“Another fine building in Egmore is Arni House, residence of the Jagirdar of Arni” – thus runs a line in Alistair MacMillan’s Seaports of India and Ceylon. That was in 1928. Now, 90 years later, you would be hard put to even identify the place where it stood. The debate on its exact location went on for quite some time in S Muthiah’s Madras Miscellany column in The Hindu, the first of the posts appearing in 2017.
The Jagirdars of Arni traced their origins to Vedaji Bhaskar Pant, a Mahratta Brahmin in the service of Shahaji Bhonsle, father of Chatrapati Sivaji. As a reward for his abilities, Shahaji, as general in the Sultan of Bijapur’s army, conferred on Pant the Jagir of Arni sometime between 1638 and 1640. Vedaji Bhaskar Pant evidently lived long, for he was around in 1677 when Sivaji came calling during his conquest of the South. But all was well. He reaffirmed the conferring of the Jagir on his father’s faithful ally and left. Thereafter peace reigned in Arni until the 1750s when the Carnatic and Mysore Wars left the place in a shambles. In the confusion that followed, the Nawabs of Arcot thought it fit to usurp the territory and it was only in 1789 that the estate was once again restored to its rightful owners. Thereafter, it was long tenure of peace and prosperity, broken forever in 1948 when the estate was abolished in 1948 following independence.
This was one of the richer estates of South India. The area it spanned was 184 square miles with 139 villages settled inside it. The annual revenue was around Rs 2.5 lakhs at the time of abolition, which was big money then. The Jagirdars put the money to use in building palatial structures for themselves at their capital of Sathya Vijaya Nagaram (named after a Madhva pontiff who attained samadhi there), in the forest nearby, in Madras city and at Bangalore. It is known for certain that the forest palace was designed by William Pogson, the architect of Madras who apart from the Spencer’s showroom on Mount Road, worked on several stately homes in the city and upcountry for minor royalty and landlords. Based on the commonality in features, it is quite likely that Arni House in Madras city was also designed by him.
The residence, located on Halls Road (now Tamil Salai), Egmore, appears to have been in the midst of extensive grounds, judging from the sole photographs that survive of its front and rear. The building itself appears to have been rather curiously planned. The façade, topped by a triangular pediment that seems to almost reach the ground at its two ends, is behind a porte-cochere. To the rear is what appears to be a multi-storeyed block, with the first floor having a broad verandah running all around and covered with reed mat blinds. The remaining storeys rise in the form of a tower, giving the building the look of a medieval castle. In all it looks as if Arni House had at least five levels. The architecture indicates that the house was probably designed sometime in the last three decades of the 19th century.
How often did the Arni Jagirdars live in Madras? Their preferred place of stay was Bangalore and Arni House on Hall’s Road was probably used only during ‘Season’, when Christmas, the races and garden parties at Government House provided a round of entertainment. The estate was often under the administration of the Court of Wards and many of the male descendants were sent to be educated at the Newington College, Teynampet. That probably also meant that they stayed at Arni House during their tenure at the college.
It appears that even while Arni House was being built, its neighbouring plot too was seeing active construction. This was the new home of the Government Hospital for Women, which founded in the 1840s, was by the 1880s settling down at Egmore on a vast campus adjoining the home of the ArniJagirdars. By the 1920s, with the family increasingly preferring Bangalore, Arni House came to be rented to the hospital and provided a convenient residence for the Superintendent. But that it continued to be in the possession of the Jagirdar is clear from a Who’s Who of the 1930s that lists Arni House as the family residence in Madras.
The most illustrious among all the holders of the title appears to have been Srinivasa Rao Sahib who in 1877 instituted the Jagirdar of Arni gold medal at the University of Madras and which was won by Sir CV Raman and his nephew S Chandrashekar. At one time a prestigious prize, it is no longer awarded. In 1903, Srinivasa Rao Sahib’s son Thirumal Rao built yet another Arni House, this one in Bangalore. It was later sold to the Maharajah of Mysore who named it Jayamahal Palace after his nephew, Jayachamaraja Wodeyarwho would also be the last ruler of the State. In 1949, the palace changed hands, being sold to the royal family of Gondal who in recent years have converted it into a not-so-successful heritage hotel.
The Arni House in Madras was not fortunate enough to survive. The fault lay principally with the last title holder, yet another Srinivasa Rao Sahib, who liked the fast life. He lived for 36 years in a three-room suite at the West End Hotel, being a fixture at its bar. It was said that fast women and slow horses were his passion. Cars were yet another and by 1948 had had as many as 182, all kept in immaculate condition and sold at a profit!
But the abolition of the estate hit the family fortunes quite hard and while the palaces at Arni were allowed to be taken over by the Government of India or allowed to rot, the other residences were disposed off. Arni House in Madras became the property of the hospital next door, which in 1963 began building its Institute of Child Health in the place. The palace was dismantled bit by bit even as the hospital expanded until not trace of it survived.
This article is part of a series I write on lost and surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier parts here
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This article owes much to the following sources: