CHENNAI: As a child, one would open his history textbook and learn of the Cholas, Mauryas, and the Mughals and the words would reflect the great tales of the kings and queens of the past, the wars they fought and the great deeds they did.
But cities were founded by the European traders — the East India Company were plutocracies to start with - ruled by company officials till Queen Victoria took over from them in 1857.
Surprisingly, there has been a lot of royalty associated with them, adding colour. But since Madras was a creation of the British East India Company, royalty was here only as friends or prisoners.
Three areas in Madras — George Town, Saidapet and Ashok Nagar —were renamed after kings.
Starting from Pallava caves and Chola edicts, Madras has always been in the royal line of sight.
The walls of the old temples in Madras can be seen etched with an ancient style of vattezhuthu. Kings of the past had their grants and instructions engraved on stone in the temple.
Quite a few of them survive even today within madras. A cave temple in Pallavaram has edicts with 100 Mahendravarman in Sanskrit titles. The ancient Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane has a Pallava epigraph dated AD 808 of King Dantivarman.
Cholas like Parantaka, Rajaraja and Kulothunga have left behind edicts. A surprising edict is of Aurangazeb himself mentioned as Alamgir in Kunrathur temple.
Queen Victoria within the university and King George V in Flower Bazaar are the British royal statues that remain in public areas. Most of the other royal statues have been parcelled into the museum.
Of the Indian kings, the Raja of Panagal in the T Nagar Park and Travancore Raja in Gandhinagar exist. The statue of Chera poet prince Ilango was kept on the beach in 1968 during the Tamil conference. However, soon enough it’s been engulfed by the compound wall of the Anna samadhi.
The leading zamindar family in Madras was Vizianagaram. Though they were Telugu-speaking feudal lords, they had marital relations with kings all over India.
The Maharaja of Vizianagaram funded the drinking water fountain in Hyde Park, near Marble Arch in London. The Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium was built by him in Delhi.
Several institutions in Madras, including Punjab Association Adarsh School and the gurudwara, owe their origin to this family. One of the princes, nicknamed Vizzy, captained the Indian cricket team.
Their palace in Mandeveli on the banks of the picturesque Adyar river served as their home for several decades.
The last king Pusapati Alaka Narayana Gajapathi Raju IV committed suicide by jumping off a balcony and the palace was reported to be haunted for years before AV Meiyappan took it over to shoot his movies.
When Chhatrapati Sivaji moved south, shifting his capital to Senji, he came very close to Madras. Surat, the first city of the British, had been plundered and laid waste twice by Shivaji and so their edginess was understandable.
And the fort, not yet 50 years old, was put on high alert. The East India Company seems to have satiated him with some small trinkets as gifts.
There are no records of Shivaji having come within the fort but a depiction of Shivaji on horseback is exhibited on the temple wall of Kalikambal temple in Black Town along with an edict.
Black Town had no deterrent walls and a visit could have been perfectly possible circumventing the city walls.
Queen Victoria, obese beyond imagination, could not visit India and she sent her son the Prince of Wales instead.
From then on it became customary for the second in line to the British throne to visit Madras. When the first Prince of Wales, Edward came to Madras in 1876 he was paraded through Thambu Chetty Street under a gold parasol like the Tamil kings of yore.
To entertain him, fishermen would pour paraffin on the sea waves and light them for a firework show.
It was when George, Prince of Wales, visited Madras in 1905, that the racist name of Black Town was renamed George Town. For his durbar, at Delhi, a competition was organised in Madras for Carnatic singers to compose a song in his honour and the Muthialpet Sabha’s request had dozens of entries.
When another Prince of Wales visited Madras in 1921 with Mountbatten as his aide de camp, the city revolted in a hartal. The prince nearly had a nervous breakdown.
The Nawab of Arcot, who had been the overlords of the British company on behalf of the Mughals, had slowly grown weaker in their capital Arcot and prefered to move to Madras to stay closer to the British.
The Nawab’s wish for a palace within Fort St George was not granted and the area around modern-day Chepauk was offered to them. Indo-Saracenic palaces Kalas Mahal and Humayan Mahal, now partly in ruins and partly occupied by government offices, exist. Madras was unlucky for the nawabs who moved into Mylapore first and then Chepauk.
They overspent on lifestyles that included Persian mushairas (poetry conclaves) personal zoos or menageries. Their palace in Chepauk, including an octagonal Turkish bath hall or hamam, went for auction and the company bought it up and shifted its engineering college there.
The 13th Nawab died without issue, and the British annexed the Carnatic Nawabdom, applying the doctrine of lapse. But a member of the family was given the title Amir-e-Arcot by Queen Victoria and was given a tax free-pension in perpetuity.
The nawabs moved to Amir Mahal, another Indo-Saracenic structure, still maintained well.
The royals of Madras were gentlemen of leisure and spent their time in sports. The Race Club was a favourite haunt. The fitter amongst them played polo on the grounds beneath St Thomas Mount.
Named after the Rajah of Kolanka, the silver cup of Kolanka presented to the annual winner of the polo tournament is the tallest sports trophy in the world.
