THE ANTIQUITY OF EGMORE

One of the older portions of Madras, the earliest references to Egmore occur in the inscriptions of the Chola King Kulothunga I. Under the Chola Empire, Egmore was the headquarters of an administrative division or Nadu called Elumbur Nadu in Puzhal Kottam. The Ardhanareeswarar temple here is considered by many as a ‘vaippu thalam’ (a temple mentioned by the Shaivite trinity) which finds mention in saint Appar’s song about Ezhumur. The Cooum takes a northern turn in Egmore thus becoming a ‘uttara vahini’ (north-flowing) river which is considered very auspicious. The lingam was excavated accidentally when farmers in the area were desilting a waterbody.
THE ANTIQUITY OF EGMORE

CONNEMARA PUBLIC LIBRARY

The Connemara Public Library has 6,00,000 books including exceptional maps, prints and manuscripts. A National Library since 1955, Connemara began in 1861 when surplus books from England’s Haileybury College (training Indian civil servants) were sent to form the nucleus of the library.

Lord Connemara, the Governor of the Presidency, felt the need for a public library and laid the foundation stone, quite confident he would inaugurate the library too when completed. But soon thereafter he got embroiled in a scandalous affair involving several ladies and was caught red-handed by his wife who returned early from a holiday. He returned home in disgrace but a thankful government still named the library after him.

One should not be fooled by the drab concrete exterior of the library for inside is a treasure trove of colonial architecture too.

THE PANTHEON COMPLEX

The pantheon complex dominated Egmore for a long and the road that served it is still called so. It had assembly Rooms and public space for the conduct of “amusements for the settlement”. The company’s balls and dinner parties took place here but it soon fell into disuse with the banqueting hall being built nearer to the fort.

Initially Grecian in architecture, the moving of the museum ensured more buildings were built. Today, the greatest variety of architecture within one compound in Madras exists within the Pantheon complex. Mostly red and Indo-Saracenic, it also has Gothic, neo-Byzantine, Rajput, Mughal and Dravidian and, recently, some grotesque concrete monstrosities were added.

The complex possesses some of the most valuable antiquities of the city ranging from the Thiruvalangadu Chola plates to nearly 50 Chola bronze Natarajas, the oldest axe of more than two million years old and a few Ravi Varma paintings as well.

TWO HOSPITALS

With the gentle breeze emanating from the then-clean Cooum, Egmore was considered a haven for healthcare. The Egmore Eye Hospital is the second oldest hospital of its kind in the world and as the plaque outside the hospital premises even today reads, it was meant for the ‘gratuitous treatment of diseases of the eye’. It even had an Ophthalmic Museum on its premises which has sketches of eye afflictions, case registers and centuries-old medical instruments. The nation’s first ‘eye bank’ was instituted here and was authorised to collect corneas from the deceased destitute. Women And Children Hospital was started in 1844 as a charity. A princess of the last and exiled king of Burma was born in this hospital. Taken over by the government, the hospital was designed in the shape of a female pelvis by a doctor Major General GG Gifford who perhaps was keen on saving the architect’s fee.

KALKI AND EGMORE

Kalki Krishnamurthy had been fired by Ananda Vikadan for participating in the individual satyagraha movement. While in jail he decided to start a magazine on his own. Named Kalki, the magazine would redefine Tamil prose and fiction and at one point become the largest-selling Tamil weekly (when it serialized Ponniyin Selvan).

The first office of Kalki was a rented building opposite the Egmore railway station. In fact, the first issue’s cover would have a picture of Egmore railway station with a fluttering tricolour. The station was then an important and crowded place with troop movements in the world war. Kalki, always known for his humour, would write “for those who do not know where the Egmore station is located in Madras, it is opposite the Kalki magazine office”.

RADIO IN EGMORE

Marconi-inspired programmes were only 4 years old and the BBC was just two years old when Egmore had a radio station. In 1924, one of the first broadcasting facilities in India was set up in Holloway’s Garden, Egmore by Carnavalli V Krishnaswamy, a Manchester-educated electrical engineer. He was an employee of Madras corporation who established the Madras Presidency Radio Club.

The first batch of 40-watt transmitting wireless sets was procured from the British Marconi Telegraph Wireless Company and was later replaced by a 200-watt one (now on display in the museum occasionally).

