Archive for the ‘XS Real Campaign’ Category

Onward, on a note of hope

September 7, 2012

My concluding piece for the XS Real blog …

We began this series a year ago with the birth of the city. The first piece was on how Chennai or Madras began. Madras Week was being celebrated then and as I come to the last piece in this set of writings, Madras Week is once again being celebrated. Time has come full circle and yet, as befits a dynamic and forward-looking city, Chennai has moved on. It has progressed and will continue to do so.

And in the midst of all this progress is yet another positive sign – the growing awareness about heritage. Gone is the time when heritage structures and precincts could be done away with, no thought being spared for their preservation or of the necessity to pass them on to the succeeding generation. Now, I find that there is a debate, questions are raised, alternative solutions are looked at and above all, the media, both print and electronic, are taking a deep interest. Heritage issues are discussed at the highest echelons of power, at the Legislative Assembly, in the High Court and in industrial circles. People are waking up to what their ancestors have left behind.

In the past one year we have seen some heartening steps. The renovation of Ripon Building and Victoria Public Hall has been proceeding apace. It was decided that fire-ravaged Chepauk Palace will not be pulled down but given a new lease of life, with promise of restoration. And above all, the Government introduced into the legislative assembly a Bill for the formation of a Heritage Conservation Commission. This Commission will comprise independent heritage experts and Government officers who will finalise a list of heritage buildings across the State. These structures will be graded according to their importance with reference to architecture, impact on public life and historical significance. Rules will be formulated for the protection of these buildings and as to what will be the permissible changes that these structures can undergo. Most importantly, incentives for the protection and preservation of heritage will be spelt out for owners of these properties. And as for those who do not wish to be saddled with them, there will be exit routes with suitable compensation. Of course, from a mere Bill to all these end results is a long way, but it is a step in the right direction. It is understood that the Bill became Law in May and has since received the assent of the Governor of the State.

This does not mean that heritage is automatically free from threat. There is still this view that preservation of heritage is an elitist concern and is complete contrast with what a poor country needs. To the votaries of this point of view, here are some counters to ponder over:

Granted that a developing nation has more pressing concerns, it still does not mean heritage needs to be actively done away with. India in particular has always revered the past and it does not need to do away with it in order to embrace the future.

By the time heritage becomes an all-enveloping concern, that is when all other needs have been met, there may not be any heritage to save. And then to what purpose is the concern? And let us face it, heritage is just not buildings. Open spaces and natural precincts are as much a part our heritage and losing them means degrading our quality of life.

Heritage is just not about preserving British-built buildings. And secondly, none of these structures – Senate House, Chepauk Palace etc, are British-built. They are more appropriately British-designed in the sense that they were conceptualised by English architects. The actual detailing (and this will be evident from any blueprint drawing of that era) was done by native artisans and masons. Even the foundation, as in structures such as St Andrews Kirk, were designed by native masons and used an indigenous technology that is now lost. In any other nation it would have been patented. And so when we demolish these structures, we are doing away with something that was our own.

Heritage buildings can be put to new uses. Some old bungalows in the city are now flourishing as restaurants. Schools and colleges have preserved heritage structures in their midst. It is time we woke up to the benefits of old and airy structures that bring in natural light and fresh air.

Lastly, when future generations ask for visible proof of our past, what will we have to show?

A bigger threat than apathy towards heritage is unscientific conservation. We see several misguided attempts around us to preserve what is left – use of modern construction material in place of traditional ingredients, building unplanned structures on top and beside heritage buildings, arbitrary placement of toilets and water tanks that leak and cause further damage and poor quality of electric wiring that frequently results in fires. But for several such inept instances, we also have some splendid restoration work to show. The Senate House and the DGP Building on the Marina are two good examples. In progress are other restoration projects as well. Time will tell as to how good these are.

The battle to preserve our heritage is a slow one and it may have just begun. We still have a long way to go. But the first sure signs of success are already there. And so it is onward, bearing the standard of heritage conservation, preservation and adaptive reuse. May heritage win.

Some heritage along OMR

August 27, 2012

The Tirukazhugukundram Temple, from the South Indian Railway Guide, 1926

When the Madras Christian College shifted to the Tambaram-Selaiyur area in 1930, it was recorded by Alice Barnes, wife of Professor Edward Barnes, that the 390 acres of the college campus had just a few Palmyra trees. Bird and wildlife however abounded thanks to numerous water bodies. It was all open space with very little development and what little there was, was thanks to the electrification of the Tambaram line of the South Indian Railway, which ensured availability of surplus power for local use.
But that does not mean that the area was devoid of heritage. The region was ruled by the Pallavas with Kanchipuram as their capital and Mamallapuram as their port city. The area was then known as Tondaimandalam and later was successively administered by the Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagar kings and their vassals.
Velacheri was clearly a historic settlement for there is continuous mention of the place from the 9th century AD. By the reign of Kulothunga I (1070 – 1120 AD), it was named after his wife as Dinachintamani-Chaturvedimangalam. It was a Brahmin village and evidence of that is attested to by several streets that still bear allied names. Velacheri appears to have had a strong local administration as evinced by inscriptions that detail the functioning of the village Sabha. Two ancient Chola temples still survive in Velacheri. The first is the Dandeeswarar Temple with Chola inscriptions dating from the reign of Gandaraditya (949-957AD). The other is the Selliyamman Temple. In addition, several Vishnu images have surfaced from this village and it is believed that there were at least four temples dedicated to Vishnu located in the vicinity. Some of these images have now been housed in new shrines built for them.
Thorapakkam must have been an ancient port given its name but there are no published details of any inscriptions in the area. An interesting and ancient shrine dedicated to Rama is in the village of Unamanjeri, which is close to Vandalur. Though the temple is tiny, it has a large tank abutting it, testifying to its past glory. It was built during the Vijayanagar period and a copper plate inscription from the time of King Achyuta Raya (1530-1542 AD) refers to his having granted this village of Uhinai (such being its ancient name) to Vedic scholars. The same inscription states that Uhinai was known thereafter as Achyutendra Maharaya Puram. The Srinivasa Perumal temple at Semmancheri is also of a very ancient period. It has however since been completely renovated and bears very little trace of its history.
Tiruporur is another village on OMR that has a large temple dedicated to Murugan. A vast tank that is always full of water fronts it. Legend has it that the shrine was developed by a holy personage around 450 years ago. It is now a thriving settlement, made busy by the real-estate developments in the area. The police station in Tiruporur is a genuine antique. Still bearing its foundation stone dating to 1902, it is splendidly preserved and worth a visit.
Of much greater vintage is the Vedapuriswarar temple at Tirukazhugukunram which is not very far from OMR. A vast shrine that spans the top of a hillock and much of the surrounding area, it is built on the lines of the Tiruvannamalai temple. A unique feature is that while Lord Shiva has his shrine on the hillock, the consort has hers at the base of the hill. The famous singing saints, Appar, Sundarar, Manikkavachakar and Tirugnanasambandar, dating from the 6th to 8th centuries have visited this shrine. A very interesting feature of this shrine and one from which it derived its name was that a pair of vultures/eagles would visit the hillock each morning and be fed by the priests. This was said to have continued for centuries and there is documentary evidence from at least the early 20th century. The birds (or their successors) do not come there anymore, the last sighting being sometime in 1998.
Yet another temple, small and exquisite though its exact age is uncertain, is the Pudupakkam Veera Anjaneyar temple, located just off OMR on the Kelambakkam side. It shot to fame because of a persistent legend that a superstar of Tamil cinema is a regular visitor.
This is of course not a comprehensive list. There are several more lesser-known temples along this route, all of which are just being discovered and renovated as the areas around them develop as residential colonies. This is a welcome development. But what is very important is that the restoration and renovation ought to be done keeping aesthetics and temple traditions in mind.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog –

