Royapuram raves a roaring past

Built by the British to protect Madras from invasions, the Black Town Wall was meant to be funded by the public. The plan remained incomplete, and so did its western face, that the road that ran alongside came to be known as Wall Tax Road. But then, Royapuram’s story is not about its royal glory alone. Be it the visit of Mahatma during the Freedom movement or Annadurai’s visit to Robinson Park to hold the formation meeting of DMK, Royapuram in Chennai has a hoary past to recall.
Royapuram Railway Station
Royapuram Railway Station

CHENNAI: From Parsi settlement and Protective wall at Black town to the oldest surviving Railway station in India, Royapuram raves a roaring past.

The Great Wall of...

Since the fort was well protected by bastions and cannons, invaders like Hyder Ali refrained from going too near. But they turned their attention to the Black Town, consisting of natives which had spread all around the fort.

The British decided to build a protective wall around the Black Town as well to deter the invaders.

The Black Town Wall was designed for three-and-half miles and has seven gates and was never completed. The north wall, on whose other side Royapuram was just developing, was completed first.

Three of the seven gates of the northern wall — Pully Gate, Tiruvatore Gate and Ennore Gate — connected Royapuram to the rest of Madras. When the British soon became the all-powerful overlords of the Carnatic having subdued all their foes, the wall not only lost its importance but was also deemed a hindrance to the expansion of the city. It was brought down except for a small portion. In 1957, the Corporation converted the remaining part into an elevated park — the Maadi Poonga or terrace garden.

Named after an Apostle

Boatmen were essential clogs in the commercial wheel of the East India Company. Without a port and with a huge sand bar out in the bay, ships could not near the Fort of Madras. Masula boatmen who had settled around the fort, especially in Chepauk, helped transport goods and passengers from the ships to the land. The relocation of fisherfolk from Chepauk to a few yards north of the Black Town was the genesis of Royapuram. This was possibly done to give that land to the nawab of Arcot to build his palace.

The Christian fishermen moved to the desolate land full of cactus and palm trees. They started building a church in 1825 and consecrated it in 1829. It was dedicated to St Peter (a fisherman like them), also called Royappa in Tamil. Hence the name Royapuram, thus becoming one of the two places in Madras named after apostles of Christ, the other being St Thomas Mount.

The Birth of DMK and meeting at Robinson Park

On September 18, 1949, the political history of Tamil-speaking regions changed forever and it was at a park in Royapuram — Robinson Park. The DMK, which was formed the previous day, held its first public meeting there. The cloudy skies somewhat symbolised the emotionally confused audience which sat before the dais. They were breaking away from a mentor they fondly called Periyar (the big man) because their ageing leader had married a much younger girl and named her his political successor. But they were also hopeful that a newfound path could be charted and that too so with youthful blood waiting to lead them. CN Annadurai was forty but most of the other frontline followers were in their twenties. The meeting started with a Barathidasan song. There were 26 speakers on the dais but due to the rain, only nine could speak and that too for 90 minutes. The audience sat unflinching as the rains soaked them while Anna, drenched to the skin, himself spoke. But to the Tamils, rain is always an auspicious symbol and though most who attended the meeting were rationalists, they went home quite happy.

Early Politicians

Two politicians with roots in Royapuram, Pitti Theagaraya (after whom T Nagar is named) and Singaravelu locked horns during the Prince of Wales’s visit in 1921.

Sir Pitti lived in a regal style on the outskirts of Royapuram. He had two palatial bungalows on either side of a road and even had them connected by an overhead bridge. Singaravelu, who would later celebrate India’s first May Day, on the other hand, was a labour lawyer. There is a museum in his name in Royapuram.

In 1921, Gandhi announced a boycott of the Prince of Wales. Theagaraya braved opposition to present an address to the Prince on behalf of the corporation. Singaravelu would organise boycotts against the Prince. Rioters would raid Theagaraya’s house and even surround it so he could not attend many of the Prince’s functions.

The Anglo-Indians of Mada Church Street

The Anglo-Indian community could always be identified with the railways and so Royapuram certainly must have been where the Anglo-Indian community first settled as a colony.

The Anglo-Indians of the Mada Church Street around St Peter’s Church, Arathoon Road and PV Kovil Street had a distinct and vibrant culture and an old-world charm.

