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And dirty flows historic Cooum

Inherent geography and rapid increase in population plotted the destruction of the river. So synonymous with filth has the river become that every puddle of dirty water in Chennai is called the Cooum.

And dirty flows historic Cooum
River Cooum
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CHENNAI: If one word could describe the river Cooum, it’s Embarrassment. One’s visual and olfactory senses are assaulted by this river that winds its way through the most important parts of the city. Every afternoon, a swirling waft of breeze from the sea pilfers the malodorous smells of the Cooum and drapes it on a large part of the city. It’s a daily reminder to the people of Chennai of what a colossal muddle they have made of an eminent river.

Inherent geography and rapid increase in population plotted the destruction of the river. So synonymous with filth has the river become that every puddle of dirty water in Chennai is called the Cooum. But running through the history of the Cooum, we learn it was once a holy river and had frequent runs with history as well both in medieval and colonial times. Perhaps if we know her better we will treat her better.

Holy river’s tryst with royalty

A historic river surely has its associations with royalty. With palaces, battles, exiles and even princesses being born on its banks, the Cooum has a rich relationship with royalty.


The Chalukyas led by Pulikesi met the Pallavas in Pullalur and the northern confederation met the Cholas in Takkolam, both battlefields close to the origin of the Cooum. Incidentally, a series of Anglo-Mysore battles were fought along the upper reaches of the Cooum.

The first battle in which Tipu used fire rockets to decisively beat the British was in Poilalur. The battle of Perambakkam, when Tipu crossed a flooding Cooum to attack the British at night, earned him the eternal fear and respect of the British.


A king of Baroda would be exiled to college road and spend the rest of his life there with his pet monkeys. The reason for exiling Malhar Rao was that he tried to poison the British resident (representative) of Baroda with diamond powder mixed in sherbet. The place of his exile is now the Women’s Christian College.

The same college also hosted Tipu’s sons when they were given an indemnity for Tipu’s good behaviour. The boys were made to live in Doveton House with its huge elephant accessible portico.

The birth of a princess:

When the last Burmese king Thibaw, having lost his kingdom to the British, was being exiled to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra by ship, his wife was pregnant and the British felt hosting them in Nungambakkam would cause no harm. When the family stayed in Madras, the queen gave birth to her third daughter, Princess Myat Phaya.

The palace of the Nawab:

Kalas Mahal, commonly known as Chepauk Palace, was the official residence of the Nawab of Arcot from 1768 to 1855. It is constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The kingdom of the Carnatic had virtually become a protectorate of the British East India Company and the Nawab was dependent on Company troops for his protection. So, in 1764, he thought of constructing a palace for himself within the ramparts of Fort St George. Permission was not granted and he built a palace south of the Cooum. The nawabs even built an octagonal Hammam, a Turkish bathing house just on the banks of the river. The palace wasn’t lucky. The principality of Carnatic was abolished and the Chepauk Palace was auctioned to pay off the Nawab’s debts and was eventually purchased by the Madras government.

Why is it stinking?

The 1896 German Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, a comprehensive 30-volume encyclopedia has two full pages about this wonderful city on the Coromandel Coast. But you’ll also stumble over one short line about the Cooum: ‘Der kleine und ziemlich unsaubere Fuß Kuwam teilt Madras in zwei gleiche Hälften’ (The small and quite dirty river ‘Kuwam’ divides Madras in two rather equal halves).

The main reason:

Constructed in 1879, the structure across the Cooum in Jamin Korattur was significant in diverting water to the Chembarambakkam lake, one of the city’s drinking water sources. For more than a century, the check dam, which was washed away in the flood of 2015, stopped any water from getting into the urban part of the Cooum.

The population of the city doubled in the 1940s. The Poondi lake was formed at great cost during wartime and to ensure its success Cooum again was dammed at the point where it started, ensuring that not a drop of water flowed within thereafter. The two dams tapped Cooums water to quench the thirst of the citizens of Madras.

Sobriquets of the Cooum

The 12th-century hagiography Periyapuranam, which lists the deeds of the 63 saints, describes the Cooum as a raging river whose surf propels pearls onto the Thiruverkadu town. The river is mentioned as Paali. No wonder, because it’s an offshoot of the Palar river.

A newfound town of Pudupet on the Cooum housed the richest natives who called the river Vrddha Kshira Nadi (old Palar or the old river of milk), a Sanskrit version of Palar.

The British had no name for the river. Different maps called it by the name of the town from which direction it came. Poonamalee river, Chinthatripet river, Triplicane river.

The word Cooum suddenly cropped up on the British maps in the 19th century. Within Pudupet was a temple, Komaleeshwaram, after whom a part of that area would be called. Is Cooum a corruption of the word Komaleeshwaram?

It seems hard to think the British would have named the river next to their fort after a temple town 70 km away, but popular belief says the temple town of Thiruvirkolam (often called Cooum) near the origin of the river gave the name to the river.

Religion and the Cooum

The Cooum in Hindu mythology is a holy river. Shiva’s bow is called the Pinaka. The Cooum is supposed to have originated when his bow by mistake touched the earth. Valmiki’s ashram was in Koyambedu on the banks of the Cooum. It’s here that the young Ravikula dynasty princes Lava and Kusa grew up. Koyambedu is named after Kusa.

The Vishnu temple of Koyambedu has idols of a pregnant Sita and Rama dressed in tree barks and skins (when he was in exile).

Moorka Nayanar, a resident of Thiruverkadu on the banks of the Cooum, one of the 63 saints of Saiva mythology, was a gambler. And a very astute one at that. He would gamble and earn tons of money that he spent on pilgrims and temple welfare.

The day guns boomed in zoo

The river Cooum was a mute witness to the biggest massacre of animals in a day.

