Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

Napoleon’s brush with Madras – The Hindu

July 4, 2015
A still standing portion of Wellesley's House, Fort St George

A still standing portion of Wellesley’s House, Fort St George

It was on June 18, 1815 that the French under Napoleon were defeated at Waterloo, Belgium. The battle’s bicentenary was observed in England last month though the French understandably refused to be a part of it. It required a combination of strongly inimical countries to bring Napoleon down but much credit is given to the British general Arthur Wellesley.

Immediately after the war, he suggested that Napoleon be sent in exile to Fort St George, Madras. Wellesley was familiar with our city. Joining the British army at 17, he was a colonel by 27. His brother Lord Mornington becoming the Governor General of India meant that Wellesley and his regiment were transferred here. Having been in Calcutta for two years, he came to Madras in 1798, moving into a vast house as befitting the brother of a Governor General, on Charles Street, Fort St George. His chief occupation here appears to have been to write letters to his brother on the incapability of the Governor – Edward, Second Lord Clive.

Napoleon, then at the height of his powers, landed in Egypt and was believed to be on his way to India, ostensibly at the invitation of Tipu Sultan. This proved sufficient excuse to launch a siege of Mysore. Mornington and Wellesley were convinced that Lord Clive would not be able to handle this. The Governor General arrived in Madras to personally supervise the war. An unholy alliance was brokered between the East India Company and its traditional enemies – the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Wellesley led the combined army and Tipu was killed on May 4, 1799. Mornington was made a marquis for his success. His brother, returning to England, rose to greater heights, becoming the General of the British Army and defeating Napoleon.

His success at Waterloo notwithstanding, his idea of sending Napoleon to Madras was shot down, the proximity of French Pondicherry being a deterrent perhaps. The former French Emperor was sent to the remote island of St Helena’s, off the African coast where he died. Wellesley became a national hero and was made the Duke of Wellington. Greater glory was to follow, for he became Prime Minister of England, not once, but twice. A plaque was let into the wall of his house in Fort St George to commemorate this. A portrait of his hung at the Banqueting (now Rajaji) Hall, till 1947.

Today however, not many Chennai-ites would know of the Duke of Wellington or Arthur Wellesley. His name is often confused with that of a later Governor of Madras and Viceroy of India – Lord Willingdon. The house were he lived in at the Fort collapsed a decade ago and the Archaeological Survey of India has done precious little about it beyond putting up its regulation blue board that invokes some obscure law. The plaque commemorating his achievements still survives with faded lettering among the ruins.

Napoleon on the other hand, is still a familiar name here, for other reasons!

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 4, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.
Napoleon’s brush with Madras – The Hindu.

Global Investors to illuminate city’s heritage

July 1, 2015
D'Angeli's/Bosottos - now being demolished from the rear

D’Angeli’s/Bosottos – now being demolished from the rear

It is not clear, although it is hoped, that our State will benefit economically from the Global Investors’ Meet, but 36 heritage buildings of our city definitely will. As part of the drive to spruce up the city for the Meet, it has been decided that these structures will be “given a facelift and be floodlit”. As to who will undertake this, the owners of the buildings or the Government, is as yet unclear, but what is certain is that this is a welcome move that will hopefully lead to bigger and better things as far as heritage is concerned.The 36 lucky ones are as follows:

– King Institute

– Raj Bhavan

– Madras Club

– College of Engineering

– Vasanta Vihar

– Brodie Castle

– Chettinad Palace

– Blavatsky Bungalow

– Theosophical Society

– Church of Holy Rosary

– Leith Castle

– Director General of Police Headquarters

– Ice House

– Bharathiyar House

– Hindu High School

Victoria Students’ Hostel

– Presidency College

– PWD Building

Chepauk Palace

– Senate House

– Madras University

– Museum Theatre

Connemara Library

National Art Gallery

– Opthalmic Hospital

Higginbothams

Bharath Insurance Building

– P.Orr & Sons

– Rajaji Hall

Old Government House

Ripon Building

Victoria Public Hall

Madras High Court

– General Post Ofice

Maadi Poonga

– Secretariat

(In case you need to know more about these buildings, you can get the info on the free app – Chennai Past Forward, now available in Mac and Android versions)

The list as it has been released comprises a mix of public and private buildings. It is clear that whoever compiled it has done so with good intentions, but has not gone too much into detail. For instance, some are enormous precincts and it is not clear as to how these can be floodlit. Take for instance the Madras Club and the Theosophical Society – which parts of these campuses are to be illuminated? There is also at least one building in the list, which is no longer standing – we allude to what is listed as Old Government House. Was this not the 250-year-old building on Government Estate that had to be imploded to make way for the new Assembly-cum-Secretariat (oops! We mean the Multi-Speciality Referral Hospital)?

