Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

When Madras froze over

April 18, 2015

Tambora wind route

Our city has only three seasons — hot, hotter and hell. Given this, would people believe me if I said that the temperature once dipped below freezing in our city, and that too, in the sweltering month of April? It would probably be dismissed as an April Fool’s Joke. And yet it happened exactly 200 years ago, in the last week of April 1815. The morning temperature was 11 degrees Celsius on Monday, April 24, and by Friday, April 28, it had dipped to minus 3 degrees Celsius. There are unverified reports of snow falling too but that may be an exaggeration.

The cause of this freak phenomenon was the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in distant Indonesia. At that time, this was the tallest peak in the archipelago which formed that country, rising to a height of 4,300 m.

Lava burst forth from it on April 10 and 11, 1815, with such ferocity that the explosion killed around 12,000 people and was heard 2,000 km away. It holds the record for being the largest volcanic activity ever in world history till date.

What followed next is best described in Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World, by Gillen D’Arcy Wood — “Tambora’s dust veil, serene and massive above the clouds, began its westward drift aloft the winds of the upper atmosphere. Its airy passage to India outran the thousands of waterborne vessels below bent upon an identical course, breasting the trade winds from the resource-rich East Indies to the commercial ports of the Indian Ocean. The vanguard of Tambora’s stratospheric plume arrived over the Bay of Bengal within days”.

Madras was perhaps the first to feel it two weeks later, with the temperature dipping to freezing point, thanks to the aerosols in the volcanic cloud absorbing heat from the sun and the earth. Given that our public dons monkey caps and earmuffs in December each year, what was the fashion statement in freezing April 1815? There is, however, not one East India Company record that notes the reactions of the colonial masters or the people to this freak occurrence. There is also no mention of a tsunami. Pumice stone, however, washed up on the coast for a long while.

What followed thereafter was not as pleasant as the cold weather. The ash cloud spread globally, making 1816 the ‘year without summer’. In Madras, and the rest of India, it also meant a year without monsoon. Crops failed, as they did internationally. Famine in India was followed by cholera, which is now directly attributed by scholars to the volcano. Over 70,000 people perished globally, due to Tambora.

In August 1815, the brig Catherina — the first vessel from Java after the eruption — arrived in Madras. The Madras Courier interviewed the craft’s master for an eyewitness description of what happened. He also brought with him a bag of volcanic ash, which was forwarded to Calcutta for further analysis. But nobody linked the big freeze in Madras to the volcano!

This article appeared in The Hindu dated April 18, under the Hidden Histories column.

A Chola Gift to Chennai

April 11, 2015
Veeranam Tank

Veeranam Tank

The lake that you see there is not within the geographical bounds of our city. But though it is 235 km away, it would be no exaggeration to state that it is Chennai’s lifeline, supplying roughly 50 to 180 million litres of water to the city every day. Nothing prepares you for its vast expanse — 11.2 km in length and 4 km in width (as per Wikipedia), and when full of water, it is an awesome sight. I allude to the Veeranam Lake, located in Cuddalore District.

We need to thank the Chola prince Rajaditya for this. In the 10th century, he assigned his men the task of excavating this tank, to collect the surplus waters of the Kollidam River. When completed, Rajaditya christened it Veeranarayana, after one of the many names of his father Parantaka Chola I. This is now Veeranam. Kalki R. Krishnamurthy’s magnum opus, Ponniyin Selvan, opens with the hero riding along and admiring this lake.

In the 1830s, (later Sir) Arthur Cotton, the engineer who later harnessed the waters of the Krishna and Godavari, studied the tank in detail. He noted that there was no serious defect in the tank (this, 900 years after it was constructed) apart from the narrowing of the mouth of the Vadavar River that connected the lake to the Kollidam and the tendency of the bund to breach when filled to the brim. Interestingly, Cotton’s report is full of anglicised Tamil terms — totie (thotti or tank) and calingula (from kalingu or sluice) being two commonly used words.

In 1967, C.N. Annadurai, then freshly elected Chief Minister of the State, mooted the idea of supplying water to the capital city from Veeranam. He died in 1969 and it was left to his successors to execute the plan. The project, estimated at Rs. 21 crore, was then the biggest to be sanctioned in independent India. The contractor put up a plant at Tirukazhugukundram in collaboration with a Greek firm for making the pre-stressed concrete pipes.

