It is with a tremor of the hand that I take up writing on Chennai 600008 or Egmore. It is really dense with history, and I hope this tract can do some justice to it. First off, it is probably one of the most ancient localities that make up the city, even though it has never claimed it. Excavations in the 19th century revealed implements and burial urns of the Iron Age in Halls Road (now Tamil Salai), Egmore. Which means there was life in Egmore sometime in 1200 BC. According to KV Raman in his Early History of the Madras Region, the Kurumbas of the Sangam Age had divided Tondaimandalam into 24 kottams and one of these was Ezhumoor, our Egmore.
That said, there is no clear explanation of the name and I discount all the learned explanations on WhatsApp about how it is Ezham Oor (seventh town), Ezhum Oor (where sun rises) and other such assorted nonsense. Egmore it is to us and so it will be. The postal district has the Cooum winding all over it and there are many bridges cutting across. If the river were to be clean, these would be such places of recreation. Surviving just behind the Connemara is even now one of the boating jetties that Kalaignar Karunanidhi launched in the 1970s. Egmore is bound by Pudupet and Chintadripet on the east, Vepery and Periamet on the north, Chetpet in the west and Nungambakkam in the south and southwest. It has three post offices – Egmore, Egmore (non-delivery – wherein it deals with other activities of the post) and Ethiraj Salai.
Egmore has some phenomenal built heritage still surviving in it, as it has some age-old institutions. The Eye Hospital or the Regional Institute of Ophthalmology and Govt. Ophthalmic Hospital is the world’s second oldest, dating to 1818. It has a phenomenal museum dedicated to diseases of the eye, which requires a strong stomach to view. Also in Egmore is the Women and Children’s Hospital, begun in 1844. It has a landmark building and has since spilt over into neighbouring Arni House property, of which stately home there is not a trace. Not so well-known as these but still famed is the Santosham Chest Hospital founded by Dr Mathuram Santosham. Dr Sam GP Moses was a famed diabetologist who consulted in Egmore. I remember going there several times with my grandmother, who was his patient.
My grandmother brings to mind several Egmore Station incidents. She had a great fondness for this station, as her husband had once been one of the top bosses of the South Indian Railway, whose Madras terminus was the Egmore station. She waxed eloquent on the grandeur of the metre gauge first class compartments, the drive-in platform at Egmore and of course the overall atmosphere of peace and quiet it once exuded. Once my father and I went up to the offices of the railways in the station and there, in a row of photographs was grandfather too. None of that exists now. Egmore station is a mess. But its façade is still breath taking. Behind the station, on Poonamallee High Road, was the old Egmore Redoubt, a British-era fortification that made way for the Egmore railway quarters. This was where my other grandfather, who was a railway doctor, had his quarters. My only memory of that place is of him taking me as a child to see the trains thundering across a level crossing. It may have been at Gengu Reddy Street.
That street to me is perpetually associated with T Balasaraswathi, who lived close by at Aravamudu Gardens and it was at her residence that her grandmother and the grand dame of Carnatic Music, Veena Dhanam died in 1938. Also in Egmore is Sait Colony, where R Rangaramanuja Iyengar, author of the Kritimanimalai series lived. He worshipped Dhanam and had a statue of hers made. Much later it was shifted to her granddaughter T Mukta’s residence by her two disciples Ravi and Sridhar of Tiruvannamalai. RRR along with Venkatachari or Muthanna, ran the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha on Egmore High Road at Veda Vilas, the residence of the latter’s father, the lawyer T Rangachariar.
Opposite the station is the Tamil Nadu Archives, said to be the world’s oldest and run more or less on technology of an ancient age, which is a pity. Next door is the hockey stadium, remembered more for its tennis heritage. The city’s first public tennis courts are here, though now shockingly neglected. Not so the hockey stadium which is well tended. Just behind the Egmore station is St Andrew’ Kirk, the 1820 creation of Thomas Fiott de Havilland, its dome and its well foundations still a wonder. The whole campus is a delight- beautifully maintained. Not so is the Government College of Fine Arts, which is just opposite. Begun in the 1850s as the Madras School of Arts and run till at least the 1980s by a string of great artistes, it is a shell of its former self. The campus also could do with better maintenance, especially the heritage structures in it, several designed by Chisholm.
The Government Museum on Pantheon Road is a major attraction though it could be run better. Begun in the 1850s to house the collection of the Madras Literary Society, it later moved into the Pantheon, which at one time was where the British had much of their entertaining. No trace of the building survives now. Beginning from 1864, there began a round of construction, the museum eventually becoming what it is now in the 1890s. In the same compound is the Museum Theatre, a rarely used jewel, and the Victoria Memorial turned National Art Gallery, designed by Henry Irwin on the lines of the Bulund Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikri. Also here is the Connemara Public Library, opened in 1896 and constructed by T Namberumal Chetty to Irwin’s design. It is one of four national libraries of India, which means one copy of all printed work in the country arrives here. Finding them is another matter.
While on Lord Connemara can we forget the hotel named after him and located just at the beginning of Egmore? Legend has it that the Albany Hotel changed its name because Lady Connemara stayed there for a few days prior to leaving for London to file for divorce, a proceeding that finished her husband’s career for good. The hotel has made much of this story post its latest renovation. Gone is the Victoria Hotel that stood at Victoria Crescent and was once the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, thereby leading to the road being named as such. Today, it is called Ethiraj Salai, after the famed barrister VL Ethiraj who lived at No 1, Victoria Crescent and bequeathed property and much wealth to the college that takes his name and functions from there. Other noted residents of Victoria Crescent were CP Johnstone, Justice PV Rajamannar and Tara and Dr PV Cherian. The crescent is now named after the doctor. He and his wife were Mayors of Madras and he was later Governor of Maharashtra too. Off this road and deep inside a vast compound is the grand Freemason’s Hall. Opposite this was once the MICO plant which is now a residential block.
There are several hotels in Egmore ranging from Connemara to Kanchi to the Ambassador Pallava to Radisson Blu, besides any number of humbler facilities in roads leading off the station. The streets are numerous and have some fascinating finds – a temple to the Buddha, another to Lord Srinvasa and then the Albert Theatre with beside it, Edinburgh House, once headquarters of the Unger-run Royal South Indian Ice Factory.
Marshall’s (now Rukmini Lakshmipathy) Road runs along the Cooum and here we have Willingdon Estate, now taken over by the Chettinad Group. A tenant in two rooms here is the Egmore Ladies Recreation Club, which founded in the early 1900s did much to foster a love for sports among Indian women. The first non-Devadasi woman to take to stage, C Saraswati Bai, had her debut here in 1910 and several years later, so did DK Pattammal. From functioning in a property over 100 grounds to now being a card-playing facility in two rooms is a rather sad come down. On the same estate are the twin Raja Muthiah and Rani Meyyammai Halls, marriage venues for high society weddings. Opposite is the Rajarathinam Stadium and nearby is Montieth Road where the AIR began its life. The Red Cross also functions from here.
Casa Major Road, commemorating an old East India Company family, is another major artery of Egmore. Here you have the Guild of Service, a mother organisation for several social welfare institutions of the city. Several women have contributed to it but none more so than Mary (originally Mehr) Clubwalla Jadhav, Parsi millionare, socialite and social worker. She was the city’s only woman sheriff. The Madras School of Social Work she founded is today a great institution. Opposite all of this is Don Bosco School. Not so well known is another educational institution of Egmore – the Teachers’ Training School. Its most famous product was ‘Sister’ RS Subbalakshmi, who transformed the lives of widows.
One more artery is what was once called Harris’ Road after Lord Harris and is now Sivanthi P Adithanar Road. It still has a few period bungalows with quaint names like Cotton House, Stone House, etc. Rukmini Lakshmipathi and her husband Dr A Lakshmipathi were residents here as were the noted early film stars PS Ratna Bai and Saraswati Bai, the Palayamkottai Sisters. Their house was bequeathed by them to the Radha Soami Satsang which still owns it. Gone however is Dayal De Lodge, for long the place of stay for Bengali visitors.
The Police Commissioner’s Office Road does not house that office any longer. But the old bungalow has been saved and converted into a magnificent police museum, the city’s best. Next door to it is the Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court, in a new building, the old one having been lovingly restored. By its side is the headquarters of the city’s mounted police. Not far from here is Connemara’s Market, forgotten and falling into ruin.
I am sure I have left out many aspects of Egmore but the place really packs in too much.
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