Archive for the ‘Chennai (Madras) History’ Category

A brief history of the General Hospital – a Chennai landmark

February 23, 2015
The General Hospital

The General Hospital

This is one of those institutions whose comprehensive history probably needs several books. Believe it or not, the history of the Government General Hospital goes back to 1644 or so, and it has been at the present location from 1772! And that is not all. Between those two years the hospital had nine incarnations, making the present one the tenth, or more accurately the eleventh, if you include the reconstruction of 2002!

Since we are dealing with the present location, we will confine our history to the period beginning from 1771 when the then site of the hospital was Armenian Street. The decision to shift had been taken ten years earlier and a new location had been identified – the land on which the Company’s Garden House had stood in the 1680s, on the lower slopes of Nari Medu or Hog’s Hill (most of today’s Central Station and its environs). But no action resulted for a while.

The hospital building was constructed at this site by John Sullivan at a cost of 42,000 pagodas and was formally open to patients from October 5, 1772. The Town Wall had an entrance fronting this and became known as the Hospital Gate from then on. The next major expansion was in 1859 followed by yet another in 1893 and a third in 1928, all of which resulted in the structures that are seen in the photograph above. At the conclusion of that third phase of expansion, Dr. Sir A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, the then Principal of the Madras Medical College, declared that “the Madras General Hospital now presents an inspiring pile of buildings of which Madras may well be proud and which delights the eye of every professional visitor to this city.” Over the years, the hospital grew, acquiring its neurology, cardiology and other speciality blocks from the 1960s onwards. The architectural styles of these largely detracted from the dignity of the main buildings that Dr Mudaliar had praised. The most major reconstruction to date was in 2002 when the two main blocks were pulled down to make way for the modern building seen today. The two chattries or domed structures that flank the entrances and house the statues of Dr. M. Guruswami Mudaliar and Dr. S. Rangachari are the only remnants of the inspiring pile of the 1930s. There are, however, several old structures still standing within the complex, with varying degrees of antiquity. All of them suffer from indifferent maintenance.

The hospital’s earlier nomenclature appears to have been Government Hospital and in 1692, Dr Edward Bulkley was appointed as its head. The next year he performed the first medico-legal autopsy in India when a senior Company official was killed owing to his medicine being prepared in an improperly cleaned dish that previously contained arsenic. Bulkley is also remembered for the first leave certificate on medical grounds, the first injury certificate and, more notoriously, for abetting in a sentenced man feigning illness and moving from the prison to a hospital, this being John Nicks, whose wife was a close friend of Elihu Yale and probably the first woman entrepreneur of Madras. It has since been a frequently used excuse especially by political prisoners! Rather appropriately, Bulkley is buried on land facing the hospital. The large granite tomb, not cared for in any way by the State’s Archaelogical Survey under whose protection it is supposed to be, is now within the Ordnance Lines that have come up across the hospital.

While the hospital’s move to this location in 1772 is fairly well recorded, the presence of a medallion near the Superintendent’s office stating ‘Hospital founded in 1753’ is intriguing. This is a plaque commemorating an earlier shift and which moved along with the hospital to its present site. It was only in 1842 that the G in the name began to stand for General when the facility became open to Indians. The hospital became a wholely civilian institution in 1899.

The GH takes pride in Col C Donovan’s discovery in 1903 of the organism that caused the dreaded Kala Azar. By the time the news was transmitted to England, the organism had also been identified by Dr Leishman, leading to Donovan having to share the honours. The bacteria was, therefore, named Leishman Donovani. But, the organism was most probably isolated by Donovan at the Royapettah Hospital of which he was in charge at the time of the discovery. Not so well known is Dr. W J Niblock, who documented in India the first successful gastrojejunostomy for gastric outlet obstruction due to peptic ulcer at the GH on March 2, 1905. He is also the one who wrote the widely quoted article on “Epidemology of cancer in India” as early as 1902. Niblock’s work on gastroenterology was to be brought to public notice by Dr N Rangabhashyam in 1975 when under his guidance the GH acquired a gastroenterology department. It is not clear if Ronald Ross worked at the GH or elsewhere in Madras during his short tenure here but his close associate John Maitland worked at the GH and did pioneering work on filariasis. He became Senior Surgeon at the hospital in 1896, holding the post till his death in 1908.

