Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

The Youth Flock to Madras Musings

April 27, 2016

As it steps into its 26th year, Madras Musings is happy to find that the maximum number of greetings and best wishes for its continued existence has come in on social media – the preserve of the young. This makes us most happy for we believe that by making an impact on the next generation, we have carried forward the concerns over heritage – both built and natural – as well as over our city to the guardians of the future. This by itself is a victory for us.
It was only in the last issue that we made it known that we as a publication have completed 25. Ever since then, we have received countless messages on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter wishing us well. We thank every one of these people and promise them that we will live up to their expectations. At the same time, we also express our gratitude to these young people who have dispelled the notion that concerns about heritage and the city are exclusive to the elderly. This is a definite sign of changing times.
Let us take for instance Facebook forums that discuss our city. The Madras Local History Group is perhaps the best known. The focus is chiefly on uploading photographs of our city’s past and the volume. The variety that has been dug up from various online and offline sources is simply amazing. This remains one of the busiest groups with uploads happening all times of the day and night. Singara Chennai looks at various places in our city that add colour, vibrancy and beauty. There are other groups that specifically concentrate on waste reduction, environment and water bodies. On the blogging front, there are numerous writers who devote columns to their areas of interest within the city – its arts environment, theatre, temples, and general city history. Mention must also be made of people like Ramaswami Nallaperumal and R Shantaram who add a photograph every day to the World Wide Web from our city and have been doing it for years.
The walks and tours are another success story. Gone are the days when Mylapore or Beach Road was the only choice for a heritage walk. Hundreds of routes have been mapped across the city and, on any given day, chances are that a group of volunteers have set out for some unknown spot, making a picnic outing from it. The bulk of these people are young and adventurous.
Which brings us to this oft-quoted opinion of some people that heritage is against progress. If that be so, what would these people have to say about the young people who combine exciting, cutting edge jobs with a passion for searching out the past? These are people who are as enthusiastic about their work as they are in attending a temple or a beach festival and posting photographs about it on platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest. Are we to assume that all of them are against progress?
These young persons only strengthen our basic philosophy – heritage and progress are not antithetic. They complement each other and while it is necessary to look ahead, this need not be done by wiping out the past. Sadly, our political masters have not yet woken up to this fact. Not one party has even made a mention of heritage conservation in its manifesto for the upcoming elections. Or of how to make Madras a better city. Today’s generation demands sensitivity and an all inclusiveness and this can best be demonstrated by adapting heritage to serve current needs as we have maintained all along. The sooner those in power see this, the better for our city.

Egmore, from overhead

April 26, 2016

This morning I was at a multi-storey building in Egmore. Looking out of the window I realised how green the place is. Here are some not-so-great pictures taken from my cellphone.

This is the not-so-green Rajarathinam Stadium

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The Ceebros building towers over the Museum and Eye Hospital Complex.

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The eye hospital

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The Connemara library seen from a distance

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Know Fort St George – 24, What ails it?

April 15, 2016
The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

The Fort, as seen from Rajaji Salai

Stepping out of Fort Museum into the sunshine and humidity that our city is known for, we return to the 21st Century. Our tour of the Fort is done and it is time to go home. We walk back through the narrow pedestrian bridge over the moat on to the steps and the main road, where a pedestrian signal light, the only one working in the whole of the city, helps you to cross the road to the parking lot.

There is lots more to see in the Fort – the Garrison Theatre in which the army staged its plays and invited outside troupes to perform for their entertainment, there is a building rather intriguingly called Clive’s Library with which he had nothing to do, and there are the Navy’s offices. All of these are no doubt wonderful buildings but none of these is open to the public, which is all rather sad. For that matter, there is a lot more to be seen in the Fort that we cannot really access.

To get an idea of the acreage that is out of bounds you need to view a rather ugly but functional model of Fort St George made out of wood, which is on display in the Fort Museum. Nobody is clear as to when this was made, not even D M Reid who in his Story of Fort St George merely speculates that it could have been commissioned sometime late in the 19th Century. This was till the 1940s in a room beside St Mary’s together with the display of the church’s plate. When the museum was commissioned in 1946, it was moved there. Viewing this model you come to realise that almost 50 per cent of the Fort cannot be accessed, which means we also do not know what has happened to the historic buildings that stood/stand there. We do know that Clive’s Library is in a precarious state and may crumble at any time. Proposals for its restoration move forward at a snail’s pace. Its owner, the Navy, cannot seem to make up its mind.
Which brings us to the core problem of Fort St George – it suffers from multiple ownership. The Army, the Navy, the Legislature, the Tamil Nadu Government and the Archaeological Survey all occupy parts of it and claim complete suzerainty over the areas under their control. Some buildings under the ASI are perhaps the best maintained and remain true to their historicity, but that cannot be said of all. Certainly most of the structures in St Thomas Street, including Last House, are in a shocking state of disrepair while some such as Arthur Wellesley’s house and the Chaplain’s house, have collapsed altogether. What makes the loss doubly sad is that many of these edifices were standing till a couple of decades ago, when technology to save them certainly existed. It is sheer inaction that caused their decay and ultimate fall.

Elsewhere, those in charge of what they own continue to make changes in whatever fashion they feel is right. The ASI is rarely consulted. We have already seen the story behind the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai’s construction. But that was not the first instance. Even in the 1950s, the State Government had thought it fit to build a new secretariat that completely blocked off the rather magnificent rear view of the old Assembly building. The construction had one redeeming feature that the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai did not – it was of the same height and width as the older building fronting it and so did not stick out like a sore thumb. A couple of years ago, the Army began a lot of civil work in the neighbourhood of the King’s Barracks, using heavy-duty equipment to drill the ground. The ASI protested mildly and the matter was reported widely in the press after which the work appeared to have been suspended. The Army has also declared its intention to move out of the Fort, but at present it is being remarkably slow about it.