What happened next reflected no credit on any of the parties involved. There were allegations of corruption, delays in sanctioning foreign exchange and quality issues. With the DMK government being dismissed in 1976, the matter was taken to court, and in the middle of it all, the contractor suddenly died. The pipes were abandoned all along the Cuddalore-Madras route and were put to good use — entire families were raised in them and some others became latrines.

The project languished thereafter for over three decades only to be revived in 2000, and by then, the cost had ballooned to Rs. 720 crore. The local ryots were none too happy at the metropolis guzzling their precious resource, but water began flowing into Chennai in 2004.

Standing on Veeranam’s banks a couple of weeks back, I wondered at Rajaditya’s vision and what he could achieve. Then I pondered over what he must be thinking about us present-day people. But that is best left unexplored.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column dated April 11, 2015

The Oriental Insurance Building, Armenian Street

April 6, 2015
Oriental Insurance Building, Armenian Street

Oriental Insurance Building, Armenian Street

Armenian Street has several interesting buildings to its credit. Some are historical, while others demand attention for being significant works of architecture. One of the few that has both claims to fame is the Oriental Insurance Building.

The eponymous company that owned the property prior to its nationalisation came into existence on May 5, 1874 as the Oriental Government Security Life Assurance Company Limited in Bombay. Its founding fathers were famous men of that city – Cumroodeen Tyabji, jp, Member of the Bombay Corporation and Solicitor was the Chairman; the other Directors were R N Khote, jp, Merchant and Member of the Bombay Corporation; Jehangir Rustomjee Mody, Merchant, and (later Sir); and Pherozeshah M Mehta, Bar-at-Law and later Chairman of the Bombay Municipal Corporation.

The Oriental fared very well in the first decade of its life and kept the pace going thereafter. In Madras, the company operated through its Managing Agents, McDowell & Co, whose handsome offices on Second Line Beach have long since been demolished. By the turn of the century, Oriental decided to have its own branch in Madras, and this came into existence in McDowell’s premises on April 1, 1901. It was the first regional office of the company. By 1906, business had grown in Madras Presidency and the firm decided to move into its own premises. A suitable site with an existing building was identified at the intersection of Errabalu Chetty and Armenian Streets and the operations shifted there.

The Company decided to build a new edifice on the site in 1935 and the task of designing it was entrusted to the firm of L M Chitale. What emerged thanks to his conception and care came to be rightfully known as the first building in the city to follow ‘modern Indian architecture’. Structurally, it was the first building in the city to be entirely of reinforced concrete with floors, beams, columns and foundation using this medium and the filling in between being done in brick work and cement mortar. It was also the first planned six-storeyed building in the city.

That was an era of edifices with corner entrances. The Law College had shown the way at least three decades earlier. Later, Sir Edwin Lutyens had put this to dramatic effect in New Delhi’s circuses, especially at Princes’ Place near the Government House where Hyderabad and Baroda Houses had corner entrances along a circular periphery while opening out into the rear in a butterfly pattern. Oriental Building on Armenian Street followed in the same tradition with a dramatic corner entrance and a central tower, thereby allowing for extensive frontage along two streets. In an article written on the occasion of the inauguration of the building in 1936, Chitale was to hope that the other three corners of the intersection would soon have complementary structures thereby making way for a circus, but that was sadly not to be.

An interesting feature of the building is its sunken basement, designed exclusively to house a safe deposit vault. The first of its kind in Madras and the biggest in South India, this came to be occupied by the Kothari-promoted Madras Safe Deposit Co Ltd. In its time, the vault was designed to withstand any form of attack – burglars, fire, flood, earthquake and air raids. The basement was to consume a significant part of the overall concrete usage of 1000 tonnes. Two doors, each weighing six tonnes and specially made by Godrej, led to the vault. Each floor above had an entrance hall with access both by stairs and electric lift. The top-most floor was designed as servants’ quarters, while the ground floor had a commodious garage, accessed from the north.

The entire structure was noted for its use of materials largely sourced from within India, the flooring in particular being a combination of mosaic and marble. The steel doors and windows, an essential feature of the art-deco style then making its way were fabricated at the historic Beehive Foundry on Broadway, a firm that is still functioning. The Oriental Insurance Building is not as well maintained as it ought to be, but it still catches the eye.