The GH was headed by a Superintendent from 1858 onwards, the first incumbent being Lt Col William Evans of the Indian Medical Service. The first Indian to hold that post was Lt Col M N Choudhri ims. The post of Dean of the Government General Hospital and Medical College, Madras, was created in 1950, with the first occupant being Dr. R V Rajam.

A busy hospital today, the GH has the same problems that face all Government-run health facilities – bureaucracy, overcrowding and a perpetual battle in which facilities are forever in a process of being geared up to face an ever-increasing demand. But this is where the not so privileged can readily go for medical treatment, confident that their illnesses can be attended to at a fraction of what it will cost at a private hospital. To them it is always the GH, irrespective of whatever be its present official name, necessitated by political consideration/or convenience about a decade ago.

You may want to read the following stories on other landmarks of the city:

Government Hospital for Women and Children, Egmore

<a href=”…i-guindy-races/”>The Guindy races</a>

<a href=”…rk-institution/”>Victoria Technical Institute</a>

<a href=”…-aasi-building/”>The AASI building</a>

<a href=”…-lost-landmark/ ‎”>Moore Market</a>

<a href=”…egmore-station/”>The Egmore Railway Station</a>

<a href=””>The Meenambakkam Terminal </a>

<a href=”…gn-chetty-road”>The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road
<a href=”…ivanar-arangam/”>Kalaivanar Arangam</a>

<a href=”…orporation-zoo/”>The Corporation Zoo</a>

<a href=”…-victory-house/”>Victory House</a>

<a href=”…gemini-studios/ ‎”>Gemini Studios</a>

<a href=”; title=”Old Woodlands Hotel”>Old Woodlands Hotel </a>

<a href=”; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – The Hotel Oceanic”>The Oceanic Hotel</a>

<a href=”; title=”My Ladye’s Garden – another surviving landmark”>My Ladyes Garden</a>

<a href=”; title=”The Connemara Hotel – an enduring landmark”>Connemara Hotel</a>

<a href=”; title=”Lost landmarks of Chennai – Airlines Hotel”>The Airlines Hotel</a>

<a href=”; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Everest Hotel”>Everest Hotel </a>

<a href=”; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Modern Cafe”>Modern Cafe</a>

<a href=”; title=”Lost Landmarks of Chennai – Dasaprakash”>Dasaprakash</a>

<a href=”; title=”Eastern and Western Castlets of de Havilland”>The Eastern and Western Castlets</a>

<a href=”; title=”de Havilland and The Madras Bulwark”>The Madras Bulwark</a>

Where the Lord played Cupid

February 14, 2015

Valentine’s Day is today. Coincidentally, February/March is also when the Magizhadi Sevai is celebrated at the Tiruvottriyur Thyagarajaswami Temple. This commemorates the romance between the devotee Sundarar (c 7th to 9th century CE) and the flower girl Sangili.

Sundarar was an exalted devotee of the Lord, having the status of his friend. While at Tiruvarur, Sundarar had fallen in love with Paravai, a girl dedicated to the temple. The Lord appeared in the dreams of the village elders and instructed them to conduct the wedding of Sundarar to Paravai.

All would have been well had Sundarar not set out to see the great shrines of Shiva. When he came to Tiruvottriyur, his eye fell on Sangili. She had declared that she would only marry someone who had received the grace of God in full. Her parents had brought her thereupon to Tiruvottriyur and left her at the temple where she strung flower garlands. Smitten by her beauty, Sundarar appealed to Shiva for help. The Lord duly appeared in Sangili’s dream and proposed the match. Sangili informed Shiva that she would only marry someone who promised never to leave Tiruvottriyur, the oath to be taken in the sanctum of the temple. When Sundarar heard of this he realised that this was an impossible commitment and requested that at the time of the oath, the Lord should leave the sanctum and stay under a Magizha tree in the temple precinct. Shiva, wanting to teach Sundarar a lesson, agreed, but immediately informed Sangili that she should insist that the oath be taken under the Magizha tree and not at the sanctum.

