Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

Know Fort George – 8, the Barracks

August 17, 2015
The southern face of Kings Barracks

The southern face of Kings Barracks

The Parade Square has barracks fronting it on three sides – the south, west and north. In the initial years of the Fort, and Madras, the soldiers camped outside the Fort and there were several complaints about their many “notorious Actions (and villainous crimes)”. In 1684, it was decided that the garrison ought to move into White Town, or the Fort. Temporary barracks in Tuscan style were constructed on the western side, opposite the inner gate of the then Fort and the building was named New House. It was a terraced building with a tiled roof and at each end had a prison for “Souldiers that offend”. This ‘temporary’ accommodation was given permanent status by 1687.

Soon other buildings were put up alongside the barracks. At the northern end was a house, followed by the fort hospital. Then came the barracks, after which was the Mint and then the company’s import warehouse. All these buildings were in a precarious state by 1715. It was decided that the entire area would be rebuilt, with the Mint, the warehouse and the residences moving elsewhere in the Fort, leaving the space for an extended barracks and hospital. John Payne, writing in 1717, noted that “opposite to the west gate of the Fort is the barrack, or rather a long room, in which all the Company’s soldiers are obliged to lodge when off the guard, and adjoining on the north is a commodious hospital.” It can be concluded from this that the reconstruction was complete in two years.

By 1750, both the hospital and the military had expanded considerably and each was jockeying for space at the expense of the other. This resulted in moving the hospital out of the Fort to Peddenaickenpettah in the city in 1752. It was decided at the same time that the erstwhile hospital buildings would be handed over to the military. However, the north-east monsoon of that year proved to be so severe that the barracks suffered extensive damage.

The derelict eastern face of King's Barracks

The derelict eastern face of King’s Barracks

Work then began on the construction of the King’s Barracks adjacent to the old buildings and with its alignment being north-south. The principal entrance was located on the west. Executed between 1756 and 1762, it acquired its name from the fact that it housed a royal regiment from the inception. A simple double-storied structure, it is rectangular in shape, with each floor having two sets of rooms, one behind the other on all fronts barring the western face, which has just one set of rooms. The northern part houses the army canteen and can be accessed from Parade Square. The whole building encloses a massive central courtyard that lets in much needed light and air to the inner rooms. The western face of the King’s Barracks also has a very interesting feature, one that repeats in several other buildings of the Fort – two helical stairways leading to the upper floor. The King’s Barracks is also known for its variety of roofing – Bengal terrace, Madras terrace and Mangalore tiles. The lower floor was meant for ancillary facilities and the upper floor for the men, who were all quartered in eight sections, each with a sergeant’s room.

The ill-ventilated casemate barracks at St George's Gate

The ill-ventilated casemate barracks at St George’s Gate

In recent years, K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, as part of their work for the book Madras, the Architectural Heritage funded by the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage, undertook a complete study of this building. Published in 2003, it noted even then that the Kings Barracks was in a terrible condition, its roof having caved in at places owing to ingress of moisture. There is nothing to show that matters have improved since, though the Army did announce in 2013 that it intended to shift from here to Pallavaram so that the Archaeological Survey could undertake some much-needed restoration work.

The barracks on the southern side, facing King’s Barracks were constructed as part of the Fort’s restoration; post the French siege of the 1750s. John Call, then in charge of much of the work, proposed that Officers’ Lodgings be built on each side of the “New Square which is to be formed before the West Side of the Inner Fort” and the Company agreed that this was a very “usefull and convenient Distribution.” That these buildings were constructed to be bomb-proof is evident from a detailed note on their extension in 1771 proposed by Colonel Ross, the Chief Engineer. He suggested among other things that “18 rooms over the Bomb Proof Barracks, North Side of the Parade, which can conveniently lodge nine Gentlemen” be built at a cost of 25,950 pagodas. It would appear that by 1781, most of these buildings were completed, for a minute that year recorded that the “Quarters South and North of the Parade” were to have accommodation for six captains and twelve subalterns. A noteworthy feature is that this spate of reconstruction saw both King’s Barracks and its smaller counterpart on the southern side being given identical facades on the sides facing Parade Square. These are in the Classical style – double storied with pillars supporting a pediment that sports a rather complicated coat of arms. This gives a harmonious frontage to Parade Square.

George Robert Gleig, arriving as a soldier in 1817, wrote in The Subaltern’s Log Book (1829) that the “barracks at Fort St George are the most commodious and magnificent I ever was in. The rooms in our apartments were lofty and the windows extended almost to the ceiling from within two or three feet of the ground, they have Venetian blinds in them instead of glass which keep the rooms cool and admit sufficient air.” A Parliamentary Committee reporting in 1871 was not so impressed. While it commended the design for aligning the buildings from north to south, thereby allowing for sea breeze from the east, it noted that the effect “is a good deal influenced by high buildings on the east”. It also noted that the first floor of the barracks had good ventilation but the lower floor was not so blessed as it was surrounded by other structures. Evidently, married quarters were also part of the same block, for the report notes that these were very good, each family having two rooms of good size. The most unfortunate among the lot was the Battery of Artillery, which was quartered in a series of casemates close to the western end of the Fort. They were completely cut off from the sea breeze and had no ventilation of any kind.

The western side of the Parade Square has a set of three or four independent barracks. Writing in the early 1900s, Mrs. Frank Penny has it that these were “built in recent years; they replaced some low wretched buildings utterly inadequate to the requirements of the troops, if they were to be kept healthy and free from disease. The basement of the old barracks was below the level of the ground and were small and airless.” The old ones that Mrs. Penny speaks of probably traced their roots to the original barracks that stood on the western side of the Fort. Alas, today most of even the later construction, once termed handsome by Mrs. Penny, is in a bad way.
Much of Fort St George is owned by the military but no garrison is housed in it today. The army’s departments occupy its various buildings and offices and these are all in a reasonable shape of repair. Not so lucky are the barracks which, devoid of occupation and maintenance, are collapsing. King’s Barracks is part canteen and part stores. The barracks to the west are largely abandoned. As you walk around them you will notice additional floors were added later with cement concrete and architecturally unrelated grille work. Most of these buildings are filled with rubble to prevent them from collapsing.

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology – The Hindu

August 1, 2015

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology - The Hindu

Abdul Kalam and the MIT Gate: When Kalam visited the Madras Institute of Technology – The Hindu.

Abdul Kalam at the Music Academy

July 27, 2015

It is long past my usual bedtime but I am unable to sleep. Somehow Kalam’s passing is like the death of a close relative. True, he was 83 but somehow I thought he would always be around – simple in his joys, straightforward in his communication, honesty personified, friendliness radiating from his eyes…In a nation whose leaders are by and large arrogant crooks (except during elections), he made a difference and somehow held out a hope. If a man of such humble origins could make his way to the top through just hard work, surely India was a meritocracy? And now he is gone. Today I am able to understand why men wept and women broke their bangles on January 30, 1948.

I met Kalam only once and briefly at that. And that is not the story I want to relate. The one I am writing about is of his coming in 2002 to inaugurate the December Season at the Music Academy. The Sikkil Sisters were selected for the Sangita Kalanidhi and this being the platinum jubilee of the Academy, four great musicians – Semmangudi, MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattammal and Pt. Ravishankar were to receive a special award. Of the four, only Semmangudi made it, MS and DKP were quite frail in health and Raviji was abroad.

The Music Academy as you know, has a fetish for punctuality. It had in the past once drawn the curtain when Madurai Mani Iyer failed to finish on time. A wooden box that had a red bulb in it would greet those giving lecture demonstrations. This would be placed on the lectern just below the nose of the speaker and in case he/she exceeded the time limit, it would begin to glow. Time if not tide, did not wait for anyone at the Academy. It was said that its second President, KV Krishnaswami Aiyar began the trend. It slackened somewhat under his successors but picked up pace from 1982, when TT Vasu became numero uno.