Their homemade grape wine, coconut rice and meatball curry were famous. Singing and dancing were a way of life for the Anglo-Indians and young children learnt to dance almost as they could walk.

With other community women still waiting to break out of old-time rules, Anglo-Indian women from Royapuram showed the way to their other Madrasi sisters. They were the first to come out and work as secretaries, teachers, nurses and air hostesses. They even participated with gusto in sports and beauty pageants. The Anglo Indians had their own church, which was the social hub of their culture. Christmas and Easter celebrations with the blocking of roads were common. And so were weekly screenings of Hollywood movie shows with objectionable scenes blocked by a cardboard placed across the projector to the booing of the audience.

When Gandhi was 'Chairlifted'

Gandhi made over 15 visits to Madras and he made it a point to visit all parts of the city. In the 1930s, Gandhi was at the peak of his popularity and his visits were met by unprecedented crowds, so much so that Gandhi was prevented from going to the stage many times. The organisers cut a sorry face when meeting after meeting strayed from the plans.

During one gathering, held on the first floor of a building in Kannappar Vasaga Salai, Royapuram (opened by Periyar in 1929), Gandhi was to open a first-floor reading room. However, he was held up by the sheer number of people inside the building. There was hardly any space for him to take the stairs. Hence, Gandhi, always a great sport, sat on a chair which was then lifted using ropes to the first-floor balcony.

Stanley Medical College Hospital

Stanley Medical College is one of the oldest centres in India to offer medical education. Starting as the Madras Native Infirmary, it morphed into Royapuram Medical School in June 1903, located in an abandoned ammunition factory where graduates were awarded their Licensed Medical Practitioner (LMP) diplomas.

An old student of Royapuram Medical School, Dr TSS Rajan, a health minister of the Rajaji cabinet, was instrumental in upgrading his alma mater to a college in the thirties and renamed it after the Governor, Sir George Stanley. For long, the facility starved Stanley was dependent on MMC for several departments. Even the female students stayed at MMC hostels and moved by trams daily. Post-Independence, Stanley produced some of the most famous and flamboyant physicians and surgeons of Madras who excelled at their chosen specialities. Stanley is often described as different from the other medical colleges of Madras. The popular term ‘Stanlean Spirit’ encapsulates the sociable and affable atmosphere prevalent at this college.

The Parsi Fire Temple

Though a small community with a few thousand at its peak population, which has shrunk to around 200 now, the Parsi community has still left an impact on the history and culture of Madras. They shot films, built theatres, had tea shops and even fashioned the water supply of Madras. Parsis first arrived in Madras around 1800 but it took a century before they built a fire temple for themselves. Jal Phiroj Clubwala Dar E Meher, popularly known as the Royapuram fire temple, is located on Arathoon Road.

Sir Dinshaw Petit of Bombay (whose granddaughter was Jinnah’s wife) donated a large sum. Phiroj Muncherji Clubwala donated another large corpus and land after he was bereaved. The grateful Parsis named the temple after Clubwala’s son.

Only Parsis and Zoroastrian Iranis are admitted into the sanctum sanctorum. The fire at the temple has never been extinguished since the construction of the temple (for over a century now). Priests tend to the fire five times a day during prayers, once even at midnight. When the German ship Emden bombed the neighbourhood, the Arathoon road became empty except for the priest who maintained the fire.

St Peter's Church

The company valued its boatmen. Seeing that they had built a church with a thatched roof in the newly founded Royapuram, a princely sum of Rs 40,000 was granted in 1825 to make it a brick and mortar church. The mission, supervised by someone from the fort, ended up as a gothic piece of architecture and the interiors were of Portuguese style finish. The rear of the church is curved in shape much like the neighbouring Chola temple of Tiruvotriyur. St Peter’s is one of the oldest churches in Madras built by the locals.

Chithathri Matha, the Mary here, has a boat in her hand and was deemed the protector of seafarers of Royapuram.

There have been quite a few disputes on the management of the church between two sects — one following the Irish method of the church running and the other the catholic Goan — and the venue has been locked for some period.

The church grounds are constantly the venues for simultaneous football matches for the local boys and are a lively sight to watch.