The next day, when Sundarar proposed to Sangili, she informed him of the oath to which he readily agreed. What surprised him was her request that it be taken at the foot of the tree. He had no option and promised her solemnly after going around the tree three times. The wedding was conducted with all gaiety. But Sundarar was of a peripatetic disposition. He soon longed to be back at Tiruvarur where the temple festival would be conducted in all glory. He also missed Paravai and so one night he stole away from Tiruvottriyur. He was struck blind for this transgression. He somehow struggled on, his prayers resulting in one eye being restored in Kanchipuram and the other at Tiruvarur. But he had not contended with Paravai who shut the door on him for his perfidy. The Lord played go between and convinced Paravai to forgive Sundarar.

The records are silent on Sangili’s fate. She presumably returned to her temple duties after the brief romantic interlude. The Magizhadi Sevai at the temple recreates the promise that Sundarar made to Sangili. It will be observed this year on March 4.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on February 14, 2015.

Government Hospital for Women and Children, Egmore

February 11, 2015

Continuing our landmark series, here is a brief history of a landmark hospital of the city:

The Women and Children's Hospital, Egmore

The Women and Children’s Hospital, Egmore

This landmark institution began life in May 1844 as the Government Maternity Hospital. Its first home was near the Egmore railway station, facing the Cooum River. This was thanks to public subscription. The Government met the cost of the staff and the dieting of the patients. The place was run under the supervision of a committee of six medical officers who gave their services free of cost.

In 1847, the Madras Medical College instituted a professorship in Midwifery and the Government appointed the incumbent, Dr. James Shaw, as the Superintendent of the Hospital. Two new wings were added to the old building in 1852 but by the 1870s it was time to move.

Laid out in the shape of a female pelvis, the new structure came up on Pantheon Road, under the guidance of Major General G.G. Gifford, who is commemorated with a block in his name on the campus. The new hospital was completed in 1881 in Egmore and by 1900 had expanded to five blocks with a total of 140 beds. The hospital was to be headed by several noted medical practitioners among whom was Lt. Col. A.M. Branfoot who in March 1886 successfully saw the imprisoned ex-Queen of Burma – Supayalat – through a difficult delivery.

The Maternity Hospital, or MH as it came to be known, was the only one of its kind in this part of India for several decades. It was in that capacity that it hosted the first All-India Obstetrics and Gynaecological Congress in 1936. The venue was the Museum Theatre and inaugurating it was Dr. Ida Scudder of CMC Vellore, with Dr. Sir A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar in the chair. He was also the first Indian to be the Superintendent of the MH, occupying the post between 1939 and 1942. It was to be 1984, however, before a woman came to head the institution, the first one being Dr. Lokasundari Selvaraj.

A children’s ward came up in the hospital in 1949 with 28 beds. In 1963, the Government sanctioned a separate hospital for children and this came up in the Arni House compound. When completed, this became the Government Children’s Hospital, with 250 beds.

The hospital became a teaching centre with postgraduate and diploma courses in 1930 under the Madras Medical College. In 1952, it became one of three postgraduate institutes of Madras city, and that marked the beginning of the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the MH. Dr. R.K.K. Thampan was the first Director.

The hospital is today a recognised centre of excellence and delivers around 22,000 babies annually.

Here are some more landmarks:

The Guindy races

Victoria Technical Institute

The AASI building

Moore Market

The Egmore Railway Station

The Meenambakkam Terminal

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Sailing with the Gods

February 7, 2015

O Poompavai! How can you go without seeing the Thai Poosam festival at Mylai, that town of damsels with dazzling eyes lined with collyrium and where Kapali sits embellished with the sacred ash?

Thus runs the fifth of the ten-verse Poompavai Pathikam of the 7th century saint Gnanasambandar, thereby indicating the antiquity of the festival that has just got over at the Kapaliswarar Temple in Mylapore. It also tells us that the nature of the celebrations have changed over the years. In the composer’s time, “bejewelled women who prepared offerings of rice immersed in ghee for the Lord” observed it. Now it is more closely associated with Murugan and also the float or theppam when the processional deities are kept in a decorated barge that is towed in the temple tank.

How and when Thai Poosam became associated with the float is not clear. But the ancients did have a flair for such events. The timing is perfect — the weather is at its best and the sight of a decorated barge illuminated by a full moon is a delight. Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, the Governor of Madras between 1881 and 1886 certainly felt that way. This is what he wrote in January 1886: “In the evening we drove to the Mylapore tank and saw, for, I think, the third time, the floating festival in honour of Siva. On this occasion, the effect of this intensely Indian scene, with its raft bearing the semblance of a temple, its dancing girls, its lights, its flowers, and its music, was heightened by the most lovely moonlight.”

The festival lasts three nights. On the first evening, Siva-Chandrashekara is taken on the float along with his consort. On the remaining two nights it is the turn of Singaravelar or Murugan who at this temple enjoys the status of a main deity with his own set of festivals.

Till the 1990s, the floats were open to the public to sit in and sail with the Gods but security threats have changed all that. You can still, however, relax on the tank steps and enjoy the sight, apart from listening to the music. That we have steps to sit on is entirely due to the efforts of the noted playwright Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar. His family had hereditary trusteeship rights to this temple and he officiated in that capacity between 1906 and 1924. He writes in his biography (Enadu Suyacharitai) that in his time the tank had a set of steps leading to the water but the rest of it was just a rough bund. When he expressed a desire to have stone embankments, the local residents baulked at the expense, then estimated at Rs 1 lakh. Sambanda Mudaliar hit upon a winning idea — he announced that those donating Rs. 108 would have their name inscribed on the steps. This caught the public fancy and donations poured in, leading to speedy execution. The Lord fulfils himself in many ways.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated February 7, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column

You may want to read these other articles on Mylapore:

Adhikara Nandi at Velleeswarar Koil, Mylapore

Making Gunpowder in Mylapore

Mylapore Kapali Ther 2014

Facelift for Mylapore Church

Mylapore to become pedestrian friendly?

Doorway to Mohammedan Mylapore

Mylapore, where Andhra was born

On the trail of lawyers and judges of Mylapore

Can the Mylapore Temple Festival be better run?

When Mylapore comes alive…

Music at the Madhava Perumal Temple, Mylapore

The Mylapore Temple Festival in 1910

Mylapore in 1910

Rishabha Vahanam at the Mylapore Temple

A nun in Mylapore

Music and dance at the Mylapore temple

The Mystery of Mathala Narayanan

Car Festival at Coronation Pagoda

A Talk on V Krishnaswami Aiyar

Mylai Velli Vidai/Rishabha Vahanam

Adhikara Nandi at the Kapaliswarar Temple

Remembering the RR Sabha

Karthikai Deepam at Velleeswarar Koil

The Man who saved the Marina

The God who gives vision

Bhikshatana procession at Mylapore

KV Krishnaswami Aiyar

Singaravelar Procession

A Home for Law

The Father of Indian Cricket in Madras

The Ballad of Arupathu Moovar

A 150 year old Thanneer Pandal

Some of Kapali’s Vahanams

Adhikara Nandi Sevai at Kapali temple

The Origin of the Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras

Remembering Musiri

The quaint ritual of Vana Bhojanam

V Krishnaswami Aiyar

Navaratri Concerts at the Sri Ramakrishna Mission

Kotiswara Aiyar

Papanasam Sivan

The Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja, story of the book

Nageswara Rao Park and its environs

Tanneer Turai Market and its surroundings

The etymology of some Chennai place names

January 31, 2015

Of late, I keep getting this message on WhatsApp, Facebook and email that claims to give information on how various localities in the city got their names. People forward it to me asking me if I can vouch for the veracity of the information. Sadly, the answer is no, for these stories are but flights of fancy.

Take for instance this oft-repeated tale of Kodambakkam taking its name from Ghoda Bagh ostensibly because the Nawabs tethered their horses there. If that were indeed the case, the ruler and his entourage must have had quite a walk each morning from Chepauk to get on to their mounts. The earliest British records I can trace refer to the place as Corumbat and Codamback, both dating to 1661. No mention of horses or gardens for them. If Kodambakkam was Ghoda Bagh should Nungambakkam by the same logic not be Nunga Bagh and therefore a historic nudist colony?

The Nawabs bring to mind another story, this one concerning Chepauk, said to have once been an area of six (cheh) gardens (bagh) and so becoming Chehbagh, which is now Chepauk. Here too, there is no proof of such a name or indeed such a garden existing. Pakkam is a common suffix in coastal Tamil Nadu and is of ancient Tamil usage indicative of a hamlet.

