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)
2. chamier-family.org
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..