Not that any move from the Fort is essentially to its good. We have the not so long past instance of the State Government building itself a swank new secretariat on Anna Salai/Mount Road and moving over. It was then widely perceived that the parts of the Fort it occupied would be handed over to the ASI but that was not to be. The Institute of Tamil Studies moved in and during the brief period that it was in occupation did untold damage by dragging steel cupboards that it had brought all along the wooden floor of the erstwhile Assembly building. Soon thereafter the Government changed and the party that came to power moved back into Fort St George. The new Government made a half-hearted attempt at trying to get World Heritage status for the Fort but this failed chiefly because the place is in no position to conform to the stringent norms that are stipulated for such accreditation.

It is not really necessary that the Fort has to become a ghostly museum.It is perhaps better off being occupied and being treated as a living entity. But what is necessary is that those in occupation recognise the historic value of where they work from and take pride in it. Certainly, the State Government can impose a blanket ban on pasting posters, tying banners and rampantly littering the Fort. It can impose discipline in the matter of car parking – there is enough and more space opposite the Fort and cars can all be asked to move there after they have dropped off their important occupants. In these days of cell phones, summoning a chauffeur-driven car is not a difficult task. Those without drivers can walk across the road to the Fort after they park their cars and, in the process, become aware of the difficulties the average pedestrian faces when coming in. The Army and Navy for their part can paint their buildings and take up some basic maintenance on them. As for the ASI, it can move faster – clearing the vegetation, taking up urgent repair work, and restoring what has collapsed. It can also keep the moat clear of all the debris that is currently making its way into it.

What can the general public do? For a start they can begin visiting the Fort more frequently and in larger numbers. There is, unfortunately, a misconception that the place is out of bounds for visitors. This is not true. Anyone, and this includes people of all nationalities, can walk in after signing in the register kept at the entrance and being checked by a metal detector and a bag scan. There is no entrance fee for the Fort at large’ the Museum alone requires tickets which can be bought at the counter. It must be kept in mind that the museum is closed on Fridays and that the church cannot be visited during service, especially on Sunday mornings. Otherwise, the Fort is open on all days. A large number of footfalls in the Fort will ensure that the Government becomes more aware about the necessity to maintain the place. It will also mean that we as a people care for our heritage.

The Fort may have started out as a colonial enterprise but let us not forget that our elected Governments have been functioning from here since 1947 and even prior to that, since 1921, we have had provincial governments run by Indians in place here. Many landmark legislations have been enacted in this precinct and that by itself is sufficient reason for ensuring its maintenance and continuity. Ultimately, it depends on we, the people. Let us strive to preserve our heritage and make it available for future generations.
Concluded

 

This article was the last in a 24 part series on Fort St George to commemorate its 375th year. The earlier posts can be read from the following links:

 

  1. The Fort, Its Topography
  2. The Flagstaff
  3. The Sea Gate
  4. The Moat
  5. The Cornwallis Cupola
  6. The Assembly cum Secretariat
  7. The Parade Square
  8. The Barracks
  9. The Great House on Charles Street
  10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
  11. Charles (and James) Street
  12. The Church of St Mary’s
  13. The Yard of St Mary’s Church
  14. The Interior of St Mary’s
  15. The Funerary Monuments in St Mary’s
  16. The Romance of Church Lane
  17. St Thomas Street
  18. The Wallajah Gate and Bastion
  19. The Arsenal
  20. St George’s Gate
  21. Middle aka North Gate
  22. The Namakkal Kavignar Maligai
  23. The Fort Museum

Know Fort St George – 23, The Exchange Museum

April 4, 2016
The Fort Museum, Fort St George

The Fort Museum, Fort St George

We are almost done with our tour of the Fort. As we walk from North Gate towards the main entrance, we cross Gloucester Street on our left. This is a narrow thoroughfare, its chief point of interest being what is now called Fort House, which dominates it. One of the older residences of Fort St George, not much is known of its history and it should certainly not be confused with the Fort House which was the first building constructed in this precinct and which gradually gave way for what is now the Assembly and Secretariat. The present Fort House is nevertheless impressive. It is 19th century in architecture, with a large courtyard, Mangalore tiled roof, thick lime-plastered walls and natural stone flooring. It serves as the residence of the Fort commandant today.

The Exchange, seen in the early 1900s

The Exchange, seen in the early 1900s

Crossing Fort House, we come to the Fort (or Exchange) Museum. This again is a historic building. What stood here once was the residence of Peter Massey Cassin, a free merchant of Madras – a term that requires some explanation. Technically, none other than the East India Company could be involved in the business of import and export. But in reality every one of its servants was involved in it. The Company paid very low salaries and encouraged its servants to indulge in what was termed ‘private trade’ and the higher you grew in the Company’s hierarchy, the more the opportunity.The Governor was supposed to accept a commission for virtually everything, ranging from goods supplied to the Company, be it arrack or betel leaf, to cloth that was being exported by the free merchants. Several of them also lent money at usurious rates of interest to the Nawab of the Carnatic, who, through a series of clever manoeuvres had been reduced to a puppet, living close to the Fort in the magnificent Chepauk Palace. Those who were rapidly on the make hoped to take their earnings and retire to a life of peace and politics in England. Such men were rather derisively referred to as Nabobs, a corruption of the Indian word Nawab and their practice of making money was termed as ‘shaking the great pagoda tree’, pagoda, a currency being severally used as a term for money. Even the few women in the Fort were said to be in business and according to one source some were “so forward as to have invoices, accounts current etc in their own names.” The most notorious among these was Mrs Nick, a woman was considered close to Governor Elihu Yale and so made money at a galloping pace. To hide any indication of their direct involvement, Company servants encouraged the coming in of several of their friends and relatives from England and set them up as free merchants. These were, as the name suggests, allowed to trade in a set of commodities not controlled by the Company.
With the passing of time, the number of free merchants in Madras increased, as it did all over India. As British control over India strengthened, the atmosphere became more conducive for business and free trade prospered often at the expense of the Company. At least two household names of Madras Presidency, Parry and Binny began business as free merchants. In the meanwhile, a number of agency houses had sprung up, almost all of them in banking, partly to finance the Nawab’s debts and partly to remit to England funds generated from the private trade of the East India Company servants. These free merchants had now become powerful enough to commandeer a space of their own in Fort St George. It was rather appropriate that Cassin’s residence developed as a place where people of his kind could conduct their business in comfort.