That Avadi is an acronym for Armoured Vehicles and Defence Industries is yet another falsehood doing the rounds. All defence establishments here came up in the 1940s and later. The place has been referred to as Avadi in records from at least 1882.

Was Mambalam really a grove of sacred maha bilwa trees guarding a Shiva temple that made it Maha Bilwa Vanam which was finally corrupted to Mambalam? If so why is it not mentioned in any old Tamil text? And that Nandanam got its name because it was the garden to the same ancient temple is another joke. Rajaji named the area after the Tamil year in which the colony was developed, in 1952. Similarly, the Adi Kesava Perumal temple in Chintadripet is claimed by some to be over 2,000 years old. Records clearly state that the temple was built from scratch in the 18th century only.

Some tales are so nearly accurate that anyone can be taken in. I had for long believed that Tondiarpet gets its name from the burial site of Kunangudi Mastan Sahib who was from Tondi in Ramanathapuram District. He lived between 1792 and 1838. Sadly for the story, British records refer to Tondiarpet from at least 1697.

Given that we are yet to have clarity over Madras and Chennai, we are a long way from handling the history of areas within the city. Till then, such emails are likely to proliferate.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column on January 31, 2015

The Drain Man

January 24, 2015
The gate post of Tulloch's Gardens

The gate post of Tulloch’s Gardens

It stands rather forlornly on Anderson Road, Egmore, on the same side as Asan Memorial School. Indeed, it, and the compound wall that still survives by its side though almost obliterated by the rising road level, was once part of the campus that encompassed the school as well.

A close up of the plaque

A close up of the plaque

A closer look reveals what is inscribed on the marble plaque — Tullock’s Gardens. A matching pillar on the other side bears the legend Cochin House, thereby rather neatly summarising the entire history of the place. H.D. Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras has further details — it was by 1837 Col Alexander Tulloch’s home, and hence the name. The property came to have several owners subsequently, before being divided early in the 20th Century into parts — one became Cochin House, the Madras palace of the Maharajah of that eponymous State, becoming in the 1960s Asan Memorial School. The other had a more chequered history and is now a shabbily maintained police housing scheme.

There have been plenty of Tullochs in Madras history, though I am not certain if the ‘k’ in the Tullock on the slab is an inscribing error. Most famous was Captain Hector Tulloch, of the Royal Engineers. Arriving in Madras in the 1860s, he was appalled to find that the city had no underground drains and created a plan for it. Submitted in 1865, it was revolutionary for the times — he proposed the separation of sewage from rainwater (something that is yet to be fully in place), and the laying of small sewers in various parts of the city from where the sewerage could be taken to one central spot, where, by means of steam pumps, it was to be lifted and discharged into the sea.

This collection point was to be in the neighbourhood of ‘Coorookoopett’. He had an alternative for the disposal of the sewage — it could be used to fertilise the ‘thousands of acres of waste land lying to the north-west of Madras’.

Tulloch’s scheme was detailed and thorough. It found a champion in Florence Nightingale in England, who thought it admirable. But he had not reckoned with local opposition. This came from W.R. Cornish, Sanitary Commissioner for Madras, who strongly protested against Western ideas being imposed on our city. He was all for the system of dry conservancy to continue. Tulloch moved to Bombay in 1871, where the Commissioners of that city’s corporation immediately trashed a similar idea formulated by him. They just could not stomach an outsider coming up with schemes that suggested, among other things, that ‘night soil be carried off by sewers’. They were all for the human scavenging system.

Back in Madras, Governor Lord Hobart died of cholera in 1875, which was directly attributed to the drains or lack of them. Everyone woke up to the merits of Tulloch’s scheme and work then began desultorily on its implementation. What is ironic is that back home in England, Tulloch became the resident expert on drains and several towns eventually owed their sewerage systems to him.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated January 24, 2015, under the Hidden Histories column.

You may also be interested in reading the following on the history of water supply and sanitation in our city:

The Indian in the waterworks

History of public toilets in Chennai

Transforming slums and translating Tirukkural

Park with a past

The story of Kelly’s Bottle

Landmarks of Chennai – Guindy Races

January 19, 2015
The stands of the Guindy Racecourse

The stands of the Guindy Racecourse

Like many other firsts, Madras also holds the record for the first ever race meet in India. This was in 1780 and held on the Island. But it would appear that Guindy was the area earmarked for racing as early as in 1777 when 81 cawnies of land was taken from the villages of Velacherry and Venkatapuram for the construction of a racecourse.

Almost from 1790 or so the Assembly Rooms on the racecourse were a landmark of the city. William and Thomas Daniell did a painting of the building in 1792. The racecourse stood to the left of the Assembly Rooms, where it still is, and according to the Daniells, “the amusement took place in the cool season, when the ladies of the settlement are invited to a splendid ball.” Racing in the early years began at six in the morning and ended by ten so that people could get to work. The sport received a setback during the Mysore Wars and was revived in 1804. Land amounting to 35 cawnies was added facilitating the laying out of a second and smaller track meant for training horses.

It is not clear as to who managed the races in the early years. The Madras Race Club was set up in 1837 and functioned till 1875 when the Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward VII, visited it. It faded thereafter, to be revived in 1887 by Lt. Col. George Moore, President of the Corporation of Madras. A new Madras Race Club came into existence in 1896, taking over the assets and liabilities of the earlier one.

Racing suffered during the First World War but was revived in 1919 thanks to the efforts of the Governor, Lord Willingdon. The Bobbili and Venkatagiri stands were constructed a year later. The Guindy Lodge, built initially for the club Secretary, and now the home of the Madras Race Club proper, came up in 1931.

An article on Guindy by the humorist S.V. Vijayaraghavachariar (SVV) appeared in The Hindu at around the time and this is what it had to say:

“Guindy is the place where races are held at stated seasons of the year. On race days the whole city gets empty and congregates at the course, from HE the Governor of Madras down to Muniammal, the vegetable seller. A racecourse is the most democratic place in the world. It would be nothing surprising if a Secretary to Government should take Muniammal aside and request her to whisper in his ears the name of the winner. And mind you, Muniammal knows the birth, upbringing and idiosyncrasies of every horse that runs in the race even better than the owner himself. It is really staggering what an amount of money passes from the hands of visitors through the small apertures of the ticket-selling windows. Guindy is the bottomless sink into which all the wealth, earned or borrowed in the city, disappears without leaving a trace behind.”

SVV may have felt it was classless but going to the races was considered a social grace in the upper echelons of society till at least the late 1960s. This was also the time when certain well-known figures of Madras society cut a dash at the turf – M.A. Chidambaram (MAC) and the Janab Ravu Janardhana Krishna Ranga Rao, the Zamindar of Chikkavaram, being two such. MAC was to be steward for long and it was at his initiative that classic races were introduced in Madras in the 1950s. In 1953 he united the five race clubs of South India – Madras, Mysore, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Ooty – and formed the Southern India Turf Club which, once again thanks to him, was recognised by the Royal Calcutta Turf Club and the Royal Western India Turf Club. In 1966 the SITC was broken up when it was felt that Madras and Bangalore could be independently run and the Madras Race Club became a turf authority by itself. It was also under MAC that modernised tote machines were imported from Australia and installed in Madras, a first in the country.

The biggest setback to racing in Madras came in August 1974 when the then State Government through an ordinance banned it on the grounds that speculation over it caused the ruin of common folk. Statues were erected on both sides of the Anna Flyover to commemorate this. But in 1978 the Supreme Court struck down the ordinance. There was a scare in the 1980s when the betting activities were taken over by the Government of Tamil Nadu’s Racing Department and talks of a ban resumed. An arbitration panel appointed by the Supreme Court voted in favour of continuing racing and it has since functioned unimpeded. Litigation concerning various aspects of horseracing, however, remains endemic to the Club.

Racing is conducted in Madras mainly from November to March. A smaller monsoon season, ranging from August to October has been recently initiated. Around 540 horses are registered with the Club. The Madras Race Club is also independently a thriving social club with many amenities. Sadly, the original Assembly Rooms, which survived till the 1990s, were demolished despite pleas from heritage conservationists. Imagine destroying what the Daniells once painted!

You can also read about other landmarks of the city:

Victoria Technical Institute

The AASI building

Moore Market

The Egmore Railway Station

The Meenambakkam Terminal

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Higginbotham’s – a home for literature #LFL2015

January 17, 2015


The Hindu’s Lit for Life 2015 is in progress and where better to have it in than Madras or Chennai, which has for long been a city of books? Let us remember that located here is Higginbotham’s, the oldest surviving bookshop of India.

It began in 1840 or thereabouts as a shop selling the publications of the Wesleyan Missionaries. Abel Joshua Higginbotham worked there and when the Mission found it difficult to continue with it in 1844, he bought the business and named it after himself. One of its earliest business transactions available in the public domain is the Madras Literary Society’s purchase of Shelley’s Poetic Works for ‘ 7 ½ rupees’ in April 1847.

By 1859, it was one of the premier bookstores of India, John Murray referring to it as such in his Guidebook to the Presidencies of Madras and Bombay. What is even more interesting is the Governor of Madras, Sir Charles Trevelyan writing to Lord Macaulay the same year that “among the many elusive and indescribable charms of life in Madras City, is the existence of my favourite book shop ‘Higginbotham’s’ on Mount Road.”

What made Higginbotham’s a pioneer was its publishing business. James Tod’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan had to await their 1873 edition, printed by Higginbotham’s to become famous the world over. Several landmark books from and on Madras were to come out of its printing presses. Mayne’s Hindu Law, for years the official handbook for all lawyers of the High Court of Madras for solving tangled inheritance and adoption issues, was brought out in 1878. Culinary Jottings by Wyvern (real name Col Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert) published the same year brought out several colonial Madras recipes. Had it not been for this, mulligatawny would have just languished at the Madras Club. Philology, religion, fiction, Government records and biographies – everything was grist to the Higginbotham’s printing press.

That it was not just a bookshop but also a place where browsing was encouraged is evident from the diary of Nemali Pattabhirama Rao, afterwards Dewan of Cochin. When he was a struggling student in the 1880s, he was deputed by James Thomson, Sub Collector of Madanapalle to “go every week to Higginbotham’s, read some book and write to him about its contents.” Business prospered and in 1904, Higginbothams built its present showroom. It was at around this time that it published its landmark Guide to Madras. It also began printing picture postcards featuring various sights and scenes of the city, and these are collectors items today. In the early 1900s, CH Higginbotham, who succeeded his father to the business, built the firm’s retail presence in railway stations. Both father and son were pillars of the Madras Trades Association and the former also served as Sheriff of Madras in 1888/89.

In 1921, Spencer’s acquired Higginbotham’s and in 1945 the Amalgamations Group took it over. What is important is that it has survived when others in that line have long faded out.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated January 17, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column.

The Victoria Technical Institute – a landmark institution

January 14, 2015
The Victoria Technical Institute showroom, Mount Road

The Victoria Technical Institute showroom, Mount Road

The year 1887 was a special one for the British empire. The Queen Empress, Victoria, was completing fifty years as sovereign and many were the celebrations across the world. In Madras, it was decided that the commemoration would be by way of the Victoria Public Hall and the Victoria Technical Institute (VTI). The latter was planned as a body that would promote local arts and crafts and also include a venue for their exhibition and sale.

The VTI came into existence thanks to funds collected by the Central Jubilee Committee which was in charge of the celebrations. The Government made a matching grant on condition that the President and one-third of the managing committee of the Institute ought to be its nominees. This was accepted and the VTI was set up in 1887 as a charitable trust. On October 26, 1889, it was registered as a Society. Its councillors immediately began fanning out into the districts of Madras Presidency, meeting various craftsmen and convincing them to route their products through the VTI. In addition, scholarships were instituted in the Madras School of Arts (now the College of Arts and Crafts) and lectures were organised on the talents of Indian artisans. As the Government began setting up technical institutes and colleges of arts in other parts of the Presidency, the VTI’s importance grew.

While the VTI was a success from Day One, its permanent exhibition centre was slow to get off the ground. It was only when Queen Victoria died in 1901 that the idea was revived again. In 1906, the Prince of Wales, later King George V, laid its foundation stone inside the Museum complex at Egmore. The building, named the Victoria Memorial Hall, designed by Henry Irwin as a scaled down model of the Bulund Durwaza at Fatehpur Sikri, was completed by T. Namberumal Chetty in 1909 and the VTI had a home. An account in 1920 has it that it was the chief attraction in the Pantheon Complex, outshining the museum and the library.