The old and new on OMR

August 10, 2012

Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) or Rajiv Gandhi Expressway as it is now known, is not all that old. Several accounts of visits to what was called Seven Pagodas have survived from the 1850s. The only route was via Guindy-Chromepet-Tambaram-Chingleput-Tirukkazhukundram. The last stage involved taking a boat somewhere near Sadras to cross the Buckingham Canal. This was an un-metalled road especially towards the end. The best option was to travel by boat, leaving Madras at nightfall and reaching destination by the morning. The journey was via the Buckingham Canal and boats could be hired at Adyar. Trains were the next best option. The car came last and was to be taken only time was a constraint. Certainly, it made it the fastest to Mamallapuram – it needed only five hours. Till 1960 at least, that was the only route, though the boat journey at the end became unnecessary with a viaduct connecting the road to Mamallapuram.

It would therefore be safe to surmise that OMR as we know of it, is not all that old. It definitely gained popularity as a route to Mamallapuram only after the Kotturpuram bridge was constructed in 1987 and provided a direct link to Taramani and beyond. And it became ‘Old’ only when the newer route, the East Coast Road, was completed in 1998. Though an ancient part of South India, the villages that lined OMR receive very little mention in the works of those who documented Madras and its neighbourhood. One reason was probably that anything south of Adyar river was not within Madras city jurisdiction and came under Chingleput district. It therefore received less attention. But these were undoubtedly ancient villages and testimony to their age is the presence of several temples along this stretch, of which more in a later column. In this note let us take a look at what Jawaharlal Nehru referred to as the temples of modern India – the educational institutions and centres of excellence.

Undoubtedly, the educational and intellectual hub of Chennai is Taramani. This tiny settlement first shot to fame when the third Indian Institute of Technology was set up here with German help in 1959. Around 600 acres was forest land in the Guindy reserve was made over to IIT and nestled in its midst was Taramani. The village was shifted and even now, one entrance to the IIT is called the Taramani Gate. A probable reason for locating IIT here was the presence of other educational institutions in the vicinity such as the Central Leather Research Institute (established 1948), the Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute (1953) and the College of Engineering, Guindy. Soon others were to follow.
But what is often forgotten is the mother of them all – the Central Polytechnic (CPT). Begun as the Madras Trades School by the Department of Industries in 1912, it operated first from rented premises in Broadway. There in 1946, it was named as the CPT and by then, it had seven departments that dealt with Civil, Mechanical, Electrical and Sanitary Engineering and the disciplines of Cinematography and Sound, Printing Technology and Fisheries. The CPT shifted to Taramani in 1957/58 and over time several of its departments became independent units in the same place – the Institutes of Printing and Film Technology being two such. Today the entire area is referred to as the CPT campus. Another name is the CIT campus, for the CPT and all its offspring are Central Institutes of Technology, set up with funds from the Government of India.

Also in the CPT campus is the Roja Muthiah Research Library, founded thanks to a University of Chicago initiative. It commemorates Muthiah Chettiar, a signboard painter of Kottaiyur, Chettinad, who had a passion for collecting printed matter of all kinds. His habit of signing off his artworks with a rose earned him the prefix of Roja. Roja Muthiah’s collection of printed matter in Tamil numbered over a 100,000 at the time of his death in the 1990s. This was prevented from disintegration by several research scholars and the University of Chicago. The collection was shifted to Chennai. The RMRL was formed and initially functioned in Mogappair before shifting to Taramani in the last decade.

Media skills are honed at the Asian College of Journalism. Founded in 1994 by the Indian Express Group, it came under a not-for-profit trust in 2000 and was housed initially at 100, Mount Road, once the home of The Hindu. In the last decade, the ACJ shifted to Taramani. An institution of a different kind is the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), which was set up under the Ministry of Textiles, Govt. of India in 1986. The Chennai branch was set up in 1995 and made its shift to the Taramani-Velacheri intersection in the last decade. Mathematics has its share of OMR and has a presence at both ends. In Taramani is the Institute of Mathematical Sciences or Matscience as it is popularly known. The brainchild of mathematician Alladi Ramakrishnan inaugurated in Mylapore in 1962 by Nobel laureate S Chandrashekar and was later shifted to Taramani in 1969. It came under the Department of Atomic Energy, Govt. of India in the 1980s. At the Siruseri end is the Chennai Mathematical Institute. Founded in 1989 as part of the SPIC Foundation, it became autonomous in the 1990s. It made its move to Siruseri in 2005.

Thorapakkam, which comes immediately after Velacheri, has its own educational institutions to boast of. This is thanks to the Jain community of Madras, which can trace its links with the city almost from the beginning of time. The modern Jains from Rajasthan came to Madras from the early 1800s. And when they did, they also began contributing to what has been a Jain tradition in this region from Pallava times – the fostering of education. The Dhanraj Baid Jain College begun in 1972 commemorates DB Jain, a businessman-philanthropist who came to Madras in 1903 and stayed on. The Trust that promoted this college also branched into engineering in 1980 with the MNM Jain College, also set in Thorapakkam on a 20-acre campus.

