaniayi. The first two, being mother and daughter naturally ganged up against the last named who incidentally had the upper hand because she had borne Pachaiyappa a child, a daughter. Together the three made life hell for Pachaiyappa. He appears to have preferred his first wife over his second.
It would appear that Pachaiyappa did not reside for long in this house. Within a couple of years of its construction he shifted more or less permanently to the Thanjavur area at the behest of the East India Company. This was in 1792 or thereabouts, when he had to oversee British interests there. He was also loaning money at a personal level to the regent Maharajah of Thanjavur, Amarsimha. Keeping an eye over the now empty house on Pagoda Street and ensuring that charities there went on undisturbed was Pachaiyappa’s mentor and guide ‘Powney’ Narayana Pillai.
Pachaiyappa fell ill in 1794 and died in Thiruvaiyyaru. His mother in law and first wife came back to Pagoda Street to conduct the obsequies, all of which were performed under Narayana Pillai’s management. Subbammal and Ayyalammal did not remain in Madras for long, preferring temple towns down South. Pachaiyappa had left the administration of his vast estate to Narayana Pillai who was to act in consultation with the duumvirate of Subbammal and Ayyalammal. This was naturally not to the liking of Palaniyayi and also a nephew of Pachaiyappa, Muthiah Mudali by name, whom the dubash had described as an idiot. These two disgruntled elements challenged the will of Pachaiyappa and it was to remain the subject of litigation for almost 50 years, during which time, almost all the principal protagonists passed away.
The house on Pagoda Street came to be occupied by some of the second generation of litigants – Muthiah Mudali’s daughter Kamu, Ayyalammal’s avaricious agent Panchanada Aiyah, and her adopted son Sivachidambaram and his wife. Among these it was Kamu who managed to stay on here, long after the others left. It was rumoured that she managed to break open the rooms sealed by the Courts during the process of the litigation and laid her hands on considerable jewellery that were piled up in them. Forgotten in all this was the desire of Pachaiyappa that the house be converted into a public choultry where the poor could be fed in perpetuity.
Eventually, the matter of Pachaiyappa’s will came to the attention of successive Advocates General Sir Herbert Compton and George Bruce Norton and the famed Pachaiyappa’s Trust was set up with the Pachaiyappa Central Institution being formed in 1842. The subsequent history of the Trust and the educational institutions that it spawned is well known.
What remains a mystery is the fate of Pachaiyappa’s erstwhile residence. Was it sold by the Trust to fund other charities? Or did it remain with the family of Narayana Pillai whose descendants kept a tight hold on Pachaiyappa’s wealth during the years of litigation and ensured that it was not frittered away? There are no answers. It is held by descendants of the Swami Naick’s family, who still own the neighbouring property, that the house was sold and altered beyond recognition by later buyers. There is no trace of it now. This is a real pity for a man like Pachaiyappa, given the amount of social good that his wealth has brought about, deserves at least a marker.
This article is part of a series that tracks the lost and barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier parts here.