CHENNAI: The most happening place in the city has always been Nungambakkam. Classy shopping areas, huge garden houses, colleges topping the rating chart nationally and who’s who of the city seeking to live there. The incredible issue is that the British who founded our city intended it to be exactly likewise three centuries back. Though lodged within a claustrophobic fort they had great blueprints for Nungambakkam as their future habitation and recreation centre and fought tooth and nail to hold on to it.
The Lake of Nungambakkam
Madras always showed scant interest in preserving her water bodies. The Long Tank was a natural lake which was situated on the western frontier of the city. The five-mile-long lake comprising of two sections — the Mambalam Tank to the south and a feeder lake Nungambakkam Tank to the north — was at its broadest point a mile in width. With little regard for future water scarcities and ever ravenous for new land, the lake filling started in 1921 and went on for half a century. The last to be filled were sections of Nungambakkam. However, public memories run long and there are lake areas and tank bund road in Nungambakkam. The memory of rainwater too is quite long and these are the most flooded areas during monsoon.
Longumbauc and Palm fruit town
Being an adjacent village of Puliyur (now Kodambakkam) — a Chola district headquarters, it’s no surprise Nungambakkam was mentioned in their copper plate grants a thousand years ago. The area is mentioned as ‘Longumbauc’ in East India Company reports when their possession of the area was confirmed by a firman issued by Moghul Emperor Farrukhsiyar in July 1717.
There are versions that there were plentiful palms here and their fruits nongu gave the name to Nungambakkam, but that is perhaps just a colourful version of the etymology.
Automobiles and Accidents
While developing Nungambakkam, the company did not repeat its mistake of narrow roads. With broad treelined roads, the earliest automobiles were also sighted in Nungambakkam. This also increased the frequency of motor accidents. Hitting cattle and unsuspecting pedestrians were common, and falling off the bridges, though rare, was eye-catching.
The Valluvar Kottam
The Valluvar Kottam was built in the memory of the great Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar and inaugurated in 1976. The last and perhaps the deepest part of the Nungambakkam tank with an area of 5.5 acres was filled up to form the Valluvar Kottam with work commening in 1974. The monument is constructed like the chariot at the temple of Tiruvarur.
Tiruvalluvar stands on the chariot in the form of a life-sized statue. V Ganapati Sthapati was the architect of the site and interestingly M Karunanidhi took a personal interest in the monument.
Racing against time during the Emergency years, when losing power could be any day, he sometimes stayed overnights at the site when the work went on at a hectic pace.
Ironically, the Kottam was inaugurated only when he had been dismissed and he was not even invited to the opening ceremony.
The Garden Houses
The company always viewed Nungambakkam as its future housing area when political issues got sorted out. Once the French were edged out in the Carnatic and the Mysore kings who nearly overthrew the company were dead and gone, the company began parcelling out land to its servants outside the Fort’s ramparts. This area, on either side of Mount Road, came to be known as the Great Choultry Plain. With countless Englishmen wishing to get out of the stifling precincts of the Fort, the Nungambakkam area became the preferred spot. The British and their native entourage moved constructing large airy garden houses since it was fertile and lush being watered by the winding Cooum and a huge lake. Nungambakkam was perhaps the first organised British habitation outside the fort.
Tennis was predominantly a club sport in Madras and only members had access. The South Asian Federation (SAF) games in 1995 were held here and there was a need for a world-class tennis stadium. Land in the form of a public cricket ground was available in the lake area of Nungambakkam, and the tennis stadium, consisting of five hard courts including the floodlit centre court was built. Importantly, it had a seating capacity of about 6,000. Awed by the facilities here, South Asia’s only ATP event was moved to this stadium in a couple of years. It also became an ideal location for Davis cups in which India played.
The tennis-loving crowd of Chennai could witness in action international greats like Boris Becker and Patrick Rafter. The venue put together the famed doubles team of Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi who did India proud.
Referred to as the ‘Kaadhal Mannan’ (King of Romance) for the romantic roles he played in Tamil films, Gemini was a Nungambakkam resident. While most heroes of the silver screen had graduated from a career in theatre, Ganesan was one of the few college graduates to enter the film industry in the forties. He made his debut with Miss Malini in 1947, with a screenplay by ace author RK Narayan. But before that, he worked as a lecturer in the Chemistry department of Madras Christian College. Later in 1947, he obtained work as a production executive in the casting department of the Gemini Studio. So the name stuck to him.
In a career spanning nearly 50 years, Ganesan played a variety of roles. He did not mind doing negative roles or the second in credit to MGR or Shivaji. And finally, he switched to character roles. Director K Balachander once called Ganesan a ‘director’s delight’. Much married Ganesan is the father of Rekha, the popular Hindi actress.
The Twin Temples
The second most important road perhaps running along the lake was called the Village Road, cutting through the erstwhile Nungambakkam village. A small Shiva temple with a disproportionately large tank fronting it was built by one of the Dubashes (Do Bash – interpreters) then emerging as the new breed of native millionaires. The family of Devanayaka Mudaliar became the trustees of the Agastyeswara Temple for Shiva and Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal temple for Vishnu. The temple has a legend of a medieval king being cured of his stomach ailment here and sage Agastya visiting it.