Vasu became the red bulb himself. Giving his trousers a characteristic hitch, he would think nothing of bounding up to the concert performer or speaker and wag an enormous finger in front of their face in case they exceeded time. He would also begin a countdown of sorts, waving five, then four fingers and so on till just the forefinger would remain standing. The curtain would descend almost simultaneously. I cannot say I disapproved of what Vasu did. In a tightly packed typical Season Day, this discipline was needed. But perhaps it could have been done more gently.

Vasu’s terror tactics did not work with Kalam however when he, as President of India, came to inaugurate the Academy’s platinum jubilee concert series. The curtain went up to reveal Vasu, Kalam, a couple of Secretaries, Semmangudi and the Sikkil Sisters on stage. It was clear from the word go that the time schedule was going to be shot to pieces. After the standard nAdatanum anisham invocation, Dr VV Srivatsa, one of the Secretaries, led Sikkil Kunjumani to the mic. They were so slow in their progress that Vasu began to grunt impatiently. Kalam however beamed beatifically. Kunjumani then began a longwinded speech that clearly overshot the time allotted to her. Vasu began to get up, finger already uplifted when Kalam smiled at him in a soft fashion and grasping his hand, pushed him gently back into his seat. “It is all right Vasu sar,” said Kalam. It was a quite a sight – the President of India cajoling the President of the Music Academy to calm down! Poor Vasu did not say anything and squirmed considerably in his seat. Kunjumani eventually finished her speech and was led back by Srivatsa as slowly as she had come to the mic. Semmangudi received his award and when asked to speak said in his characteristic fashion that Vasu had told him to be brief (Vasu enna romba pEsa kUDadunnu sonnAn). He spoke little and then sat down.

This was a day when Vasu got an award as well – a silver plaque with a verse in his praise. Kalam handed it over. Vasu spoke briefly and then it was Kalam’s turn. We were already ten minutes behind schedule and with some luck would get the concert of the evening going some half an hour late. But the Academy had not contended with Kalam or the audience adulation of him.

Every move he made was received with thunderous applause. This was no President but a matinee idol. The Academy lectern was too tall for him and a special platform was placed behind it for him to climb on. When he achieved this simple task, we all cheered. He delivered his speech in English and there was loud clapping at the end of every sentence. This was no prim and proper Academy inauguration but a college graduation day.

The speech came to an end and everyone clapped once again. Vasu stood up, ready to get a Secretary to deliver the vote of thanks. Kalam however was not getting off so easily.

“Mr President,” he said. “I am aware that there are many people in the audience who know only Tamil and so I have brought a Tamil translation of my speech. With your permission sir, I will now read it.”

I don’t think anyone else could have got away reading the same speech twice in the same evening, even if its second declamation was in another language. But Kalam achieved this impossible feat. And what’s more, the audience cheered all over again. Vasu had to grin and bear it.

The speech came to an end and Vasu was once again on his feet. But Kalam had other plans.

“This is a great occasion Mr President Sar,” he said. “And so I have composed a special song for it. My DRDO members will now perform it. But before that one of my colleagues will read out the lyrics.”

The applause hit the rafters even as what looked like a minor army came on stage bearing all kinds of musical instruments. Vasu had given up by then. The instruments were tuned and then even as Kalam beamed with joy, the song was sung by a couple of scientists to the accompaniment of other scientists in the orchestra.

By the time the national anthem was sung (and here Kalam entreated everyone of us to sing loudly), we were a good 45 minutes late – an unpardonable crime at the Academy.

The next day’s papers revealed that Kalam drove from the Academy straight to MS Subbulakshmi’s house and presented her with the award in person.

We have never seen such crowds at any Season inauguration day ever since at the Music Academy. And never again has the audience cheered a speech or song so much. Simplicity was the hallmark of this great man and that is why we loved him. India and the world is poorer by his passing.

Hidden histories: The seedy past of Chennai’s Lockma Nagar – The Hindu

July 25, 2015

I saw this street sign where Kilpauk gives way to Purasawalkam. On consulting my usual references, I came to know that the place was known as Lock Cheri at least till 1968 or thereabouts. That was when the Corporation decided to do away with slums, in thought, if not in deed, and renamed all cheris as nagars, a couple of them becoming ma nagars (big colony). And that is how Lock Cheri became Lock Managar, which later transformed into Lockma Nagar. A street directory of 1933 revealed that this was Lock Street at least till then, the slum coming up later. By 1943, when this area was among the worst affected during the great flood of Madras, it was known as Lock Cheri. I speculated momentarily on whether it was where one of the many locks on the Buckingham Canal once stood, till I realised the waterway is miles away. The Otteri Nullah is closeby, but that never had locks.

Heritage enthusiast Karthik Bhatt speculated whether the name had anything to do with the Lock Hospital. And sure enough, that was it. Corporation reports of the 1800s reveal considerable outlay of funds on the maintenance of the Lock Hospital at Kilpauk, set up in 1810. This institution was part of a chain, a colonial phenomenon. London got one in 1747, and thereafter, Lock Hospitals were opened wherever the British Empire spread. It was a necessity, for it specialised in treating venereal diseases. The reason for the name is lost in time.

The East India Company was largely an all-male establishment till at least the 1840s. That meant that prostitution was fairly rampant wherever the British set up base. In the 1600s, houses of pleasure in Portuguese San Thome catered to the new conquerors. By the 19th century, Mount Road alone had nine brothels. Chengam Bazar in George Town was another flourishing centre. The now lost Vodacaul Street, that connected First Line Beach to George Town, catered to the sailors. It was no wonder that the city desperately needed a Lock Hospital and got not one but two — one exclusively for the military and the other, civil. It is the latter that stood at Lockma Nagar. Overall, Madras Presidency had nine Lock Hospitals.

Some interesting statistics emerged over the years. It was noticed that admission of women surged during famines when they were left destitute and took to immoral trafficking to earn money, thereby contracting the disease. Aged prostitutes admitted themselves to the place, considering it a good retirement home. A more intriguing find was that army men came in larger numbers when there was a war. A report dated 1879 noted that soldiers on the move were “always prone to fall into mischief”.

The administration was forever in doubt about the efficacy of these hospitals. The one in Kilpauk was closed in 1835, only to reopen again a few years later. It survived till the 1880s. The name, however, has lived on.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 26, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.

The Rayala Story Sriram V Rayala Corporation M. Rajagopala Naidu – The Hindu

July 22, 2015

The Rayala Story Sriram V Rayala Corporation M. Rajagopala Naidu – The Hindu.

A talk on Fort St George

July 21, 2015

The link below is to a video recording of my talk on Fort St George, delivered at the Madras Book Club sometime in June 2015

Know Fort St George – 7, The Parade Square

July 20, 2015

One of the predominant features of Fort St George, and which shows that the Fort always had a strong army presence, is the Parade Square, known variously in history as the Parade, the Parade Ground, Barracks Square and Conrwallis Square. You just cannot miss it. As you walk to the rear of the Assembly building, it immediately strikes the eye. Cordoned off and now macadamised, its emptiness cannot be ignored for it presents a sharp contrast to the rest of the Fort which is mostly taken over by cars, police vans and two wheelers. Surrounding the Parade Square are some very handsome buildings.

