Chennai, now a city under siege from a deadly pandemic, has defied the odds many a time in history, be it the enemies’ threat from air and seas, drought, famine, epidemics, cyclones, floods or scarcities.
The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami travelled 2.5 km at its maximum inland point at Karaikal. If the same had happened in Chennai, it would have wiped off a swathe of its population that fateful Sunday.
Chennai would have gone the way of Poompuhar, one of the earlier Chola capitals of the State.What saved the city was Marina Beach.
The tsunami waves rarely crossed the Marina which acted as a buffer. The notable feature was Madras did not have a beach 150 years ago. There was even a wall on the beach road that stopped high tide from entering the city called the Bulwark.
The beach was formed by sand accretion due to the Port of Madras being established which makes us think "but for the Marina, what would have happened?"
Challenge from enemies
Madras was on its road to prosperity almost on the word go. It attracted capital, talent, migrants and most importantly enemies who viewed its escalating affluence with covetousness. The Portuguese in Santhome and Dutch in Pulicat were just a day’s forced march but the most serious challenge was in 1746 when Fort St. George was captured by the French General La Bourdonnais. Though most of his cannonballs fell amiss, a propitious shot fell on the liquor warehouse of Fort St. George and the besieged population took on this opportunity to drown their sorrows. Most residents were dragged to Pondicherry to be ransomed. A few years down the line, Britain got Madras back in a swap for Canadian town Louisburg as part of the treaty that ended the War of Austrian Succession.
Madras has been several times under siege by Hyder Ali, Tipu, and Golconda kingdom. Some tried to sneak in and a wall was built around the city with public subscriptions. Some even tried to poison the water sources with animal carcasses. The city map is dotted with battlefields long-forgotten and overgrown with buildings. But never again would Madras change hands till 1947.
Black Town demolished
After the fall of the Fort, both the French and British decided the Fort needed an esplanade, an empty area around the Fort walls to see the approach of the enemy and a clear line of fire. So, in part, both of them demolished the Black Town, which constituted civilian Madras.
The Black Town (sometimes called as Gentu Town or Malabar Town) spreads over two square mile area where the high court buildings stand today. People of several nationalities lived there. It was surrounded by an earthen wall and had the north river running to the west. The Chenna Kesava Perumal temple built by Beri Thimmappa, one of the founding fathers of the city, was the centrepiece of the inhabitation.
The British demolished the town and planted obelisks at the outer edge of the esplanade (one survives outside Dare House in Parrys Corner) and forbade Indians from building within that. Having lost their houses, temples and workplaces, the entire civilian population of the city moved a mile up north and started all over again. The Chenna Kesava Perumal temple was moved to Devaraja Mudali Street. And soon streets cropped up and Madras was on her feet again.
Tormented by drought
If the city of Madras had to be abandoned at some point in time, it was because of the water scarcity. The struggle for potable water to drink has plagued the city ever since its founding. Even today filling a few pots of water from the water lorry leaves an average Chennaite puffed with pride.
The city first depended on water from wells in the Fort and then the seven wells in Peddanaickenpet. When the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny was raging in North India, Madras was planning its first dam. Two masonry weirs across Kosasthalaiyar and the Cooum also came up to quench the thirst of the city. Not having enough, the resilient city has water channelled from Krishna river (406 km away) and the ancient Chola tank of Veeranam (236 km away). Even the Bay of Bengal provides desalinated water for 15 per cent of the population. Interestingly, when the LIC building caught fire in 1975 there was raging water scarcity. Fire engines were empty and officials watching helplessly decided to let the building burn down. But the fire was finally put out by pumping Cooum water on the inferno.
Emden slips into Tamil lexicon
Though a World War was raging in 1916, that an enemy from 7,500 kilometres away would dare to bruise Madras was unthinkable. It was Navaratri time and people ignored the blackout orders. A majority of the British defenders were relaxing in clubs and parties. It was then that the German light cruiser SMS Emden hurled 130 shells on the unsuspecting city from a safe distance of two kilometres offshore.
Shrapnel hit the court, General Hospital in Vepery, Poonamallee High Road, the gun battery in Royapuram, Casa Major Road, and George Town. The city was scared out of its wits. The Governor was on a holiday in Ooty, but the rumours had it that he had run away. Fearing more attacks, people left and had to be reassured with special Gujili song books which were composed and distributed. The word Emden crept into the Tamil lexicon as an alter name for somebody who had to be feared.
But the British were offended. Madras was a jewel in their crown and anyone who dared to tease her was enemy number one. The chase commenced from Madras and in a couple of months, Emden, which had bullied weaker ships all its life, was outgunned and beached in the Cocos archipelago.
The 1940s evacuation was the greatest upheaval that Madras ever faced and it shook the demographics of the city with a quarter of the population deserting it.
During the World War, a Japanese invasion seemed imminent. “The government has reason to believe that the danger to Madras is now more serious and would advise all whose presence in the city is not essential, to leave within the next few days...” said the official announcement.
The next hour the exodus began. Trains leaving Madras were packed. Highways were demarcated for slow traffic such as bullock carts and fast traffic like motor cars. Shops ran out of locks to secure vacated homes and thieves started stealing locks for resale. Property prices crashed. Even the Collector shifted to what is now Stella Maris College. Courts and government offices moved inland. Prisoners were shifted to Bellary district. Libraries frantically asked for books to be returned. And schools tried to get their annual fees in advance.People moved inland and those with native villages went there.
