A promise: this will be a brief (and hopefully painless) lesson in history. For those of you whose hearts start racing (for all the wrong reasons) and whose mouths go dry and who convulse in horror at the mere mention of history - don't worry, I understand. Memories of unendurably boring history classes are seared into my brain, to remain unerased by time or age. In school, our history "lesson" consisted of the teacher reading out, verbatim, as many pages from the history text book as she could cram into the lesson. For an entire hour, we were subjected to her low drone, completely devoid of any tonal variation. Those of us (which, on most days, was most of our small class of 12) who attempted to relieve the dreary tedium of the "lesson" by talking to our neighbors or falling asleep were made to stand on our desks for the remainder of the period. Perhaps you have similar memories of history class. So, if you fear that a short, heavily diluted (and very likely inaccurate) history lesson might do irreparable harm to your psyche, go ahead and scroll down to the pictures. I won't feel hurt.
(For a wonderful personal memoir and history of Madras, go here )
On a hot day in August (possibly July) 1639, Francis Day, an ambitious and industrious (and, some gossipy tongues maintain, a womanizing, alcoholic, gambling-addicted) employee of the English East India Company, set off on a voyage down the Coromandel Coast of India in search of a suitable piece of land for a textile factory. He went with the blessings and high hopes of his boss, Andrew Cogan, who was the Chief of the Machilipatnam factory.
Of course, this begs the question, why? Why, when there was already a decent factory at Machilipatnam (in present-day Andhra Pradesh), producing chintz and other fabrics for a captive market in Java? Peering through the murky fog of history, the answers that emerge are the same that have prompted so many other historic voyages: venal and greedy rulers, inadequate defenses and an inhospitable climate, and the need to look for different and more innovative products and markets, as the Javanese were tiring of the chintz. Day briefly toyed with the idea of settling down at Pulicat, which was at the time under the control of the reviled and untrustworthy Dutch, but hastily dismissed the idea when the Dutch demanded more than their fair pound of flesh.
Imagine Francis Day, dressed in the full British regalia of the day, with topcoat and hat, no doubt a ludicrous sight in what must have surely been searing heat, accompanied by his dubash (interpreter) and assorted servants, all probably thinking uncharitable thoughts about the mad Englishman. He made the voyage down the coast on foot, by sea, by bullock cart, and any other means of transportation he could manage.
And, one day in August, 1639, he arrived at the spot of land where Fort St. George in Madras stands today, and he liked what he saw. Again, one must question, why? Why this particular spot, when no doubt there were vast stretches of the Coromandel Coast which must have looked no different? There was no natural harbor which would make it easy for ships and boats to come ashore, nothing to distinguish this piece of land with its views, as far as the eye could see, of the surf-swept beach, untamed jungle, and rice paddies. History books earnestly inform us that friendly and far-sighted leaders, as well as the fact that this strip of land was protected (how??) by two rivers, the Cooum and the Elambore, were key factors in Day's decision. Ahh... But, as is so often the case, there was another, more interesting, more human reason: our Francis Day, that loyal and tireless employee, had a "mistris" in San Thome, a Portuguese settlement just a few miles away. So, maybe, in some way, big or small, we can thank this "mistris" for Madras being where it is today!
At that time, all that there was going inland was a collection of villages: Mayiladapuram (Mylapore), Tiruallikeni (Triplicane), Thiruvanmiyur, Pallavaram, Tiruvotriyur, to name a few, each of these separated by large tracts of paddy fields and forested land. The head honcho of these parts was the Nayak of Poonamallee, who in turn reported to the Raja of Chandragiri. A nice, friendly arrangement, quite unlike some of the cut-throat alliances struck up elsewhere in India.
After making enquiries, Francis Day approached the Nayak of Poonamallee and asked him nicely if he would be willing to sign over a small piece of land to the friendly folks at the East India Company. Sure, replied the Nayak, just as nicely, after consulting with his boss the Raja of Chandragiri. And so a grant was signed to a sandy stretch of land, a mere 5 km in length by 2 km in width.