Almost 100 recorded programmes of music, both instrumental and vocal, and stand-up comedy shows were broadcast in the first year for 150 minutes a day in the evening with special morning broadcasts on Sundays. But soon there was a big gap between enthusiasm and the monetary backup needed. The Egmore radio ran into financial hurdles in 1927, but Krishnaswamy convinced his employer, the city Corporation, to take over the station and moved it to the Ripon Building.

INDIA’S FIRST ZOO

Surgeons have sculpted a lot of non-medical history in Madras. Foremost among them was Edward Balfour, a cousin of Hume who founded the Congress.

He made a huge impact on medical education by pushing for women to be admitted to medical schools far ahead of the rest of the world. Balfour is remembered for starting the museum by inviting members of the public to send in potential exhibits (‘We accept everything!’, he said). Balfour noticed a marked increase in the number of visitors when a live specimen of a tiger cub and leopard was kept in the natural history section.

This led him to propose a zoological garden and this led to the creation in 1856 of India’s first zoo in Egmore. The nawab donated animals from his menagerie and the famous Tamil terminology of Uyir College - Setha College (live and dead colleges came up at the museum). Later on, following complaints from the garden houses of Egmore, the Municipal Zoological Garden was shifted to Park Town.

THE FIRST ROAD NAMED AFTER GANDHI

The Gandhi–Irwin Pact was a political agreement signed by Mahatma Gandhi and the Viceroy in 1931. But for both sides, the results felt way short of expectations. Irwin got Congress to attend the 2nd Round Table Conference it intended to boycott. In lieu, Gandhi got 90,000 political prisoners released without prosecution.

The redoubt road in Egmore was renamed Gandhi-Irwin Road almost 15 years before Independence and was perhaps the first road ever to be named after the Mahatma then. The tercentenary volume of Madras history published in 1939 would actually remark this change was due to ‘strangely radical political influences’. While having a road named after Gandhi in pre-Independence times is remarkable, so is retaining Irwin’s name after it; perhaps a rare occasion of a Viceroy remembered in independent India.

THE BRITISH AND EGMORE

Egmore is the anglicized form of ‘Ezhumbur’. In fact, one of the two rivers adjoining the original fort — The North River — was also called the Elambore River (though people felt it might have been Ennore the British cartographers meant). Egmore was acquired by Elihu Yale, after whom Yale university is named. Yale thought it preferable to have some hinterland around the fort in case of an invasion. Yale applied to Nawab Zulfiqar Khan for the free grant of the villages of Egmore, Purasawalkam and Tondiarpet. They were known in the English records of the time as the ‘Three Old Towns’. Egmore was directly taken over by the company in 1720.

THE EGMORE REDOUBT

Built in 1702, the redoubt was a small fort with sepoys remaining on guard for any threats that could appear from the western side of Fort St George. It had a moat and a draw bridge. It was elevated and had methods of signalling the fort any threat from the enemy. Governor Thomas Pitt commissioned it. It did see some action from a marauding army from Arcot, and the French blew it up on their capture of Madras. Soon, wars were rare and it became a quarantine section for sick soldiers arriving from England. The emergence of the railway headquarters at Egmore saw the removal of the last traces of the fort.

THE BUDDHIST TEMPLE OF MADRAS

The only Buddhist temple in Madras, Sri Lanka Maha Bodhi Society in Kennet lane of Egmore was founded by Anagarika Dharmapala in May, 1891 with the objective of providing shelter, assistance and guidance to the devotees who visit Buddha Gaya annually. A small temple of Buddha, the Buddha Vihara is the only Buddhist temple in Chennai. The temple has an 18-ft statue of Lord Buddha in a standing posture (Abhaya Mudra) in the main hall. The centre is venerated as a popular temple of ‘Theravada’ worship that is visited by about 1,20,000 to 1,50,000 people annually.

THE EGMORE RAILWAY STATION

Today the word Egmore, despite all its historic landmarks, will mean only the railway station. For over a century, it’s been the gateway to the south. The station was built in 1908 as the terminus of the South Indian Railway Company, which owned nearly 2,400 miles of track, both broad and metre gauge.

Henry Irwin and EC Bird, architects, worked on the design of the Egmore building, using both Gothic as well as Indo-Saracenic architectural style and it was built by T Samynada Pillai, a Bangalore contractor, at the cost of Rs 17 lakh.

When the south Indian railway was nationalised and became a part of the Southern Railway, the elephant logo was retained but the letters ‘SIR’ inscribed on its bas-relief crest still started to read ‘SR’. Egmore had a huge Anglo-Indian population because of the railway quarters.

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