Those were the days: White imprints on Black Town

Some of the locality names bear testimony to this, be it Seven Wells Street, Mint Street, Armenian Street, Broadway or Parry’s Corner.
Illustration by Saai
Illustration by Saai

CHENNAI: One of the first important English settlements in India, Black Town occupies a remarkable position in the history of Madras. Its transformation from Black Town to George Town — that began with the advent of the East India Company — and growth as an important trade link between India and Europe, has left an imprint worth cherishing. Some of the locality names bear testimony to this, be it Seven Wells Street, Mint Street, Armenian Street, Broadway or Parry’s Corner.

HISTORY OF BLACK TOWN

The East India Company depended on trade, and thus the locals. They encouraged an influx of Indians to settle down around the fort.

The locals, meanwhile, found the British to be a good source of a steady income, and living away from the villages for the first time, broke down class and caste differences. No wonder the population here increased 100-fold in the first century.

The old fort had two gates to the Black Town, where the Indians (and other nationalities as well) lived. When the French attacked, Black Town engulfing the fort did not afford the British an appropriate defence. And when they recovered the fort under the Austrian treaty, the British demolished the old Black Town and even moved its primary temple.

They set up a series of 13 obelisks and warned Indians not to build beyond them. Amongst them, only one 15-foot obelisk survives (dating January 1, 1773).

THE GOLD PICKERS OF MINT

Prosperous cities are often likened to having roads paved with gold. Though that’s an exaggeration, gold can still be found on the streets of George Town, as a few old ladies who thrive on it can tell you.

The Mint coincidentally was in this area where the East India Company minted its coins. The periodic cleaning of the floor must have pushed the minute gold dust onto the road inspiring the locals to collect the sweeping dust from the road, sieve it as they would do grain and chaff and retrieve the gold.

The earlier method of getting at that gold was to add mercury to which the dust would adhere. And then heat it to let the mercury evaporate. (People often inhaled the vapours with fatal consequences.)

Today the Mint is long gone, but the numerous jewellers in the area still sweep minute gold dust onto the road. And the business of minting gold from the street continues.

THE SEVEN WELLS OF PEDDANAIKENPET

The struggle for drinking potable water has plagued the city since its founding days. But one can’t blame the founders for the choice of location.

At most, they had planned a trading station, a factory and a small fort by the sea to house a few hundred people. Never in their wildest fantasies did they envision Madras becoming the megapolis it is today.

In the early 1750s, when the wells in the fort became saline due to overdrawing the company excavated seven wells in the northwest corner of the Black Town in north Peddanaikenpet.

Water from these wells was raised manually by picotahs (water levers) and conveyed via cast iron pipes to Fort St George as well as other storage areas in Black Town.

This system of piping for two miles to the fort was one of the earliest piped-drinking-water systems in the world. Incidentally, when Haider Ali could not capture Madras, he tried to poison these wells with carcasses of animals.

PACHAIYAPPAN HALL

Pachaiyappan Hall, offering a run-down appearance today, was the location of Gandhi’s first speech in Madras.

Named after the great Dubash turned philanthropist, the building now houses the first English medium school in India.

Inspired by the Athenian temple of Theseus, it has large pedimented porticos and fluted columns on high pillars.

Architects of Madras were still struggling to give a roof to combat a tropical climate. Larger buildings were tougher to roof.

Madras engineers, part of the Madras army, innovated using multi-layered roofs with zinc and slate. Gandhi would visit Madras more than a dozen times and fired up patriotism. But his first visit, almost wholly confined to the Black Town, was lacklustre.

In 1896, He came as a South African lawyer to deliver a speech in Madras, titled The Plight of Indians in South Africa, that lasted tiring one-and-a-half hours.

The Madras newspapers reported that Gandhi ‘read out’ a protracted speech which the crowd at Pachaiyappa’s Hall was patient enough to hear fully.

THOMAS PARRY

Hundreds of celebrities have lived in the Black Town. But one who is still remembered today is Welshman Parry. Perhaps, one of the most wealthy and famous non-blacks to inhabit Black Town, remembered by the southeast corner building of the Black Town built long after he died.

Working as a sailor to pay for his trip to Asia as a 20-year-old, Parry deserted the ship to slip into Madras.

One needed to join the company or get the Governor’s permission to be a free merchant. Patrick Ross, the architect who designed the second fort, got him that and then there was no looking back for Parry. Parry ran into every controversy and scandal possible for an expatriate, both in business and personal life, before succumbing to cholera near Cuddalore.

Today, Parry’s is the second oldest business running in India. The old town is often called Parry’s or Parry’s Corner today.

BLACK TO GEORGE

During the royal visit of 1905, when prince George, the next in line to be emperor of India, visited Madras, the government floated the idea of changing the name of the first civilian quarter of the city.

By then, nobody was referring to the area as Black Town; other names like Sowcarpet, Parry’s, or even Mint were used to refer to these areas.

There was an overwhelming response to the idea of being named George Town after the prince claimed the government and issued an extraordinary gazette to change the name.

The prince issued a statement that he was pleased to accept the proposal but did not have time to visit the area newly named after him. Soon when George became the emperor, a loyal citizen placed a statue of him near the Flower Bazaar. This happens to be the only statue of the British royals on a Chennai road that’s not yet been taken to the museum.

THE ARMENIANS OF MADRAS

Armenia in Central Asia has always been a coveted place for invaders. Frequently, the Russians or the Turks would march in, causing an exodus of the elite.

Armenian merchants arrived in Madras by sea route (many from the Philippines) to trade in jute and silk, spices and precious stones.

The Armenian street in Black Town testifies to its prosperity and population numbers. One of them, Petros Uscan, other than building the Saidapet Marmalong Bridge and the stairs up the holy St Thomas Mount, willed his wealth to the city, showing an extrasensory perception of its glorious future.

Shahamir Shahamirian established the first Armenian printing press in India in the city of Madras in 1772, where the world’s first Armenian newspaper as well as the constitution of a future Armenian state was written.

The Armenian church remains a reminder of the glorious times the richest expat community had in Madras.

BROADWAY

Broadway divides George Town into Muthialpet and Peddanaikenpet is in no way as broad as its name indicates. In fact, for a long time, the road was a drainage channel, known then as Atta Pallam.

Stephen Popham, in 1782, took a contract to level a hill named Narimedu (mound of foxes), considered a security threat to the fort, and fill the broad way with its debris. The thoroughfare thus created came to be known as Popham’s Broadway.

Madras was soon to become the cinema capital but the first theatre with a permanent seating arrangement was on Broadway called Bioscope and started by an Anglo-Indian called Mrs Klugs.

Broadway was rightfully named after a satyagraha following lawyer Andhra Kesari Prakasam, who, angered by a police shooting at the corner of the road, went to retrieve the bodies risking his life.

THE CHENNA KESAVA TEMPLE

Beri Thimmappa, who launched the Black Town, built the Chenna Kesava temple, also called the Pattinam Perumal Temple or the ‘Great Town Pagoda’ exactly where the high court stands today.

When the old Black Town was knocked off to create an esplanade for the safety of a fort, the British ensured there would be no opposition from the pilgrims.

They gave a contribution and also allowed Muthu Krishna Mudali, the last chief merchant of the East India Company, to rebuild the temple beyond the esplanade.

The company contributed only around 10 per cent of the building cost of 15,000 pagodas but allotted 24,000 sq ft in what is now Devaraja Mudali Street, possibly free of charge. 38 native houses were relocated to accommodate the new temple.

Using the land and funds, the native patrons decided to build the twin temples of Chennakesava Perumal and Chenna Mallikeswarar Temples. The grateful citizens of the town used to refer to the twin temples for years as the Company Pagoda.

THE ARTS IN THE OLD TOWN

Veenai Dhannammal
Veenai Dhannammal

When the kings and zamindars vanished from the performing arts scene, the merchants took over that role.

Since all the merchants who had made a fortune trading with the British lived in Black Town, musicians and dancers flocked there. Two of the Carnatic music trinity have visited and stayed in the town.

Poets like Bharathi and saintly bards like Vallalar and Pamban Swami churned out religious poetry aided by the numerous printing presses established there.

MS Subbulakshmi would first move with her mother to a disused car garage in the town.

Veenai Dhannammal, whose lineage the famed danseuse Balasaraswathi claims, was also born in the town. Evenings in the lamp-lit houses on the alleys of Black Town were cultural extravaganzas.

Traffic jams were frequent when the jutkas of the patrons thronged the area to partake in it. It was here Arunachala Kavi launched his version of a Tamil Ramayana, seated on a throne-like chair and showered with gold coins by a patron.

SWADESAMITRAN

One of the earliest Tamil newspapers and the longest in print, Swadesamitran (friend of self-rule) is a true chronicle of the Indian National Independence movement that ran in the old town area.

Mahakavi Subramania Bharathi worked as a sub-editor both before and after his exile in Pondicherry.

The editorial team of the Swadesamitran were constantly harassed by the British and prosecuted and sentenced for sedition.

Surviving up to 1985, the newspaper, which had sounded the bugle for independence, shut down unable to sustain itself.

THE CHETTIAR CHATRAMS

On Coral Merchant Street, just a stone’s throw from the harbour, are three 19th-century unobtrusive buildings built in Chettinad style.

The Rangoon Chatram (transit house), the Karaikudi Chatram and the Devakottai Chatram. Dreamy-eyed boys, out to make a fortune in the Far East, would move to these free hostels from their hometowns in Chettinad.

It was from here they would prepare to board ships to Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Malaya.

In a space of 50 years, this business community would rewrite the financial balance sheets and the history of the Far East countries.

Though not in operation for the original intention, the three chatrams also have Muruga idols which are taken on three chariots to Tiruvotriyur every year around February-March in a grand celebration.

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