Parade Square

Parade Square

That some kind of a parade ground existed in the Fort from at least the 1670s is evident when you read the accounts of various ceremonial occasions. Thus when Elihu Yale hoisted the king’s flag for the first time on the Fort ramparts, the garrison soldiers performed an “orderly march round the Fort” and then “drew round within the Fort.” In his Story of Fort of St George, Lt Col D.M. Reid throws some light on the initial days. The Fort was restricted to what was called Fort Square, the area currently occupied by the Assembly and Secretariat. To the rear of this developed the Parade, a long and narrow piece of ground that was hemmed in by houses on all the other three sides. Parade Square acquired its present contours following extensive renovations to the Fort in 1762 by which time most of the houses surrounding it were demolished. These had in any case suffered extensive damage during the French siege of the 1750s.

West face of Fort St George by Francis S Ward, 1785

West face of Fort St George by Francis S Ward, 1785

We get a reasonable view of how Parade Square looked in 1785 from Francis Swain Ward’s depiction of it in his The Parade and the West Face of Fort St George. The notes accompanying it state that the right side of the picture is the western face of the Fort. The tall domed structure, almost a Catholic cathedral in its design, no longer stands. It was in fact a street away and marks the location of Portuguese Square where the Namakkal Kavignar Maligai presently stands. This domed multi-storied structure was once the Court House in which civil and military prosecutions were carried on. In the same picture, the southern and the northern faces of Parade Square have colonnaded and pedimented buildings, all built in the classical style, and these have survived till date. The army and its various functional units occupy all of these.

The western face, diametrically opposite the rear of the Assembly, has barracks that were built late in the 19th Century. With that, Parade Square opened out to barracks on three sides and it came to be known as Barracks Square. The Cornwallis cupola and its statue of the Governor General stood close to the rear wall of the Assembly building on Parade Square and faced west from the early 1800s till 1905. Parade Square was therefore also referred to as Cornwallis Square. The unveiling of the statue here was a gala event, as we have noted earlier. So also was the arrival of Cornwallis in 1805 when, having assumed charge for the second time as Governor General of India, he visited Madras, en route to Calcutta. On that occasion, he addressed the troops and Madras citizens at Parade Square.

The ceremonial that accompanied these events was in marked contrast to the night of August 23, 1775 when Sir Robert Fletcher, Commanding Officer, gave instructions for the arrest of the Governor Lord Pigot. The latter was imprisoned by Col Stuart and conveyed to St Thomas Mount. Pigot’s sympathiser and son-in-law, Claud Russell, also a member of the Madras Council, records that Parade Square that night was a picture of confusion. Lit by a full moon, it had army officers, Europeans and natives walking hither and thither even as carriages blocked the entrance to the Square. The garrison was sharply divided and the troops mutinous but eventually the anti-Pigot faction had its way. The Governor died a mysterious death a year later at St Thomas Mount while still a prisoner.

Parade Square was never paved over till at least the 1950s. It remained a well-beaten piece of earth and, given that a regiment had always been quartered in the Fort for over two centuries, was used for marches and parades. P. Unnikrishnan, the former Managing Director of Binny’s, remembers Parade Square in the 1930s when his father was Law Secretary, Government of Madras. He would often walk up to the Fort from the Madras Christian College School, then in George Town, to go home with his dad in the latter’s car. He states that a parade was held every alternate day in the Square and it was a grand spectacle. Despite it being used for parades, the residents of the Fort cut across the Square as and when needed and this led to a clearly demarcated track emerging over the years.

Several accounts of ceremonial parades conducted here have survived over three centuries. A ceremonial parade was held in August 1801 to welcome “His Excellency Meer Alam Bahadar, ambassador from His Highness, the Subahdar of the Deccan”. The visitor came in through St George’s Gate and was received with presented arms by His Majesty’s 51st regiment, “which then formed a street from the gate to Parade Square”. Thereafter, a street was formed by the 2nd Division 1st European Regiment and the Madras Militia under Major Taswell. A salute of seventeen guns was fired and the troops continued to present arms till the distinguished visitor left the Fort. Another account dates to September 13, 1807, when the appointment of William Petrie to the post of Governor was announced. A salute of 19 guns and three rounds of “musquetry” were fired from the troops of the garrison, all of whom had assembled on Parade Square.

