Saidapet: The Threshold of Madras

For long, Saidapet was the southern doorway of Madras, till the city grew in leaps and bounds beyond it
Saidapet: The Threshold of Madras
The suburban train

CHENNAI: Saidapet was obtained by the British East India Company in the 1700s along with the jaghir of Chingleput and till Independence served as the district headquarters of the Chingleput district. Saidapet was included in Madras city during 1945-46 and since then forms a part of the corporation. When Andhra separated from the Madras presidency, the government of the newly-found state functioned from Saidapet for more than a year till a new capital was built at Kurnool.

The pearl necklace of chennapuri

Bounded by a lake on the north and a river on the south, Saidapet was a lush and prosperous suburb. In 1850, Sistu Krishnamurthy Sastry — a Telugu scholar and musician — was invited by his patron Thulasingasetti who worked for the British government and lived in Saidapet.In his work ‘Strinitisastramu’ in Telugu, Sastry writes of Saidapet as “the pearl necklace of Chennapuri”. He was punning on the word ‘peta’ meaning both pearl necklace and part of a city.

Early colonial inhabitation along Adyar

The Adyar is a short river that runs for just around 35 km and flows only during the rainy season. Till she roars and overflows her banks with impunity, this mighty river is never noticed. The hamlet called Smaranapuram grew between a huge Mambalam lake and the winding Adyar river. Prosperous for trade, fishing and agriculture existed. Saidapet was one of the first colonial inhabitations to arise on its banks. Agriculture still thrived so much that the first agriculture college in Asia was founded here. Fishing and washing clothes were the other two water-dependent vocations here. The clothes of the British were brought by dhobis on long streams of donkey to be washed in the freshwater flowing in the Adyar.

The cactus farm in Saidapet

Dr Anderson, the Physician General of the British East India Company, lobbied for the development of the two-acre government nopalry in Marmalong. A nopalry was a farm where cochineal insects were bred on cactus plants. Female cochineal insects produced a red dye when dried and processed. Spain held a monopoly over the red dye, carmine, which was already in abundance from its colonies in South America.

Anderson introduced the cochineal insects to breed on prickly pear cactus (Opuntia Cactaceae) and produced the first batch of carmine by squashing the pregnant insects. The East India Company was so overwhelmed initially. However, the red dye when used on army uniforms was detrimental to the soldiers’ safety. Britain lost the American colonies because the redcoats were easily picked off by enemy snipers. Subsequent demands slumped and when the cactus farm was overwhelmed by the flood on the Adyar when a cyclone hit Madras, it was abandoned.

Little mount church

A few yards on the southern bank from the Maraimalai Adigalar bridge is a rock formation traditionally called Little Mount. On top of this mountain is a church dedicated to Our Lady of Good Health. It was built by the Portuguese in 1551 AD (Madras was established only 90 years later) on the site which is traditionally acknowledged to be one of the places where St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus, lived and preached when he came to India. The place where he lived is a cave under the church, which is well preserved even today.

The cave is about 14 feet broad and 15-16 feet long and 7 feet in its greatest height. One enters with some difficulty through a crevice in the rock. The crevice is about 5 feet in height and a little more than 1.5 feet broad. The church holds an annual festival in honour of Our Lady on the fifth Saturday of Easter. Recently, this church was elevated to the status of a shrine. Devotees over centuries would travel in bullock carts, lorries, buses and trains to attend this religious festival from all over Madras pitch tents and attend the grand car festival and the feast Mass.

Karaneeswarar temple

The Karaneeswarar temple was initiated by Lord Indra, the king of gods, to get back his celestial cow Kamadhenu which turned a mortal after a curse. This temple has a seven-storied entrance gopuram and a beautiful tank. Shiva in the form of Lord Karaneeswara and the Goddess as Swarnambika preside over the temple. An annual 10-day Brahmotsavam takes place in the Tamil month of Chithirai. The present structure is at least 300 years old though recent modifications have been done.

Named after Mohammed Sayyid

The land outside a fort was called pettai or pettah. We find many pettahs outside colonial forts across Asia. Saidapet is named after Mohammed Sayyid who was the last Mughal governor of the Carnatic as the representative of Aurangzeb. He was the general who defeated the famed Raja Desingu of Senji. After the demise of Aurungzeb, Delhi was shaken by instability, and regional satraps declared sovereignty with nominal allegiance to the Mughals.