The Kolanka Cup stands six feet tall and is made out of pure silver and was made in the late 1920s. It would take more than 27 bottles of bubbly champagne to fill the giant Indian trophy.
The Justice Party was the first political party in which kings of the Presidency joined in droves. This was one reason quoted by historians on why the Justice Party lost its support amongst the masses due to their approachability.
Two zamindars of Panagal and Bobbilli became chief ministers in Justice Party governments. When India attained freedom, kings of princely states, now out of jobs, were placated with governor posts in Madras.
The king of Bhavnagar which was the first state to join the Indian union was the first Indian governor of Madras. A few decades later, the Mysore Maharajah took up the post.
Madras being at one corner of the dominion was a favourite for exiling kings who didn’t keep up to British standards.
Perhaps the grandest of them all who was exiled here was Malhar Rao, the Gaekwad of Baroda. Finding the British Resident (representative) too nosy he called him for tea and tried to poison him the traditional Indian royal way — with the powdered diamond in sherbet.
But the Resident survived, and when the trial proved Malhar Rao guilty, he was dethroned and sent to Doveton House (today’s Women’s Cristian College) in Nungambakkam to spend the rest of his life.
He built a monkey house for amusement (the building survived till recently) and quietly lived for the rest of his life.
The British and the French were constantly at loggerheads even in the Colonies. A French prisoner, Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte captured along with 150 others was once struggling to survive in a dark smelly dungeon in Cuddalore and Madras, after having been captured in Pondicherry. Much later, lady luck smiled on him.
Bernadotte was elected crown prince of Sweden, went to Stockholm, acted officially as regent during the illnesses of the aged, childless King Charles XIII, and in 1818 became king, as Charles XIV John. His descendants still rule from Stockholm.
The British felt the need to inculcate manners and a sense of responsibility to the scions of princely and zamindari amilies.
On Mount Road in Teynampet was the Minor Bungalow, initially called Newington House, where the British attempted this thankless process.
The principal, De la hey, was a dashing cricketer with a much younger wife who was as flirtatious as she was alluring. And this certainly distracted the all-male student lineup to what extent nobody knew at that time.
All of a sudden, on the night of 15 October 1919, someone entered the principal’s bedroom and shot him with a 12-bore gun. The college encouraged the “princely sport” of hunting, so shotguns were kept with the sporting equipment. Suspicion fell on two princes — Singampatti and Kadambur (the princes were referred to by the name of their domains).
To avoid a scandal, the British government packed the widow off to England. Singampatti turned into a Crown witness but, his testimony being weak, Kadambur was acquitted.
The Newington House, which had proved to be counterproductive to original founding principles, was shut down shortly.
The Madras racing season was more a place of a social gathering than seeing fleeting equines. It was here that 25-year-old Alwarpet girl, Sita, a princess of Pithapuram and now the queen of a small zamindari and more surprisingly a mother of three caught the eye of the Gaekwad of Baroda — Pratap Singh Rao Gaekwad of Baroda.
The best legal brains in the country huddled to get her a divorce and beat the bigamy laws of the Presidency and Baroda state. The Prime Minister of Baroda quit in protest and even the British were not amused.
British officials were asked to leave the assemblage if Sita Devi came into the hall. Tired of all this snubbing, the couple chose Monaco, bought a mansion and settled there.
Baroda had some of the best jewels in India. But by the time the Tricolour was hoisted, even Sardar Patel was shocked to see there were no jewels left to nationalise in Baroda. Sita shrewdly had all the stones reset in Europe and nothing matched the inventory in the palace. And wearing them all, Sita attended the social blitz in post-war Europe. The western media was already calling her India’s Wallis Simpson.
The Poonamalee Nayaks issued the original lease deed for Madras to the East India Company. A year later their overlord the last Vijay Nagar king Srirangarayan calls Madras Srirangaraya Pattinam, perhaps hinting to the British that they should rename Madras. But he lost his throne soon thereafter and couldn’t enforce it.
The five villages of Tiruvatiyoor, Kathiwakam, Nungambakkam, Vyasarpady and Sathangadu were given over by a firman issued by Moghul Emperor Farrukhsiyar.
Eyewitness records state: “The contents of the firman were placed in the State palanquin of Governor and taken around White Town with English music and Black Town with native music.”
Francis Hugonin, Chief Gunner, fired a salute of 151 guns after which it was taken up by the ships on the bay.
Burmese king Thibaw and his queen Supayalat were in exile. They had lost the Anglo-Burmese war and their final destination would be Ratnagiri in Maharashtra.
But on the way, the queen was decidedly pregnant and the British felt it was not safe for them to continue their journey.
Their ship docked in Madras and the royal family was given residence in a bungalow in Nungambakkam. Princess Myat Phaya was born in Madras on 7 March 1886, the third daughter of the last ruling king of Burma.
Though the first royal to be born out of the country, she would be the only one of the ill-fated family to return to her ancestral home where she lived sans her royal title, but much respected till a ripe old age.
Latha who acted with top stars like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Rajnikant was a daughter of the Ramnad raja.
Riya Sen, who acted in some Tamil films, comes from a royal family of Tripura and is related to the royal families of several north Indian states, including Cooch Behar and Jaipur.