Perhaps it was all this educational and intellectual presence that encouraged IT companies to flock to this area from the 1990s. The most visible symbol of this is Tidel Park, constructed in 2000 as a collaborative exercise by TIDCO and ELCOT. Tidel Park came up on the grounds of the MGR Film City, which was planned as a film shooting location and a tourist attraction in 1994 on 70 acres.
After Taramani, the area was largely paddy fields and open spaces interspersed with water bodies. Major development took place along this route only from the last decade when over 900 acres in Siruseri and Padur was allotted to SIPCOT to develop an IT Park, said to be the largest in Asia. A visitor to the Park would today assume that this is a different world. But what is often forgotten is another national first – the Vikram Sarabhai Instronics Industrial Estate (VSIIE). While it is well-known that the first industrial estate in the country was the one in Guindy, set up in the 1950s, what is not recollected is that as early as 1971, Chennai had the VSIIE which was the only estate devoted to electronics and instrumentation. Begun wit h 29 acres it expanded to over 140 by 1976. It is still a symbol of the region’s focus on industrialisation. Another industrial landmark now undergoing a metamorphosis is SRP Tools. Set up in the 1960s it emerged as a leader in cutting tools before being sold to the Mitsubishi group a few years ago.

Another landmark is the Aavin Dairy at Sholinganallur. This may have begun only in 1995 but it commemorates the fifty plus years of co-operative procurement, processing and marketing of milk in Tamil Nadu. The Aavin facility here processes 3.4 lakhs litres of milk per day.

So much of history and human endeavour in what is relatively a new part of Chennai. But what about the ancient history of the region? More of that in a subsequent post.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog –

The Madras Mail

July 30, 2012

Sir Charles Lawson

Madras has had a long journalistic tradition, the first publication dating back to the 1780s. In the 1830s, two new papers made their appearance – The Spectator and The Madras Times. The latter took over the former and was in turn acquired in 1859 by Justinian Gantz, who ran Gantz & Son, booksellers and printers with their offices in Broadway. 1859 was the year when Madras fought the income tax and in this it found an able ally in The Madras Times. The content of the paper was in the hands of Charles Lawson and Henry Cornish, two able journalists. When Lawson and Cornish broke with The Madras Times and set up The Madras Mail, the city got a powerful newspaper.

The Madras Mail, founded in 1868, was the true representative of commercial interests. Lawson was close to most of the top-ranking business houses of First Line Beach and after a brief stint in rented offices on Second Line Beach, The Madras Mail moved to the first floor of A D’ Rozario, Auctioneers at 6, First Line Beach. This building, no longer in existence was the southern neighbour of the State Bank building. Lawson took an active interest in the affairs of the Madras Chamber of Commerce of which he was elected Secretary on 24th November 1862. The Chamber had till then not been lucky in the matter of Secretaries with the incumbents leaving to take up Government and other assignments. Lawson was to be Secretary for 30 long years. A room was specially built for the Chamber in the Madras Mail’s new address. In 1869 therefore, the Chamber shifted from the Arbuthnot building to the offices of The Madras Mail.

In 1886, when the golden jubilee of the Madras Chamber came about, the Chairman, George G Arbuthnot, on behalf of the members, placed on record “the very valuable services rendered to the Chamber by Mr Lawson who had filled the office of the Secretary for twenty-four years. He was sure that all members of the Chamber and especially all office-bearers, would be in full accord with himself on the opinion that the Chamber had received the greatest possible assistance from Mr Lawson, who indeed might be regarded the right hand of the Chamber and to whom, in a great measure, the Chamber was indebted for the success and influence which it has obtained. He therefore begged to propose:-
“That on this, the fiftieth anniversary of its foundation, the Chamber desires to put on record its high appreciation of the very valuable services rendered to it by its Secretary, Mr Lawson who has now held that office for twenty-four years”.”
The proposition was carried unanimously.

Lawson travelled to England in 1887 and on 30th June, presented to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, the Madras Presidential Address of Congratulation on the completion of the Jubilee Year of her reign. The Queen was pleased to confer on him the honour of a knighthood. Sir Charles as he now became, continued his work with The Madras Mail and the Chamber till 1892, when he resigned the office of Secretary much to the Chamber’s regret. The Chamber continued occupying its room in The Madras Mail building till 1920 and the newspaper continued being its voice. AE Lawson, Sir Charles’ son, had taken over as editor from his father in 1892 and he also became Secretary to the Chamber. It is noteworthy to point out that he was also Sheriff of Madras that year. AE Lawson was Secretary of the Chamber till 1917. When he returned to England that year, TE Welby became editor of The Madras Mail and also Secretary to the Chamber.

During these years, there was a strong rivalry between The Madras Times which was more sympathetic to the native and The Madras Mail which was pukka sahib. But by 1921 all that was a matter of the past, with the Madras Mail and the Madras Times being both merged under the leadership of John Oakshott Robinson, a takeover tycoon of his times and then the Chairman of Spencers. The merged entity, under the ownership of Associated Publishers, changed its name in 1928 to The Mail. But with the ownership now in the hands of one closely connected with the Madras Trades Association, the link with the Chamber was somewhat weakened. Editors of The Mail ceased being Secretaries of the Chamber.

Following the merger, The Madras Mail moved from First Line Beach. Its new offices were on Mount Road, in magnificent premises built specially to house a newspaper. It was to have a long an illustrious life on that busy thoroughfare, having a second golden period from 1928 to 1955 when it was under the editorship of AA Hayles. In 1945, it changed hands once again, this time being acquired by Amalgamations Limited and its visionary founder – S Anantharamakrishnan.
An eveninger right through its life, The Mail was to find competition and political interference tough to endure. The latter in particular was to sound its death knell. Any editorial criticising the Government was to see repercussions by way of strikes in the group company and neighbour, Simpsons. The Mail lived on to celebrate its centenary and finally closed shop in 1981. It is yet to fade from collective memory.
Its erstwhile friend and ally, the Madras Chamber of Commerce, had a longer career on First Line Beach. After the Mail left, it moved in 1924, post a brief stay at Best & Co, to the Mercantile Bank building (now the HSBC). It remained there till 1940 when it moved into the new art deco styled Dare House. It had a long stay there till 1984. Then it moved briefly into a bungalow on Kasturi Ranga Iyengar Road before finally coming home to roost at the Karumuthu Centre on Mount Road in 1990.

