During summers, especially the severe ones like the one that the city is enduring now, it is a common sight to see residents waiting on the roads for water tankers. Sometimes, it is rather cruel an irony to read the name boards of these streets and areas where they wait upon: lake view road, tank bund road, lake area.
In the early 1900s, a drive on the Mount Road would have been a pleasant experience, with a lake on one side for nearly two miles instead of the concrete monstrosities that dot the stretch now. Bent like a bow five miles in length and one mile across on an average,the Long Tank was a natural lake that ran along the Mount Road from Anna flyover to Saidapet, acting as the city’s western frontier. Its overflow was called the Mambalam canal which drained into the Adyar river.
Robert Bruce Foote, the man who discovered the Pallavaram axe and rewrote the Indian prehistory, found large quantities of marine shells close to the tank. This and the boomerang shape of the lake prompted Foote to posit that this lake could have been a saline lagoon in the distant past which later became a freshwater lake after the sea receded. In his memoir, Foote would call this ‘Mylapur tank’ (he would differentiate the Kapaleeshwarar temple tank as Pagoda Tank).
The Long Tank had two distinct sections - the Mylapore tank to the south and a feeder lake called Nungambakkam tank to the north. The rivers, Cooum and Adyar, ran very close to either edges of the lake.
The city and its suburbs made good use of the huge lake. It used to be filled up by the monsoon, but dried during the summer. But when the water lasted, even the Boat Club moved from the Adyar river to hold its Long Tank Regatta here.
But Madras, essentially a city of migrants, has a poor track record of taking care of its water bodies. The citizens here offered little disapproval when they discovered the plans to sacrifice a lake, as they were convinced by the logic of having more space within the city.
The Madras Town Planning Act of 1920 gave powers to the government to determine as it willed to house more people within a growing city. Between 1923 and 1925, rising from the waters of a lake like some mythical giant, Theagaraya Nagar – commonly called T Nagar – was established. Under the Mambalam Housing Scheme Town Planning Trust, the work happened in full throttle. The water was expelled and a portion of the Mylapore tank was filled up along with a part of the ancient village Puliyur – one that existed as far back as the Chola period.
The Madras Presidency was then ruled by the Justice Party, which was headed by the Raja of Panagal. He was honoured by naming a park in the new Nagar and a statue within. The Nagar itself, however, was named after party leader Sir P T heagaraya Chetty. The parks and localities in the new Nagar were named after important politicians and British officials (including Madeley who was responsible for much of the water security of Madras. The Englishman, an avid aviator, used to fly over the lakes for aerial inspections).
After Chindatripet in 18th century, this was the first planned lay out in Madras. The affluent soon moved in, attracted by the large-sized plots. But the initial days were tough and insecure – the most common sound after sunset was that of the foxes howling. But much to their relief, soon came commercial changes, with the railway track creating an access. Thus, what was initially planned purely as a residential neighbourhood became an affluent shopping area before long.
The partial development of the lake left the feeder lake and a huge portion of Long Tank as besieged pools. Over the next half a century, citing mosquito breeding as a reason, the city went about filling them up as well.
Finally, the huge lake became a smudge of concrete on the Madras map when, in the 1970s, the State government decided that the great saint-poet Thiruvalluvar needed a monument in the city. The last vestiges of the Nungambakkam tank were filled up in 1971 and the memorial Valluvar Kottam was constructed on the land thus reclaimed. The landmarks that stand tall in the city today, including Pondy Bazaar, top schools and colleges (including the prestigious Loyola College) were built on those reclaimed areas.
The official closing of the Long Tank set a bad precedent and led to the indiscriminate and often unofficial closing of hundreds of tanks in and around Madras- all vital water bodies that could have saved us from the occasional floods and perpetual water problems we face.
—The writer is a historian and author