Mrs. Penny in her book wondered as to how the Englishmen “ever survived such an ordeal by fire, as a parade in full dress under an Indian sun must have been.” Evidently most did, but there are several accounts of backsliders as well, all of whom were court-martialled. On July 14, 1837, Capt. John Mahon of HM 63 Regiment of Foot was tried by order of Maj. Gen. John Doveton for having absented himself from parade on June 22, despite having been admonished by his senior officer for a similar misdemeanour on an earlier occasion. He was exonerated on all charges on a technicality much to Doveton’s distress. Far worse was the charge against Capt. John Arnaud of HM 34th Regiment. He had been arrested for some indiscipline and, while under incarceration, “appeared in an un-officer like dress when the regiment was on parade” and stood there and looked on. He too was acquitted of this charge.

Being drunk on parade was clearly an unpardonable crime. The trial of Lt. John Winrow was held from January 13, 1817 and dragged on for some time. He was of the 1st Battalion of the 30th Regiment and was tried for “shameful and unofficer like conduct, in appearing on the general parade of the Battalion, in a state of intoxication, on the evening of the 30th December, 1816.” Clearly, his New Year celebrations had begun early.

The judgement was curious to say the least. While it found him guilty of irregular and improper conduct at the Parade… when not perfectly free from the effects of liquor, it acquitted him of the charge of “shameful conduct in appearing there in state of intoxication.” Lt. Winrow lost two steps and was asked to take his place immediately behind the two lieutenants who till then had stood next to him. The order, though entered into the book, was never implemented, for Winrow had died even when the trial was in progress.

Parade Square is now cordoned off for its own safety, for if opened up it will be filled with Government vehicles and, perhaps, even high-rises.

Earlier articles from the Know Fort St George series:

The Fort – its Topography

The Flagstaff

The Sea Gates

The Moat

The Cornwallis Cupola

The Assembly and Secretariat

Queen Mary’s centenary: coffee table book on Queen Mary’s college: Hidden histories – The Hindu

July 17, 2015

Queen Mary's centenary: coffee table book on Queen Mary's college: Hidden histories - The Hindu

Queen Mary’s centenary: coffee table book on Queen Mary’s college: Hidden histories – The Hindu.

From Madras Railway to Metro Rail

July 13, 2015
A drawing for a Madras Railway goods engine, dating to 1870

A drawing for a Madras Railway goods engine, dating to 1870

“On the occasion of the inauguration of Metrorail, why don’t you write something on rail heritage?” asked my good friend, K. Saravanan. It’s well-known that the first railway line of South India was from Royapuram to Arcot and that the train was flagged off on June 26, 1856 by the then Governor of Madras, Lord Harris. The Metro had its inaugural run in the 210th year of the Railways’ debut in Madras, starting off on June 29, 2015.

The Madras Railway Company (MRC) began its work in 1853, when a team of three — George Barclay Bruce, Chief Engineer; Edward Smalley, Agent and Major T.T. Pears, Consulting Engineer, took charge. Construction proceeded at a brisk pace thereafter, Bruce designing the Royapuram Station and much of the civil structures. The arrival of the first four steam engines, each weighing 13 tonnes, was quite an event, for they were the heaviest consignments till then to be delivered at Madras. These “ponderous masses of iron”, all made at Glasgow, arrived on board the ship Haveling on June 13, 1855. The Governor, a number of gentlemen and a “fair sprinkling of ladies” proceeded to the Royapuram beach to witness their offloading. There was no harbour then, and the ship was docked two miles at sea. The engines had to be hoisted by cranes from the ship, lowered on to a waiting raft and then rowed ashore. The process of offloading took a day for each engine, and by Monday, June 18, all four were safely on the beach. How they were taken to the railway tracks is an unresolved mystery.

By 1856, there were 65 miles of operating track. The railway earned 5,196 pounds sterling in the first three months of operation — 39, 903 passengers contributing to 3,101 pounds out of the total revenue. The Metro has seen that many passengers on the first day itself! Like the Metro, the railway took forever to build to its final length of 450 km. In the initial days, it was criticised, as beginning nowhere, running through nowhere and ending nowhere, for Royapuram and Arcot were relatively unknown destinations. Bruce was more or less the E. Sreedharan of his times, for he completed the 65 miles of the Madras railway line in record time. But his health broke down in the process and by December 1857, he returned to England. Being an active Freemason, his brothers in the order gave him a grand farewell, an event presided over by the Chairman of the MRC, Robert Stephenson. Back home, Bruce had a long and illustrious career, and eventually received a knighthood.

The MRC offices at Royapuram can still be seen as sad ruins from the over bridge. The station, now the oldest surviving terminal in the Indian subcontinent, also stands, though threatened with demolition. In a way, it is the forefather of all other rail transport in the city — the Southern Railway, the suburban system, the MRTS and now the Metro.

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

Other stories on the Madras Railway:

Royapuram – where Railway employees first struck work

Royapuram’s tryst with Royalty

Know Fort St George -6, the Assembly and Secretariat

July 6, 2015

The most frequently photographed feature of Fort St George is the Assembly building. It dominates the Fort’s frontage and is strikingly beautiful. It is, sadly, completely out of bounds for the casual visitor, housing as it does the offices of the Chief Minister, the State Cabinet, the Legislative Assembly and the ministries. Compared to the rest of the Fort, this edifice is of relatively recent provenance, having been constructed in its present shape in1910 and subsequently added to. But its core is very old, almost as old as Fort St George.


Among the first structures to be built in 1640 by Andrew Cogan was what he termed the “Tower in the midst of the Fort”. This was finished before he left Madras in 1643. It housed the civil establishment of the Fort, while the military disposed itself below the curtain walls. According to Dr. Fryer, who left an account of the Fort in 1673, this central tower, a domed edifice rather like a Mughal tomb, was the Governor’s House. Later accounts speak of it as a flat-roofed building and H. D. Love in his Vestiges of Old Madras dismisses the domed depiction as “untrustworthy”.

It appears to have been multi-functional, for it “contained offices, reception rooms, a dining hall, a chapel and accommodation for the Writers.” An earlier write-up, dated January 6, 1664, refers to this building as the ‘Mansion Howse’ and has it as the residence of the Agent (later designated Governor) and the second, third and fourth members of his Council. It also housed a “very beautifull Chappell for Divine Service, and Convenient Lodgings for the Minister, as alsoe a faire dineing-roome and Celler.”

Dr. Fryer does not mention it, but Hiram Bingham, in his biography of Elihu Yale, notes that even a year earlier to Fryer’s description, the building was in need of repair. All sources agree that by 1677 the walls of this building were tottering. Several Governors had added to the structure over the years. The additions had been made without any thought of the foundations and by 1688 Fort House had three floors with the Governor’s Consultation Room on the top, all ready to collapse at short notice.

Action was finally taken in 1693 by Governor Nathaniel Higginson who, like Yale, was born in the colonial America. He was also the first Mayor of Madras. The building was emptied and all its effects transferred to Jearsey House on Charles Street within the Fort. Demolition was completed by April 1694 when orders were given for the construction of a new Fort House “being 110 foot in length and 55 foot in breadth, to be built on the East side of the Fort att 18 foot distance from the Godown Wall and att equall distance from the North and South Walls.”

The new building was ready by September 1695 and, to quote Love, “there exists satisfactory evidence that the middle portion” of the present Secretariat Building dates from this construction of 1694. By the 1750s, this building was referred to as the Great House. Its internal arrangements had remained unchanged for over six decades – the bombproof ground floor had offices, the first floor had the common dining facility referred to as the General Table, and the top floor had the Consultation Room and Governor’s Quarters. In 1752, a storm caused serious damage to the building but it remained structurally sound, unlike its predecessor. Testimony to its strength was further evident when, during the French siege of the 1750s, Fort House was an important part of the successful defence. Officers and troops occupied the lowest floor and the roof was protected by laying bales of woollen cloth on it. A couple of shells did land on the terrace but no damage was sustained.

