By right, and if there had been any justice in this world, this area should have been Chennai 600001. For that matter it should have been India 1 or World 1 but then what to do? This is Kaliyuga and so Mylapore had to settle for Chennai 600004 (imagine). But then it is at least better than the Corporation wards where can you believe it, Mylapore is a sub-division of Teynampet of all places. Oh, the injustice of it all! In 1996 when the debate over changing the name of the city raged, S Muthiah suggested Mylapore as an option. But once again Kaliyuga played itself out and nobody listened. In terms of contours this area begins at the Lighthouse, goes along Radhakrishnan Salai/Edward Elliots Road up to TTK/Moubray’s Road, takes in the four Mada Streets, travels on up to the banks of the Adyar, leaving aside the parts that now comprise Raja Annamalaipuram. This is just the physical boundary. The spiritual limits of Mylapore are well, limitless. This postal code has three post offices – Mandaveli, Mylapore and Vivekananda College.
Who can deny the glory of Mylapore? An area with a history that stretches back to the beginning of time (or so we like to think). Well, it does stretch back quite a bit. The Jains probably claim the earliest links. To the Hindus it is hallowed because of the Kapaliswarar Temple sung of in the 7th century by Gnanasambandar and mentioned by Appar. It is the birthplace of Peyazhwar whose time period is lost in antiquity. And then we have the legend of St Thomas as well. There is also the abiding presence of Thiruvalluvar. Sadly, for us, apart from the basilica, the Luz Church and the temple(s), we have very little physical evidence of the heritage of Mylapore. And even these shrines as they are today, are of 16th century vintage and later. Much of Mylapore’s heritage is in the mind. And that is what makes it intriguing – you have many layers of Mylapore – spiritual, literary, legal, artistic, and so on.
What was undoubtedly a grove of peacocks (ref Appar’s Mayilarpu), was a fishing village when Sambandar visited. By the 15th century, in Arunagirinathar’s verse it had fields, waterways, ponds with lotuses, tall buildings, dense groves and was well planned. Nothing of all of this remains. Its Brahmin image is really of 20th century vintage. What it was undoubtedly till then was a village of weavers and Tamil Mudaliars who were highly literary and contributed to the growth of the language. The Portuguese arrived here in the 16thcentury, marking the beginning of San Thome, the town of St Thomas. That was a proper fort of which too we have no vestiges left. But we commemorate the Portuguese every time we utter the word Luz – light in that language, after the Luz Church here, dedicated to Our Lady of the Light. The French and the Dutch resented the Portuguese and so the Golconda forces arrived, conquering San Thome and leaving behind for us Kutchery Road, which led to their courthouse (Kutchery). The French came later to oust the Golconda forces. In all of this, the British were mere onlookers from their Fort St George but by 1749 they had managed to absorb Mylapore into their growing empire. Mylapore became a part of Madras (sob! It should have been the other way round but then you know what Kaliyuga is). San Thome fort was demolished thereafter. Also gone is Shah Bandar, the harbour that stood here. And so between Golconda and the Nawabs of Arcot we have an Islamic connection as well. In the midst of all this, the Kapaliswarar Temple moved to its present location, with its tank said to be gifted by the Nawabs.
Much of present-day Mylapore as I said is late 19th/early 20th century. The High Court’s establishment saw several Brahmins moving from the districts to Madras and settling here. Mylapore, with its tram connection to George Town became a location of choice. There was a pecking order here as well – aspiring lawyers pigged it out at digs in Chitrakulam area, which was always lower in status as compared to the four Mada Streets. They then shifted to South Mada Street and later to Palathope and North Mada Street. Many top-ranking lawyers and judges preferred to remain in Palathope/North Mada Street but the big ones, with incomes in five figures in the early 1900s moved further, to Luz Church Road. Thus was born the abiding image of the Mylapore Vakil. Of these, the most enduring names are of V Krishnaswami Iyer and Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer, though there were several other greats. VK gave Mylapore its Mylapore Club, the Sanskrit College and the Sri Venkataramana Ayurveda Dispensary.