This article was published in XS Real’s blog –

How Chennai got a port – 2

July 13, 2012

Sir Francis Spring

The Harbour had been completed with an eastern entrance in 1895. Almost immediately a discussion began on whether the entrance ought to have been at the northern side. This was because the eastern opening was parallel to the surf and was therefore silting up rapidly at the rate of one foot a year. The problem of providing a smooth-water enclosure was referred to a committee in 1902. It was decided that the eastern entrance would have to be closed and a north-eastern one opened up instead. The work was initially entrusted to FJ Wilson, Chief Engineer of the Madras Harbour Trust Board but it really received its fillip when Francis JE Spring, formerly Secretary of the Madras Government’s Railway Department, was appointed Chairman of the Port Trust in 1904. In 1906, he took on the post of Chief Engineer also, following the retirement of Wilson.

Spring put through the remodelling scheme – projecting the eastern breakwater northwards to form a sheltering arm, opening up a new north-eastern entrance by removing a 400ft section of the northern breakwater and finally closing the eastern entrance. The estimate was Rs 45 lakhs. Spring made the Madras Chamber of Commerce his ally. The members endorsed his proposal for sanction by the Government. This was approved, with Rs 20 lakhs coming by way of a grant and the balance, up to a maximum of Rs 40 lakhs as loan at 4% repayable in 60 years. In years when the revenue of the Trust fell short, the local Government would lend up to half the amount. Spring, who combined a capacity for hard work with enormous optimism, was soon back in 1906 with a proposal for additional sheds and wharfs, jetties, road weighbridge and crane equipments totalling Rs 9.5 lakhs and again in 1910, this time proposing ship quays at a whopping Rs 56 lakhs. The Chamber was again inclined to be cautious but Spring won everyone over. He envisaged a deeper harbour as inevitable in the long run and the Chamber agreed to it. This meant sacrificing the land opposite the Fort and therefore the beautiful seafront. This was reluctantly agreed to. The Chamber was keen that the Harbour Trust Board retained its autonomy and insisted on the formation of a Port Trust in 1905, “subject to the general and complete power of control which Government would always retain”.

Under Francis Spring, the Port was radically altered. There was a rearrangement of the twist and swings in the Harbour Trust yard, improvements for the handling of coal, better cranes, an export pier, a pier for dutiable imports and another for the non-dutiable goods. A shed of 1 ¾ acres was built for dutiable imports, a seven acre basin for lighters and smaller craft, a slipway for hauling vessels of 500 tonnes burden, jetties and sidings for the timber trade, space and sidings for minerals and rough cargo, improved passenger amenities, better wharfs for landing iron and sheds for non-dutiable goods. With the formation of the Port Trust, land on which the harbour and its appurtenances lay was transferred by the Government to it. A municipal property tax not exceeding 4% of gross receipts was an added burden that the harbour now had to bear but Spring felt that this was well worth it considering the water-supply and amenities that the Madras Municipal Corporation now had to extend to the Port.

There was nothing that Spring overlooked and by 1911, the harbour traffic had begun to rise. Spring was awarded a much-deserved knighthood that year. In 1913/14 the cargo handled by the port rose to 798,000 tonnes. A cyclone in 1916 did considerable damage to the north-eastern arm but Spring was at hand to take on the repairs which were completed in 1919. That year he retired and the Chamber placed on record its high appreciation of the great work done by him. Spring’s parting gift was characteristic of the man – a scheme for the development of the port over the next ten years.

In 1926, J Chartres Molony, then President of the Madras Corporation, recorded the changes in his book, A Book of South India. “Today the opening towards the east has been closed and a long sheltering wall runs north. The ships rounding this wall enter from the north; the old pier has vanished and the vessels moor by the quayside. Giant cranes that travel on rails swing out freight from the holds; there are rows and rows of warehouses waiting to receive it. The harbour has been described by its creator, Sir Francis Spring, as ” a challenge flaunted in the face of Nature.” Assuredly to few men has it been granted to change so greatly the sea-front of a city.” The port reaped the harvest of Spring’s vision. The traffic reached 1 million tonnes by 1919 and by 1939 it was 2.5 million tonnes. The Second World War was to see the Port being used to its fullest. Madras was one of the few port cities on the eastern front to be left untouched by the Axis powers and was vital for Allied troop and supply movements. It was to transform Madras forever into a vibrant industrial centre.

A couple of asides – Spring’s schemes spelt the end of a Chennai landmark – the High Court Beach which as its name suggests was just behind the High Court and was a second Marina. Secondly, the arrival of coal, facilitated by the Port, meant that the High Court and the beautiful Port Trust bungalows would be permanently shrouded in coal dust, a menace that is only now abating thanks to coal consignments moving to Ennore. The extension of the Port also caused the erosion of Tiruvottriyur, a problem that is yet to be overcome.

Spring was a multi-faceted man. He was among the first to own a car in Madras. Spring was also founder of the Royal Madras Yacht Club, which he did in 1911. It operates even now from Springhaven’s Wharf inside the Port, the location commemorating Francis Spring by name.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog –

How oil came to Madras

July 4, 2012

One of the most fascinating sidelights of the Port story is the arrival of oil in Madras. The first phase in the development of the Port ended in 1895 and within a decade of this, the first motor cars had begun to roll off the ships that called at Madras. The first automobile dealer was Addison & Co and in 1901, AJ Yorke, a Director of Parry, became the first owner of a car in the city. He drove in it everyday from Bens Gardens (present day Boat Club Road) to his office in Parry’s Corner. First Line Beach was therefore an early witness to the automobile. And the automobile needed petrol.