The Sufi Saint of Royapuram

Royapuram has a rich musical tradition and many historians feel it can be traced to the Sufi saint Kunangudi Masthan. Abdul Kadir, born near Thondi, a medieval Pandya port, ran away from home when compelled to marry. Soon he became a Sufi, taking to the Qadariya order and was termed a Masthan (one intoxicated by the love of God). At the Thiruparankundram hill, Masthan experienced a profound mystical awakening while undergoing 40 days of secluded meditation. And finally, he reached Royapuram in 1826 and decided with saintly forethought that this was his final destination. In a land full of cactus and snakepits, Masthan was happy. Black Town residents of all religions regularly came to Royapuram to get his darshan and to hear him sing. They believed wholeheartedly that he could solve their problems. Masthan was a composer as well and 1,057 songs written by him have been traced though he surely wrote more. After 12 years, Masthan passed away and his dargah remains a prominent place of worship in Royapuram.

Mary Clubwallah

The city of Madras has been at the forefront of institutionalising charities and most of that credit goes to Mary Clubwallah who at some periods was associated with 150 organisations that were offering social service. Born in Ooty and married into a leading family of Royapuram, she was widowed at the age of 27. Mary spent her entire life on the welfare of the have-nots. Freshly widowed Mary joined the guild of service as a volunteer and within a few years had become its moving force. During World War II she arranged hospital visits, support and entertainment programmes for soldiers for injured servicemen. General Cariappa called her ‘The Darling of the Army’ and gifted her a Japanese sword they had captured in the World War as a token of appreciation for her war efforts. The King-Emperor deemed it fit to make her a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

The Monegar Choultry - The oldest charity of Madras

The Hyder invasions, though not dislodging the British from the fort, laid waste the lands and caused famines in ensuing years. Bodies of people dying of starvation could be seen on Madras roads. The response of a Maniyakkarar (official) of the Royapuram area was to start a kanjithotti or a gruel centre. This is perhaps the oldest surviving charity in Madras. Locals still call Stanley Medical College in the neighbouring compound ‘kanjithotti aaspathiri’. The donor who was modest enough not to record his name anywhere soon expanded it into a choultry for the aged and infirm. Soon a choultry started by the Raja of Venkatagiri merged with the Monegar Choultry and came under the patronship of the Madras Governor.

The tradition was that the old people coming to spend their last years here would will their bodies after death for the anatomy section of the Stanley College for medical education.

The Prince of Wales at Royapuram

In 1875, Victoria’s son Edward, the most powerful prince in the world, took the train from Tuticorin to Madras. A host of kings including Cochin, Travancore, Arcot and Vizianagaram waited in the Royapuram station to receive the train scheduled at 6.30 am but reaching at 8.10 am. The engine-driver, either inefficient or with a sense of humour, overshot the fixed stop line and the royal carriage stopped a hundred yards from where the native kings were waiting. A royal sprint ensued, and the kings rushed to wait at their new appropriate place. The Prince of Wales was escorted through the streets of Royapuram and Black Town with a gold-laced umbrella (purposely created in the style of the ancient Tamil kings) shading him. A week later the entire Royapuram station was converted into a vast theatre, 800 feet long and 250 feet wide for a late-night nautch dance organised for the prince and a famous danseuse Gnyana, who the press described as a “little woman, rather pretty and confident, who executed a very long ‘piece’ to the music of the native implements...” The prince, who was attentive during the dance, was bored halfway through the subsequent veena performance and just got up and walked away.

History chugs here...

Today, the picturesque Royapuram Railway Station is just a stop on the Chennai Beach-Katpadi section of the Chennai Suburban Railway network. But its history is substantial. It was built in 1856, the first one in South India and the third in the country after Bombay and Howrah. All trains from the then Madras Province left for various parts of the country from this station in Royapuram.

The Madras Railway Company entrusted designing the station to its engineer, George Bruce. He also laid the first 65-mile track to Arcot. The railway engines had to be imported from England. But with no port, they had to be towed on rafts from the ship to the Royapuram beach and from where they must have been taken to the station on sledges.

On inauguration day, two trains, one to Arcot and one to Ambur, were operated for guests, including the Governor. Soon, central and Egmore stations seemed convenient for a city growing in the south. However, Royapuram station remained the headquarters of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway till 1922. Sadly, the heritage station is now predominantly used for loco maintenance or freight handling, though there are demands to make it a major terminal.

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