This happened on August 22, 1639, and on that day, and on that bit of land, began the history of modern Madras (or Chennai, as the government insists we call it).
Francis Day informed his boss Andrew Cogan about the great new deal, and soon, under the supervision of Cogan, and with able assistance from Day, construction of a Fort and other buildings was underway; this was British India's first real seaside settlement, built right on the beach. On April 23rd, 1640, the first stage of this British outpost was completed. It was St. George's day, and thus, the Fort was named Fort St. George, a name which (somewhat miraculously, considering the zeal with which all "foreign" names are being erased) stands to this day. The fort complex grew, and within its walls were stately mansions, army barracks, traders homes, well-swept streets, a church, a stock exchange... - in short, a fully-functioning, bustling township.
On another hot August day, 368 years later (2007, for those of you too stupefied by all this history to do the math), a large group of people stood in front of Fort St. George. They were all participants in a Heritage Walk, an excellent concept put together by a group of hardworking people united by a love for their city and its history, and their dedication to share it with the world at large. My father and I were part of this group, which had gathered at 7am in the parking lot across the road from the Fort. Already, this early in the morning, the sun was shining brightly, which was no doubt a relief to those who feared that this event would be washed out by the rains which had lashed the city for days on end, but was not welcome, either, as it promised mercilessly hot temperatures to come.
We were a truly mixed group, and it was heartening to see a good number of North Indians (who we South Indians are too quick to sweepingly dismiss as uncultured and uncouth), and even more encouraging to see a healthy scattering of college students, who had clearly come of their own volition, undeterred by whatever trauma they may or may not have suffered at the hands of their history teachers. The topic that came up in almost all the groups that were clustered under the shade was the Great Garbage Crisis that Madras was reeling under. But that is another story for another day.
A clap of the hands, and we were brought to order. We were reminded that the Fort St. George complex now housed the Tamil Nadu government; parts of it belonged to the army, and a small portion was under the control of the Archaeological Survey of India. Plus, it was historic property. Therefore we had to behave ourselves, not touch what was not to be touched, and not stray from the group.
We then crossed the road, subjected ourselves to a security check, crossed a moat (one of the reminders that this was, once, a heavily-guarded garrison), and entered the complex. Our guide for the day was Dr. Suresh, a scholar of history, and he proved to be an excellent one, patient and well-informed, with a veritable treasure trove of little-known snippets of information. He was nicely complemented by Vincent, one of the visionaries behind the Heritage Walks idea. Dr. Suresh started by giving us a history of Madras before Fort St. George, and a long and hallowed history it was, not a ragtag collection of sad village tales.
Evidence had been found, he said, of stone-age settlers on the banks of the Cooum (I wonder how they dealt with the mosquitoes!) from 40,000 years ago. Around 300BC, the precursors of the Imperial Cholas (they of the Brihadeeshwara Temple and Rajaraja Cholan) ruled around these parts. When Christ roamed the Holy Lands, Greek and Roman traders made their way to the Coromandel Coast, which was famed for its spices, cotton and other things of value. Then, from the 6th to the 9th century, the Pallavas of Mahabalipuram fame exercised control over the area. After their fall, what is Madras today consisted of a collection of small villages, whose names live on today in the neighborhoods of Mayiladapuram (Mylapore), Tiruallikeni (Triplicane), Thiruvanmiyur, etc.
And then came that fateful day, August 22nd, 1639. The rest, as they say, is history.
I found this introduction fascinating. There had not been even the remotest mention of any of this in our school history lessons. Why had we not been taught like this? History, for us, meant learning by rote and then regurgitating, the dates of various battles and how many people were killed in them, without being enlightened in any way about why they were fought, or that there may have been interesting people behind them.
Dr. Suresh was passing around coins - priceless, ancient coins, coins that were thousands of years old and that coin dealers would probably pay a large fortune to acquire - in a serene, relaxed manner. He said they belonged to a friend, who had loaned them to him for the occasion. There was a 2,000 year old Roman coin, a 7th century Pallava coin, and a Chola coin. He told us to pass them around, palm to palm, so that they did not fall down, then stood back and calmly watched everyone oohing and aahing over them with a look of quiet satisfaction on his face. The coins were passed around with tremendous respect and care, and everyone who wanted to hold one got a chance to. I, in the mean time, was freaking out (internally, of course). This would NEVER have happened in the States. We were a large group, more than 50 of us. What if someone quietly pocketed one of the coins? What if one fell down and got damaged? What if so many hands handling them made the already fading engravings fade further? Why was Dr. Suresh not policing us more closely?
I think I have lived away from India for far too long. Nothing dire happened. All three coins made their way safely back to Dr. Suresh, and we walked on through the Fort grounds.
The sun was beating down on us by now, and we stuck to the slivers of shade by the buildings. We passed the old Governor's House, now the Tamil Nadu Secretariat and minister's offices. This handsome building, with its lovely portico, has as its most striking feature 20 granite pillars, made of the best Pallavaram granite. Sadly, whoever was in charge of "restoring" the appearance of these pillars decided that the best way to do it would be by giving them a coat of shining black paint, thus condemning the lovely granite to be forever hidden from view. These pillars have traveled and seen places - built in 1732 as part of a 32-pillar colonnade, they were spirited away to Pondicherry in 1746 by the French, and made their way back to Madras in 1762, when they were placed back in their original site. A few demolitions and renovations later, they were incorporated in the early years of the 20th century into the portico of the building that is now the Secretariat.
A peek at the Secretariat
Walking past lush greenery, we came to the back of the Secretariat, where we saw the Parade Grounds, where, presumably, there are parades that take place. There was a basketball net in spanking new condition, and this part looked clean, with a fresh coat of paint. Apparently Annadurai addressed the citizens of Tamil Nadu from the Parade Grounds, after his DMK party first came to power. It all had a very modern air, though, and it was difficult to conjure up the spirits of the Englishmen of yore.
The parade grounds
In the growing heat, our group walked on, our steps not quite as brisk and peppy as before. A few minutes later, we spied, looming close by, the clean, simple lines of the spire of the St. Mary's Church, said to be the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez. It was built as the place of worship for the British garrison within the fort. We paused awhile in the heavenly shade outside, enjoying the unlikely sounds of organ music in this bastion of Carnatic music. Dr. Suresh and Vincent filled us in on the history of this little church, and there was lots of it! Within its walls - four feet thick and bomb proof - worshipped (presumably) a veritable who's who of the British Raj: Elihu Yale (who went on to endow one of the most prestigious of the Ivy League universities, Yale University (of course)); Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Eyre Coote (don't you love that name?), Cornwallis and Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington, and bestower of his name to another illustrious educational institution, Wellesley College). These were names that even someone as pitifully illiterate in history as I am, had heard of.
The steeple of St. Mary's Church
The last notes of the organ died away, and we entered St. Mary's Church. I love the atmosphere in an old church, the hushed stillness, the pure serenity, everyone wrapped up in a bubble of their own thoughts and prayers. And when I walked into St. Mary's, it was no different. But there was something else in the air, and as my eyes adjusted to the darker interior and my body rejoiced at the coolness within, I realized what it was. The ghosts of history. The spirit of the Raj. A sense of being in another era, one of gallantry and chivalry, one filled with hope and despair and suffering and cruelty and fantastic expectations and perilous seas and homesickness and disease and longing for a faraway land and loved ones. All in the name of an unseen King or Queen, God Bless Him or Her. All with the vision of fabulous riches and treasures, of fame and fortune, all this for the taking in a hot, dusty land, with strange diseases causing unspeakable agonies, treachery and deceipt around every corner, lives snatched away in their prime.
I am one of those who believes that, in balance, the British Raj caused more harm than good in India. But that morning, in the church, something of the romance of the Raj, captured in so many books and movies, touched me. The church was filled with tombstones, many of them with very moving epitaphs, as they told of young men and women who died young in the cause of serving their Empire, people who toiled in conditions their bodies, accustomed to cool Northern climes, simply could not cope with. Something of their sincerity of purpose, their hard-working dedication to empire-building, the harsh conditions they had to endure, came through in these inscriptions.
There were other treasures, too: the teakwood balustrade, the organ, the altar piece, a huge painting of The Last Supper, simple but lovely stained glass windows. Here, Elihu Yale got married, the first marriage to be celebrated in St. Mary's and Robert Clive was married here, too. Outside, the lush gardens were cool and quiet, and the only sounds were the songs of the birds and the rustle of the trees in the wind. It was enchanting.
The spell was broken when we left the church, and walked towards Clive House (first called Admiralty House), now housing the Pay and Accounts Office of the Government of Tamil Nadu. We climbed up a flight of steps into a large room with high ceilings and many pillars along the side. The room was a mess - dusty, decrepit, with peeling paint, and monstrous-looking construction equipment flung haphazardly around. It was a sad sight, even sadder considering the grand times this building has seen. It was originally the site of the Court of Admiralty, where those merchants and traders who dared bypass or disobey the East India Company and its licensing requirements, as well as an assortment of pirates, fugitives and mutineers, were tried and punished for their crimes. Later Robert Clive and his bride moved in, and there must surely have been some grand balls and parties in that stately mansion, the fabled pomp and splendor of the British Raj. There was not even a whisper of any of this in that gloomy, crumbling room that only spoke of decay and neglect. It was a subdued group who walked around Clive House, saddened by by this run-down edifice.
The hall in Clive House - a sad sight
We walked on past the Grand Arsenal (apparently some sort of a top-secret location, but nobody seemed to know, or want to reveal, why, and we were only allowed to gaze at it from a respectful distance - not that there was much to gaze at - and not take any photographs), and then towards the north-eastern part of the complex, where the walls that surrounded the Fort complex still stand. We passed some really dilapidated-looking buildings along the way. As was mentioned earlier, the ownership of this complex is shared by the Government of Tamil Nadu, the Indian Army, and the Archaeological Survey of India. There must be a lot of "passing the buck" going on between these three in terms of maintaining some of the buildings.
A dilapidated building in Fort St George
Some enterprising types had set up shop:
We reached the walls, where we saw more shops. How they managed to do this under the nose of the Government is a mystery to me.
There was even a Type D dhobi. Is this good or bad? Would you entrust your clothes to a Type D dhobi?
We climbed a short and steep flight of steps, and stood atop the rampart walls that surrounded the Fort. All around was dense foliage, and we saw remnants of the moat where dhobis were now at work. The type D ones, perhaps? Beyond these thick walls lay Black Town, where the savage Natives lived their supposedly unpious and heathen lives. These walls, 6 meters high, are crenelated, for gun placement and use, mostly against the never-say-die French. The views were magnificent, but we were out in the open sun and rapidly wilting, and so did not linger on the walls for too long. Here, one got the sense of being in a garrison, of being enclosed within a place that afforded protection from outside elements. History whispered here, too, softly, of the need for constant vigilance and the many dangers that those within the Fort must have felt and faced.
The view from the walls
The crenelated walls
We walked down the steps, and walked back towards the front of the Secretariat, hugging the northern boundary of the complex. We passed many army barracks, including the Kings Barracks, which, with over 10,000 square meters of space, is the largest of its kind in India (I think). Today, it houses the army's cafeteria and canteen, although, gazing through the gates at the barracks, it was easy to imagine the thousands of high-spirited, or lonely, or friendless or popular young men who lived there, cheek-by-jowl with their mates. Just like any college dormitory today.
A view of the King's Barracks
Finally, we stopped to admire the gazebo where the statue of Cornwallis stood (now protected against the elements in the Fort Museum), and at the many intricately carved cannons that still face seaward.
The gazebo, or pavilion
And then it was over. Dr. Suresh, ever smiling, ever patient, stayed on to answer all the questions we had. I hope the prolonged applause that greeted the end of the Heritage Walk conveyed to him how much we appreciated his sharing his knowledge with us. He told us that we could leave then, or wait a few minutes for the Fort Museum to open and see it, as it had a number of treasures.
My father and I opted to do a quick round of the museum. Quick, because hunger pangs were already gnawing at us, and neither of us is really fit for civilized society when our stomachs start growling in earnest. We would leave before that happened.
Where the Fort Museum is today once stood a house belonging to a merchant. The East India Company "acquired" it from him (eminent domain of the 18th century?), demolished it, and built the present building in the late 1780s. Initially, this was the location of the Madras Bank, and upstairs was the Public Exchange Hall, the hub of all trading activities for several decades. Later still, until the 1940s it served as the Officers' Mess, where raucous British Army officers might have made their toasts to their Ruler and Empire. From 1948, with the raucous British officers gone, the building was made into a museum to house thousands of colonial-era treasures.
The Fort Museum was a wonderful surprise. As it had just opened, we were the only ones there (although, sadly, I get the feeling that not many people visit it at any hour). The floors gleamed, and neatly displayed all around were all sorts of wonderful things to gladden the hearts of even the most die-hard museum haters.
I have bombarded you with enough words, so let some pictures do the talking. We saw this marble statue of Cornwallis in all his haughty grandeur, but the most moving part of this was the scene sculpted around the bottom, showing Tipu Sultan surrendering his two little boys as hostages to the British. It was truly poignant, especially since in our history books Tipu had been portrayed as a heartless villain, rivaled only by the likes of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. As in so many things in life, there are very few absolutes in history. It is all a matter of perception, and on what side of the issue one is. It is a shame that we Indian school children were taught to hate our own heroes, without ever being given a fair chance to think otherwise.
Cornwallis the Beady-Eyed One
The base of the Cornwallis statue: Tipu handing over his sons
Often, despair about Madras and its future hangs on me like a black fog. Every day, it seems, this city I love and know is changing, and many of these changes appear to be for the worse. But the Heritage Walk - thanks to the organizers and volunteers who spared the time, the effort, their expertise, compromising on nothing (and charging nothing), and the participants, every last one of them eager and interested to learn more about this city - restored my faith. I know others who have attended other Heritage Walks. All came away with a renewed appreciation for Madras and its history, and all had nothing but praise for their experience.
Why do I care so much about Madras? I was born there. I attended school and college there. Most of my close family members live there. I now live far away in New York, but like a homing pigeon I make my way there at least once a year.
I love the place with an irrational ardor. Irrational, because, yes, the place drives me crazy with its traffic which gets worse every time I go there, the potholes, the water problems, the pollution, the shenanigans of its revenge-hungry politicians, the heat, the mosquitoes, the ridiculously ugly buildings that are sprouting like warts on a witch's nose, the filthy beaches, the lack of civic sense, the lack of discipline, the growing rudeness and the "Delhi-ization" of the city. Do I sound enough like a nose-up-in-the-air NRI?
But I am not one. Everyone I know who lives in Madras says the same things. And I say them, too, because I love Madras. I need it, to recharge my batteries and rediscover my humanity. I love its gossipy Maamis and the jasmine flowers, the sense that this is one big village where everyone knows everyone else, the Kanjivaram pattus and the golus, the music season and Kalakshetra, Dakshin Chitra and Murugan Idly Kadai and (god help my soul) the Madras Club, the softness and the graciousness and the kindness and the genuineness of the people, the old-fashioned courtesy and charm which are still there, Delhi-ization or not. It is a mad, crazy, chaotic city, but it has a real heart and soul. I'm afraid this will go away, and that Madras will become another huge, soulless city where everyone craves anonymity and rushes around without looking anyone in the eye or stopping to say hello. Sometimes I feel Madras is teetering on the edge of this, and that the next time I visit, the gentle city which moves at its own leisurely pace will have vanished.
But now I am certain that whatever else is happening in Madras, there is a bright nugget of hope. The Heritage Walk proved that. I know now that there are people who care enough for Madras that they will fight tooth and nail to preserve something of the character and history of the place.
And that is something to cheer about.
I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude to these wonderful sources: S. Muthiah's fabulous book "Madras Discovered"; John Keay's riveting "The Honorable Company"; and of course, the Internet, particularly Wikipedia. That said, I take full responsibility for any factual errors this article might contain.
(C) Kamini Dandapani