With the coming of World War II, the VTI’s Victoria Memorial Hall was commandeered by the Government and the Institute had to move to a shop on Mount Road. Hope Tod, wife of a boxwallah, remembers it to have been a “large, double-fronted shop on Mount Road where 52 different missions of all denominations sold their wares.” Clearly, given the British administration, products from ecclesiastical missions were what were sold through the VTI. Hope Tod remembers them to have been “the most beautiful embroidered garments, children’s clothing, luncheon tablemats and so many other items”.

When the War ended, the VTI did not want to go back to Egmore. In any case the Victoria Memorial Hall was found to be in a bad state. The Government then did some renovation and converted it into a National Gallery for Art. The VTI in the meanwhile purchased 14 grounds of land on Mount Road in 1952 and constructed a new showroom on it by 1956. This is the one that is shown in today’s picture. The VTI continues to perform the role for which it was first set up. It is known for its collection of bronzes, woodwork, metal work, Tanjore paintings and several other traditional South Indian artefacts. It also exports these creations to other countries.

You may want to read about these other landmarks – some lost, others surviving:

The AASI building

Moore Market

The Egmore Railway Station

The Meenambakkam Terminal

The Gurudwara on GN Chetty Road

Kalaivanar Arangam

The Corporation Zoo

Victory House

Gemini Studios

Old Woodlands Hotel

The Oceanic Hotel

My Ladyes Garden

Connemara Hotel

The Airlines Hotel

Everest Hotel

Modern Cafe


The Eastern and Western Castlets

The Madras Bulwark

Taking tennis to the people

January 10, 2015
The Egmore Tennis Stadium

The Egmore Tennis Stadium

The Chennai Open is now a much looked forward to fixture in our city’s calendar. Tennis takes centre stage during the week preceding Pongal replacing the annual cricket test matches, which remain a mere memory. All the action of Chennai Open is centred at the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu’s Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium, designed in 1995.

Not far from here, in Egmore, stands the first public tennis stadium of the city, and in a not very good state of maintenance at that. Built in 1946, the Egmore stadium owes its existence to JPL Shenoy ICS who was Commissioner of the Corporation between 1944 and 1947. A keen sportsman himself, he played his daily quota of tennis at the Presidency Club of which he was a member. His ambition was however to ensure a proper facility for tennis where enthusiasts could play, students of the game could learn and top ranking players could compete against each other in tournaments or exhibition matches.

At that time, almost all the tennis courts of the city were in private hands. The oldest were those of the Madras Cricket Club laid out in 1883. By the time the Madras Lawn Tennis Association was inaugurated in 1926, several other clubs in the city had facilities but none of these was open to the public.

Having decided in 1946 that the city needed a tennis stadium, Shenoy moved quickly. He chose the Egmore playground set up by the Corporation in 1928 as a suitable site. He sought the military’s help for quick execution of his plan. Under the supervision of Corporation Engineer M Meeran, work on the stadium began on November 10, 1946 and was completed on December 30 the same year! The facility, with three tennis courts and concrete galleries that could seat around a 1000 people was declared open on December 31, 1946 by the Gaekwar of Baroda in the presence of the Mayor of Madras, T Sundara Rao Naidu.

The inauguration plaque

The inauguration plaque

The Madras (later Tamil Nadu) Lawn Tennis Association moved into the clubhouse that was built alongside. It was here that the Davis Cup matches were played in the 1950s, all of them featuring the Madras-based international tennis legend R Krishnan. In 1960s and 1970s, with crowds increasing, Davis Cup tournaments began to be held at a makeshift facility put up on the Island Grounds. The Egmore stadium continued to be used for training – this was where the Amritraj Brothers were taught the nuances by famed coach TA Rama Rao.

The rear of the stadium was where football, hockey and volleyball were played. With the SDAT constructing the Nungambakkam facility, tennis moved away from here forever. A vast hockey stadium was constructed to the rear and named after former Mayor M Radhakrishna Pillai. It overshadows the old tennis stadium parts of which, along with the clubhouse have been taken over by the Tamil Nadu Volleyball Association. What is left could do with better maintenance as part of our sports heritage.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated January 10, 2015 under Hidden Histories column


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