You may want to read these stories about other Chennai landmarks:

The Raja Annamalai Mandram

The National Insurance Building

The General Hospital

The Egmore Women and Children’s Hospital

The Guindy Races

The Victoria Technical Institute

The Moore Market

The AASI Building

The Egmore Railway Station

The Old Meenambakkam Terminal

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe

Dasaprakash

The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Government House, Government Estate

Sparring over the Reserve Bank of India

April 4, 2015
Sir Benegal Rama Rau, pic  courtesy Mint Road Milestones, the RBI at 75

Sir Benegal Rama Rau, pic courtesy Mint Road Milestones, the RBI at 75

The Reserve Bank of India is celebrating its 80th year. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister participated in a special event in Mumbai to commemorate this. The Chennai branch, as befitting a regional office, will, I am sure, have its own programmes to observe this important milestone. In all these years, a continuing thread of debate has been the status of the RBI. Is it truly autonomous or is it merely an agent to carry out the Finance Ministry’s wishes? Ironically, the first time this debate occurred was when two men from Madras were at the helm of affairs — T.T. Krishnamachari as Finance Minister and Sir Benegal Rama Rau, ICS, as Governor of the RBI. Sir Rama Rau held the post from July 1, 1949 to January 14, 1957, a long tenure that sadly ended in an abrupt resignation owing to the fight for supremacy between the bank and the ministry. In his wonderful biography Nice Guys Finish Second, B.K. Nehru, ICS gives us an almost blow-by-blow account of the quarrel that resulted in Rama Rau’s exit. It had to do with that persistent grey area — control over interest rates. TTK being a dictatorial personality considered it his prerogative while Rama Rau believed (rightfully) that it was the RBI’s responsibility. TTK dismissed this, claiming that the RBI was a subordinate office to the Finance Ministry.

Matters came to a head when TTK levied imposts on certain transactions that immediately caused a rise in interest rates. Rama Rau protested but when he found no response from TTK, took the matter to Prime Minister Nehru, who in turn put the matter up for discussion at a Cabinet Meeting to which Rama Rau was also invited. TTK considered this a personal affront. What happened next is best told in Nehru’s own words — “Sir Biren Mukherjee, Chairman of the Indian Iron and Steel Company and I were waiting to see the Finance Minister in the ante room to his chamber. TTK came into the room through one door, Rama Rau through the other. TTK let fly in no uncertain terms, and in the loudest of voices. Rama Rau, the mildest of men, did not know how to handle this unmeasured onslaught. Biren and I disappeared through the door leading to the verandah. It would not have been appropriate to witness this undignified brawl.”

The PM and the Cabinet closed ranks in support of TTK. Having been embarrassed in public, Rama Rau immediately resigned, only to be succeeded by another Madras man — HVR Iengar, ICS. The fallout however, resulted in an immediate loss of autonomy for the RBI, something that it has recovered only in the last two decades to an extent. It was also one of the earliest instances of a high-ranking and capable bureaucrat being made to quit owing to an uncontrolled ministerial outburst. An interesting aside is that most of Indira Nagar, Adyar, came up on property owned by Sir Benegal Rama Rau and his wife Dhanvanti.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated April 4, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.

Mylapore’s Dolls’ House

March 30, 2015
The Bommai Chattiram endowed by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar

The Bommai Chattiram endowed by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar

With the ongoing Mylapore temple festival, my mind refuses to think of any other subject. And so, at the risk of being monotonous, I am writing once more about the same area. This story is about an otherwise innocuous rest house or choultry, located on South Mada Street that comes to life once each year, during the 10 days of the annual festival at the temple.

Earlier known as the ‘Chittira Chattiram’, now it is called the ‘Bommai Chattram’ or the Dolls’ House. There is a good reason for the names, for during the temple festival, the building hosts a display of clay dolls, paintings and leather puppets. Most of these are over 150 years old and were collected by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar (1803-1869), the builder of the edifice.

The man’s taste is evident in the construction of the chattram, though his descendants have since then been doing their best to detract from it. Two broad stone platforms supporting granite pillars flank the heavily carved door, which leads to the central hall that has the proper exhibition. It would appear that in later years, in order to save the entrance area from vagrants, an arched enclosure was built. This has recently been let out to shops that have fitted steel shutters. Another not so aesthetic addition is a first floor that is in no way in keeping with the architecture of the rest of the building.

The inauguration of the chattram in 1851 was a gala event. The great Tamil scholar Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai happened to be visiting the city. He composed 100 verses on the building and its founder, which came to be collectively known as Chittira Chattira Pugazhchi. Pillai’s most illustrious disciple U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, quotes a sample verse: apparently the remaining three streets around the tank felt jealous of the South Mada Street for its good fortune. Pillai was gifted 100 gold sovereigns for his work and the poem was published as a book in 1856.

Vinayaka Mudaliar decreed that the building would be run as a wedding hall on all days of the year barring the temple festival period. It was to be administered by a Trust that had to feed Brahmins at the chattram on the 12th day of the waxing phase of the moon. And whenever Kapali came out in procession, camphor would be lit and waved before Him at the chattram entrance. To support the maintenance of the place, a shop on NSC Bose Road and a grove in Nungambakkam were gifted to it. The Trustees would be Mudaliar’s male descendants and those of his brother.

It is said that Mudaliar began the tradition of the dolls’ display and it has continued unbroken ever since. In the recent past there has been an unfortunate tendency to touch up the dolls and the paintings with modern materials. This has done much to mar the beauty of the exhibits. But we must be thankful that the tradition has continued.

This article was published in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on March 28, 2015.

You may want to read these other articles on Mylapore:

The Men who Built the Mylapore Temple

Keeping the peace at Kapali’s Festival

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

Articles on other temples of Chennai:

Patnam Temples

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, Colletspet

The Chintadri Pillary Temple

The Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

The God who gives vision

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda, Mylapore

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

Triplicane Parthasarathy Swami Temple

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Mallikarjuna Swami Temple, Linghi Chetty Street

Ekamreswara Swami Temple, Mint Street

Kacchaleeswara Swami Temple, Armenian Street

The Angala Parameswari Temple, Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street

The Agastyeswara Swami Temple, Nungambakkam

The men who built the Mylapore Temple – part 2

March 24, 2015

Continued from Part 1

The Gopuram and Singaravelar shrine, seen from the western wall where the Bhadrakali shrine once stood

The Gopuram and Singaravelar shrine, seen from the western wall where the Bhadrakali shrine once stood

It is Mukund who describes in detail as to the exact contributions of later dharmakarta-s. She writes that the descendants of Muthiappa Mudali handed over the management of the temple to Ponnambala Vadyar and Kanakasabai Pandaram. Considering that a street that is just next to the temple commemorates the former, we can surmise that the temple had acquired its present boundaries within a generation after Muthiappa Mudali. The next major change happens in 1749 when, with the restitution of Madras to the British, San Thomé-Mylapore also becomes part of East India Company territory. Whereupon the head conicopoly of the Export Warehouse and later dubash of Governor Saunders, Kumarappa Mudali, became the dharmakarta.

The temple was by then in a ‘ruinous condition’. Kumarappa, who has a street named after him in Mylapore and another in the Seven Wells area of George Town, found the temple lands encroached upon by people of ‘foreign religions’. The four Mada streets had become mere lanes. The temple was barely functioning, with daily worship being suspended owing to want of funds. Using his high office to good effect, Kumarappa bought off the encroachers and reclaimed the lands. He rebuilt the temple walls and tank, had the four main streets broadened and planted coconut trees on their periphery. He had the processional icons made, fashioned carriages and mounts, commissioned temple jewellery and recruited temple servants and dancing girls, for whom he had houses built.

The Kapali ther - commissioned by Pammal Subbaraya Mudali?

The Kapali ther – commissioned by Pammal Subbaraya Mudali?

After Kumarappa, his brother Nattu Subbaraya, who also has a street named after him in Mylapore, took over as trustee and he, in turn, was succeeded by Kasi Mudali. During the latter’s tenure, there was evidently an extensive reconstruction of the temple, for Waghorne, quoting from Mackenzie, states that the ‘Cabalasewara pagoda’ was built by ‘Bagavintorayer, Causy Mood and Coomy Valappa Mood’. The Causy Mood was evidently Kasi Mudali. By 1800, Kasi Mudali’s son Masilamani Mudali had succeeded to the trusteeship. But the Tuluva Vellalars were not happy with his management and petitioned the Board of Revenue (BOR) for his removal. A Native Committee appointed by the BOR went into great detail in its investigation and discovered that Kasi Mudali had nominated five people to succeed him. Three were considered to be suitable by the Committee and these were Pammal Subbaraya Mudali, Kovur Vaidyanatha Mudali, merchant of the East India Company, and Coonra Vellaiyappa Mudali (this being Mackenzie’s Coomy Valappa Mood). Vaidyanatha Mudali was also trustee of the Chintadripet Adipuriswara temple and has a street named after him in that area.