The Madras Meteorological Centre
William Petrie, an East India Company official, developed the first astronomic observatory with his resources and gifted it to the city when he returned home. From that, the Madras Observatory was established in 1792 “for promoting the knowledge of Astronomy, Geography and Navigation in India. Considered one of the first modern astronomical-cum-meteorological observatories beyond Europe, it has many achievements over its two-century history.
It first produced the celebrated catalogue of about 11,000 southern stars and discovered many asteroids. A team from this observatory viewed the eclipse in 1868 along with French and British teams using spectrometers which led to the discovery of the element Helium. On the weather front, Madras has temperature readings recorded from 1796 and rainfall from 1813.
Goldingham of the observatory formulated the Madras time which was 5 hours and 21 minutes ahead of GMT, thus establishing the precedent to Indian Standard Time adopted a century later.
Around 1900, all astronomical activity was transferred from Madras to Kodaikanal and Nungambakkam became purely a weather station. A 10-tonne, 15-foot-tall granite pillar, which carried the original transit equipment, is still preserved in Nungambakkam.
The Madras Literary Society
The Madras Literary Society — the library in a red sandstone building within the Department of Public Instruction complex — is the oldest functional public lending library in India. Founded two centuries ago in the year 1818, it appealed for donations of books, artefacts and manuscripts. The Government Museum, Chennai, was started as an extension of the Madras Literary Society, which could not handle the excessive bestowments. With improved focus, the residuary book collection became a lending library. The MLS is perhaps the oldest lending library still in action in India today. It has a collection of approximately 55,000 books and Opera Omnia, its oldest book, was printed 400 years ago (thus older than Madras itself).
Women's Christian College
The second women’s college in the city (after Queen Mary’s College) — the Women’s Christian College — was started in 1915 and moved to Nungambakkam with a large donation by the Rockefellers. The college occupies two splendid riverfront properties — Doveton House and Hanson’s Garden.
The campus is verdant as a tropical forest and sunlight rarely gets a chance to penetrate the green cover, and double ironically the college has a sundial in front of the administration building that is inscribed with the words:
At the rising of the sun, hope;
At the going down, there of peace
Over a century, highly individualistic students emerged as the college management was very keen that the students meet with every section of people. Though dominated by British teachers, they invited nationalist leaders including Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore who visited the campus and interacted with the students.
In 1942, the British-born principal Eleanor Rivet restricted the students from participating in the Quit India movement, forcing them to go on a hunger strike. But when freedom came, it was Eleanor herself who climbed on the terrace of the science block and hoisted the Tricolour.
The Silk Industry of Nungambakkam
Two men, Tipu Sultan and Dr Anderson, though bitter foes, shared a common interest — sericulture. Madras would have been the silk capital of India if only Dr James Anderson’s 19th Century sericulture tryouts in Nungambakkam had triumphed. For six years, he tried to prove to the East India Company that silk production was possible in Madras.
The physician planted Mulberry trees at his home Pycrofts Garden on over 111 acres. He convinced the governor to appeal to other garden homes to do the same. He brought in silk-worm eggs from Bengal and waited for them to hatch on trays of leaves. Meanwhile, ingenious Anderson developed his own reeling machine by just looking at a brochure from Europe and brought in an experienced reeler from Bengal.
He could generate small amounts of reeled silk and even sent samples to George Washington — the first President of the United States. But a sustained production eluded him and not a single mulberry tree can be seen today in Nungambakkam. Feeling Nungambakkam was not the ideal place for silk production, the East India Company abandoned its sericulture investments but 50 years hence it was the springboard for the silk industry to relaunch itself in different areas of the presidency.
Doveton House is perhaps the oldest surviving garden house of Nungambakkam. It is a stately building and has a double-height elephant portico through which an elephant with a howdah and passengers could walk in without hitting their heads. Built in 1798, it is named after its second owner Doveton who acquired it 40 years hence. The stately Doveton House overlooking the Cooum river was used by the British to house exiles.
A Baroda king accused of murder built a monkey house here and amused himself till his last days. The two sons of Tipu, given as hostages after his debacle in the Anglo-Mysore war, may have stayed here for some time. It was rumoured for long that Edward Clive, the Governor of Madras, had reportedly housed an Indian paramour on these grounds. Stories of sightings of the ghost of an Indian beauty and her caramel-coloured baby roaming the corridors used to abound in the college hostels for years.
Japanese prisoners were locked here during World War 2 with the allied army commandeering half of it for the war effort. The girls could just guess who was in those locked rooms with darkened windows while college functioned as usual.
The college of Fort St George
College Road in Nungambakkam thoughtfully remembers one of the oldest colleges of Madras — College of Fort St George. Francis Whyte Ellis, a British man (who wrote poetry in medieval Tamil style as Ellisan) was largely responsible for instituting the college to teach the languages of south India as well as culture and way of life here to the junior civil servants posted to Madras. Every year, the Governor of Madras travelled by boat from the government estate to give the diplomas to the graduates. The college was like a literary laboratory to Ellis and all his scholarly achievements would have origins here. Ellis’s greatest accomplishment was the discovery of the Dravidian language family, which he insisted, though containing plentiful loanwords from Sanskrit, had not descended from it. He was perhaps the first to translate Tirukkural (though partly) and had it printed in the college press.