Sunday, November 25, 2012


This is the song book cover of Nallathambi, a 1949 classic starring N.S.Krishnan, T.A.Madhuram, S.V.Sahasranamam, P.Bhanumathi and others. Directed by the legendary duo of Krishnan Panju,the story and dialogues were by C.N.Annadurai.

The focus of this post is the "Kindanar Charitram", a wonderful exposition on untouchability conceived and performed brilliantly by N.S.Krishnan. It speaks of the journey of a boy to Madras from his village for his higher studies and his experiences here.

The entire piece, which includes a delightful exhibition of the "Madras Bhashai" can be watched here.



This article is about the contiguous areas of Perambur and Choolai, where the industrialisation of the city began and to which North Madras owes its development to a great extent.

Choolai is synonymous with the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills, popularly known as the B&C Mills. The Buckingham Mill Co. was floated in 1876 and went on stream as a spinning unit in 1878 with 300 employees. With the demand for textiles increasing, more weaving capacity was added in 1893. The Carnatic Mills was floated in 1881 and went on stream as a spinning and weaving unit in 1884. Together, they made khaki drill and soon khaki became synonymous with the Company’s name. The mills also had the distinction of running the largest khaki dyeing plant in the world. The companies were amalgamated in 1920 with Binny’s managing the group and its entire workforce of about 14000 workers. The company fell in troubled times by the 1970s, which were compounded by the heavy floods of 1986. It was however kept running under pressure from the government, before being finally closed in 1996. A few bungalows built for the executives of the company still survive.

The oldest mill however built in South India was the Madras United Spinning and Weaving Company Mills or the Choolai Mills as they were popularly known, setup by the famous Bombay financier Seth Mooljee Jetha. Fully Indian owned and managed, the mills manufactured coarse varieties of cloth, being permitted to manufacture only that. A major strike in 1939 and the collapse of a tall chimney after heavy rain around the same time led to the closure of the mills. They were then bought by Sarder Inderjit & Sons of Delhi, who then sold it to M/s Edward Textiles, a Marwari firm based in Mumbai. They thus came to be known as the Edward Mills. The mills however could not be restarted as the government seized the mills in lieu of huge tax arrears by the company and sold the machinery. Today, the Food Corporation of India godowns stand in the place where the mills stood.

It was thanks to the B&C Mills that India’s first organised Labour Union was formed. In 1918, the Madras Labour Union was formed comprising mainly of the workers of the company. At the forefront of the movement were G.Selvapathi Chettiar, T.V.Kalyanasundaram Mudaliar and B.P.Wadia, the famous labour activist. The building in which the labour union was started still stands in a dilapidated state on Strahans road. Selvapathi Chettiar and B.P.Wadia are commemorated in the area by parks named after them.

Sidhalu road is an important thoroughfare in the area. This road commemorates G. Sidloo Chetty, a prominent and affluent businessman who dealt in indigo under the name Sidloo Chetty and Co. He was one of the founding members of the Madras Chamber of Commerce in 1836. His son, Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty was an early Madras activist and was involved in a number of public causes. He was the founder of the Madras Native Association, a body to take up the grievances of the public with the Government and also was the first Indian to own an English newspaper.

The railway connections of Perambur go back to 1856, when the Carriage and Wagon workshops of the Madras and South Mahratta Railway were set up, dealing with BG coaches, wagons and steam locomotives. The locomotive maintenance work was transferred to the Perambur Loco Works which was set up in 1932. Stephenson was responsible for the establishment of the Loco Works and a road named after him exists even today in the area. The Integral Coach Factory (ICF) was established in 1953 with Swiss collaboration. Production started in 1955 and the first indigenous coach was rolled out in 1956. Today, it is the main supplier of coaches to the Indian Railways. The Perambur Railway Museum was founded in 2002 on the premises of ICF and has a rich collection of steam engines and coaches showcasing the heritage of the railways.

Avadhanam Paupiah road in Choolai is named after the colourful dubash, Avadhanam Paupiah. A Brahmin from Nellore, Paupiah began his career as a Sea Customs clerk and was entrusted with the collection of the customs duties. He made optimum use of his employment and amassed a lot of wealth, not always being straight in his dealings. He was greatly aided by the fact that he was a very close confidant of the Holland brothers, Jon and Edward (Jon being Governor of Madras and Edward being the Third Member of the Governor in Council). But his luck ran out with the removal of the Holland brothers from their posts on charges of misappropriation and financial impropriety and he was imprisoned for three years and imposed a fine of 2000 pounds for his misdemeanours by a commission that was constituted to investigate into his activities. He was also charged with forgery in the case of forged bonds of the Nawab of Carnatic. A character in a novel titled “The Soldier’s Daughter” by Sir Walter Scott was modelled on Avadhanam Paupiah.

Amongst the famous education institutions in Perambur are the Jamalia Arabic College and the Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School. The Jamalia Arabic College was started in 1900 by Jamal Mohideen Rowther as a Madrasa and was developed by his son Jamal Mohammad into a college affiliated to the Madras University. This is the only institution in India teaching Arabic and Islamic sciences in Arabic. The Railway Mixed Higher Secondary School was formed in 1891 exclusively for railway employees and had European, Anglo Indian and Indian students.

This article was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, the bilingual monthly dedicated to the city.


“An Account of the Trade in India” (1711) is a wonderful travelogue containing accounts of the journey undertaken by Charles Lockyer across various coastal settlements in India and elsewhere. Lockyer first arrived in Madras in 1702 on board the “Colchester” and worked as an Assistant to the Accountant for eighteen months. He then resigned his service to pursue a life of active voyaging. His account of Fort St.George, which forms the first chapter of his travel experiences, is one of the early descriptions of the settlement and makes for interesting reading.

Fort St.George, Lockyer notes, was a port of greatest consequence to the East India Company for its strength, wealth and the returns made in Calicoes and Muslin. He describes The Citadel or the Inner Fort as lying N.N.E and S.S.W in the middle of the English Town, with four large bastions making the corners on which with the curtains were fifty six guns and a mortar. The two gates, Western or the Main Guard gate and the Eastern gate were manned by thirty soldiers and six soldiers and a corporal respectively. The keys were every night delivered to the Governor or in his absence, the Chief in Council. The Black City called “Madrass” and sometimes by the Moors as “Chinnepatam” joined the Fort Northwards.

The streets were straight and wide, paved with brick on either side, but the middle was deep sand for carts to pass through. Where there were no houses, causeways with trees on either side were found and this made it pleasant for those who otherwise would have had to walk in the sun. Out of the five gates of the Fort viz., Sea, St.Thomas, Water, Choultry and Middle gate, the St.Thomas and Choultry gates were opened for passengers at any time of the night “if unsuspected” but the other three were closed at 6 PM. The other public buildings mentioned in the Fort are the Town Hall, St.Marys Church, College, New House and Hospital.

Lockyer then gives an account of the early judicial system in force. According to the City Charter by which the Corporation came into existence in 1688, the Mayor and the Aldermen exercised the ultimate authority. A court of six Aldermen was held twice a week in the Town Hall, which decided the quarrels, small debts and other business. When the Europeans were not satisfied with the Mayor’s justice, they appealed to a higher court. Here, a judge appointed by the Company presided on the report of a jury and gave a final decree. When a man died in debt, his goods were seized by the Court of Admiralty and auctioned off after notice of the same was given by a Bill at the Sea Gate. The proceeds were divided amongst the creditors. The effects of the Debtors who ran away were dealt with in the same manner. Besides these, five justices of the Choultry from the Council or chief Citizens presided over controversies concerning Indians. These sessions were held twice a week.

The customs duty on goods imported and exported formed a major portion of the revenue. The Sea Gate customs was 5% on all goods brought by sea. The fee for goods valued at not more than 20 pagodas was three fanams while it was six fanams for goods valued between 20 and 1000 pagodas. For goods valued more than that, the fee was twelve fanams. The fees collected were divided amongst the Custom Master, the Head Searcher and the Receiver. A duty drawback of 10% in respect of goods such as wine, beer, looking glasses and flint ware was also provided to owners who produced their invoices and paid customs duty for the quantity mentioned therein without examination. The Land Customs rate was 2.5% on all goods brought in from the Country. They suffered 2.5% duty again at the time of export from the Sea Gate. Goods which paid the full duty of 5% in this process were exempt from paying duty at other English ports in India under a certificate from the Custom Master. The hire charges for the masulah boats used to transport the goods from the Madras roads to inland was six fanams or eighteen pence a trip.