The drab and unimpressive Navagraha shrine in the Kapali temple. Did it replace a shrine to the Sun God?

The drab and unimpressive Navagraha shrine in the Kapali temple. Did it replace a shrine to the Sun God?

It would appear that Coonra Vellaiyappa Mudali’s line became extinct after him, for the Kovur and Pammal families handled temple affairs for a time. Pammal Subbaraya Mudali is recorded to have conducted the temple festivals splendidly for over ten years, spending about 20 or 30,000 pagodas in constructing the temple chariot and gifting gold and silver vessels. In 1810, his passing created a vacancy. The Tuluva Vellalars petitioned the Collector of Madras, F.W. Ellis (he of Tirukkural fame) to entrust the post of dharmakarta to Ayya Mudali, commemorated in a street in Chintadripet. Within five years, however, the community deemed Ayya Mudali to be old and infirm and requested that Kovur Sundara Mudali, the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company, be given the responsibility instead. The Company refused and Ayya Mudali remained in charge despite his ‘old age and infirmities’, whatever they were. This was despite Sundara Mudali having sponsored the annual festival in 1821 at a cost of 200 pagodas and constructed ‘useful buildings’ within the temple. Kovur Sundara Mudali, incidentally, is remembered chiefly for bringing the composer Tyagaraja to Madras in 1837. His palatial house on Bunder Street still survives in a decrepit state. A long street in Mylapore commemorates him and it has, over time morphed into Sundareswarar Swamy Street!

The non-controversial Pammal line appears to have served the longest, lasting well over a century. Pammal Vijayaranga Mudaliar, who was in the Education Department of the Government, served as trustee till his passing in 1895 after which his elder son, Pammal Ayyasamy Mudaliar, held the post till 1905 when he resigned on his being appointed a District Munsiff. The trusteeship passed to Vijayaranga Mudaliar’s younger son Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, the playwright. He remained trustee till his appointment as a judge of the Small Causes Court in 1924. According to him, it was during his time that the eastern gopuram was built, thanks to a businessman of Triplicane whose name was subsequently forgotten and whom Sambanda Mudaliar refers to only as Gopuram Chettiar! It was also Sambanda Mudaliar who got the tank steps laid out. The seed money of Rs. 5000 came from the bequest of a sanyasi who had collected money for this purpose. But the total estimate came to Rs 1 lakh. When local residents baulked at the expense, Sambanda Mudaliar hit upon the idea of inscribing donors’ names on the steps. This caught public fancy and money came in. The names of the donors can still be faintly made out.

The temple management was taken over by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Board following its creation in the 1920s and the concept of hereditary trusteeship ceased thereafter.

Concluded

You may want to read these other stories on the Mylapore temple:

Keeping the peace at Kapali’s Festival

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

The men who built the Mylapore temple – part 1

March 23, 2015

The annual festival at the Mylapore Kapaleeswarar Temple will start a week from now. The deities will be brought out on various processional mounts twice a day for ten days. Some events are, of course, more important than others – these being the Adhikara Nandi sevai (Day Three), the Vrshabha Vahanam (Day Five), the car festival (Day Seven), the Arupathumoovar (Day Eight) and the Kalyanam (Day Ten). The devout will throng the four mada streets on all days; their numbers rising to unmanageable levels on the eighth day in particular.

Kapali on the silver vrShabha vAhanam, 5th day procession

Kapali on the silver vrShabha vAhanam, 5th day procession

Even as Kapali goes around the four mada streets accompanied by the other deities, those that watch the procession are probably doing what has been a practice for several centuries. There is no denying that the Kapali temple is an ancient one, having featured in the works of the Nayanmars of the 7th Century and after them in other literary creations. Sambandar, in his Poompavai Pathikam, lists a festival for each month of the year and most of these are observed even now. And yet, there are unsolved mysteries about the shrine. Did it really stand on the seashore at one time? Why are there no inscriptions from the times of the Cholas in the present temple? Did the Portuguese destroy the temple or was it because of war or did the sea rise up and swallow it? There are no certain answers, but almost everyone is agreed on the fact that the temple was relocated to where it stands now and was rebuilt there ‘around three hundred years ago’. As to who built the shrine has also been a matter of debate.