And then there are some whose owners may not want any illumination at all. We refer to the Bharat Insurance Building. The LIC, which owns the structure, has made it clear that it does not want to restore the building. Given the ongoing litigation, they have made the edifice over to the elements, thereby speeding up its eventual collapse. If this is to be illuminated, what will be seen will be a roofless shell, peeling ornamentation and plenty of vegetation on the building. We are glad, however, that the lighting up will bring to the open this precious piece of heritage. Hopefully someone in LIC will also feel the same after the floodlighting and will have a change of heart. The same goes for Victoria Students’ Hostel which is in such a bad way that the students there have been protesting against its condition.

The selection of the buildings has been done rather cleverly too. Most are on principal thoroughfares that the Global Investors will take during their stay here. Some, such as Bharati Illam, though not on this route, have been selected presumably to highlight our literary past. Now what if some of these investors wander off by themselves and see some neglected heritage structures? Will they not wonder as to why so progressive a State as ours does not have legislation to protect heritage? If you run your eye over the list, another aspect may strike you – most of them are British era built structures. Now, was this not the heritage that most of those in power used to deride as remnants of a colonial past? Was it not why they did not want to participate in Madras Week celebrations or organise a suitable event to commemorate 375 years of the Fort? Global investors evidently make the powers-that-be think differently.

That said, the present move to illuminate and showcase our heritage is a commendable one. We also hope that the Government’s heritage consciousness will not cease with the Investors Meet and live on to generate more concrete results such as speeding up of conservation and restoration work in heritage buildings in its possession. The State should also think about making its Heritage Act a reality before the Investors Meet by forming the Heritage Conservation Committee that is now merely on paper. The Committee needs to have a broad-based membership that is not restricted to Government servants alone. Only if all this is done can we truly claim to the Global Investors that we seriously intend to protect our heritage.

Know Fort St George -5, the Cornwallis Cupola

June 29, 2015
The Cornwallis Cupola

The Cornwallis Cupola

If you are not a VIP, you enter the Fort through a small side entrance – not for you the joy of sweeping up the driveway in your car, which is perhaps a good thing as there is hardly any parking space in the Fort. You are better off leaving your vehicle in the vast car park opposite the Fort, crossing the road and then queuing up at the side gate. You will need to enter your name, address and phone number in a shabby register and subject yourself to the mandatory metal detector and baggage scanner. And then you are on your own, inside the Fort.

Almost the first thing that strikes your eye is a Greek-styled pavilion. In essence it is an Ionic-pillared rotunda surmounted by a cupola. This stands all by itself in a grassy plot that also has a shade-giving tree. The only thing missing is the centrepiece and that is a huge marble statue of Lord Cornwallis that is now within the Fort Museum, which is to your right as you gaze at the rotunda. Between the two of them, the statue and the pavilion have quite a bit of history, going back 200 years or so.
Cornwallis was Governor-General of India twice, the first tenure being from 1786 to 1793. During that period he achieved what was till then considered impossible – the subduing of Tippu Sultan. Assuming direct command over the operations in 1792, he defeated the Tiger of Mysore. Unlike Lord Wellesley in 1799, he had always made it clear that his intention was never the elimination of Tippu and so imposed severe terms for peace. These included, among other things, an indemnity of Rs. 6 crore (later reduced to Rs. 3.3 crore), and the handing over of two of his three eldest sons as hostages for the due performance of the terms.

The princes were given two residences – Paul Benfield’s house in the Fort and the other on the Great Choultry Plain – and remained in Madras till 1794 by when Tippu had paid up in full. In the meanwhile, given that he had achieved an impossible task, the official and unofficial European inhabitants of Madras, started a fund-raising drive to erect a suitable memorial for Cornwallis, to be housed in the Fort. By then he had returned to Calcutta. A year later he resigned from the post of Governor-General and sailed home.

The subscription for the memorial was remitted to England and, to quote from Sir Charles Lawson’s Memories of Madras (1905), “someone there was authorised to negotiate with a sculptor for the production of a statue of his Lordship. Then it was that the services of Thomas Banks were enlisted…(He was) the first of his country to produce works of classic grace.” Those who visited the studio when the statue was being sculpted were amazed at the resemblance to its original, to the smallest detail, including “the outward cast of one eye in such startling detail.” To this Banks retorted that the “eyes looking to the right and left at the same moment would impart the idea of an enlarged and comprehensive mind.” A few generations later, we would dismiss the Governor-General as being pop-eyed.

The pedestal of the statue, also sculpted by Banks, has the figures of Britannia and Victory flanking a bas-relief of the definitive moment when Cornwallis received the two boys as hostage. An inscription at the base reads that the statue was erected “by a General Vote at the Joint Expense Of the Principal Inhabitants of Madras, and of the Civil and Military Servants of the East India Company Belonging to the Presidency of Fort St George As a General Testimony Of the High Sense they entertain of the Conduct and Actions of the Most Noble The Marquis of Cornwallis During the Time he held the High Offices of Governor General and Commander In Chief of All the Forces in India.”

The statue arrived in Madras in 1800. According to Mary Ann Steggles, in her book Statues of the Raj (2000), “The marble portrait statue of Cornwallis for Madras was the first publicly erected monument exported to India.” Early in May that year, M. Turing, Aide-de-Camp to Governor Lord Clive, bade the principal inhabitants of Madras to be present at 5.45 am on the 15th for the unveiling of the statue. A breakfast was arranged at the Exchange Building for all the invitees. The statue was placed under this cupola, located then at the Parade Square of the Fort, and unveiled by the Governor, after which the assembled troops presented arms, the drums beat a march and a salute of honour was fired. “The attendance of ladies and gentlemen, as well on the parade as in the houses, balconies and terraces of the square was,” according to the Asiatic Register, “unusually numerous and the concourse of natives was proportionally great.” Parade Square was ceremonially renamed Cornwallis Square.

The statue remained within the cupola long enough to be seen by Cornwallis himself. This happened in 1805, when in an “unwise moment” having again accepted the offer of a Governor-Generalship, he embarked on the HMS Medusa and arrived in Madras en route to Calcutta. Here the Governor Lord William Bentinck received him on May 6. The troops formed a ceremonial carriageway from the Sea Gate to Parade Square where an address bearing the signatures of 214 principal residents of Madras was presented to him. In response, Cornwallis made a speech, according to Lawson, “probably in front of the statue of himself that then occupied as it still does, the most important place on the parade ground of Fort St George.” This probably gave rise to a subsequent legend, quoted in full in Nirmala Lakshman’s Degree Coffee by the Yard, that Cornwallis was present in Madras to welcome his statue in honour of which he organised a grand parade and during which he saluted his own image.

The ceremony over, Cornwallis departed for Bengal. He died on October 5th the following year of “Bengal liver” at Ghazipore and was buried there as per his dictum, “Where the tree falls, let it lie.” The news of his passing reached Madras on the 31st. On November 5th, at the instance of the Sheriff of Madras, John Oakes, a meeting was held at the Exchange Building of the Fort to consider “proper measures for erecting a Cenotaph” to commemorate Cornwallis. The resolution was adopted, a long list of subscribers gave in plenty and, shortly thereafter, a large rotunda topped by a Burmese pagoda-like super-structure was erected in Teynampet, then the city boundary. The road that led from it to Adyar became Cenotaph Road. Lawson does not, however, mention that the statue moved to the Cenotaph and when he wrote his book in 1905, it was still at Parade Square in the Fort.

The Cenotaph itself was, however, shifted. By the 1880s it had moved to First Line Beach, “opposite the Presidency Post Office” according to Lawson. This gives rise to some confusion as it is now located not opposite the post office but in the compound of what was Bentinck’s Building, then the Supreme Court (and from 1862 till 1892 the High Court) of Madras, which was demolished in the 1980s to make way for the Singaravelar Maligai, the Chennai Collectorate. Did the harbour works of the 1880s necessitate one more shift of the Cenotaph within First Line Beach? Or was Lawson’s memory playing tricks? Photographs from the 1880s show the Cenotaph as it stands today.

In 1925, the Cornwallis statue moved out of Parade Square to the Cenotaph. It stayed there for just three years, moving in 1928 to the Connemara Library as the salt and moisture-laden air of the sea at First Line Beach began attacking the marble. The statue remained in the library till 1950, when it made its last journey, this time to the Fort Museum. The cupola in Parade Square remained where it was till 1935 when, at the orders of the then Governor, Lord Erskine, it was shifted to where it stands now. The Cenotaph on First Line Beach remains where it was, an empty shell now doubling up as a convenient urinal.

To read the earlier parts of this series, see links below:

Know Fort St George – Topography

Know Fort St George – The Flagstaff

Know Fort St George – The Sea Gate

Know Fort St George – The Moat

The Madras media man – The Hindu

June 27, 2015

June 25th was the 40th anniversary of the infamous Emergency – the then Indira Gandhi Government’s audacious attempt to stifle democracy. Very few from the South opposed it and yet much of the momentum for the resistance came from a feisty press baron of Madras – Ramnath Goenka, the owner of the Indian Express Group of newspapers.

Having come to Madras in the 1920s, with reportedly nothing more than “a lota and a nine cubit dhoti,” to quote his biographer BG Verghese, Goenka was by the 1940s an all India figure. Though his papers would later be published from many cities, Madras was always his headquarters, his residence being Hicks Bungalow on Patullos Road. His businesses operated from neighbouring Express Estates, a 23-acre property that he bought from the Madras Club for Rs 14.85 lakhs in 1946. The quiet thoroughfare connecting the property to Mount Road is still Club House Road.

It is said that when Emergency was declared, Goenka was in the ICU of a Calcutta hospital, recovering from a heart attack. Raring to get into the thick of battle, he disconnected the tubes that connected him and “stole out to board a taxi but was detected in time and brought back”. The Indian Express came out on June 25, 1975 with a blank first editorial while the Financial Express published Tagore’s poem – Where the Mind is Without Fear.

A man who loved the good fight, Goenka challenged the Emergency in many ways. He helped in publishing Prajaniti, and its English counterpart, Everyman, vehicles that propagated the thoughts of Jayaprakash Narayan, the doughty opponent to Mrs Gandhi’s regime. The vast Express Estates was also where several leaders of the Opposition, most of them on the run from the police, could find safe haven. One among these was the firebrand George Fernandes. He had come first to the Spur Tank Road residence of tuberculosis specialist and Swatantra Party leader Dr Mathuram Santosham. On coming to know that the police were closing in, he was transferred to Express Estates.

The powers-that-be did their best to stifle Goenka and his publications. There were moves to acquire the business by media houses in sympathy with the ruling party, and when this was resisted, there were to quote BG Verghese, “raids, court cases, a long series of pre-censorship orders, stoppages of bank advances and advertisements”- in short, all the standard operating procedures of a draconian Government. Goenka however stood his ground despite being in poor health throughout. The stresses that he and his family withstood then later resulted in the early demise of his son Bhagwan Das.

The battle against the Emergency gained ground and culminated in General Elections in March 1977. That saw the landslide victory of the Janata Party and the first national debacle for the Congress. Goenka went on to fight other battles. The Express Estates is now a mall. But we do need a marker to commemorate the Marwari Media Man from Madras who fought the Emergency from there.
a href=’http://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/the-madras-media-man/article7357957.ece#.VY4Zo9maLS4.wordpress’>The Madras media man – The Hindu.

Hidden Histories: From Russia, with love – The Hindu

June 20, 2015

Hidden Histories: From Russia, with love – The Hindu.

Was Cooum originally Komaleeswaram? – The Hindu

June 12, 2015

Was Cooum originally Komaleeswaram? – The Hindu.

Songs on Sri Parthasarathy

June 12, 2015

The samprokshanam or kumbhAbhiShEkam of the Sri Parthasarathy temple in Tiruvallikeni will take place today. On this occasion, a brief article on some of the composers who have created songs in praise of the deity –

Chennai: Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane. Photo: V. Ganesan.

Chennai: Parthasarathy Temple, Triplicane. Photo: V. Ganesan.

That the Tiruvallikeni Temple inspired composers from ancient times is evident from the works of the Alwars on it, all of which are well documented. The early 19th century manuscript Sarva Deva Vilasa of which only a part survives, describes the temple as a centre for the arts. It mentions a music loving Dharmakarta of the shrine – Annasami and also speaks of dancers dedicated to the Lord.

Of the Carnatic Trinity, Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitar are both said to have visited the temple. There is no song of Tyagaraja’s in praise of the deity that survives, but in a talk over the radio, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer mentioned a piece in the raga Saveri of which he said only the pallavi and anupallavi were available. Regretfully, even that is now lost. The song Sri Parthasarathina in Shuddha Dhanyasi is attributed to Muttuswami Dikshitar but from its prosodic error in the madhyamakala sahityam this would appear doubtful. However, it cannot be denied that it is popular on the concert platform.

Subbaraya Sastry, the son of Syama Sastry and the common disciple of the Trinity, visited the temple and composed Ninnu Sevinchina (raga Yadukula Kamboji) here. An interesting aside is that at least two others – Subbarama Dikshitar and Cheyyur Chengalvaraya Sastry have created songs on Parthasarathy in the same raga, probably inspired by the Lord’s yadukula origins. Mysore Sadasiva Rao, who through the Wallajahpet School traced his lineage to Tyagaraja, composed Sri Parthasarathe in raga Bhairavi. This is a monumental song with cascading sangatis and in classic Sadasiva Rao style, is full of flowing lyrics. His other work on this temple is Vachamagochara in raga Athana. The Tachur Singaracharyulu Brothers were a duo of the late 19th and early 20th century Madras who played an important role in the development of music in the city. The elder brother was a composer and his varnam raga Vasantha, Ninnu Kori a popular opener in concerts today, is dedicated to Parthasarathy.

Patnam Subramania Iyer, has left behind Samayamide Nannu Brova in Kedaram. This song is significant because in its lyrics it mentions three of the five important deities of the temple – Parthasarathy, Gajendra Varada and Ranganatha (referred as Kamalanabha). Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar has composed Sri Parthasarathi Nannu in raga Madhyamavati at this shrine. Modern day composers who have been inspired by the deity here include MD Ramanathan, NS Ramachandran, Dr S Ramanathan (who was practically a neighbour), TG Krishna Iyer (Lalitha Dasa) and Ambujam Krishna. Surprisingly the moolavar, Venkatakrishna, with his handlebar moustache does not find mention in any song. Neither does the Narasimha shrine to the rear, which is in reality an independent temple by itself.

The temple also appears to have served as a concert venue and there is an account of the late 19th century singing sensation Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan performing here on three successive nights with record audience attendance. The streets surrounding the temple of course have their own rich musical history that needs an article by itself.

This article appeared in The Hindu’s special supplement on the Tiruvallikeni samprokshanam dated June 12, 2015.

Know Fort St George – 4, The Moat

June 8, 2015
The Moat, as seen from St George's Gate

The Moat, as seen from St George’s Gate

Before we enter the Fort proper, let us pause for a moment and run our eye over the moat that surrounds the entire precinct, or at least was supposed to. Today it is entirely overgrown with weeds, barring a few places to the rear of the Fort where it still has stagnant water, but in its time this was a vital element of the defences.

There have been several versions of the moat in the Fort’s long history. Arriving here as early as in 1673, Dr John Fryer noted that ‘on the south side they have cut a ditch of a sufficient depth to prevent scaling the wall’. This did not evidently last long for, in 1676, when the Council at Fort St George wrote to the East India Company HQ seeking permission for strengthening the place, it raised the subject of a wet ditch. As this was in response to a stern missive demanding that the Madras establishment reduce its expenses, the tone of the request was somewhat submissive. The Council ‘humbly presented for your consideration’ the need to build, among several other things, a ‘good Ditch’. This was evidently sanctioned, for, a year later, when the sea made great incursions on the land, a detailed note was submitted on the subject to the Company where there is clear mention of a ditch. Mrs Frank Penny, in her Fort St George, a Short History of our First Possession in India writes that this ditch was later extended to the eastern side as well. She, however, maintains that this was no moat but a dry ditch.

The original Fort, as we saw earlier, spanned what would presently include just the Assembly building and the Parade Square. As it expanded, the ditch vanished and the Description of Fort St George or Madras (published in 1747 in the Gentleman of London’s Magazine) states that the “Fort is surrounded with a Rampart faced with a thick Wall of what they call Iron Stone, being of the Colour of unwrought Iron, and very rough outside like a Honey-comb but without any Ditch or Fosse on the Outside.” But serious consideration was evidently given for the construction of a new moat that would surround the expanded Fort. As evidence of this we have A Memorandum of the Early History of Fort St George (published in 1847), according to which, in 1743 an engineer named Smith submitted plans for strengthening the Fort, and increasing its area by 15 to 30 acres; he defined this additional area by a wet ditch, which he dug and faced with bricks. Mrs Penny writes that this was supplied with water from the Cooum but ‘as no walls or bastions were raised above this moat, it was not of much use as a protection.’ That this was not in any way a deterrent is attested by the historian Orme who observed that when the French came in 1746, ‘the naked ditch remained neither an obstruction nor defence.’

The hectic construction activities of the 1750s, in the aftermath of the return of Madras to the British, saw attention being paid to the moat. When the French returned in 1758 under Comte de Lally, action was seen around the water body, which by then was complete along the western and northern faces of the Fort. Mrs Penny quotes from a letter of Henry Vansittart to Robert Clive, written in the final days of the siege, which the British successfully withstood, ‘They had opened a narrow passage through the counterscarp of the ditch by a mine, and had beat down so much clay from the face of the demi-bastion, that there was a slope that a nimble man might run up, and that is what M Lally calls a breach; but his people were wiser than he, if he proposed to assault it, and they refused. This was probably near the St George’s Gate of the Fort, located at the northwestern angle, for David Leighton in his Vicissitudes of Fort St George (1902) has all the action with the French in that area.

The present moat or ditch owes its existence to the extensive renovations to the Fort, commenced in the 1760s rather ironically after the last siege to be ever faced by it had ended. John Call, who was then the Chief Engineer, envisaged a wet ditch, 50 feet broad and seven feet deep, to be commenced from St George’s bastion, which marks the northwestern angle of the Fort.

All accounts of the moat/ditch, except Leighton’s, agree that the first versions did not have water. Dismissing the Leighton version as an error, we are left with the question of where the water for the moat came from, when it first became a wet, as opposed to a dry, ditch. The water initially came from the Elambore River that ran along the western side of the Fort. In the 1700s, when the Fort had become rectangular, the river had been diverted to form the moat. A few years later, the Fort had extended beyond the river, which divided into two, one arm ending inside the Fort and the other flowing along the west face and then into the sea. During the 1760s, when the final reconstruction of the Fort began, the river was partly filled to facilitate the present shape and the water was made to flow around to form the moat. The river was to suffer several changes to its natural course, becoming a part of Cochrane’s Canal, which eventually became Buckingham Canal.

That the water for the moat came from the river and later the Buckingham Canal is clear if you wander off in the direction of St George’s Gate. There you will see a rusting lock, with most of its shutters having vanished. This was lowered and raised to regulate the tide in the moat. Now, with the Buckingham Canal and the Cooum both having lost their water, the moat has gone dry. But the part closest to the lock still retains some water and, therefore, plenty of vegetation and some bird life. When Mrs Penny wrote her book, the wagtail was apparently the most common bird in the moat, building its nests in the crevices of the wall, where the water plants afforded it sufficient privacy. Fishing in the moat too was a common recreation for the soldiers in the Fort, as evinced by photographs taken in the early 1900s. Another feature, long gone, is the wooden drawbridges that connected mainland to the Fort, across the moat. These were present at the Wallajah, St George’s and North Gates and, according to Mrs Penny, these were ‘a terror to the inexperienced horse when his ears are assailed by the thunder of his iron-shod hoofs on the wooden platform as he crosses to enter the low, deep gateway.’

In the 1990s, during routine conservation work in the Fort, a tunnel was discovered running parallel to the moat between Wallajah Gate and the northwestern point. This has regular openings at intervals at ground level connecting to it by flights of steps. The tunnel, with a height of 2m and a width of a metre, has since been interpreted as having been constructed for the facilitation of arms movement. The water in the moat kept the gunpowder cool and prevented it from heating up and exploding in the Madras summer. That this was no secret even in the 1940s is evident from Lt Col Read’s The Story of Fort St George (1946). He calls the attention of the casual visitor to the regular openings that he terms as loopholes. The tunnel, according to him, was used to position sharpshooters who through the loopholes could shoot any enemy who came close to the walls.

The southern side of the moat was filled up in the 1860s to make way for the military hospital that stands in the shadow of the Fort amidst a clump of trees. The rest of the moat is still intact but it is in a state of decay. In October 2014, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Army announced a joint plan to clear the moat of vegetation, free it of the drainage from the Fort and restore it. This is yet to make headway.

Earlier articles in this series

The Topography of the Fort
The Flagstaff
The Sea Gate

Hidden histories The church in a cuckoo grove – The Hindu

June 5, 2015

Hidden histories The church in a cuckoo grove – The Hindu.

Chennai history: on Pereira Street – The Hindu

May 30, 2015

Chennai history: on Pereira Street – The Hindu.


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