A lottery was floated to fund the development and by 1795, the building designated as the Exchange House was completed. Even by 1790 it was partially open for use and the Exchange Coffee Tavern opened on the first floor in 1792. On the ground floor were warehouses, offices and a bank – the Madras Bank. The first floor also had the Long Room or the Exchange Hall where merchants, brokers, bankers and ships’ commanders could meet. Madeira was the preferred drink. In 1796, the first lighthouse of Madras was built on the roof of this building. Known as the Madras Light, it was on wooden scaffolding and had a primitive apparatus – 12 wicks in common finger glasses with small country mirrors for reflectors. The height above sea level was 100 feet and it ought to have been visible 17 miles in the sea but that was rarely the case. This was to last till 1837, when the second lighthouse of Madras came up in what is today the High Court compound.

Col. DM Reid

By then the Exchange had ceased to function here. Edward, the second Lord Clive, issued orders in 1801 for the free merchants to leave the Fort and settle on what would develop as First Line Beach, now Rajaji Salai. The Exchange building was left to the elements for several years until 1861 when it was refurbished as the Regimental Officers’ Mess. It was to remain that way till the late 1930s.
Early in 1944, Lt Col. DM Reid, the Managing Director of Beardsell & Co, and also a member of the Madras Legislative Council, suggested that the building be converted into a museum “for the exhibition of antiquities illustrating the historical evolution of the Province since the days of the East India Company.” In 1946, he, according to a reference in the Archaeological Survey of India’s Ancient India (1953), also sponsored the setting up of the museum, which was completed in 1948. By then Reid was probably back in England, having joined the vast contingent of European army officers, civilians and businessmen who opted to not stay on after Independence. Before leaving, Reid also penned the Story of Fort St George, a slim volume that also serves as a guided tour of the Fort.

The Exchange Museum, as it is now known, is not to be missed. While it spans three floors, recent renovations have revealed a subterranean level as well, which can be seen through a transparent tile in one of the rooms on the ground floor. On display at the museum are several cannons, statues of administrators during the Raj (Cornwallis dominates the stairwell), coins, porcelain, uniforms and weapons. The first floor, the original Long Room, retains its wooden flooring and here on display are several portraits of British royalty and Governors of Madras. The second floor, made over to the freedom struggle, does not have a very impressive collection but making up for all of that is the centre-piece – the only surviving Indian tricolour out of all the flags that were unfurled all over the country on August 15, 1947! The ASI is in charge of the museum.
The area surrounding the Exchange Museum has a number of cannons on display. These have been painstakingly catalogued by the Government Museum and the details have been compiled in a slim volume that is available on sale at the Egmore museum. From a study of this it is possible to identify each cannon and its origins. Suffice it to say that most of them have come from wars with Burma, China, the French in Pondicherry and the Marathas. At least three have come from the Danes, when their settlement at Tranquebar was made over to the British in 1845.
You can spend an entire day in the Fort Museum if you are so inclined. This completes your tour itinerary within the Fort for the main entrance is just a couple of minutes away from the museum. However, before taking leave it is worthwhile to list certain portions that are not accessible by the public. It is also necessary to ponder over the current state of the Fort. More on that in the final instalment of our tribute to Fort St George in its 375th year.

 

This article is part of a series, to commemorate the 375th year of Fort St George. You can read the earlier episodes in the links below:

 

  1. The Fort, its topography
  2. The Flagstaff
  3. The Sea Gates
  4. The Moat
  5. The Cornwallis Cupola
  6. The Assembly and Secretariat
  7. The Parade Square
  8. The Barracks
  9. The Great House on Charles’ Street
  10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
  11. Charles’ (and James’) Street
  12. The Church of St Mary’s
  13. St Mary’s Yard
  14. The Interior of St Mary’s
  15. The Monuments and Memorials in St Mary’s
  16. The Romance of Church Street
  17. St Thomas Street
  18. The Arsenal
  19. The Wallajah Gate and Bastion
  20. St George’s Gate and Bastion
  21. Middle aka North Gate and Street
  22. Namakkal Kavignar Maligai

Know Fort St George – 22, The Namakkal Kavignar Maligai

March 21, 2016

Historically, we can trace at least four ‘squares’ in the layout of Fort St George. The Fort Square was perhaps the oldest, its boundaries being those of the first Fort House built when Madras was begun. Today this is occupied by the Assembly and Secretariat building. Parade or Barracks Square we have already seen and it continues to exist. Fronting the Arsenal was Hanover Square and in the late 1700s it was taken over for the construction of several barracks. Portuguese Square was the fourth and it spanned the area on which the multi-storey Namakkal Kavignar Maligai was ­constructed in the 1980s. This building houses the offices of many Government departments today.