The main gopuram and the Amman vimanam (foreground), Kapali temple

The main gopuram and the Amman vimanam (foreground), Kapali temple

A couple of publications by current day scholars throw some additional light on the present temple and its sub-shrines. The first of these is The Diaspora of the Gods, Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban-Middle Class World by Joanne Punzo Waghorne (OUP 2004). The second is The View from Below, Indigenous Society, Temples and the Early Colonial State in Tamil Nadu, 1700-1835, by Kanakalatha Mukund (Orient Longman 2005). A study of these helps to locate the period of reconstruction of the Kapali temple with greater precision. More importantly, it identifies the men who were responsible for the work. Read in conjunction with the playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar’s autobiography, Yen Suyacharitai (1963) we get a more or less complete picture. This article is based on what is written in these accounts.

The Sundareswara shrine, Kapali Temple

The Sundareswara shrine, Kapali Temple

Waghorne in her book dwells at length on the details of the temple as given in Colin Mackenzie’s manuscripts. He had arrived in Madras in 1783 and after 13 years’ military service, began devoting his time to Indology, balancing the demands of his hobby with those of his professional career which culminated in his becoming the first Surveyor General of India. By the time of his death in 1821, he had collected a huge number of manuscripts, besides maps and books. Among these is an account of the Kapali temple with a sketch of the shrine, with the various parts marked and ascribed to the men who built each of them. Waghorne surmises that this particular manuscript may have been done between 1796 and 1800.

The Sundareswarar shrine, Kapali Temple

The Jagadiswara shrine, Kapali Temple


The sketch gives credit for much of the temple to Mootooapa Mood, who from Mukund’s work can be identified as Nattu Muthiappa Mudali, a prominent member of the Tuluva Vellalar community. Mukund, who bases her writing on extensive research at the Tamil Nadu Archives, has Muthiappa Mudali as the ‘original dharmakarta of the temple’ in the early 18th Century. This tallies with Waghorne’s information from the Mackenzie manuscript, which recognises that Muthiappa Mudali renovated the shrine to the Goddess, which was ‘ an old church’ (presumably used here as a synonym for a temple). He constructed shrines for Jagadiswarar and Sundareswarar, both of which still exist on the eastern side of the temple complex. He also built the small gopuram that is on the western wall of the temple. Waghorne states that the present contours of the temple owe their construction to Muthiappa Mudali, but points out that two sub shrines built by him – one to the Sun God on the eastern side and another to Bhadrakali on the western side facing the present day Singaravelar shrine have since vanished. She also has it that the multi-tiered eastern gopuram was built by him but, when read in conjunction with Sambanda Mudaliar’s account, that is debatable.

To be continued…
You may want to read these other stories on the Kapaliswarar Temple:

Keeping the peace at Kapali’s Festival

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

Articles on other temples of Chennai:

Patnam Temples

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, Colletspet

The Chintadri Pillary Temple

The Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

The God who gives vision

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda, Mylapore

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

Triplicane Parthasarathy Swami Temple

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Mallikarjuna Swami Temple, Linghi Chetty Street

Ekamreswara Swami Temple, Mint Street

Kacchaleeswara Swami Temple, Armenian Street

The Angala Parameswari Temple, Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street

The Agastyeswara Swami Temple, Nungambakkam

Keeping peace at Kapali’s festival

March 21, 2015
Kapali's charriot rounds the RK Mutt Road corner

Kapali’s charriot rounds the RK Mutt Road corner

The Kapaleeswarar Temple’s annual festival begins next week. A pageant that lasts for 10 days, it is a must for anyone who loves the colour and spectacle of India. That it is an age-old practice is evident from Sambandar’s 7th Century Poompavai Pathigam. Its character has, of course, changed over the years.

Kanakalatha Mukund’s The View From Below gives us details of some of the headaches faced by the East India Company with respect to the festival. Differences between the left and right-hand castes, vertical divisions in society that have completely vanished now, caused problems in the 18th Century. The agent provocateur was the practice of erecting decorative arches and floral canopies all along the processional route, something that is done even now. Strict codes existed for these, with those of the left-hand using five colours and those of the right-hand being in white. Trouble erupted when the right-hand used the five colours of the left in its decorations. The left-hand appealed to the East India Company, which immediately decreed that all decorations had to be in Company colours — red and white!

