August, the foundation month of Madras, is a time for reminiscing about the beauty that can no longer be found in Chennai.


Chennai Central Station, designed in the Indo-Saracenic style

IT WAS THE year 1600. The Dutch, who were trading with India, raised the price of pepper by 5 shillings. Alarmed, 24 merchants in London established the East India Company to corner the Indian trade in pepper, followed by cotton, silk, indigo and, later, tea and opium. They went on to take over the country, the first time a corporate entity annexed an entire nation.

Francis Day, the English agent and chief of the Armagaum factory near Pulicat, had a Portuguese mistress who lived in Mylapore, one of the villages that were to make up Madras. On August 22nd, 1639, Damarla Venkatapathy Nayakar, governor of Wandiwash, and Francis Day signed an agreement to lease a three-mile long strip of land and a fishing village called Madrasapattanam to the Company. This date is celebrated as Madras Day every year. The land belonged to the Raja of Chandragiri, a representative of the House of Vijayanagar, and the lease permitted the Company to build a fort there. Venkatapathy Nayakar slipped in a clause that the area would be named Chennapattinam after his father Chennappa Nayakar, who never visited Madras either before or after this lease. And the British, as always, went back on the promise and the new city was known as Madras, the original name as known to the local people, who referred to it either as Madras or as Pattanam, never Chennai. There is a theory that it was named after the Portuguese Madra family, according to an inscription found at Luz Church, Mylapore. Madras did not have a natural harbour and there were better sites elsewhere. Day was criticised by the ship captains for the problems faced when anchoring ships in Madras. During the Carnatic wars, the English fleet was rendered useless, having to move out to sea at low tide. Merchants, too, were angry that they had to wait until high tide to bring goods and passengers ashore. But Francis Day’s Portuguese mistress tipped the balance and Madras fell to the East India Company. Corruption won the day.

I did a book for Roli called Madras Then Chennai Now, along with Tishani Doshi and Pramod Kapoor. It was a fascinating voyage of discovery through old paintings, prints and photographs of a laidback city of leisure. Not many are aware that the first Palaeolithic relic of India was found here by Robert Bruce Foote, or that the area was filled with mesoliths, neoliths and megaliths. The region was probably the southern end of Ashoka’s empire, for that monarch built a stupa in nearby Kanchipuram.

Madras is a city where myth and history mingle freely, from the marriage of Parvati, the peahen, with Shiva to the unhistorical visit and mythical death of St Thomas in Mylapore. Mylarphan or Mayilapur was referred to in 200 CE by Graeco-Roman geographer Ptolemy, and a plethora of notables have visited the city: Marco Polo, Niccolò dé Conti, Duarte Barbosa and George Correa, to name a few. Yet, it was once a tiger-infested jungle called Puliyur whose wild predators were hunted to extinction by the trigger-happy British.

All was well till the advent of the British. The fort was built in 1640. St Mary’s Church—the oldest British building in India—inside the fort by 1680 hosted several notable events: the marriage of Elihu Yale (of Yale University fame), the wedding of Robert Clive and the baptism of the daughters of Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta. As the British built Fort St George (now the home of the Tamil Nadu Assembly and the offices of the ministers), traders started moving in: Telugu Chettys, Gujaratis, Saurashtras, Marwaris, Armenians and the British were also among the earliest to arrive. The early years were all about wars between the British and the French who were stationed at nearby Pondicherry. The city has several firsts to its credit: India’s first municipal corporation, general hospital, English education and so on. All this went on even as the city was attacked by the French, Mughals, Marathas and the Nawabs of Golconda and the Carnatic. Hyder Ali appeared at the gates of the city, destroying a few temples along the way, but was persuaded to sign a treaty of alliance with the British and go back. The crafty British were lending large sums of money to the Nawab of Arcot and, when he could not repay, took away the jagir of Chengalpattu. The Nawab got hopelessly tangled in a plot to depose the ruler of Thanjavur and usurp his lands, and finally had to give up all his lands in the Carnatic to the British in return for a pension.

The early years of British rule were devastating for the environment. The frequent wars meant that trees were cut down so that the French arriving from the south could not hide behind them. The tigers, leopards and peacocks (Mylapore is named after the peacock) for which the city was famous, were hunted out of existence. Meanwhile, the Indians resented the British and a mutiny broke out in Vellore Fort in 1806—half-a-century before 1857—killing 200 British troops before they were subdued and blown out of existence. However, the city was clean, with tree-lined avenues and beautiful gardens.

to be continued….

Dr. Nanditha Krishna
Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research

Courtesy: Open Magazine, 27 August, 2021.

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