It must be remembered that the Fort was not meant exclusively for the British in its early years. We have seen earlier that ­Armenians lived here and several Indian dubashes owned property in the Fort. As the name suggests, Portuguese Square was first ­occupied by the nationals of that country who, formerly resident in San Thomé, fled to the relative security of Fort St George early in 1640. Unlike the Company’s civil servants, the Portuguese were devout Roman Catholics and felt the need for a priest who could minister to them. Their prayers were answered when in 1642, ­Father Ephraim de Nevers arrived at the Fort. A French Capuchin priest, his destination was Pegu (now Bago in present day Myanmar). He had landed at Surat in 1641 in order to travel by land across India to the Coromandel Coast and from there by sea to the place where he was ordained to preach. But he was destined to never leave our city, as the Portuguese residents of the Fort petitioned Agent Andrew Cogan that he order the priest to stay back. The request and the Agent’s sanction are both dated June 8, 1642, indicating that there was a great urgency to retain Father Ephraim.
He on his part was quite willing but was apprehensive as to what his superiors, and the priests of San Thomé would have to say. Permission was therefore sought from Rome and while it was awaited, Father Ephraim was given land for building a church to the north of the then Fort, which we know was just Fort Square (present Assembly and Secretariat). The Capuchin church of St Andrew’s which was in reality a timber shed, and its surroundings became known as Portuguese Square. The choice of name of the patron saint is a mystery and it is quite likely that it was a doffing of the hat to Andrew Cogan who was the numero uno of the place. The timber shed made way for a permanent structure in 1675.
Father Ephraim became something of a legend in Madras. In a Fort that was established solely for commercial purposes, he took no money for services rendered by way of baptisms, weddings or burial. He accepted gifts by way of rice and some bare essentials. He ran a school at his residence in the Fort and, being a ‘polished linguist’, fluent in French, Portuguese, Dutch and English besides being conversant in Persian, Arabic and other Oriental languages, spent his time translating the gospels into Portuguese. He allowed his should to be used by The Presidents an worship. He also mediated in disputes between Fort St George and San Thomé, much to the chagrin of the priests in the latter town.
Matters came to a head when, in 1649, Father Ephraim, having been invited to San Thomé for a discussion, was seized near the Luz Church and imprisoned. It was in vain that Agent Greenhill protested against this highhanded action, for the priest was clapped in irons and sent off in a ship to Goa where he was to face the Inquisition. In retaliation, Greenhill did what he thought was best – he kidnapped the Chief Padre Governor, the then chief ecclesiastic of San Thomé, and confined him to Fort St George. Thus the two parties ‘stood on Equall basis’ to quote Greenhill. But the Chief Padre was not without supporters in the Fort and one night, helped by Richard Bradbury, Drummer, he shinned up the walls using the ‘laceings of a cott’ and made good his escape to San Thomé, along with his accomplice.


Father Ephraim was released in April 1652 and returned to Madras. By then, permission from Rome had come – the river Cooum would be the dividing line between the two parishes. These would eventually become the dioceses of Madras and Mylapore, eventually uniting in 1952 as the Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore with San Thomé basilica as the cathedral and St. Mary’s in George Town the co-cathedral. The Capuchins’ stay in Fort St George depended on the whims of the Governor. Thus, Father Ephraim was expelled from the Fort in 1664 by Sir Edward Winter for propagating ‘Popish religion’. He and his fellow priest Father Zenon lived in San Thomé till 1668 when Winter’s rival Foxcroft had them brought back. The two were to live for long. Zenon died in 1687 at the age of 85. Father Ephraim died in 1694, after an incredible 52 years in the city. By then, the Capuchin Mission in the Fort had four priests, all French.
In 1746, when the French occupied Madras and the British retreated to Cuddalore, it was felt by the latter that the former owed their success to the treachery of the Capuchin priests in the Fort. Thus, when Madras was restored to the English in 1749, among their first acts was the expulsion of Padre Severini, the then priest, and his associates from the Fort. Though the Company’s Board of Directors in England was against the demolition of the Church itself, they being of the view that it could be put to alternative use, it was razed in 1753 and the materials from it sold. The next year, a row of buildings came up on the site. The Capuchin Mission applied for permission to carry on at the site of the Portuguese burial ground in the city in present day Armenian Street. Father Ephraim had begun an ‘open pandall chapell’ here in 1658. This would eventually grow into the today’s St Mary’s Co Cathedral.

St Marys Co Cathedral
Portuguese Square with its historic buildings remained till the 1980s when the Government, in contravention of all accepted norms for heritage precincts, decided to build a multi-storeyed structure inside the Fort to house its burgeoning departments. Portuguese Square was the site selected and the structures that stood on it were de-notified of their heritage status to facilitate demolition. The new building, named after poet Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai, soon came up and sticks out like a sore thumb, dwarfing everything else in the Fort.
In the early 2000s, it was found that the Maligai was in an enfeebled condition, just 20 years after its construction and despite every care being lavished on it. In sharp contrast stood the centuries old structures around it, most of them devoid of maintenance. A debate arose as to whether Namakkal Kavignar Maligai ought to exist at all in the Fort. But with the powers-that-be declaring that it was an early example of modernist construction in the State, it was found worthy of preservation. It underwent a Rs 28 crore restoration and was re-opened a few years ago. To ensure that the makeover was complete in every respect, it was centrally air-conditioned and that needed a plate glass front thereby adding to its incongruity. The tall pillars fronting it, we are told, are examples of modern Chola architecture. The airconditioning plants located to the rear of the building add to the moisture in the Fort, weakening other buildings in their vicinity. There is no doubt that the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai is an unfortunate addition to our Fort.
Let us now proceed to the last of the monuments inside Fort St George – the Exchange and the Museum it now houses.