Saadatullah Khan declared independence and was the founder of the Nawayath dynasty whose capital he moved to Arcot. Saadatullah Khan became the independent ruler of the Carnatic, ruling a huge chunk of what is now Tamil Nadu. British Madras grew in his rule with him issuing the firman for Tiruvottiyur, Sattangadu, Kathiwakam, Vysarpady and Nungambakkam to be administered by the Company.

The armenian who built a bridge

Crossing the Adyar was tough, especially during floods, and pilgrims to St Thomas Mount found it very difficult. It was then that the richest man in Madras, an Armenian merchant named Coja Petros Uscan, decided to build a bridge. Though meant to be a pilgrims’ bridge, the Marmalong (Mambalam) bridge that Petrus Uscan, the Armenian philanthropist, built in 1726 at a cost of 30,000 pagodas (about £10,000 at the time) also opened up the gateway to the south and consolidation of the State.

On a very well-designed plaque that now stands on the Anna Salai ahead of the new bridge, a plaque initially set on this bridge, the merchant indicated, within an inscription in three lanvguages (Armenian, Persian, Latin): “This bridge was built for public interest by Coja Petrus Uscan, belonging to the Armenian nation, AD 1726.” In 1966, Petrus Uscan’s bridge was considered too old and dangerous and was brought down and replaced by today’s Saidapet Bridge.

Gandhi and the cobblers

In 1927, Gandhi held a meeting with cobblers at YMCA Grounds in Saidapet which was attended by 1,200 cobblers and their families from Madras and its surrounding areas. Gandhi’s love for working on leather was well-known. He even stitched his sandals and bound books by himself. He had learned the craft in South Africa from his close German friend Kallenbach.

The celebrity MLA

Former chief minister Karunanidhi was elected as MLA in Saidapet in the crucial 1967 election. Saidapet became a VIP constituency when halfway through the term he became chief minister. Interestingly, before the election, Karunanidhi took it upon himself to collect Rs 5,000 per constituency as an election fund.

The leader of the fund-starved party Annadurai assumed collecting Rs10 lakh was impossible but when Karunanidhi accomplished the Himalayan task he was pleased. While announcing the list of DMK candidates and their constituencies before the election, Annadurai named “Saidapet” and paused. With suspense filling the air, Annadurai then went on to proclaim, “11 lakhs”, to the huge cheering of the cadre who knew whom he was referring to.

The Saidapet court

The brick-red Saidapet metropolitan magistrate court was built in 1921 in an Indo-Saracenic style along with a jail for undertrials. It soon entered record books with many leading statesmen of the city including Annadurai having been kept in the jail in response to their agitations. In 1927, Margaret Cousins became the first woman magistrate in India. Incidentally, she was the person who set our national anthem to tune.

The suburban train

Saidapet would have continued to be a pastoral suburb of Madras and not the concrete jungle it is today but for the Railways. On April 2, 1931, the first electrically-operated railway service between Madras Beach and Tambaram was launched by Sir George Fredrick Stanley, the then Governor of Madras. Saidapet railway station was constructed soon thereafter.

The Governor, at the opening ceremony, is reported to have said that the new service would transform ‘desolate south Madras into burgeoning garden cities’. He could not have been more wrong. Clusters of concrete jungles emerged instead. The railway track divided Saidapet into West Saidapet and East Saidapet, mutually connected by railway gates. This led to a differential speed of development. The subways have now corrected the anomaly. The much-used Saidapet station was now painted with murals by 50 children aspiring to be painters.

Teacher's college

The East India Company was serious about providing education to Indians. So they decided to start a college to train teachers. The Saidapet Teacher Training institution was the first of its kind in Asia. Incidentally, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, whose birthday is celebrated as Teachers’ Day, was trained to be a teacher here. This college is one main reason Madras presidency was far ahead of the rest of the country in education.

Agri school and experimental farm

The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) had its genesis from the establishment of an Agricultural School at Saidapet as early as 1868. The lush land surrounded by the Long Tank on the one side and the Adayar River on the other was chosen to house a formally set up agricultural-education facility. Through the persistent efforts of William Robertson and Charles Benson (graduates of the Royal Agricultural College of Cirencester, UK), an Experimental Farm was established first in Saidapet in 1863 and it soon incorporated a high school-level teaching facility in farm skills.

This college was offering the Diploma in Agriculture, after a 3-year study involving a few agricultural subjects. But soon, the 300- acre block allotted to the Experimental Farm in the 1860s was down to 20 acres by the turn of the century as more land was taken back by the government. In 1906, the college was shifted to Coimbatore by the Government of Madras, and the land was converted into a golf course and government housing.

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