In the 1780s, with Governors of Madras by then happy to live outside the Fort, the building was appropriated for several other purposes. A minute in 1782 ordered the vacating of all the rooms in the building and decreed that the “Assistants in the two Secretaries Offices” would henceforth use these. This marks the beginning of the Secretariat in this building. In April the same year, extensive alterations were planned, under the supervision of Philip Stowey, Civil Architect. It began, as it invariably does in most heritage structures even today, with some repairs to the Council Chamber. That led to further discoveries of weakness and the budget was revised first to 6,600 and later to 13,916 star pagodas. The work went on for six months and at the end of it, several features that we now recognise in the building were in place.

Chief among these is the verandah on the eastern side and a corresponding one on the west. The latter also had two short wings projecting to the west and two new flights of stairs, also on the western side. The two wings were further extended in 1825 when they projected north and south, bringing the Secretariat building to its present dimensions. By then, the structure was being referred to as Government Office. The building appears to have remained as it was for the next 90 years or so, apart from regular maintenance and repair. It must have been electrified early in the 20th Century for, Mrs. Penny in her book writes that “long after dark the lights in the Secretariat testify to the diligence of the hard-worked Under Secretaries.”

In 1910, a new round of construction began. Madras had had a Legislative Council since 1862 and this had steadily expanded to include public representation of some sort by the early 1900s. A new Council Chamber was required as were offices for Secretarial use. The Secretariat acquired a second floor. A more important change was to the front – for since then it incorporated 32 black Charnockite or Pallavaram Gneiss columns into its façade.

These pillars, as we saw in the account relating to the Sea Gate, once formed an ornamental colonnade from the sea to the Fort. The space between had doubled up as a market place and a processional route. In 1746 the French made away with the pillars and these were returned to Madras in 1762. They were then erected in front of Fort House and the spaces in between were walled in to make a hall for official entertainments. The construction of Goldingham’s splendid Banqueting Hall in 1802 at the instructions of Lord Clive rendered the old building superfluous and it became a godown. In 1910, the then Governor, Sir Arthur Lawley, recommended that the building be dismantled and the best pillars out of the lot be incorporated into the new frontage of the Secretariat. According to Rao Sahib C.S. Srinivasachari’s History of the City of Madras (1939), a plaque to this effect has been let into the wall of the Legislative Council (now Assembly) Chamber.

The building at present has a dual, or even triple, function. To the east is the magnificent Assembly chamber and to its rear are the secretarial areas. The top floor houses the offices of the ministers of the Tamil Nadu Government. It must be remembered that Madras/Tamil Nadu had a bicameral legislature from 1936 to the 1980s. The lower house or the Assembly became more powerful over a period of time and, after peregrinating to various places, eventually came to occupy the chamber of the upper house, or the Council, which by the 1960s was relegated to “a room by the side of the Assembly.” In the 1980s, the Council was done away with and its chamber remains locked up. What is also forgotten is that the classic rear façade of the entire building is completely hidden from public view by, secretariat block that was built to the same dimensions behind it. If you enter this art-deco/modernist building and manage to walk deep into it, you can catch a glimpse of the original rear façade of the Secretariat building. It has survived intact.

What is also surprising is the sheer survival power of the Fort House that Higginson built. It has overcome war, vagaries of weather and a recent attempt at shifting the Secretariat and Assembly to Mount Road and carries on nevertheless. It has within it around 325 years of history and that is a record to be proud of.

This article is a part of a series of 25 stories on Fort St George, to commemorate its 375th year. The earlier ones can be read from the links below:

The Fort’s Topography

The Flagstaff

The Sea Gate

The Moat

The Cornwallis Cupola


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