 

This article is part of a series to commemorate 375 years of Fort St George. You can read the earlier parts in the links below:

 

  1. The Fort, Its Topography
  2. The Flagstaff
  3. The Sea Gates
  4. The Moat
  5. The Cornwallis Cupola
  6. The Assembly and Secretariat
  7. The Parade Square
  8. The Barracks
  9. The Great House on Charles Street
  10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
  11. Charles (and James) Street
  12. The Church of St Mary’s
  13. St Mary’s Church yard
  14. The Interior of St Mary’s
  15. The monuments in St Mary’s
  16. The romance of Church Lane
  17. St Thomas Street
  18. Wallajah Gate and Bastion
  19. The Grand Arsenal
  20. St George’s Gate
  21. Middle Street

Know Fort St George 21 -Middle Street

March 8, 2016

St George’s Street leads you from the eponymous gate to Parade Square. We have already seen the important thoroughfares on the southern side of the Fort, namely St Thomas, Charles, Palace and Church Streets. Now it is time to examine those on the northern side. Of these there are four – Choultry Street is the westernmost, following which is Middle Street. You have two minor thoroughfares – James and Gloucester Streets – close to the eastern end of the Fort but of these there is not much history.

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The Choultry Street once led to an eponymous gate on the northern wall of the Fort. This was bricked up by the French in 1746 and for some reason was never opened again.  Both gate and street got their name from the fact that they led directly to the Native Court, or Choultry, that stood just outside the Fort proper. Likewise, the Middle Street got its name because it ends at the Middle Gate of the Fort, which post-1749, by way of being the only opening on the northern side, also came to be referred to as the North Gate. In terms of appearance it is the most formidable among the entrances, tall and gloomy, with a strangely Assyrian aspect to its construction – the rectangular arch and the sloping buttresses giving you that feeling. Sadly, it is also now the worst maintained. A makeshift bazaar comes up each afternoon in the street (right inside what is supposed to be high security premises) with hawkers selling flowers, fruits and stainless steel vessels. The Government employees in the Fort make sure that business thrives.
That both Choultry and Middle Gates were in existence from almost the inception of the Fort is evident from Charles Lockyer’s description of the precinct dating to 1711. He lists five points of ingress to the Fort – Sea, St Thomas, Water (today we take this to be synonymous with the Sea Gate but evidently this was a different entrance then), Choultry and Middle Gates. Of these he notes that St Thomas and Choultry gates were to be opened for passengers at any time of night ‘if unsuspected’ but the others were closed at 6.00 pm.
Of the two, the now lost Choultry Gate was perhaps the older for we do know that the Choultry Court, the first institution to dispense justice to the natives of Madras, was established in 1640. Though this was to be steadily superseded by the Mayor’s Court, the Court of Admiralty and the Court of Judicature, it had a long life, lasting well into the 1700s. Those who sat in judgement were essentially magistrates and the senior-most among them was called the Chief Justice. The judges were designated Judge-Advocate. Besides there was a Town Clerk who maintained the records and also functioned as a Notary Public. The Choultry Court exercised jurisdiction over small causes, customs, sale of property and the registration of slaves.
Successive Governors of Madras pondered over whether it needed to be presided over by an Indian or one of their own countrymen. We do know that the first magistrate was Kannappa, the Adigar or headman of Black Town. Later, such worthies as Kasi Viranna also sat in judgement over here. As Fanny Penny wrote rather mockingly in her account, “they unhesitatingly gave their judgement without the aid of a lawyer, barrister or jury”.
That was not the only connect that this street had with the law. In the 1790s, the Courts of Judicature that initially functioned from Charles Street moved to Choultry Gate Street, which became renamed as Court House Street. In the beginning of the 19th Century, when the Supreme Court was formed, it too operated from the “old Court House much undermined by bandicoots” before it moved in 1817 to First Line Beach. The first Town Hall of Madras was also at Choultry Gate Street and it was from here that in 1688 it moved to St Thomas Street.
Among the most famous residents of Choultry Street was Coja Petrus Uscan, the famed Armenian who gave our city the Marmalong Bridge, the steps to St Thomas’ Mount and the St Mathias Church at Vepery. He was in many ways indispensable to the British and was among the few Armenians who were allowed to live within the Fort. In 1749, when the English returned to Fort St George after the French left, Coja Petrus was in even greater favour for he had defied the erstwhile conquerors right through. He became the only non-Englishman to retain his house within the Fort even as every other property was confiscated. Till the 1770s, long after he was dead, Fort consultations referred to the “house belonging to the Estate of the said Petrus situate on Choultry Gate Street.” Today, it is impossible to see any house on this thoroughfare, for it is completely dominated by the King’s Barracks.
Interestingly, this corner of the Fort may have been witness to perhaps the first instance in Madras of someone in power appropriating public space for personal use. Agent Edward Winter built his house on Middle Street and this was to serve for long as the Governor’s residence, till Fort House was put in good order by Nathaniel Higginson in the 1690s. But Winter also managed to encroach quite a bit. Fort St George consultation books of March 16 and 17, 1674 record that it was ‘resolved also that y’ streete betweene Middle & the Choultry Gate which Sir Edward Winter in his Agency walled up and appropriated to his own use, be againe opened and the wall thrown downe, it appearing by certificates that it hath been a free streete, and of great use…’ This would appear to be the connecting passageway between the two streets at their northern end and it still exists though rather shabbily maintained.

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Middle Street was a prominent thoroughfare as long as the Governor lived there. Elihu Yale was perhaps its best known resident and it is relevant to point out that one of his two female associates, Catherine Nicks – lived immediately to the rear, on Choultry Street. The other woman companion, Hieronima de Paivia, the widow of a prominent Portuguese Jew who traded in diamonds, lived in Gloucester Street, the lane that flanks Middle Street on the other side! The area immediately outside the Middle/North Gate was what is intriguingly referred to in the records as a ‘watering place’, the meaning of which is not clear. It would appear to have been deep enough to receive vessels of some kind for on December 29, 1808, this was where Sir George Barlow disembarked to take over as Governor of Madras.
Most fascinatingly, this was also the gate where the Pidari Amman was brought all the way from Black Town each year during the month of Chithirai. The Goddess was of such importance that the Collector of Madras would wait on Her and offer a gold bottu or thali (symbol of marriage) and a red silk saree. This celebration was of sufficient antiquity for the Government to revive it in 1828 at its own expense when the hereditary trustees failed to continue the practice. It is not clear when the tradition was given up.
On a more down to earth note, the first drainpipes of the Fort were laid here and these took the sewage all the way to Royapuram. The Army canteen, which is now a part of the King’s Barracks building, now stretches right across the western side of North Street. On the eastern side is what can only be termed a desecration of Fort St George – the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai. This multi-storeyed structure that ought never to have been built within the Fort, houses several Government departments. However, its story or, more importantly, the history of the space on which it stands needs to be told. More on that next fortnight.

This article is part of a series to commemorate 375 years of Fort St a George. The earlier sections can be accessed from the headings below:

  1. The Fort, its topography
  2. The flagstaff
  3. The Sea Gates
  4. The Moat
  5. The Cornwallis Cupola
  6. The Assembly and Secretariat
  7. Parade Square
  8. Kings Barracks
  9. The Great House on Charles Street
  10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
  11. Charles (and James) Street
  12. The Church of St Mary’s
  13. The yard of St Mary’s
  14. The interior of St Mary’s
  15. Some memorials and monuments in St Mary’s
  16. The romance of Church Street
  17. St Thomas Street
  18. The Grand Arsenal
  19. The Wallajah Gate and Bastion
  20. St George’s Gate

 

 

A guide book to Armenian Street and Church

March 1, 2016
A guide book to Armenian Street & Church

A guide book to Armenian Street & Church

Earlier this week, we had a heritage walk around Armenian Street and Church. On this occasion, a booklet containing the details of the places covered was distributed to all the participants. The same is now available on sale. Those who wish to go around the place at their own pace can now do so with the help of this book, which is priced at Rs 100.

It has 14 pages with photographs of the locations and descriptive texts on their history.

Those wishing to buy it may do so by clicking on this link

 

 

 

Know Fort St George – 20, St George’s Gate

February 24, 2016
St George's gate, Fort St George

St George’s gate, Fort St George

Continuing north from the Wallajah Gate, we walk along the western periphery of Fort St George. There is no name to the street that takes us through. On the right are several barracks, most of them unoccupied and in various stages of collapse. On the left is the massive western wall of the Fort. As you walk by you will not fail to notice a long ramp built on the wall, making its way to the top. This was once used for wheeling the gun carriages up to the ramparts. This is the western face of Fort St. George and on the other side of it you have the massive quadrilateral, St George’s Bastion. This is historically significant, for it is one of the few portions of the wall that can really be dated with accuracy. Though no longer visible, H.D. Love has it that on the southern face of this bastion is a stone with a Greek border that bears the following legend:

“Saint George’s Bastion, Erected in the Year of Our Lord MDCCLXXIII, and the Thirteenth Year of the Reign of His Majesty King George III, Under the Auspices of the Hon’ble Alex Wynch, Esqr, Governor. Designed by Lieut. Col. Ross, Chief Engineer.”

Ross, it will be remembered, designed much of what we see today inside the Fort. Crossing this bastion, we come to the northwestern face of the Fort and this is where we see the next major point of entry/exit – St George’s Gate. Unlike its southwestern counterpart – the Wallajah Gate which was (and continues to be) one way right through its history. St George’s was always a two-way arch. It was also the only gateway to the Fort that remained open at all hours of the day and night. It probably continues to be that way for its massive doors show no sign of ever having been put to use. Though it was accorded the status of the principal entryway into the Fort, St George’s Gate is not as impressive as St Thomas, the Wallajah or the North Gates. Unlike the first two it does not have a road leading up to it, thereby making it lack a vista. Also, it appears to be lower in height and is in reality three tunnels, thereby diminishing the central one of its power to overwhelm. The two flanking tunnels have been closed by grilles of an ugliness that only the Archaeological Survey of India could have designed. Walking down the central bay you can see that the two enclosed bays are only used for dumping rubbish. Like the other gates, St George’s is also made of laterite stone with the arch being faced with black granite.

A sharp bend to Outer St George's Gate

A sharp bend to Outer St George’s Gate

On the other side of the tunnel you emerge into a road that bends sharply and leads to the St George’s Ravelin that has the outer gate. That leads you to Fort Station and from there on to Old Black or George Town. A bridge, known variously as Triplicane and St George’s, also connected this gate to The Island and from there to Mount Road. It must, however, be remembered that the present St George’s Gate is not older than the 1770s. The older one, that stood between the Lawrence and Pigot bastions, was on the western face of the Fort, diametrically opposite the flagstaff and the Sea Gates. A road connected the eastern face of the Fort to the west and this was known as St George’s Street. Today it is much truncated – it runs from Parade Square to the western end of the Fort to a point between the Wallajah and St George’s Bastions. There is no exit there, the St George’s Gate now being to the right, on the north-western wall of the Fort.

What happened to the Laurence and Pigot bastions? When did they get replaced by the Wallajah and St George’s bastions? When did the West Gate become a northwestern gate while still retaining its old name? All of these changes were based on Col. Ross’ designs. And the way they came about has much to say about the location of the old St George’s or West Gate. It was the closest to Black Town and during the French siege of Madras, led by Lally in 1758, this was the area that saw the most action.

Early in the morning of December 14th, Lally led his troops via Vepery and Vyasarpadi and encircled Black Town where systematic plundering began almost immediately. ‘Thousands of natives then fled from their houses to the glacis, and implored for admittance to the Fort, but were refused.’ It is clear that this must have been at St George’s Gate. Col. (later General) William Draper, on receiving reports that the ‘French soldiers were getting gloriously drunk with arrack’ resolved to make a sally before they could recover. A crack regiment of 500 men and two field pieces emerged from St George’s Gate and marched into Devaraja Mudali Street where pitched fighting broke out. The British troops soon retreated and then followed a two month long series of skirmishes, culminating in the departure of the French in February 1759.

Once the siege was lifted a debate began on strengthening the western face of the Fort. Various plans were submitted, but it was left to Col. Patrick Ross who arrived in Madras in 1770 and was to leave the city only in 1803! Ross devoted much of his time to the reconstruction of the Fort into the shape that we know it today. It transformed from being a half decagon into semi octagon, the principal change being on the western face where he created the St George’s Bastion and reduced the number of faces on that front from three to two.

The wall outside St George's Gate

The wall outside St George’s Gate

There are some fascinating accounts of processions down St George’s Gate. It would appear the visiting Indian nobility were received here, the Sea Gate being reserved for Governors and Governors-General. A report dating to 1801 is on the arrival of His Excellency Meer Allum Bahadur, ambassador of His Highness, the Subahdar of the Deccan, and his son Meer Dowran. Troops were drawn out in parade and the visitors were received at 7.00 am at St George’s Gate by William Petrie (he of the Madras Observatory fame) and E Fallowfield, both Members of the Council. Seventeen guns were fired and the nobles, together with ‘their numerous train’, were taken to Admiralty House, where they were received by Lord Clive.

Like the Wallajah Gate, the St George’s Gate too was accessed from outside by a wooden drawbridge, till well into the 20th Century. This has now given way to a maca­damised road. By the 1920s, this gate had become the most frequented entrance, perhaps because it led to Poonamallee High Road where stood several public amenities including Ripon Building, the General Hospital, People’s Park, Moore Market, VP Hall and the Central Station.

Today, St George’s Gate remains as busy as ever with vehicles and pedestrians fighting for space under the tunnel. If you feel adventurous enough, do climb over the Outer Gate, for a panoramic view of the old Fort glacis and some very green parts of Madras.

This article is part of a series on Fort St George, to commemorate its 375th year. You can read the earlier parts here:

1. The Fort, its topography
2. The Flagstaff
3. The Sea Gates
4. The Moat
5. The Cornwallis Cupola
6. The Assembly and Secretariat
7. The Parade Square
8. The Barracks
9. The Great House on Charles Street
10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
11. Charles (and James) Street
12. The Church of St Mary’s
13. The Yard of St Mary’s
14. The Interior of St Mary’s
15. Funerary Monuments in St Mary’s
16. The Romance of Church Street
17. St Thomas Street
18. Wallajah Gate and Bastion
19. The Arsenal

A Heritage Walk on Armenian Street

February 22, 2016
Kachaliswarar Temple

Kachaliswarar Temple

Did you know that Armenian Street is just not about churches? For instance, at least one temple on this thoroughfare has a connect with Kanchipuram. MS Subbulakshmi was not allowed to sing in a concert venue here owing to her family background, such being the foolish taboos of those days. Come and experience all this and more in our heritage walk of Armenian Street. The Armenians were once a vital part of our city’s trade and commerce. Today none of them survives here but they have left behind several reminders. The most notable of these is the Armenian Church, which stands on the eponymous street.

Our heritage walk for February, to be held on Sunday 28, will be dedicated to Armenian Street and its history. There is more to this thoroughfare than just the community referred to above – some historic temples and churches, great commercial institutions, landmark buildings, and some scandals (of course). Interestingly it also once housed a thriving courtesan quarter.

Our walk begins late this time, chiefly to include a tour of the Armenian Church itself, which opens to visitors at 9.30 am with the bells being rung by the caretaker. So we begin our walk at 7.00 am. We tour Armenian Street till 8.30 am when we go for breakfast. We return at 9.30 am to the Armenian Church and examine its history till 10.30 am.

Charges: Rs 600 per head.

Those interested may make their payment through one of the following ways:

Online – by clicking on this link – https://www.payumoney.com/store/product/fc9e3981eaadbf6115ee343da348d6b0

You can also transfer the amount to our bank account, the details of which are given below:

Account Name: Past Forward
Account Type: Current
Bank Name: The Federal Bank Ltd
A/c No. 12820200104237
Branch: Royapettah
IFSC CODE: FDRL0001282

If you are doing a transfer, please send us an email to walks@chennaipastforward.com giving us the details.

If you still make your payments the heritage way, you can drop off a cheque payable to Past Forward at the following address:

c/o HVK Systems,
2&3, Bhattad Tower
30, Westcott Road
Royapettah, Chennai 600014

Sriram V.

Know Fort St George -19, The Arsenal

February 16, 2016

When you are done with exploring St. Thomas’ Street, walk west, on the road that flanks the southern wall of the Fort. You will cross St. Thomas’ Gate on your left. Walk further and you will notice that the road now turns at a sharp angle towards northwest. Cradled in this bend is a long two-storied building This is the arsenal of Fort St George.

Walk along the perimeter of the arsenal till you find yourself facing Parade Square once more. The arsenal now extends to your right and that is where you will see a long tunnel like archway leading you inside the arsenal. The front façade has some interesting plaster work on the pediment, below which is a rectangular recess on which there is a medallion bearing the insignia of King George V. Walk through the archway till you come to the triangular courtyard. You will see two long flights of stairs flanking the arch through which you entered. Turn back and look at the wall above the arch. A plaque there bears the legend ‘Madras Arsenal, 1772- 1931’.