Edward Elliots Road too was an option for the successful but here the profile was mixed – you had doctors, businessmen, movie moguls, dewans of princely states and the film stars. A huge chunk of Luz Church Road Mylapore was also owned by the dubash family of Moddavarapu Dera Venkataswami Naidu, that noted patron of arts. He, his grandson, the latter’s wife and great grandson are all commemorated in streets names in the city. A neighbour was Sir V Bhashyam Iyengar, Judge of the High Court. Behind this aristocratic quarter was where the others lived – the potters in Kosapettai, the dhobies in Vannarapettai and the fishermen by the sea in various kuppams. The priestly and lower middle classes lived off the four Mada Streets. The church was a huge landowner in Mylapore and much of C(ity) I(mprovement) T(rust) Colony was purchased off it to build houses for the middle class in the 1940s. Of the enormous bungalows of Mylapore of the early 20th century hardly any survive.
The reputation that Mylapore has for being an artistic hub is also relatively recent. The first Sabhas came here only in 1910 or so. The settling here of many musicians and the composer Papanasam Sivan gradually boosted its image. But Sabhas did proliferate, leading to more musicians and dancers settling here. The Srinivasa Sastry Hall in particular deserves commemoration for the countless young talents it has showcased. I also would like to commend Raga Sudha/Nada Inbam for doing a similar service, thanks to founder SV Krishnan and his daughter Jaya who carries it forward. Today Mylapore is synonymous with the arts. As for theatres, it was always woefully inadequate – just Kamadhenu and Kapali and both serving only reruns. The former still survives as a marriage hall. The only mall in Mylapore and I don’t mean hideous Luz Ginza but Citi Centre, has been a colossal failure. Far more successful in its time, though it sold only vegetables was Thanneer Thurai Market, which with the degradation of Buckingham Canal slowly wound down and was replaced by high rise.
There is a lot of spiritual activity in Mylapore. As though symbolic of it is the Ramakrishna Math, with a road named after it. It’s RK Mission Boys Home and adjoining Vivekananda College are two other landmarks. Of schools there are plenty here – Mylaporeans always took education rather seriously. They took sports seriously too. In fact, they took everything seriously. An earnest desire to get on with life is a hallmark here. Mylapore was once a hub of several Udupi style restaurants and the great survivor, though I don’t know for what reason, is Rayar’s Café. Of equally unimpressive fare but great name is the Mylai Karpagambal Mess. Gone is old Universal Bakery of lovely cakes fame but the Crown Bakery, the centenarian on Bazaar Street is going strong. Kalathi’s rose milk is another enduring name as also is the jannal kadai near the temple.
The temples give Mylapore its character – the one to Kapaliswarar and Karpagambal comes alive practically each evening and then more so during its annual festivals. The other Siva temples follow suit and of late they have all begun having bigger and bigger festivals. The Vaishnavite shrines to Madhava Perumal and Kesava Perumal and the Vadakalai shrine to Srinivasa Perumal bring in their variety. The former two do not recognise the latter and the animosity is fully reciprocated. And we have Mundagakanni Amman, Angala Parameswari and Kolavizhi Amman temples as well. Each has its festival and so Mylapore is a never-ending round of religious fervour. San Thome with its churches has its own schedules and Sundays and festival days witness record attendance. All of this religiosity of Mylapore is notwithstanding the political meetings at Mangollai that preach another kind of religion.
Through the heart of Mylapore snakes Buckingham Canal and it is probably at its worst here, exactly as V Krishnaswami Iyer predicted. Just above is the MRTS and the two together make sure that Mylapore is a mosquito haven. There was a time when Mambalam was known for its mosquitoes. The Mylapore variety is smaller, nimbler and its sting that much sharper. It is the same with Mylaporeans.