Nandambakkam, Nandivaram and Periyapalayam had camps for those with no place to go. Most of those who left came back in a year or so when the Japanese planes could make no significant damage to Madras.
Fearing the Jap
During World War II, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the allied land and airforces shifted camp to Avadi in Madras while the navy was shifted to Ceylon. This turned the Japanese concentration toward this region.
For two years, Madras was preparing itself for an aerial attack. Blackouts in the nights were a daily occurrence. Even street lighting was put off and car lights had to be shaded and thus frequent automobile accidents were reported.
Air raid sirens used to warn people of potential Japanese planes in the neighbourhood. Twenty-two kilometres of trenches were dug into which people had to hide on hearing them if they were not close to their houses. People were given charts to see if the overflying plane was enemy or friendly.
Planners came up with the fear of what if a stray bomb inadvertently opened up the zoo? Nine lions, four tigers, eight leopards and four bears were amongst the animals shot as a precaution in Madras zoo within an hour.
There were several restricted areas and Marina was one. Those loitering on the beaches were fined.
For two years, there was a perpetual fear of death from the skies. However, when a lone Japanese aircraft dropped a few bombs north of the Fort, it wasn’t even noticed by the people because the painstakingly done siren system and newspapers the next day both failed to deliver due to a cyclone-induced power cut.
Plagued by epidemics
Diseases as tuberculosis, plague, smallpox and cholera have stuck early Madras with frequent visitations and millions of people succumbed to these diseases. Even the Governor of Madras Munro died in a cholera epidemic.
But the city’s health mechanism always geared up. Sanatoriums, quarantines, vaccinations, medical education were some of the potent mechanisms the city adopted to control disease and provide its citizens with a healthy life.
Quarantine rules were very strict in Madras and even Swami Vivekananda was stopped from entering Madras on his third visit because the ship he was on came from Calcutta which had the plague. He preached from the ship and his disciples listened from surrounding boats.
Realising that 50 per cent of the population (the women) were feeling shy to go to a male doctor preferring to suffer and even die, Madras admitted women to medical education far ahead of most world medical colleges. (at that time there was rioting in Europe and America to prevent girls from attending medical colleges)
Francis Whyte Ellis, a collector of Madras, was so convinced of the efficacy of vaccination that he introduced it in 1810. His assistant Swamy Naik, though beaten up by the locals for suspected witchcraft, persisted in vaccinating people. Madras is one of the very few towns in the world which has a statue in memory of a vaccinator.
The King Institute in Guindy produced two million vaccines of smallpox during the First World War, thus saving not only Madras but major parts of Africa and South Asia.
Ravaged by famines
Food security had always plagued the city till freedom. Drought, crop failure, locust attack and grain export to England made the region more vulnerable. Whenever famines stuck, charities and government would organise kanji thottis or gruel centres. The most famous of them was the Monegar Choultry (A hospital was constructed within the premises of the choultry in 1799 and would later become the Stanley hospital but is still called by some locals as kanji thotti hospital). Hoarding and British export exposed the poorest of the poor to death and disease. Economists estimate half of the Dalit families suffered and were wiped out.
During 1877 and 1878, the people of Madras Presidency suffered from the great famine and more than six million people perished. Famine relief work had to be taken up as drought had shrivelled work opportunities. The 8-km stretch of Buckingham Canal, linking the Adyar and Cooum rivers, was built at a cost of 33,000 sterling pounds. The workers were paid in grain and the canal was named after the then Governor, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.
Cyclones and floods
The city has an uneasy relationship with the weather. Cyclones have been known to hit the city since its inception. Between the signing of the lease and the construction of the Fort, a cyclone hit Francis Day and party destroying two important ships, Eagle and Unity.
Shipwrecks were the major casualty of the cyclones. Hundreds of ships have been smashed to shore and foundation excavations of the Port of Madras have thrown up many of their remnants, including cannons.
As recent as 1966, Liberian ship Stamatis ran ashore in a cyclone. Its rusted remains were a death trap for many beach bathers.
Meddling with the city’s water bodies in the name of development have caused havoc in the form of floods. The closing of the long tank to form T Nagar and bridging the Adyar to extend an airport runway are examples. The need to conserve drinking water in reservoirs to the last drop leads to delayed openings of the floodgates which flood the city.
Adapting to scarcities
Perpetual scarcities during the war were felt by the Madras population when everything from locomotives to matchboxes was in scarcity. The government identified weddings as a major usage of food materials. It restricted invitation lists to 30 and people had to advertise in newspapers asking relatives not to turn up for weddings.
Rice was scarce and there was even thought of banning idlies. Government advertised on wheat dishes and free cooking demonstrations were given. Rava idly and godhuma dosais were invented in this period.
More copper was in the coins circulating than extracted from the mines. So hoarders realised the intrinsic value of the coin was higher than its value. Coin hoarding caused serious repercussions in the market. The government had to introduce a coin with a hole to reduce its copper content.
Railways was advertising asking people not to travel mainly because they had a scarcity of engines which had been sent to the Mesopotamian war front and used elephants for shunting the carriages. In 1943, the government imposed a raw film stock control and issued an order that no film should exceed 11,000 feet. So Tamil films, which had 50 songs on an average, had to learn the craft of telling a story crisply and turn to prose and dialogue.
People adapted to scarcities and it added to the quality of living when normalcy returned.
—The author is a historian