Madras had a long tradition of exhibiting animals. A choicely-kept menagerie in the Nawabs’ palace at Chepauk was given to establish a zoo in the museum compound on the banks of the Cooum. One of the earliest in India, the zoo moved to People’s Park once again close to the Cooum expanded into a delightful collection of species and easily became the finest assortment in the sub-continent. But then in the 1940s, the war that had engulfed all the continents crept closer to Madras. Its citizens waited with bated breath as it became clear that the Japanese could bomb them at any moment.

Trenches were dug and bomb shelters made. But in the preparations for the war one unpleasant job could not be overlooked. What if a stray bomb opened up the zoological garden?

What if the wild animals already hungry were let loose by an act of war? The nerves of the citizens were in a high-strung mode and no price was too high to calm them.

The Government of Madras had given clear indications to the Corporation of the city which ran the zoo. The animals were valuable but they certainly were not more priceless than citizens’ lives. Frantic efforts were made to save the animals. The town of Erode was willing to accept the wild animals but the Railways said that it could transport them only after April 16th, 1942. But the final culling order from the government to dispose of the animals came on April 11th and so the guns were loaded on the 12th. The Malabar police moved into the zoo to cull the carnivores. In what is potentially a world record for the number of rare animals slaughtered in such a fleeting time, three lions, six lionesses, four tigers, eight leopards, four bears and a black panther were shot in the matter of an hour. For accounting purposes, the animals shot were valued at Rs 4,568. The tigers were considered the biggest loss being valued at Rs 475 and lions at Rs 282.

The Vallal and the will

The traders of East India Company needed interpreters to communicate with the native Indians. A group of natives well versed in learning languages filled that need. The Dubashes (do-bash - two languages) soon graduated from being just translators and got down to business themselves. They became incredibly rich and soon moved to the riverside township of Pudupet which was a refreshing change from the cramped black town.

There they built a Shiva temple called Komaleshwaram, bathed daily in the fresh waters of the Cooum and lived luxurious lives. Amongst them, the most successful was Pachaiyappa Mudaliyar, who learned English at the age of 16 and by the time he was 21 rose to become richer than kings and more powerful than any other native in the Presidency. He would build and repair giant gopurams of the Kancheepuram and Chidambaram temples which had fallen into disrepair after the fall of Indian dynasties. A poet would even write a Pancharatnamala on him.

The first will and last testament were written on the banks of the Cooum. Vallal Pachaiyappa Mudaliar, who died childlessly, would will his money to charities but sadly greedy relatives would squabble in court and contest it for almost a century. The courts stepped in and formulated a trust which is worth billions now and caters to education, health and religion across the country.

Presidency’s first vaccinator

Vaccinations have been in Madras for more than 200 years. WS Swamy Naik, a dresser in the medical wing of the Madras Army, who lived near the Cooum in Pudupet, had the designation of native superintendent of vaccination in 1803.

There was significant opposition to vaccination which was cruder in those days. British Collector Ellis, working out of the college on the banks of the Cooum, resorted to some fraud for the greater good of the public. Well versant in Tamil and Sanskrit, he created a seemingly ancient poem in the form of a discussion between Parvathi and Dhanvanthri, the Hindu god of medicines, explaining how she had indeed given the vaccination to humankind.

In spite of this hollow propaganda for vaccination in the Presidency, there was much opposition to vaccination and when Naik tried to vaccinate people he was beaten up by a group of Armenians saying he was doing black magic.

There is a Cooum side statue for Swamy Naik to honour his efforts.

Asia’s 1st flight, on Cooum’s only isle

There is only one isle on the Cooum and hence it’s called by the name Island. It was used to make salt for the fort, and grow vegetables and fruits for the British residents. Later military personnel played golf on the island.

On 26 March 1910, just six years after the Wright Brothers flew with the birds in Kitty Hawk USA, a Corsican baker Giacomo D’Angelis constructed his own plane and flew it on the island of the Cooum.

It was a herculean task since D’Angelis just had some pamphlets and news cuttings to support his design and yet managed to make a plane. This was the first powered flight to fly in Asia.

Dousing the LIC blaze

The tallest building in Madras, LIC caught fire in 1975. The city was reeling under a water drought so severe that after a few tankers of water, the fire department was short of anything to extinguish the fire. The government decided to let the fire burn out, whatever the damage when somebody got the idea of using the Cooum water nearby. The water from the river was pumped onto the fire engines and the building was saved.

Why British chose the spot for Fort St George

Perhaps the protection the Cooum gave the fort on the south side where the pestering Portuguese lived on Santhome, the British chose the spot for their Fort St George. Though it was salty and had created a huge sand bar in the bay which prevented ships from coming close, the Cooum was one of the main reasons for the founding of the Madras city.

It’s no wonder the most important buildings were on its banks. The fort, the university, the corporation, the town hall, the jail, and the medical college were all on its banks. Two of the most important landmarks of Madras, Mount Road and the Marina Beach start on its edges.

Boating? It was shallow enough for WCC girls to wade across

Contrary to popular beliefs, there wasn’t much boating in the Cooum. The boating pictures we see of Madras are mostly from the Buckingham canal where water depth was maintained by locks.

The Cooum was shallow enough for Women’s Christian College girls to wade across to get their tailoring done on Spur Tank Road. The government of Tamil Nadu introduced pleasure boating in the Cooum in the 1970s and hopefully even built boating quays upstream, but boating was restricted to the delta area which was flooded by the tidal seawater.

When there existed a college for Europeans on The DPI campus the Governor used to travel by boat from the government house to Egmore once every year to give away the diplomas to the graduates.

The bulk of the bricks used to construct the massive Indo-Saracenic buildings used boat carted bricks. The brick kilns were in Choolaimedu and they were loaded on the boats that could travel up to the site on shallow waters.

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Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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