Shell Oil ads

However, almost a decade before petrol, Chennai got to see kerosene for the first time. This was thanks to Best & Co, one of the giants of First Line Beach. Founded by Andrews Van Dunlop Best in 1879, the company was initially into shipping and trading, lines in which it was to make a fortune. In 1893, thanks to improved port facilities, Best & Co, by then agents in Madras for the London-based Marcus Samuel & Co, began importing by sea, kerosene in tankers. Marcus Samuel had made their name in selling trinkets and curios of which their sea-shells were most popular. Thus when they diversified into kerosene, they marketed it under the Shell brand. It was a Shell tanker that first came to Madras in 1893 and emptied its contents directly into a bulk-storage facility put up by Best & Co on the sand opposite the High Court.

But the credit for first bringing kerosene to the city belongs in reality to an Indian. This was Haji Sir Ismail Sait, a rich Cutchi Memon businessman of South India, who is today remembered in a hospital named after him in Bangalore. He ran the English Warehouse in Madras and Bangalore, which retailed everything from toys to mining equipment. Haji Sir Ismail was on the Board of Binny’s Carnatic Mill Co. Ltd in 1881 and was even then importing kerosene oil from America in cans and selling them through Spencer & Co. By the 1890s, he had developed a system of branches and depots upcountry and was firmly entrenched in the trade. In Madras, Haji Sir Ismail pioneered the sale of kerosene through carts, a system that survived well into the 1970s.
Best studied Haji Sir Ismail’s methods and given their financial muscle, went on to make a name for themselves in kerosene. In 1897, Samuel & Co formed the Shell Transport and Trading Company with Best as their Indian agents. In 1907, Shell merged with the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company. Four years earlier, the latter had built its oil storage facility opposite the High Court with Arbuthnot & Co, another First Line Beach major, as its agent. In 1906, Arbuthnots collapsed and Best became the agents for Royal Dutch. In the meanwhile, oil from Burmah arrived in Madras in 1903, with Binny as the agents for the Burmah Oil Co Limited. By 1905, they too had their storage facilities fronting the High Court. The signing up of Binny’s with Burmah Oil was not to the liking of Haji Sir Ismail and he had to be placated given that he was a powerful Director on Board. The commission from the sale of Burmah Oil was split on a 3:5 basis between Haji Sir Ismail and Binny. But Binny’s interest in oil was short-lived. In 1906, it gave up the agency to Shaw Wallace.

The High Court Dome

The building of oil storage facilities on the beach fronting the High Court was no easy task. There was no road on the beach and as the Fort was controlled by the military (as it still is), special permission was obtained and a tramline was laid to transport construction material. But by 1910, there were at least three giant oil tanks on the beachfront. These were to be easy targets for the German ship the Emden when it came cruising down the Madras shoreline in 1914.
The First World War had begun that year and on 22nd September, the Emden found itself near Madras, technically enemy territory as this was a British colony. The light from the High Court’s top dome, which also served as the city’s lighthouse streamed out and provided easy guidance. At 9.30 pm Captain Karl Von Muller gave orders to fire and the Emden shelled the Madras coastline. The Burmah Oil tanks were easy targets and burst into flames. A merchant ship was sunk in the harbour and shells landed in George Town and also the compound of the High Court. When British guns began firing in retaliation at 10.00 pm, the Emden left unscathed.

The Emden Plaque

The oil tankers burnt for three days. The city was gripped by an unprecedented panic. Thousands fled and properties were sold at rock-bottom prices. In Germany, a jubilant Kaiser Wilhelm II decreed that the crew of the ship could add the word Emden to their names. In Madras, the word came to mean a ruffian or a bully and continues to remain so. A plaque on the High Court wall commemorates the shelling by the Emden even now. Some unexploded shells are in the Fort Museum.
By the time the war ended, the Port had expanded and the oil tanks were moved to Royapuram where they stand even today. By then motor cars and public transport vehicles had begun to ply in large numbers. Motor oils were sold in cans with Chester and Monkey brands being popular. Then in 1927, Royal Dutch and Burmah Oil merged to form Burmah-Shell. They had their offices in the buildings of Best & Co. Shell Motor Oil became the preferred brand of petrol. In the early 1930s, Madras got its first petrol bunk, run by Shell. This was near the Mount Road roundtana, i.e, near where the Annadurai statue is today.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog -

How Chennai got a Port – 1

June 15, 2012

The Chennai Harbour extends along the entire eastern side of First Line Beach (Rajaji Salai). If you had been visiting this city in the early 1800s, you would have scoffed at the idea that Madras could ever have a decent port. The surf was notorious and so was a strong current and the old ships could never approach land. All ships stopped two miles in the sea at a place called Madras Roads. Catamarans rowed up to them and passengers and goods were offloaded from the ships onto the rafts, which then brought them to the shore. The surf was so rough and the boatmen so rapacious in their greed that many passengers preferred to wade ashore. In the chaos of being brought to land on primitive boats, goods would invariably be lost. It was said that 90% of the merchandise brought from England to India perished in the last two miles.
The idea of a proper port for Madras began with Warren Hastings in 1769 when he was member of the Fort St George Council and the Committee of Works. A plan for a harbour was sent down from London and a pier based on sunken caissons with piles was recommended for Madras. But with Hastings leaving for Calcutta as Governor-General, the plan was pigeon-holed.
In 1798, Captain Lennon of the Madras Engineers submitted a memorandum of fifty pages in which he suggested not only a pier but also a closed harbour. The Board in Madras passed on the proposal to the Directors in England and nothing was heard again of the idea.
The Port scheme gained a major source of support with the establishment of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1836. The merchants of the city were convinced that if it was to transform from being Kipiling’s “tired withered beldame”, Madras needed a proper harbour and therefore began championing the cause. The Chamber, which had most of its members on First Line Beach, roped in the Madras Trades Association, which comprised the retail giants of Mount Road. In 1857, a Committee in which the Chamber was represented submitted to the East India Company a report that stated “that an iron screw pile pier was not only feasible but simple of construction and was the most suitable structure for spanning the Madras surf”. The Government that replaced the Company post Mutiny accepted this proposal which was estimated to cost Rs 95,000. A year later this was revised to Rs 103,000 and on 17th September 1859, the first pile was screwed down by Sir Charles Trevelyan, the then Governor, assisted by the Commander-in-Chief and Henry Nelson, Chairman of the Chamber. Progress was slow for the vessels that brought in the piles from England met with repeated disasters. By 1861, the rather flimsy structure of 1000 feet length and 40 feet width, with four lines of tramway and fixed and moveable cranes was ready. But with the Government refusing to sanction a warehouse, the masula boats were still needed to ply between vessel and pier and the boatmen preferred offloading the goods on to the beach.
In 1868, a storm damaged the pier. Then in 1872 came a worse cyclone when no less than ten vessels, 9 native barques, 3 native brigs, 1 native schooner, 6 native dhonies and 1 native sloop were wrecked and 19 people lost their lives. Two country vessels drifted on to the pier, caused a breach and passed right through the structure, north to south. The pier was closed for 18 months.
Repeated failures in the construction of a suitable pier and harbour did not deter the Chamber. Writing letters on the subject became a matter of habit. A powerful argument was that with the railways converging on Madras, precious little use could be made of them by way of cargo if the city did not have a suitable harbour. In 1872, the Suez Canal was opened and as related earlier, this revolutionised the maritime trade. The bulk of the trade of Madras could now be handled by steamers, which did not stand the same kind of risks from cyclones as the old ships. The Port idea gained steam once more and in 1873 therefore, the Government sent out William Parkes, who had supervised the construction of the Karachi Harbour.
Parkes’ proposal envisaged the running out of two piers into the sea, 1200 yards from the shore or into 7 fathoms of water. These two were to be joined on the eastern front by another pier or breakwater running parallel to the coast. The last would have an eastern entrance of around 480 ft width. The space enclosed within the piers would be 170 acres which was sufficient to provide anchorage for 17 large ships or steamers, besides a number of native craft. The water inside the enclosure would be free of surf and therefore the craft could anchor almost close to the shore. The report concluded with an estimate, which came to Rs 565,000, an expenditure, which it felt, was justifiable given the growing trade of Madras Port. Following this, the Government asked the Madras Chamber to estimate the probable income derivable from the trade of the Port in the event of the construction of the Harbour being sanctioned.
Amidst fears that the cost of the Port would be passed on to the great shipping lines such as P&O, thereby making them move over to Colombo or Calcutta, the Chamber began work on its report. By then, several Chamber members were local agents for international shipping lines. These members no doubt played a key role in allaying the fears of their shipping principals. Apart from the older established ones, a new entrant was Gordon Woodroffe, which was established in 1868 and handled the local business of the Clan, the Hansa and the Well lines. Its magnificent headquarters can be seen even now on First Line Beach. The project was sanctioned in March 1875, thanks in large measure to Governor Lord Hobart who was unflinching in his follow-up. The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, laid the foundation stone and construction began.
Work progressed steadily through 1876 and 1877 the raging famine notwithstanding. The surf posed as many hurdles as possible when it came to building the piers but this was overcome by tipping heavy granite boulders into the sea and then setting the concrete blocks on them. By 1880, a railway line was laid along the coast linking the north and south piers and within the next year, cranes, machinery, engines and workshops were in place. Then, in 1881, Nature came back to claim what was her own. A severe cyclone blew over the city on 12th November and the eastern pier that was to protect the harbour was severely damaged, exposing the enclosed area to the full force of the sea. Experts were called in once again and for 3 ½ years, work was stopped. The Chamber was of the view that the eastern entrance was the culprit and sent in its comments to the Secretary of State. In 1885, money was sanctioned for the restoration and work began once again. Rs 80 lakhs had been spent thus far.
With the project finally taking some shape, the Government on 1st January 1886, passed the Madras Harbour Act as per which the properties and liabilities of the harbour were transferred from the Government to a Board of Trustees. In the meanwhile, work on the Harbour with its eastern entrance progressed and was completed by end 1895. There were new problems – namely the rapid silting up of the eastern entrance and the sea continuing to pose challenges all of which required a new messiah in the shape of Mr FJE Spring of whose doings, more will be told anon.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog –

First Line Beach – part 1

June 1, 2012

First Line Beach, or Rajaji Salai, is the road that starts off from Fort St George and carries on to Royapuram. It is a long stretch, with a series of impressive buildings on the left and the port on its right. In its time, it was THE most important road of the city, for its commercial strength and therefore clout was immense. The business establishments on the left were responsible for the port on the right and when the port became established it further strengthened the businesses on the left. It was a symbiotic relationship that lasted a good 150 years at least and several historic buildings have survived to tell that tale.

The story of First Line Beach really begins with Customs House and Bentinck’s Building (present Singaravelar Maligai). Prior to 1798, goods from ships were offloaded opposite Fort St George and the Customs Office was located within the Fort. It was in that year that Edward, Second Lord Clive, in his capacity as Governor decided that the Customs needed a building of their own, outside the Fort.
First Line Beach was then just a beach, it was then the equivalent of the Marina for Black (now George) Town and people used to flock there in the evenings. The merchants of Fort St George, under increasing pressure to leave its protective walls and set up business outside, had already seen the commercial possibilities of this stretch and work had begun in 1793 on what was to be the new Business Exchange – Bentinck’s Buildings. It was next to it therefore that Customs House was built, from 1798 onwards. With that there was no looking back for First Line Beach. The beach vanished and in its place came up a fine commercial district.

Government Staionery Depot, First Line Beach

Bentinck’s Buildings was home to the first merchants, all British. Next to it came up certain appurtenances such a stationery store, which still survives as the Government Stationery Depot. All the godowns were close by and these, going by their character, gave their names to streets such as Godown Street and Bunder Street. But by 1817, the merchants were becoming bigger than the facilities that Bentinck’s Buildings could provide. They began building headquarters for themselves on the same stretch and moved out. From 1817 to 1862, Bentinck’s Building housed the Supreme Court of Madras and then till 1892 it housed the High Court. From then on it became the Collectorate of Madras (and now Chennai). The old building was demolished in the 1990s and replaced by the Singaravelar Maligai. Outside it stands a small remnant – a cupola that once housed a statue of Lord Cornwallis, which is now inside the Fort Museum.

The big names in Madras business by 1817 were three – Parry, Binny and Arbuthnot. Each built its offices in the vicinity. Parry, established in 1798, identified its space as early as 1801. It became Parry’s Corner for this was land’s end. At that time there was no First Line Beach and during high tide, the water practically lapped Parry’s walls. The property was purchased in 1803 and over the years an Indo-Saracenic edifice came up, known as Dare House, named after Thomas Parry’s successor – JW Dare. Dare House was completely demolished and rebuilt in the then prevalent art-deco style between 1938 and 1940. It remains a handsome landmark even now.