The Company earned a rent of 1100 pagodas per annum from letting out of the village of Egmore, 120 pagodas per annum on letting out of the Old Gardens and 250 pagodas per annum from Quit Rent. Other profitable sources of income for the Company were the Tobacco, Beetle and the Arrack farms. The Tobacco and Beetle farm were let out on lease for 8000 pagodas per annum while the income from the licence of the Arrack farm was 3600 pagodas per annum.

The Governor was paid a salary of 200 pounds per annum with a gratuity provision of 100 pounds. The Chief amongst the six councillors was paid 100 pounds per annum, the third of the place 70 pounds, the fourth 50 pounds per annum and the rest, designated as Senior Merchants were paid 40 pounds per annum. Other servants included two junior merchants at 30 pounds each per annum, five Factors at 15 pounds each per annum and 10 writers at 5 pounds each per annum. There was also one judge who was paid 100 pounds annum and the Attorney General who was paid 50 pagodas per annum.

Lockyer describes the St.Marys Church as a “large pile of arched building, adorned with curious carved work, a stately altar, Organs, a white copper candlestick, very large windows etc.”, which “rendered it inferior to the Churches of London in nothing but bells”. The Church stock included Orphans money, which was money bequeathed by wealthy dying parents to their children, making the Church as the guardians. The Church let out this money as advance and earned about 7% per annum which was then distributed to the beneficiaries in proportion to their estates. The Church undertook prayers twice a day, with the Sunday worship being most seriously observed. Between 8 AM and 9 AM, the Bell was rung, announcing that the hour of prayer was drawing near, hearing which the entire Company of soldiers assembled at the Church door. The Church also ran a free school, where children could learn to read and write.

The College, which was the old hospital, was the residence of “seven or eight hopeful gentlemen”. Amongst them, the Governor made the one with the greatest experience and merit as the Overseer, whose duty it was to regulate all disturbances. The building was two storeys high with a paved court, two large verandas and about sixteen small rooms. The New House was the soldiers lodgings and according to Lockyer, the “scene of many a drunken frolick”. It fronted the Main Guard and had a strong Battery on the other side. One Company at a time slept in it, of which one Corporal and two soldiers walked the streets every hour in the night to suppress disorders and apprehend “any who cannot give a satisfactory account of themselves”.

The Hospital, which joined the New House by the Water Gate to the Northward, was a long building with a paved court before it. At one end of the court was the plaster room and at the other, the apothecary’s shop. The Governor’s lodgings took up one third of the inner fort. The building was three storeys high, with the accountants and secretary’s offices being one storey up. The Consultation room was a storey

The inhabitants, Lockyer notes, “enjoy as perfect health as they could do in England”, with only the heat in summer being the greatest inconvenience. The Governor during the hot winds retired to the Company’s new garden for refreshment, which was a delightful place with its “costly gates, bowling green, spacious walks and teal pond”.

The Governor, Lockyer notes, seldom went abroad with less than “three or fourscore Peons armed, besides his English guards to attend on him”. Two Union flags were also carried and the entire retinue was accompanied by Country music enough to frighten a stranger into belief!! Two Dubashes also accompanied to fan him and drive away the flies which were the greatest nuisance.

Most of the gun powder in use in the garrison was made at the Island. The powder however did not have the force of the ones manufactured in England. The reason for this according to Lockyer was not as much the quality of the ingredients available as the lack of skilled people to carry out the job. The Company, Lockyer notes, did not have “a single English carpenter, smith, joiner or other artificer in the city who knew half his trade” and had to depend on the natives of the Black Town.

The arrival of a European ship brought about lots of people thronging about the Sea Gate, some laying wagers, others waiting for masters and others just there to satisfy their curiosity. The goods were seldom cleared the first day, which was sufficient only to secure the ship, send the Company’s packets ashore and get refreshments for the men. The goods that were the best received were lead, wine and beer in casks and bottles, ale, cheese, cloth hats etc.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


The People's Park, thrown open to the public in 1859 was the brain child of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who was the Governor of Madras between 1858/59 and 1860. The park was 116 acres in size and its splendid garden space, with ornamental palms and ponds, well laid-out walks and flower beds, created in its entirety the largest green lung in the city. It had 11 ponds, 5 ½ miles of road and walkways, a bandstand, a public path and two tennis courts. The Madras zoo, founded in 1855 in the Museum premises moved to the People's Park in 1863 and remained there for more than century, before shifting to Vandalur in 1985. Other landmarks that later came up on the grounds of the People's Park were the Victoria Public Hall in 1887, the Moore Market in 1898 and the South Indian Athletic Association in 1902.

The Park held its first Fair in December 1878.It was managed by a committee of Municipal Commissioners and commenced on 30th December 1878. The Administration Report of the Madras Municipality for 1878 states that the Park was decorated with flags and arches ornamented with transparencies were erected at the entrances. Several booths were erected for shows and performances of various kinds and for the sale of refreshments and fancy articles. Bands from various parts of the Presidency participated in the fair, making it a gala affair. On the evening of 1st January 1879, an estimated audience of 20,000 people turned up to watch a fine display of fireworks sponsored by Cunniah Chetty. The success of the event meant that the Fair became an annual affair, being held in the last week of December and first week of January every year.

The year 1887 marked the Golden Jubilee of the reign of Queen Victoria. A series of celebrations were planned across the country to commemorate the occasion. Madras Presidency was no different and plans were afoot to celebrate the occasion in a grand manner. Keeping in view the significance of the year and the wishes of the donor who funded its construction, the Town Hall for Madras, which was inaugurated later that year, was named Victoria Public Hall. It was therefore only natural that leading up to the celebrations, the 1886 Fair of the People's Park was dedicated to Queen Victoria and was to be celebrated on a large scale, extending to six days. But what transpired instead was a nightmare.

The fair, which commenced in the last week of December 1886, took place in the band stand enclosure of the park which was filled with booths made of wood and cadjan roofs. There were four entrances to the enclosure and entrance regulated by admission fees. On New Year's Eve, there were around 6000 people inside the band stand. In attendance were the Commander In Chief, Lady Arbuthnot and the Prince of Travancore besides other dignitaries. At around 6 PM, a booth on one side of the enclosure caught fire and simultaneously, a booth directly opposite was also up in flames. Needless to say, panic set in and the people rushed to the four entrances, where they were met by the crowd coming in, caught unawares by the fire. Two entrances were completely jammed and there was a stampede. The fire darted from point to point and soon the casualties began to mount. An estimate early next morning was to reveal a figure of around 250 dead bodies. Around fifteen of them whose clothes were engulfed by the fire plunged into the tank close by and drowned. The fire engines kept in readiness were pressed into action in less than half an hour from the outbreak of the fire, but water was scarce, even for the purpose of alleviating the thirst of the injured.

The public jumped into action to rescue as many people as possible and succeeded in saving many lives. They were aided in the rescue operation by the police, soldiers and the many European visitors. The bodies were sorted quickly and those who had life left were carried to the General Hospital across the road where the apothecaries, C.Trustwin, Hellein, Judge, Guruswami, Kenny, Pope and Harris aided by a large body of medical students worked through the night to alleviate the sufferings of the victims. The cotton mattresses in the hospital were ripped open to supply dressing for the wounds and the chemists across the city sent in all the oil they had in store, which was promptly converted by the gallon into carron oil. Many doctors of the city rushed to the General Hospital to help in the operations. The large crowd that had gathered at the hospital also chipped in with their mite. In all, it was a tremendous show of humanity and public spirit that helped deal with the crisis.

Messages of condolence and grief were received from the Queen and the Viceroy. An appeal was put up by Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, who was then the Sherriff of Madras to collect funds and form a committee to provide assistance to the affected. There were some like Dr.William Muller, the Principal of the Madras Christian College who was present on the scene, that the fire seemed to be the handiwork of miscreants.

The New Year thus opened on a sombre note, with affected families grieving the the loss of their loved ones. The bodies of those burnt beyond recognition were buried at midday after a formal inquiry by Mr.Norton, the coroner. The only evidence taken was that of a police inspector, Abdul Salam, who was present at the scene of the fire. The jury returned a verdict of death by suffocation and burning and suggested that the coroner send the government a list of people who had volunteered their services in the rescue work. At the St.George’s Cathedral, the Archbishop delivered a solemn sermon where he referred to the fire and its results as an example of the uncertainty of life. Mendelssohn’s funeral march was played at the end of the service as the entire city mourned its dead.

The Commander In Chief, who was in the enclosure when the fire broke out, visited the scene of fire in the morning. Later in the day, the Governor of Madras, Sir Robert Fowler and several members of the Council also visited the fire. They also visited those being treated at the General Hospital and offered their sympathy.

The Prince of Travancore had a narrow escape, as he was carried away by his Jamedar on his shoulders and pushed out of the booth. The Jamedar in the process was thrown to the ground as his sword hilt was caught in the scaffolding near the gateway. He suffered burns on his head and face and was amongst those who were admitted to the General Hospital.

A thorough investigation was undertaken by the police to ascertain the origin of the fire. They concluded that it was a pure accident and that no handiwork of miscreants could be detected. The fire had lasted for less than 15 minutes but by which time twenty six booths were burnt. Most of the casualties were the result of sheer panic. It was also found that most of the grass plot in the enclosure had been untouched and the ornamental flowers and shrubs had not even singed, which meant that a lot of room was available for the people to avoid the fire as it darted from point to point, and that a bit of control would have saved a lot of lives. The total casualty was reported to be 402 dead.

The resilience of the city was on full display as the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee were held on a grand scale in February, just a month after the great disaster. The incident also did not seem to have deterred the orgnaisers from continuing to hold the Fair, as it was an event that was continued to be held right up to the 1970s.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


An article I wrote for Namma Chennai marking the city's Armenian connection.

Standing in George Town at the beginning of a street named after it is the well maintained Armenian Church. On the entrance are marked two years, 1712 and 1772. The year 1712 denotes the year the church was first built and 1772 the year in which it was rebuilt in its current location. Thus, this year marks the 300th year of the building of the church that is commemorative of a community which had an active presence in Madras. This article is about the Armenians in Madras and their contribution to the city.

There are no records to establish the first presence of Armenians in Madras. However, going by accounts of various writers, the Armenians were present in Madras as early as the 16th century, even before the advent of the East India Company. According to a manuscript written at Masulipatnam, they settled here permanently in 1666. They were merchants known for their piety and true philanthropy and were greatly involved in the effort to spread Armenian literature in India.

The presence of the Armenians in Madras began to increase from 1688 onwards, when they were granted trading and other rights similar to that of the Englishmen, following negotiations between Coja Panous, Calendar of Isphahan and the Company in London.

The Armenians, not having a church of their own, used to worship the Catholic Chapel of the Capuchin Fathers at Fort St.George. The East India Company granted a plot of ground to them near where today the High Court stands, to build a church and under the terms of the grant, a sum of 50 pounds a year to cover the expenses of the church was to be given. Thus came up in 1712 the Armenian Church on the Esplanade. The French occupation of Madras between 1746 and 1749 however sounded the death knell for this church, as it was deemed to be a security threat due to its proximity to the Fort and was ordered to be pulled down as soon as Madras was restored to the East India Company. The Capuchin Chapel inside the Fort was also demolished as Padre Severini, the priest was suspected to have spied for the French. The Armenian Church was rebuilt in its present location in 1772, on a site which was the old Armenian burial ground. It was a site owned by Agah Shawmier, the man who succeeded the Coja Petrus Uscan as the leader of the Armenian community.

Cojah Petrus Uscan, probably the most famous Armenian of the times, was a merchant who migrated to Madras from Manila in 1723. Over the remainder of his life, he distinguished himself as the most prominent member of his community in Madras. He is remembered even today for the various philanthropic causes he was involved in. In 1726, he funded the construction of the first bridge across the Adyar river in Saidapet, replacing the ancient causeway that had existed in its place. His intention was to make access to St.Thomas Mount, the place associated with the stay of St.Thomas in Madras, easier. In 1728, he built the steps leading to the church, steps that have remained intact till date. His contributions to the Church were recognised, as he was amongst the select audience invited to be present as a witness at the third opening of the grave of St.Thomas. Overwhelmed by this gesture, he contributed to the building of the St.Rita’s Church in Santhome the same year, a fact that is commemorated by a plaque on one of the walls.

Coja Petrus Uscan exhibited a quality that the Armenians considered to be one of the greatest virtues, loyalty. When the French occupied Madras in 1746, Dupleix appealed to Coja Petrus Uscan to support his occupation. Petrus Uscan, who had fled to Tranquebar, replied that it was Armenian tradition to remain loyal to one’s benefactors, the English in this case. The French, stung by his response, confiscated and levelled to the ground 33 houses that had belonged to him and confiscated all his moveable wealth. His loyalty however did not go unnoticed and he was one of the two Catholics to be allowed to remain in Fort St.George by the British on their return in 1749. Petrus Uscan built the Chapel of Our Lady of Miracles in Vepery as his private Chapel, but which was open to other Catholics also for worship. It was here that he was buried on his death in 1751. The Chapel was taken over by the British, who handed it over to the German Missionaries from Tranquebar. It was on this site that the St.Mathias Church was built in 1823. The tomb of Coja Petrus Uscan however survives even today on its grounds.

Rev.Harathoun Shimovinian, to whom credit is to be given for starting the world’s first Armenian journal, Azdarar, was another prominent member of the community. Born in 1750, he arrived in Madras in 1784 to take charge as the priest of the Armenian Church. He started a printing press in Madras in 1789 to print and publish Armenian books. It was from here in 1794 that he brought out Azdarar, which unfortunately survived only for a couple of years, before being wound up in March 1796 after only 18 issues. With permission of the Nawab Wallajah of Carnatic, the press printed and published books in Arabic and Persian also. He passed away in 1824, after 40 years of life in the city. His grave can be seen even today on the grounds of the Armenian Church. A commemorative tablet in the form of a book, signifying his literary contribution also exists.

Other prominent leaders of the community in Madras included Shawmier Shahamirian, the man who established the first Armenian press in Madras in 1772, Aga Samuel Moorat and Edward Moorat, wealthy merchants, Seth Sam, one of the founders of the Madras Chamber of Commerce etc.

The presence of Armenians in the city began to gradually decline after the death of Edward Moorat and today, there are no Armenians left in the city. The Armenian Church is being tended to by the Church in Calcutta, another city where the community had a huge presence. The inside of the Church is a tranquil oasis in the midst of all the chaos and cacophony that is George Town. The belfry or the bell tower houses six bells, with one of them bearing a Tamil inscription. The Church welcomes visitors to come and get a taste of the spirit of a community that once played a significant part in the business and social history of Madras.


The concluding part of the article:

Sir S. Subramania Iyer, an eminent freedom fighter, who along with Annie Besant formed the Home Rule Movement, was another top lawyer and jurist. After a successful practice as a vakil at Madurai, he came to Madras in 1884 and after a successful stint as a lawyer here, he was appointed an Acting Judge in 1891, before being appointed as a Judge in 1895. He also acted as the Chief Justice in 1899, 1903 and 1906, being the first Indian to do so. He was one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress. His residence, Beach House, on the Marina at Mylapore later became part of the Queen Mary’s College. It was here that the idea of starting a journal to report cases on the lines of already established law journals arose, thus leading to the formation of the Madras Law Journal, India’s oldest law publication, currently owned by the Wadhwa group, the Nagpur based leading law books publishers.

The name of Sir C. Sankaran Nair will forever be remembered in legal circles for being part of the bench that tried the famous Ashe Murder Case, which he as a Judge heard along with Mr. Ayling, the Chief Justice in 1911 and Mr. C.A. White, against Nilakantha Brahmachari and others. Sankaran Nair had risen to the post of Judge after a successful law practice which he setup in 1880. Besides his profession, he was involved in a number of political and administrative activities. He was appointed Secretary to the Raleigh University Commission in 1902 and made a member of the Viceroy’s Council in 1915 with the charge of Education Portfolio. As a member of the body, he made two dissentings in the Despatches on Indian Constitutional Reforms, pointing out various defects of the British Rule in India and offering suggestions, most of which were accepted. Besides these, he was an active Congressman, being appointed the President of its Amraoti Session. In recognition of his various services, he was decorated with a CIE in 1904 and was knighted in 1912. He passed away in 1934.

The multi faceted Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer was another doyen of the Madras Bar. Starting off as a lawyer, he rose to the position of Advocate General of the Madras Presidency in 1920. He was involved in a number of prominent cases such as the Ashe Murder Case and the Annie Besant Vs. Alcyone case, where he appeared against Annie Besant in the case involving custodianship of Jiddu Krishnamurthy, the famous philosopher. He was offered Judgeship of the High Court which he refused. He was also actively involved in the Home Rule League, serving as its Vice President and also editing New India, the newspaper brought out by Annie Besant, during her incarceration. He was nominated to the Executive Council of the Madras Government in 1923 with portfolios of Law and Order, Police, PWD, Irrigation, Ports and Electricity. In 1936, he was made Dewan of Travancore, a position he held for a decade. He was instrumental in the introduction of The Temple Entry Proclamation Bill which abolished the ban on low caste people entering into temples. Besides these, he served in a number of commissions and delegations such as the Press Commission of India, the UGC, the HR & CE of which he was appointed chairman between 1960 and 1962 etc. He was also the Vice Chancellor of the Annamalai and Benaras Universities at the same time. Parts of his sprawling residence, the Grove, today host the C.P.Arts Foundation, the Vennirul Art Gallery and The Grove School. He passed away in London in 1966.

Other famous Indians to have been involved with the Madras Bar include P.R. Sundara Iyer, Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, Justice Sir M. Venkatasubba Rao, Justice P.V. Rajamannar, Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar, Sir C.V. Ananthakrishna Iyer and Justice Sir T. Sadasiva Iyer.


Hi Friends,

This post is Part 1 of an article I wrote for Namma Chennai on the above subject.

Many doyens of the legal profession have walked the corridors of the Madras High Court. This article profiles a few prominent lawyers and judges who have left a mark on the city thanks not only to their success in the field of law but also to the various social causes they were involved in.

Mention Englishmen in the Madras Bar and the first names that come readily to one’s mind are that of the Nortons. Eardley Norton was one of the best known lawyers in Madras in his time and was one of the founders of the Indian National Congress. His son John Norton was also a distinguished lawyer, while their kinsman George Norton, again a lawyer, led a public petition that led to the formation of the Madras University. He was also instrumental in his capacity as the Advocate General of Madras in providing a direction for Pachaiyappa Mudaliar’s will that formed the nucleus for the Pachaiyappa’s group of institutions. Norton Street in Mandaveli today commemorates the family of Nortons.

Justice H.T.Boddam was another prominent Englishman to be involved in the Madras Bar. Appointed judge in 1896, he gained notoriety for being partial to some of his favourites and for allegedly deciding cases without an impartial hearing. This obviously benefited sections of the public more than it did others. On his death in 1910, many of his beneficiaries jointly funded the construction of a statue in his honour that was installed at the junction of Pallavan Salai and Mount Road. It was one of the first statues to be removed after Independence and today, it stands at the May Day park in Chintadripet. It is to him however that credit should go for being instrumental in the setting up in 1906 of the Madras Pinjrapole in Aynavaram, an old age home for cattle that functions even today. He served as its first president.

The credit for bringing out the finest treatise on Hindu Law should go to J.D. Maynes, who came to Madras in 1857 from England to practice as a barrister. He later became the Advocate General of Madras. In 1914, he authored a book titled A Treatise on Hindu Law and Usages, a book that is considered the last word on the subject.

Other venerable English names include that of Nugent Grant, Sir Victor Murray Coutts Trotter, Sir Lionel Reach etc., all of whom dealt with several landmark cases as lawyers and judges and were associated with the higher echelons of the society.

Sir T. Muthuswami Iyer was the first Indian to be appointed a judge of the Madras High Court. He was appointed to this exalted position in 1878, having made his way to the top from District Munsiff to District and Sessions Judge. His appointment naturally caused a lot of resentment amongst the Englishmen. He however distinguished himself in a great manner. A statue of his, adorns the Madras High Court even today.

V. Krishnaswamy Iyer was probably one of the biggest names amongst the Indians in the Madras High Court. He apprenticed under R. Balaji Roa, one of the leaders of the Madras Bar and enrolled as a vakil in 1885. He was involved in a number of important cases, most notable amongst them being the Arbuthnot Bank crash case in 1906. He was appointed judge in 1909, a tenure that lasted for hardly a year. He was invited to join the Governor’s Executive Council in 1911, where again he was to be for less than a year, for he passed away in December that year at the age of 48 in rather unfortunate circumstances. He had been called upon to attend the Grand Coronation Durbar in New Delhi, where he was to be decorated with the CIE medal. The belt buckle he was to wear for the occasion pierced him, causing him to bleed. Being diabetic, the wound turned septic and he did not recover from the incident, passing away at his palatial residence Ashrama in Mylapore. He is remembered today for the various institutions he founded such as the Mylapore Club, the Sanskrit College and the Venkatramana Ayurveda Dispensary (all in Mylapore) and last but not the least, the Indian Bank, which he helped form with many more prominent Madras citizens following the collapse of the Arbuthnot Bank. It was also he who funded the first ever publication of Subramania Bharati’s songs.

Sir V. Bhashyam Iyengar was another legendary name amongst the Indians in the legal fraternity. He was the first Indian to be appointed Acting Advocate General of Madras and was later appointed a judge of the Madras High Court. He was knighted in 1900. His statue stands even today outside the Madras Bar Association entrance in the High Court. The Thaneer Thurai market, which stood until recently on Royapettah High Road, was his creation. Vidya Mandir, the reputed school later came up on his residence, Vembakkam Gardens. He passed away in 1908.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Hi Friends,

This post is about M.C.Alasinga Perumal, the man who played a huge role in Swami Vivekananda's visit to the West.

M.C.Alasinga Perumal was born in Chickmagalur in 1865 in an orthodox Vaishnavite family as the eldest of two brothers and a sister. His father, Chakravarthy Narasimhacharya, was employed with the local municipality. Alasinga Perumal had his elementary education at a local school. With his job being unable to sustain the family, Narasimhacharya left Chickmagalur in the 1870s and came to Madras, where he managed to get a job with the Customs Department with the help of a few contacts.

The family settled down in Triplicane near the residence of Yogi Parthasarathy, Alasinga’s maternal uncle. Alasinga continued his education at the Hindu High School and after completion, joined the Presidency College for his pre university course. It was around this time that his marriage was performed to Rangamma, a girl from an Iyengar family from Karnataka. Alasinga then entered the Madras Christian College for his graduation, where he caught the eye of William Miller, who was then the Principal of the college. Thanks to Miller, Alasinga got a scholarship, which helped him financially. He graduated with a B.A degree in Science in 1884. He then started pursuing the law course which he however discontinued due to family circumstances.

In 1885, leaving his family behind in Madras, Alasinga moved to Kumbakonam where he took up a job as a temporary science teacher at a school. He left Kumbakonam for Chidambaram in 1887, where he joined the Pachaiyappa’s High School as an assistant Master of Science. However, this stint too lasted only for a couple of years as he had to return to Madras in 1889 due to the death of his father, which left the family in need of support. On his return to Madras, he took up an opportunity to teach at the Pachaiyappa’s School in George Town. He was soon promoted to the post of Headmaster, a position he held almost till the end of his life. Just a year before his death, he was appointed as Professor of Physics at the Pachaiyappa’s College.

Alasinga Perumal was a patriot at heart. He was concerned by the many problems that were plaguing the motherland. The hoary past and heritage of the country was being forgotten with modern education taking shape. He started frequenting places like the Triplicane Literary Society and the Theosophical Society, where he and a group of friends discussed the various problems of the country and steps to stem the rot.

It was around this time that the news of the upcoming Parliament of World Religions reached Madras. Alasinga learnt of it through his uncle, Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar who by virtue of his connections with the Hindu League of America and scholarly reputation had been invited to participate. Representatives from various communities except the Hindu community had been named. Alasinga and his friends saw the Parliament to be a good opportunity for the Hindus to represent their faith but the question of who would to travel to Chicago and represent Hinduism remained unanswered even after days of discussion. The answer came with the arrival of Swami Vivekananda in Madras in early 1893.

Alasinga Perumal and his friends went to meet Swami Vivekananda, who was then a guest of Manmathanath Bhattacharya, the First Indian Accountant General of Madras, at his residence at Santhome. They were deeply impressed with the Swamiji’s persona and were soon regular visitors to meet him. Swamiji’s introduction to the Madras public was at the Triplicane Literary Society, a place he was to later frequent and deliver many lectures. The Madras public were fascinated by this monk, who with his oratorical skills and command over various subjects drew huge crowds. Swamiji too was impressed by Alasinga Perumal, who shared his ideas and concerns about the motherland and was raring to doing something towards the rejuvenation of the country. Thus, Alasinga became a close confidant and disciple of Swami Vivekananda.

A thought then struck Alasinga that Swami Vivekananda could be sent to Chicago as the Hindu representative. On this idea being put forth before him, Swami Vivekananda readily agreed, having earlier been requested by various dignitaries such as the Maharaja of Mysore and the Raja of Ramnad to travel to the West and propagate the ideals of Hinduism. Soon, preparations started in full earnest for the travel of Swami Vivekananda to the West. A subscription committee was formed under the leadership of Alasinga to raise funds, which did not always come easily. Alasinga even had to resort to door to door begging at times to raise the money. Soon, a princely sum of Rs.500 was collected. However, this sum was redistributed as Swami Vivekananda had second thoughts about his participation in the Parliament, as he took as a bad omen the fact that the Raja of Ramnad had failed to pay up the money promised by him for the purpose. Alasinga was disheartened that his efforts had gone waste.

However, much to Alasinga’s joy, the whole idea was revived, as Swami Vivekananda, encouraged by the reception received from the people of Hyderabad during his visit there, showed interest in going ahead with the trip. The Nawab too offered a sum of Rs.1000 towards meeting the costs. Swamiji also had a vision of his Guru, Sri Ramakrishna, which he took as a divine command to make the journey. Alasinga then renewed his efforts to collect subscriptions and soon, nearly Rs.4000 was collected. He spared no efforts for the cause, even going as far as Mysore to meet with the Maharaja and getting contributions from him. Swami Vivekananda set sail to Boston from Bombay, where he arrived after a stay with the Raja of Khetri. Alasinga went to Bombay to send him off.

Throughout his stay in America, Swami Vivekananda wrote letters to Alasinga and his other close disciples, keeping them in touch with his activities. When he once wrote about running short of funds, Alasinga immediately borrowed Rs.1000 from a merchant, which along with his monthly salary and money raised from selling his wife’s gold ornaments, he sent by cable immediately.

What happened at the Parliament of World Religions is now a part of history. Swami Vivekananda became a hero and started drawing large crowds wherever he spoke. Many newspapers wrote about him and he was starting to become known to a larger audience. In the midst of all the good publicity was also some adverse publicity, mostly by the missionaries, who were taken aback by the tremendous response to Swamiji. The papers in India also seemed to give a lukewarm coverage to the whole event, thus sending Swami Vivekananda into despair. He wrote to Alasinga, exhorting him to convene a public meeting in Madras and pass a resolution expressing utmost satisfaction at his representation at the Parliament, and send the resolutions for publication to various newspapers in the USA. Alasinga convened the meeting on 28th April 1894 at the Pachaiyappa’s Hall. Present in the meeting were many dignitaries of Madras such as Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, Sir S.Subramania Iyer and Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao. A resolution was passed, thanking Swami Vivekananda for the work he was doing. This event was widely covered in the press, with both The Hindu and The Mail publishing full page reports. Similar meetings were organised by Alasinga at various other places like Kumbakonam, Bangalore and Mysore. Swami Vivekananda expressed his utmost satisfaction at the work done by Alasinga and his friends and mentioned in a letter that he was only a figurehead and that all the work was done by the young men at Madras.

In 1894, Alasinga started the Young Men’s Hindu Association. His literary contribution started in 1895, when at the behest of Swami Vivekananda, he started the Brahmavadin, a journal dedicated to the Hindu religion. Assisting him in his efforts were fellow disciples of Swami Vivekananda such as Dr.M.C.Nanjunda Row and Venkataranga Rao. The first issue came out in September 1895 from the Brahmavadin Press, which had been setup at Broadway. Swami Vivekananda himself contributed articles regularly to the journal and also helped get overseas subscribers. The Brahmavadin Publishing Company was also established by Alasinga, through which he edited and published titles under the “Brahmavadin Series”. In July 1896, Alasinga was also instrumental in starting the “Prabuddha Bharata” or Awakened India, a journal that has been in uninterrupted publication ever since, making it the oldest magazine of its kind in the country.

Alasinga was actively involved in the various celebrations and meetings that were held across the city during the nine day stay of Swami Vivekananda on his return from the West. He kept in touch with the Swami even after his return to Calcutta, meeting him at various places and discussing plans for the two journals that were being published and also on the way forward. He also played an active role in the early years of the Madras Math that was established by Swami Ramakrishnananda in 1897.

The death of Swami Vivekananda, who passed away on the 4th of July 1902, left Alasinga in despair, who felt handicapped by the loss of his Guru. A condolence meeting was convened by him at the Hindu Theological High School. The next setback for Alasinga was the death of his wife in 1905, the lady who had been his pillar of strength through all the difficulties he had faced due to his public spiritedness. His family, which now consisted of 4 children and an aged mother, came to depend on him fully. Alasinga however carried on gamely, managing both his personal life and his association with the Ramakrishna Math.

But the years of selfless public work and service had taken a toll on his health. He was diagnosed with the cancer of the jaw, to which he succumbed to it on the 11th of May 1909. His death was mourned by thousands in Madras and elsewhere.

However, Brahmavadin continued to be published until 1914, when it was finally wound up. It was succeeded by the Vedanta Kesari, a magazine that has been in uninterrupted publication ever since. In a remarkable act of conservation, the Ramakrishna Math has digitised all the issues of Brahmavadin and the Vedanta Kesari (Up to 2009) and made them available for sale. In a way, it is an act perpetuating the memory of Alasinga, the man who played a vital part in Swami Vivekananda’s mission. A biography of Alasinga Perumal has also been recently released.

A slightly abridged version of this article was published in the latest issue of Madras Musings.

The man who made it possible: Vivekananda's Chicago visit


Tuesday, May 29, 2012


The Mayor’s Court did not function satisfactorily. Its decisions were on an ad hoc basis and lacked uniformity. It was also found to be easily corruptible, where decisions could be bought. It was reconstituted in 1753, after Madras was restored to the East India Company by the French, under whose occupation it was from 1746 to 1749. This reconstituted court continued to function till 1797, when a Recorder’s Court was established, to bring the administration of Madras in line with that of Calcutta.

This resulted in reduction of powers of the Mayor’s Court. The civil and criminal judicial powers of the Governor and Council were also taken away. The Mayor Court had no jurisdiction over the natives, who were bound by decisions of the Recorder’s Court. In 1801, the Recorder’s Court was merged into the Supreme Court of Judicature. The first chief justice of the Supreme Court of Madras Judicature, as it came to be known, was Sir Thomas Strange. In 1817, this court shifted next to the Customs House on First Line Beach.

The establishment of the Supreme Court of Madras Judicature and the regulation of 1802 brought in the following courts:

1.Zilla Courts or district courts for trial of civil suits in districts

2.Provincial Courts of Appeal to hear appeals from District Courts (abolished in 1843)

3.Sudder Adawlats or the Chief Court of Civil Judicature to hear appeals from the Provincial Courts of Appeal and

4.Foujdary Adawlat or Chief Criminal Court.

The Sudder courts functioned from Sudder Gardens, Luz, a property in Alwarpet at the end of Luz Church Road. A tree on Mowbray’s Road near the Luz Church Road junction in Alwarpet gained notoriety as being used to hang prisoners to death!!

The British Parliament passed the Indian High Courts Act in 1861, which empowered the Crown to establish High Courts at Madras, Bombay and Calcutta by issuing Letters Patent. Section 8 of the said act abolished the Supreme Court of Madras Judicature and the Sudder and Foujdary Adawlats. The Letters Patent of Queen Victoria was issued on 26/06/1862 and the Madras High Court formally came into existence the same year on a date that would later be the most significant in the history of modern India, 15th of August.

The High Court moved into its current buildings in 1892, work having commenced in 1888. The buildings were declared open by H.E The Right Honourable Baron Wenlock, Governor of Madras in the presence of a distinguished audience that comprised of many judges, advocates, vakils and attorneys of the High Court. The key was handed over by Colonel J.Pennycuick, the Secretary to Government in the Public Works Department (a man who had distinguished himself with the construction of the Mullaiperiyar dam) to the Governor, who then handed it over to the Chief Justice. The plans for the building had been prepared by J.W.Brassington and had been carried out by his successor to the post of Consulting Architect to the Government, Henry Irwin.

The link to the article:



Hi Friends,

This post is Part 1 of an article on the history of the Madras High Court compiled for Namma Chennai, the bilingual fortnightly.

The year 2012 is a landmark year in the annals of the city’s most venerated institution, The Madras High Court, which turns 150 years of age. This article is a tribute to this institution of justice.

The earliest form of administration of justice in Madras was the Choultry Court (akin to today’s Magistrate Courts), which existed probably since the time of its first settlement. This court administered justice to the Indian habitants. It was presided over by an “Adigar” and tried petty cases, both civil and criminal. One of the earliest cases after the formation of Fort St.George in 1639 was that of a murder, where a native man was accused of murdering a woman of the same caste. A trial of some sort took place and was reported to the local Naik, who commanded that justice had to be done as per the English Law. The accused was then hanged. Offences by British subjects in which Indians were not concerned were dealt with by the Agent in Council of Fort St.George. Records show that the post of Adigar was held by a Brahmin called Kannappa between 1644 and 1648, who had taken over from his father. However, he was ousted by President Baker, the first President of Fort St.George, who appointed Captain Martin and John Leigh to sit as magistrates during alternate weeks.

Then came the Charter of Charles II in 1661, which gave the East India Company authority over all forts and factories in the East Indies and empowered it to appoint Governors and other officers and authorized the Governor and the Council of a place to judge all persons living under them in all causes, civil or criminal, according to the laws of England and execute judgement. It was this Charter that Sir Edward Winter, Agent of Madras between 1661 and 1665 came armed with and appointed two prominent merchant natives, Timmanna and Verona (Kasi Veeranna) to rule the town. His successor, Sir George Foxcroft, the first to be nominated as the Governor of Madras, however dismissed them and gave judicial control to William Dawes.

The first trial by jury in Madras happened during this time, when one Mrs.Ascentia Dawes was accused of murdering her maidservant, a native girl. A total of 36 persons were summoned for jury duty, out of which only 3 were challenged. A jury of 12, consisting of 6 Englishmen and 6 Portuguese were empanelled and they found Mrs.Dawes guilty of murder, but not in the manner in which she was alleged to have committed the offence. They sought the direction of the court as to the manner in which to proceed further, to which the Court directed that they were to bring upon a verdict of either guilty or not guilty. To everyone’s surprise, the foreman of the jury, Mr.Reade, a son in law of Sir Edward Winter, pronounced a verdict of not guilty and thus, Mrs.Dawes were acquitted. The outcome of the case left no one in doubt that the Court needed the assistance of a person qualified in law.

The next phase in the early judicial history of Madras took place with the appointment of Streynsham Master as the Governor of Madras in 1678. During his tenure, the whole judicial system was reorganised. The Court of Governor and Council, created by the Charter of 1661 were designated as the High Court of Judicature and were empowered to sit every Wednesday and Saturday to hear and judge cases. The old Choultry court was also reorganised and the number of judges increased to three from two and it was made compulsory that not less than two of the judges should sit for trial of cases and registration of bills of land and other property. The court was empowered to try civil cases up to 50 pagodas and petty criminal cases. Appeals against orders of the Choultry court lay with the High Court of Judicature.

The next courts to be established were the Admiralty court and the Mayor’s court. The Admiralty court was setup in 1686 order to deal effectively with interlopers, who were traders who had no authority to trade with India. This court seems to have functioned regularly upto 1704, after which it ceased to have regular sittings, thanks to the Company paying more attention to the Mayor’s Court, which had been setup in 1688 when a Charter was granted to the East India Company to establish a Corporation with a Mayor and twelve Aldermen. The jurisdiction of the Admiralty Court, including the hearings of appeals from the Mayor’s Court was transferred to the Governor and Council and the court gradually disappeared from the scene. The Mayor’s Court was transformed into a Court of Record by the Charter of George I in 1726, having jurisdiction not only over the Presidency town of Madras but also over all factories subordinate to the Governor of Fort St.George.

This Charter also brought into existence the office of a Sherriff, who was invested with full powers to execute the processes of the Mayor’s Court. An appeal against an order of the Mayor’s Court lay with the Governor in Council and the decision of the Governor in Council was final in suits of value of less than 1000 pagodas and where the value was more than 1000 pagodas, a further appeal lay with the King in Council. An expert in law was appointed as Recorder to assist the Mayor’s Court in judging the cases. The Mayor’s Court exercised its jurisdiction in civil cases where the value of the case exceeded 3 pagodas and in the criminal cases with assistance from the juries. Two of the Aldermen sat at the Choultry Court to try petty offences and petty claims not exceeding 3 pagodas. The Choultry Court continued to function till 1726.

The link to the article:



The link to the second part of my article for Namma Chennai on Migrant Communities in Chennai and their contribution:


Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Chennai is a city that comprises many migrant communities who have contributed a lot to its development. This article takes a look at a few of them and their impact on the city’s landscape.

A community that is specifically excluded from the ambit of the article is the Telugu community. Chennai was originally a city where they were considered the native population, and hence they cannot be categorised as migrants. Their contribution to the city in various fields is immense and merits a separate article by itself.

The Gujaratis were one of the earliest migrants to the Madras Presidency (that extended upto present day Ganjam in Orissa). Mention of Gujarati business families in Tanjore can be found even as early as the mid 1600s. The Gujaratis were into a variety of trades, principal amongst them being traditional trades such as jewellery (mainly diamond trade), cloth, indigenous banking and later on, cycles, hardware and other general merchandise. Amongst the many prominent Gujarati families were the Tawkers(diamond merchants), the Lodd family (variety of businesses), the Gocooladoss Jumnadoss family (many businesses, mainly cloth) and the Khusaldoss family. Brahmasri R.Sivasankara Pandya and Kulapati Balakrishna Joshi were two famous educationists from the community. Besides running successful businesses, the families were also involved in a lot of charitable and social causes, vestiges of which can be seen even today. For example, the Gocooladoss Jumnadoss family is involved in running many educational institutions such as the M.O.P Vaishnav College, the Kola Perumal Chetty Vaishnav school etc. Functioning even today on Mint Street is the Hindu Theological High School, set up in 1889 by Brahmasri R.Sivasankara Pandya, a school that has been visited by luminaries such as Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda. The Madras Pinjrapole on Konnur High Road, an old age home for cattle that functions even today was set up by a group of Gujaratis in the early 1900s. Some of the later day Gujarati businesses, setup in the early 1900s that function successfully even today are Currimbhoys, Poppat Jamals, Joonus Sait and Sons and the business house of Kotharis. The Cutchi Memons and the Saurashtrians are also originally migrants from Gujarat. Haji Sir Ismail Sait, a prominent Cutchi Memon, was the first individual to start retailing of petrol in Madras.

The Jain community, one of the later migrants to the city (migrating from both Gujarat and Rajasthan), has a huge presence today. Mostly into general trades like the stainless steel business, this community is also involved in running various educational institutions like the A.M.Jain, D.B.Jain and the M.N.M Jain colleges, besides many other schools. The Marwari community is another of the later migrants to the city, having moved to various places from Rajasthan around 150 years ago to provide ration supplies to the military. The Rajasthan Youth Association, currently in its 50th year of service, runs a very popular and successful book bank scheme whereby books are lent to college students irrespective of their community background.

The Parsi community presence in the city goes back to more than 200 years, with the earliest Parsis settling down in 1795. The Parsis were into various occupations. They were dealers of motor cars and cycles, perfumes and dyes, Government and Railway officials, managers of banks and shops. Some even established soda water and ice factories. Amongst the famous Parsis were Cowasjee Eduljee Panday, the first Indian member of the Madras Port Trust and first Parsi to be appointed Sheriff of Madras, Mary Clubwala Jadhav, the first woman Sheriff of Madras and the founder of the Madras School of Social Work, and Jehanbux T.Tarapore, the famous building contractor. The Fire Temple of the Parsis, Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar-e-Meher, completed its centenary in 2010.
It was around the time of Partition that many Punjabi and Sindhi families migrated to the city. Many spare parts shops on General Patters Road are run by them. Another trade in which they have made a mark is that of sports goods. One such famous name that exists even today is Pioneer Sports on Mount Road.

Lt.Col.Gurdial Singh Gill was one of Chennai’s most prominent Punjabis. He served as the Inspector General of Prisons and it was he who used to meet the refugees flocking to Madras at the railway station, welcoming them and making sure that they were clothed, fed and given accommodation. An area in Chennai, Gill Nagar, bears his name today. P.N.Dhawan, another prominent Punjabi, was the driving force behind the setting up of the Punjab Association, which manages institutions such as the Anna Adarsh College for Women, the Gill Adarsh Matriculation School and the Adarsh Vidhyalaya. The Punjabis are also an important part of the Arya Samaj in Chennai, with many of them being associated with the DAV group of schools, set up by the Arya Samaj. Yet another famous Punjabi family that called Madras its home was that of A.G.Ram Singh. Migrating from Amritsar in 1904, Ram Singh represented Tamil Nadu with distinction in cricket. His sons followed suit, with a couple of them, A.G.Milkha Singh and A.G.Kripal Singh even playing for India.

This article, the first of a two part series was published in the latest issue of Namma Chennai, a fortnightly bilingual dedicated to Chennai.



The Mullaiperiyar dam has hogged the headlines thanks to the controversy surrounding it. This article is a brief profile of Col.J.Pennycuick, the man behind its construction and one who has been deified in the villages that have benefited from his engineering marvel.

Col.J.Pennycuick was born on 15th of January 1841 to Brigadier General John Pennycuick and Sarah Pennycuick. He was one of five sons and six daughters. The father, who had entered the army in 1807, was killed in action in 1849 in the Battle of Chillianwala, during the Second Anglo Sikh war.

Col.J.Pennycuick was educated at the Cheltenham College. He later joined the Addiscombe Military College where he underwent the examination for Her Majesty’s Indian Forces in 1858. He was one amongst six cadets who qualified for the Royal Engineers and joined as Lieutenant.

There seems to be little documentation available on how his military career developed. But what is known is that he commanded the H Company of the II Madras Sappers, which was employed in the public works at Zoulla during the Abyssinian campaign in 1868. The official correspondence mentions that Pennycuick “appears to have conducted the duties of his position in an efficient manner”. In recognition of his services at Abyssinia, he was awarded a medal. A promotion to the rank of Second Captain followed in 1870. He married Grace Georgiana Chamier in 1879 and the couple had five daughters and a son. The son, also named John Pennycuick, went on to become a Vice Chancellor of the High Court of Justice of England and Wales in the 1960s.

It was Pennycuick’s stint with the Public Works Department and his involvement in the Periyar Irrigation Project that was to be his most defining contribution to the Madras Presidency. He held a number of positions in the department such as Superintending Engineer in October 1881, Deputy Chief Engineer and Under Secretary to the Government in January 1883 and Superintendent of Works, Tank Maintenance Scheme in April 1884.

The idea for the damming of the Periyar river was first suggested in 1798 by Muttu Arula Pillai, the Prime Minister of the Raja of Ramnad. Though the idea was found to be viable, it was dropped due to lack of funds. In 1808, Sir James Caldwell, the District Engineer reported that the scheme was impracticable. The idea was revived periodically and in 1867, Major Ryves of the Royal Engineers brought forward the idea in a practical form. He proposed the construction of “an earthen dam 162 feet high across the Periyar river and turn back the water down, cutting through the watershed”. The estimated cost came to Rs.17.5 Lakhs. The idea came up for consideration before Pennycuick, who investigated the matter and drew up a complete project plan at Rs.54 Lakhs. His proposal involved important modifications to Ryve’s proposals, amongst them being transfer of the site of the dam to a point seven miles lower down. There were however doubts as to the practicability of constructing such a huge an embankment of earth and it was not until 1882 that his proposal to construct a masonry dam was accepted. He was directed to revise the plans and the estimates for the entire project. The estimate of the direct charges came to Rs.62 lakhs. The Chief Engineer for Irrigation noted as under:
“When the Periyar dam is finished the entire aspect of the surrounding country will be changed, the beautiful and richly wooded valley drained by the Periyar and its larger tributaries being converted into a vast lake that will wind in and out of the hills, its sinuous length extending, according to Colonel Pennycuick's computation, 16 miles inland. The lake will be one of the most beautiful in the world, for it will rest among magnificent forest-clad mountains and rolling grassy uplands, having a rich growth of bamboos and other tropical vegetation down to its edge. Two little steamers or steam-launches are to ply on it, and will no doubt make the lake a popular resort among idlers and sportsmen”.

The conversion of the promise into reality was however to be a tough task. Immense difficulties arose thanks to the fact that the site of the works was a jungle 3000 feet in elevation, where rain and malaria rendered works impossible for a considerable portion of the year. The Madura Gazetteer noted that the discharge was equal to half the average flow of Niagara. The laying of the foundation was full of difficulties and the work was swept away again and again. After one such wash away incident, the Government stopped funding the project as it had doubts about the viability. Legend then has it that Pennycuick, who was so absorbed with the idea returned to England and sold his land and home to raise funds for the construction, which was later reimbursed to him. After the foundation was laid, further difficulty occurred in passing the ordinary flow of the river and the constant high freshes without damage to the masonry of the dam. Pennycuick described the operations as the most anxious, difficult and exhausting of any which had come within his experience. Working with him on the project was A.V.Ramalinga Iyer, who was to later become the first Indian Chief Engineer of the PWD. The entire working of the project was detailed in a book titled “History of the Periyar River Project” written by A.T.Mackenzie, who was one of the engineers on the job.

The project was opened in October 1895 by Lord Wenlock, the then Governor of Madras. It was deemed an engineering marvel. The cost up to the closing of the construction estimate came to Rs.81.30 Lakhs, with expenditure still to be incurred on pending works. Lord Wenlock, in a lecture as a part of the Sunday Afternoon Course at the South Place Institute, Finsbury hailed the project as under:
“I would here point out that nowhere else in the world does there exist such a fall of water so completely under the control of the hand of man, and if any one chooses to utilise it for the purpose of generating power or electricity, a splendid opportunity offers for the investment of capital and development of industries. The minimum quantity of water that will be available for industrial purposes is calculated at 600 cubic feet per second throughout the year, and the power which can be obtained from this head of water will be about 70,000 horse power. You could create sufficient electricity for lighting many of the large towns in South India, including Madras itself, and you could provide motive power to move all the traffic for over 1000 miles of the South India Railway ; and you could also work aluminium or any other product requiring the presence of electricity”.

The success of the project saw more honours for Pennycuick. In 1893, he was made a member of the Madras Legislative Council. He was conferred the C.S.I in 1895. On retiring from the Public Works Department and returning to England, he was appointed the President of the Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper’s Hill, a post he held from September 1896 to September 1899.

Pennycuick was a man of sport too. He had a vital role to play in the Madras Cricket Club, being appointed as its Secretary in 1865. He was instrumental in moving the club from The Island to Chepauk, a move necessitated due to the construction of the Buckingham Canal. It was also to him that an approval of the plan and an appeal for a grant in aid of Rs.10000 for the construction of a new Club pavilion were submitted in 1890, when he was the Secretary of the Public Works Department. A capable cricketer himself, he bowled Bangalore to a win over Madras in the first “Madras-Bangalore” Test played in 1862. On his retirement, the Club acknowledged his services to the game and its development in the Madras Presidency. He, on his part reciprocated the warm farewell he received by instituting the J.Pennycuick Trophy, a tournament contested even today as an inter collegiate event.

Pennycuick today is deified in the belt he helped transform from an arid land to a fertile area thanks to his engineering marvel. No less than 5 major districts have benefited from this construction, made of lime stone and surkhi. Many villagers have even named their children after Pennycuick. A statue of his stands even today at the PWD office at Madurai. Not only has the project aided irrigation, it has also helped generate hydro electric power, with the water being used by the Periyar Hydro Electric project.

Pennycuick passed away on the 9th of March 1911 in England.

1. Dictionary of Indian Biography by C.E.Buckland (1906)
3. Various issues of The London Gazette
2. Mr.C.S.Kuppuraj, Retd. Senior Chief Engineer, PWD.