The arsenal forms the southwestern end of the Fort. Its appearance is deceptive for it is in reality three huge blocks. The double storied structure through which you entered is but the tail. The main building, two storied and rectangular, is to your left as you face the courtyard. This comprises a series of double square bays that enclose a rectangular courtyard within. At the other of this block is the eastern entrance to the arsenal. This has set of helical stairways – a theme that repeats in the Secretariat, St Mary’s and King’s Barracks. Connecting the northern and eastern blocks is the angular southern block. All three have semicircular arches holding up the ground floor roof. The lower level was meant for storage of ammunition while the first floor was chiefly residential. It is fitted with tall windows that have sloping sunshades. The first floor also has a Madras Terrace roof. It is one of the largest precincts inside the Fort, spanning an area of 55,762 square feet.

Before the arsenal was built on this site in 1772, the area was known as the Artillery Park of the Fort. The latter was part of the protective defences that were built after the French left Madras in 1749. The design and execution were by John Call, Engineer of the East India Company. As part of the new developments, Call envisaged a long street that ran parallel to Parade Square on the western side and which would house new barracks, the hospital, mint and artillery park. The last named was ready by 1762, the year the British Government sent a naval and military force to subjugate the Spanish settlement at Manila, in the Philippines. Madras played a key role in the assault. Following the capitulation of Manila on October 6th, it was decided that a Manila Trophy be erected at the Artillery Park. This was duly done, though no description of it survives. The trophy was dismantled and, according to H.D. Love, fragments of it survived in the Government Museum.
By 1771, the Government had decided to build an arsenal on the site of the Artillery Park. Call’s successor Patrick Ross was asked to prepare an estimate and he came up with a figure of 9,327 pagodas. Ross’ plan was for bomb-proof arches wide enough to contain “abreast two of the largest Field Carriages, so that between each Row of Pillars there may at least be put four Guns…It is proposed to have the Space between the Arches of the Front that is towards the Artillery Park open, and the Windows on the other side to be in the Recesses, in form of the Arch, which will admit Abundance of Air.” This is the plan that was executed and even today the arsenal remains one of the best ventilated buildings in the Fort.

Ross was soon to discover that his initial budget was woefully inadequate. The park stood on what was once the dry bed of the Elambore River and this necessitated laying deep foundations. His estimate soon trebled to 28,000 pagodas. The tender when floated was bid for by two contractors – the notorious Paul Benfield and John Sullivan, then a young writer in the company. Ross was widely perceived to be Benfield’s crony and so it was no surprise that he favoured awarding the contract to the latter even though his bid was higher than that of Sullivan. The Government was not amused. It also found fault with Ross for having introduced various ornamentations on the façade of the building even though the mandate was for plain elevations. Ross was suspended for a year, but on the order being rescinded, he made his peace with Sullivan and the two went on to complete the arsenal. The building, constructed chiefly with brick, mud and lime mortar, was thrown open on November 9, 1772.

Interestingly, the building was the subject of much debate while the construction was first thought of. It was the first view of Ross and probably Benfield that native artisans were incapable of designing and building the arsenal, especially its specific requirement of inverted arches. The Company and Sullivan strongly disagreed. It was therefore with much satisfaction that they reported progress to England in February 1772, stating that the work had been “conducted by Black Maistrys without any assistance and We are persuaded that they are equal to the execution of any Works that may be undertaken. The Arsenal is built on inverted Arches which your Chief Engineer was of opinion Mr. Benfield only could Construct, and yet all of the lower story, which consists of Bomb Proof built upon those arches have been certified to be finished in a workmanlike manner. We therefore leave you to Judge how far such European Artificers may be Necessary.” Going by this, it would appear that the arsenal was among the first buildings to be executed by Indians for the British. This tradition would continue through the construction of Chepauk Palace and many of the other edifices of the city. Interestingly, Benfield would be one of the first people to adopt this practice, for it was he who built Chepauk Palace. Benfield also appears to have owned considerable property in the vicinity of the arsenal. The area on its northern side was once known as Hanover Square and much of it is recorded to be Benfield’s.

The East India Company’s Arsenals and Manufactories by Brigadier General HA Young in 1920 has some interesting facts about the building. It was under the control of a Commissary of Stores who had under him two deputy commissaries, four conductors, four sergeants and a ‘matross’. By the 1820s, this had expanded to seven commissaries, each with staff reporting to him, lorded over by a Principal Commissary of Ordnance. Around 150 ‘Chickledars’ were employed to keep the arms clean. But in 1832, the arsenal was fitted with glass windows to keep out the dust and so this team was greatly reduced in size. But ten years later we find that quite an army worked here – a Principal Commissary, a Commissary, a Deputy Assistant Commissary, 10 conductors, 14 sub-conductors, 13 store sergeants, 1 labora-tory sergeant, 1 laboratory corporal, 422 lascars and 142 workmen.

As can be interpreted from the plaque, the arsenal ceased to be one in 1931. It has since been made over to offices of the military. It is not clear as to when the pile of cannon balls and shells that stands at the entrance was first put up to indicate that this structure was indeed an arsenal. But in his book The Story of Fort St George written in 1948, D.M. Reid makes mention of it.

The arsenal remains in an excellent state of preservation, being tended to with care.

This article is part of a series on Fort St George to commemorate its 375th year. You can read the other parts below:

1. The Fort, its topography
2. The Flagstaff
3. The Sea Gates
4. The Moat
5. The Cornwallis Cupola
6. The Assembly and Secretariat
7. The Parade Square
8. The King’s Barracks
9. The Great House on Charles Street
10. Arthur Wellesley’s House
11. Charles (and James) Street
12. The Church of St Mary’s
13. The Yard of St Mary’s
14. The Interior of St Mary’s
15. Some funerary and other monuments in St Mary’s
16. The romance of Church Street
17. St Thomas Street
18. The Wallajah Gate and Palace Street


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