In 1789, riots were witnessed once again, with the right-hand caste being the principal offender. Probably bored with the monotony of the red and white and the continuing peace, they resumed putting up canopies and decorations using the colours of the left-hand caste. The left-hands promptly dismantled these structures. The right-hands retaliated at once, bringing in armed men to beat up the suspects and destroy their houses. Edward J. Hollond, then Justice of the Peace and later (a notoriously corrupt) Governor of Madras, ordered that all castes were to use only the Company colours. And what’s more, the canopies had to fly the flag of St. George above them. Both parties accepted this and Kapaleeswarar came out in procession, with St. George keeping the peace for Him.

Ten years later, there was trouble once again, this time thanks to the appointment of hereditary trustees being challenged. While this was sub judice, the Company conducted the festival, with funds being loaned by the Collector of Madras. By 1805, the hereditary rights of the Pammal family as trustees were confirmed. The illustrious playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar held the post between 1900 and 1924. During his tenure, a commissioner of the Corporation objected to the procession wending its way down Brodies (now R.K. Mutt) Road as it delayed his reaching the Adyar (now Madras) Club. Mudaliar held firm and it was the official who had to take another route. On yet another occasion, a Governor of Madras, who viewed the proceedings from a convenient verandah had a request — could the deity be made to turn around in front of the building so that he could see the decorations in full? Mudaliar respectfully refused, stating that it was for humans to go around the deity and not the other way round. The Governor and the first lady cheerfully complied.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 21, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column

You may want to read these other stories on the Kapaliswarar Temple:

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

Singaravelar Procession

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

Papanasam Sivan

Kapali Karpagam Kalyanam!

Articles on other temples of Chennai:

Patnam Temples

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, Colletspet

The Chintadri Pillary Temple

The Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

The God who gives vision

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Temple, Mylapore

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda, Mylapore

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

Triplicane Parthasarathy Swami Temple

The Kamakala Kameswarar Temple, Triplicane

The Mallikarjuna Swami Temple, Linghi Chetty Street

Ekamreswara Swami Temple, Mint Street

Kacchaleeswara Swami Temple, Armenian Street

The Angala Parameswari Temple, Mundagakanni Amman Koil Street

The Agastyeswara Swami Temple, Nungambakkam

The Raja Annamalai Mandram – a Chennai landmark

March 19, 2015
Raja Annamalai Mandram

Raja Annamalai Mandram

One of the best known landmarks of North Chennai, this building is synonymous with the promotion of Tamil as a musical language. Strange though it may seem, that was not the view of the scholars and practitioners of Carnatic music till the 1930s. That was largely a circumstance of history, for much of Madras Presidency had, after the Cholas, been ruled by Telugu-speaking Vijayanagar rulers and Nayaks and, after them, the musical heartland of Tanjore came under the control of the Marathas.

When a group of thinkers, writers and musicians tried to set this imbalance right in the 1930s, they met with stiff opposition, especially from the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society (IFAS), the two established sabhas. However, the Tamil lobby had the support of stalwarts such as T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, Kalki R. Krishnamurthy and the singer M.S. Subbulakshmi. Most importantly, the movement was bankrolled by Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar.

The Tamil Isai Sangam came into existence in 1943 as the vehicle for this cause, the name being given by Rajaji. From its first year, it began hosting a concert season in December, challenging the monopoly of the Academy and the IFAS. The songs performed had to be only in Tamil. A suitable venue proved to be a problem and, for the first few years, it held its programmes in the Parish Hall of St Mary’s Cathedral on Armenian Street. It later conducted programmes at the Museum Theatre.

In 1948, 23 grounds of land at the eastern end of the Esplanade were taken on lease for fifty years from the Corporation of Madras. Work began in 1949, by which time the Rajah had died. The design was by L.M. Chitale and the auditorium was the first of its kind in the city. Closely supervised by the Rajah’s sons, Rajah Sir M.A. Muthiah Chettiar and M.A. Chidambaram, whose offices were located next door to the site, the auditorium rose quickly. The architect in an article also gave much credit for several elements in the design to Sir R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, the first Finance Minister of independent India, who had become President of the Tamil Isai Sangam after the Rajah’s passing.

The Raja Annamalai Mandram, a two storeyed building with constructed space of 20,000 square feet on the ground floor was ready in time for the music season of 1952. It was declared open by Rajaji on October 31st that year. It is a lavishly constructed structure with generous use of fine timber and perhaps one of the first buildings in the city to use mosaic instead of the more traditional granite. It is noteworthy for its combination of art deco with the traditional Chettinad style of architecture, the latter predominating in the woodwork in particular.