NOTE: This post is the full text of my article on the subject that has been published in the latest issue of Madras Musings. The article appearing in print has been published with a few minor changes to the format.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Hi Friends,

Taking off from where I left in my last post, I am now on a mission to try and find out the history behind our native street names..its an enormous exercise and just glancing through the Eicher map of Chennai, I guess it will take me a long time before I am done, considering the number of lanes and by lanes in the city, many of which are intriguingly and exotically named. Not all of them may have an interesting story behind it, but nevertheless, its a small attempt at trying to trace the development of the city through its various characters.

This exercise will throw up further questions regarding the names for which answers would be welcome..

My first post in this series is about Telegraph Abboy Lane in Kondithope..

This street name had intrigued me until today, when I chanced upon who this character could have been..

I found a reference in the London Gazette to a G.Abboy Naidu, who in March 1894 had been declared insolvent. He was employed as an Inspector in the Telegraph Department of the Madras Railways and was a resident of Malayaperumal Street, George Town, which is not very far away from where today the Telegraph Abboy Lane is.

So my surmise is that the Telegraph Abboy Lane is named after this person..a reference is also found to this street as Telegraph Abboy Naidu lane, with the caste being dropped after the G.O cancelling all references to castes in street names.

But did he contribute something major to the locality he was resident of? Or why else was his name given to the street?

Answers welcome..

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Hi Friends,

In today's Madras Miscellany piece in The Hindu, Mr.S.Muthiah talks about the resurrection of the Town Temple and points out to the fact that February 2012 marked 250 years of the plan that was first drawn up to resurrect it and relocate it to the current location. The complete piece:

Madras Miscellany: The ‘Town Temple' resurrected

The piece also makes a mention of a Gunga Ramah street,the place where the Committee of Works recommended that the temple be relocated.

Gunga Ramah street is a street that exists even today, as Ganga Raman street.Its a nondescript small lane(much like many others that dot the area), connecting Nainiappa Naicken street and Mint street. The lane follows a peculiar shape, running straight for most of the part, before making a pronounced diagonal bend towards the Nainiappa Naicken street end. At the Mint street end stands Novelty tea shop, a shop that was once renowned for its hot samosas. The lane today has a few old buildings left, mostly private residences.

In what is an interesting coincidence, the Chennakesava Temple is slated for a Kumbabhishekam this year, exactly 250 years after it was first proposed to move it to its current location. The renovation work was on in full swing when I visited this temple in early December.

But pray, who was Gunga Ramah? Was he one of the Dubashes of the East India Company, much like Linghi Chetty, Thambu Chetty, Samudra Mudali and many others who are commemorated by street names in the area? Or was he a famous native merchant whose acts of philanthropy made him legendary?

The etymology behind street names, especially in the old areas of the city would undoubtedly throw up interesting insights into the native history that developed along with the development of the East India Company..

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


My article on India's first Industrial Exhibition,the Madras Exhibition of 1855 that was published in the latest issue of Madras Musings:

The Madras Exhibition 1855
By Karthik A. Bhatt

The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations or, simply, The Great Exhibition, was held in London from May to October 1851. It was the first in a series of exhibitions of culture and industry that were to be held all over the world to celebrate modern industrial technology and design. India contributed largely to this Exhibition. Committees organised in all the Presidencies forwarded to London both manufactured goods and raw produce. The jewellery section from India was one of the big draws of the Exhibition.

In July 1854, at a meeting of the Council, the Governor of Madras, Lord Harris, promulgated the setting up of a comprehensive scheme by Government that would aid the improvement of the Province’s agricultural and manufacturing industries. It was resolved that “with the object of encouraging useful productions of all kinds, in agriculture, machinery, manufactures and arts” the Government would take the initiative in such an effort. Thus, the idea of an Exhibition along the lines of the London Exhibition began to take shape.

An Executive Committee and two sub-committees (one for Raw Products and another for Machinery) were set up. The Committee was headed by Lord Harris, with Edward Balfour designated as its Secretary. The sub-committee for Raw Products was headed by W.A. Morehead and the secretarial duties were assigned to Dr. Hugh Cleghorn. W.U. Arbuthnot headed the sub-committee for Machinery. Together, the Executive and the two sub-committees formed the General Committee under Lord Harris.

The first act of the General Committee was to nominate 28 local committees, one for each of the principal districts of the Presidency, as well as for Portuguese Goa and French Pondicherry. Each local committee comprised the principal civil authorities of the district, but also included merchants and medical officers and volunteers interested in such a venture. Rs.1000 was allotted to each of these local committees for it to furnish a consignment of raw materials and manufactured products characteristic of the districts.

It was decided to hold the Exhibition at the Banqueting Hall, which Government placed at the disposal of the Committee. Contributions for the Exhibition began to arrive in the middle of January 1855, just a month before the scheduled inauguration. There were teething troubles, as would be expected for a venture that was the first of its kind in India. Many of the articles to be exhibited did not reach Madras till long after the commencement. Printing of the official catalogues was also delayed, with printing not commencing even a month after the opening.

The opening was a gala affair, with Lord Harris doing the honours on February 20, 1855. A holiday was declared for all Government offices. Many educational institutions and some mercantile firms too declared a holiday to mark the occasion.

The organisation of the Exhibition was on similar lines to that of the London Exhibition of 1851. The articles exhibited were arranged into classes and a jury was nominated for each class. The jury’s task was to critically compare and estimate the relative value of the items shown. Medals of two classes were awarded and a third award was designated as “honourable mention”. In all, the exhibits were divided into 30 classes, such as mineral kingdom, chemical and pharmaceutical products and processes, vegetable and animal substances chiefly used in manufactures as implements and for ornaments and indigo and dyes. The raw materials were displayed in the galleries and the manufactured products were displayed in the main hall.

A major contributor to the manufactured goods was the Madras School of Industrial Arts, founded in 1855 as the amalgamation of the Madras School of Industry and Madras School of Arts, both founded by Dr. Alexander Hunter. Several items of everyday use designed by the School were displayed. Also on display were machines used for cleaning fibres, crushing and grinding metallic ores and colours, grinding grain, etc.

Many native drugs of great importance were also on display. C. Appavoo Pillay, 1st Dresser, from ‘Tinnevelli’, won an honourable mention for his display of Sasaparilla. Two major contributors to the drugs section were Dr. Kirkpatrick, who displayed a collection comprising the indigenous drugs of Mysore, and Mr. Waring, who displayed the indigenous drugs of Travancore.

The Exhibition also featured around 70 works of Linnaeus Tripe, which were views of temples of South India not photographed previously. These were judged to be the “best series of Photographic views on paper.” Tripe was later, in 1857, appointed the Official Photographer to the Government.

Saturdays always attracted better turnouts than other days, one reason being the lower entrance fee for Saturdays. The boys of the Male Asylum and other charitable institutions were charged entry fee of only one anna on Saturdays.

At the close of the Exhibition, private contributors removed such portions of their property as they thought fit. Of the Government property, a part was donated to the India House and the other part auctioned off to defray the expenses of the Exhibition. A large portion of the collection of arms and antiquities was housed in the Madras Museum. The exhibits of drugs were presented to the Museums of the Madras Medical College and the Hyderabad School of Medicine. Examples of all the raw products of the Presidency were sent to the public museums of Kew and Edinburgh and also to the Pharmaceutical Society and other centres in Europe.

The Exhibition was closed on April 28, 1855, having been open for a little over two months. The number of visitors, according to the official record maintained during the event, was 26,563. Thanks to the overwhelming support of the Government, the Exhibition was financially self-sufficient. The expenses came to just under Rs.10,000, which was deemed small considering the amount of good that came out of it. Distant provinces came to be acquainted with each other’s products. The Madras School of Industrial Art received applications seeking models, drawings and plans of machinery, as well as large orders for works of various kinds.

Two men who played vital roles in the organisation of the Exhibition were to go on to contribute in a great way to the field of flora and fauna. They were Edward Balfour, who by then had already set up the Madras Museum and who was to set up the Madras Zoo, and Dr. Hugh Cleghorn, who was appointed the first Chief Conservator of Forests of Madras Presidency. Cleghorn wrote in 1861 the book. The forests and gardens of South India, considered a pioneering work in the field.

That the Government on the conclusion of the Exhibition resolved on the spot to hold another exhibition of the same grand kind in February 1857 spoke of the warm response this novel idea, the first of its kind in India, had received.