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Those were the days: Buckingham Canal and its socio-political influences

In this series, we take a trip down memory lane, back to the Madras of the 1900s, as we unravel tales and secrets of the city through its most iconic personalities and episodes

Those were the days: Buckingham Canal and its socio-political influences
Widows hostel; Buckingham Canal


In history, the greatest civilizations occurred on the banks of rivers. Even smaller rivers like the Kaveri or Palar or Tambaraparani has spurred on culture and heritage on its shore towns in Tamil Nadu. Social scientists wondered if it was just incidental or does the waterway foster prosperity and cultural advancement and encourage political thoughts. A rare occasion to study this in action was when a new waterway was introduced within the already established city of Madras.

 The Buckingham Canal that was constructed during the British rule was an important waterway during the early 20th century. Canals parallel to the Coramandel Coast and boating systems existed from east Godavari district to the Cooum river in the north and from Marakkanam in Villupuram district to Adyar. The vital link to connect these two had to pass through Madras city and was called the junction canal.

 In 1877, the people of Madras suffered from terrible great famine and more than six million people perished. The British took this as an excuse to excavate an 8km canal stretch within the city, linking the Adyar and Cooum rivers in just a year. The cost of 33,000 pounds sterling was billed as famine relief in food for work programme. From 1880, the Buckingham Canal moved goods and passengers through Madras. Just like a highway, this canal system had milestones, inspectors, toll stations and even travellers’ bungalows on the canal side. The government even passed a Ferry act to regulate boat traffic.

 Materials vital to the sustenance of the city moved in through the easier mode of water transport. Rice, salt, firewood and vegetables found a ready market within Madras. Also, the thousands of bullock carts and horse jutkas consumed mountains of fodder daily. The water-based movement on the canal kept the city adequately stocked. The canal ran through the erst-while villages of Mylapore, Triplicane and Chepauk. These already established villages made instant use of the canal to grow economically.

 Places like Mylapore or Triplicane were now the entry point of goods rather than the consumer’s end. The accrued prosperity attracted migrants from all over the presidency. It gave an increased chance for culture and education to grow.

 Increased prosperity aided some of the earliest schools and colleges in Triplicane. Some of its alumni won the Nobel prize. Classical music was also encouraged when the century-old Parthasarathy Swami Sabha was started in 1896. Writers and poets including Bharathi produced prolific outputs.

 And most importantly the canal had enhanced a chance of different layers of a highly stratified Tamil society to interact on a day to day frequency for the first time. This resulted in great political realignments that influenced the politics of the state.

 In the sleepy town of Triplicane to keep the enhanced economic activity on well-oiled wheels, people from all strata of society had to mix on purpose. That sent social sparks flying.

 Historians assert that the major political change in Madras started with a hostel and a widow’s home.

 The Brahmana Widows’ Hostel started by Sister Subbulakshmi moved to the Ice House on the banks of the canal which the Madras Government bought for them. It was a laudable effort considering the pitiable state of their miserable lives. The widows home became a beacon of hope to many suffering women and three of the widows graduated in the first batch of Queen Mary’s College.

 The patron of Lady Willingdon, the Governor’s wife used to stop at the government-funded widow’s home to chat with the girls. She even lent the Governor’s barge to take the girls on a picnic to Mahabalipuram down the Buckingham Canal.

 But the widow’s home did raise some eyebrows. Vital taxpayers’ funds had been spent on buying the building and funding the hostel. But admission was only for Brahmin widows and others were presumably turned away. There were loud pro-tests on the disproportional expenditure and unfair admission practices. Some protests asked ‘why Brahmin widow’s hostels alone had to be sea-facing villas?’ Chelmsford, of the reforms fame, actually raised concerning questions about it. He was told that girls eligible for secondary education were not found in other communities. But the fear was that if non-Brahmin widows were accepted, orthodox Brahmin families would stop sending their girls to the home.

 Around the year 1900, to see a ‘Brahmins only’ board in eateries and hostels especially the traditional areas of Triplicane was very common. In such ‘Brahmanaal’ hotels, even Brahmins had to show their sacred thread to enter. To counter that, in 1914, a doctor, Natesan Mudaliar ran a Dravidian hostel in Akbar Sahib Street in Triplicane for non-Brahmin students. Not stopping with lodging, Natesan conducted debates and discussions and soon the hostel became a nerve centre of political activity urging all communities to unite under one umbrella to fight Brahmin domination. From this originated the Justice Party and from that the Dravidian politics which still rule the state.

 Thus the Buckingham Canal has been an important geographical feature that contributed to the growth of the city and its prosperity and even realigned and consolidated important political forces.

 — The writer is a historian and author

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