Binny built their offices a few blocks away on Armenian Street and so we will not focus on them, beyond mentioning that it was in that office in 1836 that a few merchants got together to found the Madras Chamber of Commerce, now the second-oldest such body in the whole of India.

Arbuthnot came on the scene in the early 1800s and by the 1850s had built its handsome classical edifice on First Line Beach, separated by a street, named Arbuthnot Street, from Bentincks Building. In its time it appeared that nothing could stop Arbuthnot. The firm grew and grew until a sensational crash in 1906 which left thousands insolvent. Out of its ashes emerged the Indian Bank, founded and run by Indians, as opposed to Arbuthnot which was British. Indian Bank in turn purchased Arbuthnots’ headquarters and functioned from there till 1970 when it had the structure demolished and put up its present multi-storey building.

By the 1850s, work on a kind of port for Madras had begun, opposite First Line Beach. That is a long and involved story that needs to be told in full later. But the location of the port and so many successful businesses soon meant that railways, post and telegraph and banking had to soon come to First Line Beach. And they did in full measure.

On 1st July 1856, India’s second oldest and South India’s first railway station opened for business. This was at Royapuram, at the northern end of First Line Beach. The railway line, run by the Madras Railway Company (MRC), connected Royapuram to Arcot. It expanded over time, with its headquarters being a beautiful classical building that now lies derelict next to the Royapuram Station. In 1907, the MRC was merged with the Southern Mahratta Railway, becoming the M&SM Railway. It shifted its office to near Central Station and Royapuram waned in importance. The station is now restored and there is talk of reviving it as an important junction.

Postal services may have begun in Madras in 1786, but the head post office remained within Fort St George till 1870. Then in moved to the Mercantile Bank Building on First Line Beach. In 1874, land was identified for a GPO on the same road. To a magnificent design by Robert Fellowes Chisholm, work began and was completed in 1884. This was also the Central Telegraph Office and functions as GPO even now.

Surprising though it may seem now, India did not have one central bank till 1920. Each of the Presidencies had their own banks which could print and issue currencies. The Bank of Madras fulfilled that role and had its own handsome premises on First Line Beach, designed by Henry Irwin and built by Thatikonda Namberumal Chetty in 1895. The Bank of Madras merged into the Imperial Bank of India when it was formed as the central bank in 1921. This in 1955 became the State Bank of India. The SBI continues to function from the Bank of Madras Building.

Another building that reminds us of old banking history is the office of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, earlier known as the Mercantile Bank building. The Chartered Mercantile Bank of India began business in Madras in 1854 and became the Mercantile Bank of India in 1893. It moved into the present building in 1923 and later merged into the HSBC which still retains the old façade.
There is much more to tell about First Line Beach and so let us look at it in subsequent updates…

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog at

Some early building contractors of Madras

May 10, 2012

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog –

T Namberumal Chetty may have been the biggest, but he was certainly not the only name to contend with when it came to execution of public buildings in the city. Unfortunately, there is not much biographical detail available about the others though some sketchy bits do exist. By far the best documentation is in Somerset Playne’s excellent work Southern India, Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources, published in 1914/15 by the Foreign and Colonial Compiling and Publishing Company, London. Some of the names given in that work are:
S Ambrose- He began life as a clerk in the PWD. Having obtained private tuition from one of the tutors at the Civil Engineering College (later the College of Engineering, Guindy), he joined in 1894, a course of artisans and sub-overseers at the same institution. He was also trained by WN Pogson, the architect of the old Spencer showroom. He then worked at the PWD in Madras and Travancore and after 10 years of service, resigned to set up his own independent practice. Ambrose appears to have obtained contracts for building in various parts of Madras Presidency. In the city, he designed and built that St Ebbas School building and the Church of the Good Shepherd, both standing till now on what was originally Sullivans Gardens, Mylapore. He also built a hostel for Indian girls at the St Thomas Convent, San Thome and made improvements and additions to the Oriental Assurance Buildings, George Town. His office was at Milan House, Royapettah.
AK Venkatarama Iyer and AK Ranganatha Iyer – The brothers set up business first in timber around 1911 or so. They supplied fittings for the renovation of Banqueting (Rajaji) Hall. They supplied ornamental furnishings for the Government Medical College and branched into cabinet making. In 1913 they got into civil construction and among the first projects entrusted to them was the University Library. They also executed the Police Lines (living quarters) in Triplicane (since demolished). In later years, AK Ranganatha Iyer ventured into making bricks and his Krishna Brick Works held almost a monopoly for supply of bricks almost all over Madras. He lived in Kumara Vijayam, a palatial bungalow off Royapettah High Road next to Vidya Mandir School. That has become a multi-storeyed building of the same name.
T Batchacharry – His career was summarised as having grown from apprentice to journeyman, journeyman to manager and from manager to master. As a boy he learnt the carpenter’s trade and in 1894 he set up business, making household furniture on order. In 1899 he began undertaking civil contracts, among the first such being the construction of bungalows in Chetpet and Nungambakkam. In 1911, Bhatchacharry obtained his biggest contract – Rs 170,000 worth of construction for the Madras Christian College, then on China Bazaar Road. Sadly, none of all this survives, the last remnants being demolished by LIC a few years ago. He also did most of the woodwork when the Madras Legislative Assembly was built in Fort St George. He was also involved in the construction of the Church Park School and St Joseph’s Church, Vepery.
G Venkatarama Iyer – A graduate by qualification, he chose to leave Government service and start off as a civil contractor. He appears to have been an understudy to T Namberumal Chetty, for he was involved in the construction of the Bank of Madras and the National Bank of India buildings (the former now the SBI Main Office and the latter demolished). He is significant on a personal note for he built the residence of the District Engineer of the South Indian Railway Company in Tanjore. It was in that house that my father was born, when my grandfather V Ramaiya held that post.
P Loganatha Mudaliar – He it was who came closest to Namberumal in terms of business volumes and stature of projects. It is likely that he marked the beginning of the end as far as Namberumal’s sway was concerned. Beginning in 1902, Mudaliar first executed St Mark’s Church in Bangalore. In Madras he began with a hostel for medical students at Royapuram. This was followed by the Madras Records Office (now the Tamil Nadu Archives), which involved reconstruction of a bungalow called Haslemere at a cost of Rs One lakh. This was in 1909. From then till 1913, Mudaliar worked on his magnum opus – the construction of Ripon Buildings at a cost of Rs 7.5 lakhs (Rs 5.00 lakhs being Mudaliar’s share). The building, one of India’s first to use reinforced concrete for its foundation, was declared open by the Viceroy of India – Lord Hardinge of Penshurst on 26th November, 1913.
T Samynada Pillay – Like Loganatha Mudaliar, he too was from Bangalore where he had done considerable work since 1879. These include the magnificent Sir K Seshadri Iyer Memorial Hall (now the State Library) in Cubbon Park. The South Indian Railway Company brought him to Madras Presidency, where he executed the Tiruchirapalli Railway Station and the Madurai Railway Colony. In 1914, he took on the task of building the Egmore Railway Station to Henry Irwin’s design. After its completion, he embarked on the construction of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway’s headquarters next to Central Station. Today that is the head office of the Southern Railway. Samynada Pillay ran extensive brick kilns on Poonamallee High Road to support his construction activity. His brother Chinnasawmy Pillai assisted him right through.