The auditorium was designed keeping acoustics in mind and soon became a favourite of performing artistes. The first floor hosts the Sangam’s music college and also a gallery of instruments. The entrance has a statue to the founder unveiled in 1964 by Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the Maharajah of Mysore, who was the next year to become the Governor of Madras.

Some major modifications were undertaken in 1968, to coincide with the silver jubilee of the Sangam. These were undertaken by S.L. Chitale, son of the man who had designed the original edifice. These changes, largely in the interior, were done to keep out the ambient noise, which had increased sharply in a decade. The seats, 866 in number, were padded and arranged in a circular fashion with enough space between the aisles for the patrons to file in and out. The seats were also fixed on a gradient, thereby enabling those at the rear to get an unimpeded view of the stage. More importantly, the hall was enclosed with sound absorbing material that was aesthetically hidden behind teak panelling. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, provided advice on acoustics and this ensured that the hall still is a delight to attend music programmes in.

The whole building is maintained very well, though it must be said that the seats in the auditorium are now ageing rapidly. The Mandram, whose lease was extended for a further 50 years, today serves as a popular venue for events in North Madras. But it is at its best in December when it hosts its annual festival and confers the title of Isai Perarignar on a senior musician/scholar.

You may want to read about the following landmarks as well:

The National Insurance Building

The General Hospital

The Egmore Women and Children’s Hospital

The Guindy Races

The Victoria Technical Institute

The Moore Market

The AASI Building

The Egmore Railway Station

The Old Meenambakkam Terminal

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe

Dasaprakash

The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Government House, Government Estate

Long before TASMAC…

March 14, 2015
Beerkaran Street

Beerkaran Street

This week’s story is thanks to two people — heritage enthusiast Sreemathy Mohan and actor/film-historian Mohan Raman, both of whom sent me the image you see. Does Chennai have a street commemorating a beer drinker or brewer, they wondered.

I could find nothing beyond the fact that this thoroughfare, which links Cathedral Road to Teynampet, was known as Beerkarancheri till the 1960s, when the suffix ‘-cheri’ was deemed a pejorative and replaced by road. As to the name I can only hazard a guess — it may have been Pir Khan Cheri, probably named after an Arcot nobleman. Pirkhankaranai is an area near Tambaram and the two may commemorate the same person.

But all that brought to mind some interesting tales regarding the consumption of alcoholic refreshment in old Madras. The early Europeans here indulged chiefly in arrack but over time the place came to be known for its excellent cellar and the range offered at the Company’s table was bewildering: “Mountain Wine, Rhenish, Syder, Galesia, Florence, Hock, Canary, Palm, Brandy, Clarett, Ale, Beer and Shyrash wine” runs a list dating to 1717. It was, however, the Portuguese Madeira of which the British simply could not have enough. This was transported in casks or barrels, which were known as pipes (pronounced peeps) in Portuguese. Over a period of time, the word made its way into local Tamil and any barrel became a ‘peepa’, which in turn came to connote a person with a beer belly!

Arrack, however, never lost its popularity and while in 1713, the Fort consumed “eighty two gallons and three quarters, and six Leaguers of Batavia Arrack,” the honours in 1717, went to Goa arrack of which 410 gallons were drunk. When Augustus Burton came to Madras in 1718, the chief items of his luggage were, “two cases of Brandy, three chests and one cask of beer, five hogsheads, one chest and one small hamper of wine and two chests of ale”.

Such indulgence often led to rash behaviour and death and the advice of seniors was that “the securest way for preserving health after an intemperate draught of any strong liquor, is to keep close after it under some convenient covering, and to digest it by keeping warm and sleeping out the fermentation.” We can still see faithful followers of this sage practice on some footpaths.

The Directors in England were so shocked on coming to know the quantities that were being imbibed that they prohibited the purchase of European liquor, barring for the Governor’s table that received an allowance of two pipes of Madeira a month. But they had not contended with local trade. The firm of Hayward and Rider immediately came into existence for supplying liquor. In later years, the Portuguese appear to have done well out of running taverns and at least two — D’Silva and Lynn Pereira — have streets still commemorating them in Mylapore and San Thome. Our TASMAC clearly comes from a proud pedigree. Cheers!

You may also want to read – Murder in a Madras Tavern

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 14, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column


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