It’s quite an impressive lineup. And to think that we attribute most of our heritage to British builders!

When Mylapore comes alive …

April 20, 2012

This was written for XS Real’s blog –

The Kapaliswarar Temple is a very important shrine of this city and its ten day annual festival in the Hindu month of Panguni (Mar/Apr) is all about participation. On all the days, five deities, Ganesa, Kapaliswara, Karpagamba, Singaravela with consorts and Chandikeswara are brought out in procession twice, once in the morning and again at night on various mounts. And each day’s procession is accompanied by nagaswaram and tavil ensembles which walk along with the procession and perform at specified spots. A western band also accompanies the deities.

Nagaswaram ensemble during Adhikara Nandi procession

Certain days are more important than others during the ten day festival. The third morning has Kapaliswara borne aloft on the silver Adhikara Nandi. Karpagambal and Singaravelar are borne by veena wielding divine personages. The whole atmosphere is filled with musical associations for Nandi is considered a master on the drum. The bearers sway from side to side as they carry Adhikara Nandi and this gives the impression that the Lord is dancing. It is an awe-inspiring spectacle. It is no wonder that this procession inspired the great composer Papanasam Sivan to compose Kaana Kann Kodi Vendum in raga Kamboji. In the word picture it paints of the Adhikara Nandi sevai, this song is unsurpassed.

Kapaliswara on Adhikara Nandi

On the fifth day the vrishabha vahanam procession takes place late at night. Kapaliswara rides a silver vrishabham or bull while Karpagambal is on a golden vrishabham and Singaravela on a golden peacock. The procession takes the whole night to wend its way around the four Mada Streets and it is early morning and still dark when the five deities are brought to the sixteen-pillared hall on Sannidhi Street.

Kapaliswarar on Silver Rishabham

The seventh day has the car festival when thousands throng the temple and the four streets to witness the procession of five chariots.

Ther stuck at RK Mutt Road corner

The eighth day is the most important. Legend has it that Sambandar, the great 7th century devotee of Siva and one of his chosen 63 followers, composed ten verses to resurrect the dead Poompavai, the daughter of a Mylapore based businessman, Sivanesan Chettiar. Each verse describes at least one festival of the temple – the Shravanam festival in the month of Aippasi (Oct/Nov), Tirukarthikai in Nov/Dec, Tiruvadirai in Margazhi (Dec/Jan), Poosam in Thai (Jan/Feb), the ritual bath in the ocean in Masi (Feb/Mar) and the annual temple festival during the month of Panguni (Mar/Apr). It is clear from the verses that these festivals, which are celebrated even today, were well established even then. The Poompavai Pathigam as it is called, also describes Mayilai to be a prosperous settlement with groves, splendid buildings and occupied by good and pious people. In Sambandar’s time the eighth day was when Siva came out in procession with his eighteen bhoota ganas or ghostly attendants. In time it metamorphosed into the day when Siva comes out in procession with his 63 devotees, the Arupattu Moovar, all of them preceding him in palanquins, with their faces turned towards him; their palms pressed together in adoration. Deities from other temples join the procession and lakhs of devotees throng the area. Pandals are put up at all locations and water, cold drinks and food are distributed to the throng by devotees. Some of the tanneer pandals as they are called, have a hoary history themselves, going back as they do by many years. A unique song associated with the Arupathu Moovar festival is the Vazhinadai Chindu, written by an anonymous poet in the early years of the 20th century. It describes in Chindu format, the route taken by a beau and beloved of George Town to attend the Arupathu Moovar festival. The song describes several landmarks of Chennai.

Arupattumoovar at Kapali Temple

On the ninth day, Siva comes as Bhikshatana, the handsome beggar who seduced the wives of the sages of Darukavana. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Doraikannu, the Devadasi of the temple would lead this procession dressed as Bhikshatana herself and her dance would thrill the audience. At a particular point in the Bhikshatana procession, Kapaliswara is met by Karpagambal decked out as Mohini. It is now the turn of the Goddess to dance and she performs most spiritedly and finally enchants him.

Kapaliswarar as Bhikshatana

The tenth day witnesses the wedding of Kapaliswara and Karpagamba and late at night after the ceremony, the deities are brought out on the Ravana Vahana. On this occasion, musical accompaniment is provided by the mukha veena, a variety of clarionet.

Ravana Vahanam, Kapaliswarar Temple

A unique feature of the ten day festival is the dolls exhibition at the Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar Chattram often referred to as Bommai Chattram on South Mada Street. This building which functions as a marriage hall for the rest of the year transforms itself into a dolls-house for the ten days and on display are age-old leather puppets and clay dolls all of which are locked up for the rest of the year.

The Bommai Chattiram endowed by Vyasarpadi Vinayaka Mudaliar

The vidayatri festival begins immediately after the brahmotsavam and continues for ten days. The Lord and His consort are entertained each evening by music and kalakshepam performances.

Karagam to welcome Kapali

The ten days of the festival see Mylapore going back in time and becoming a village once again. Clay pots, traditional toys and native beads will be available on sale, in makeshift stalls set up by vendors who come from far and wide to do business. True, the logistics of such an event had become daunting over the years, but when public spirit is more than willing, what cannot be achieved?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,444 other followers

%d bloggers like this: