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A confluence point of royalty, politics & sports

A coastal pocket south of the Cooum river has invariably become a part of its older cousin Triplicane, because of its low population density.

A confluence point of royalty, politics & sports

Illustration by Saai

CHENNAI: The earliest areas of Madras provide us the initial history of the city. The fort, Black Town, and Chinthatripet have essentially retained their original characteristics. What has changed beyond recognition is Chepauk. A coastal pocket south of the Cooum river has invariably become a part of its older cousin Triplicane, because of its low population density.


Ships could not touch the coast in early Madras because of a sandbar under the sea. So there was a need for a courier boat service from ship to city and vice versa. The need was filled by the masula boatmen who were the first residents of the city. They accompanied the British from Masulipattinam on Day 1 of Madras. Since the fishermen have different lifestyles from other natives, the British decided to settle them at a distance from the fort and Black Town.

While other natives settled to the north of the fort, fishermen were safely settled across the then-unnamed Cooum in the south. This was the original Chepauk. When Governor Lord Clive shifted the Customs office to the beach along the Black Town, the ships moved alongside too. The masula fishermen felt the impact of the distance of commuting. They petitioned the Governor who readily gave them the Royapuram area even partially funding their new church there for St Peter.


The Nawab of Arcot of the Wallajah dynasty, who had been an overlord of the British on behalf of the Mughals, had had enough of ruling. Robert Clive, in one daring move, had captured the capital of the Arcots. The respect and fear of the locals towards their ruler obviously deteriorated after that. His land and revenues had shrunk. The Nawab petitioned the East India Company that he wanted to move to the Fort.

The British liked the idea where they could keep a constant eye on him, but somehow they changed their minds. So Chepauk, which was the former home of the fishermen, was allotted to the Nawab. He employed Benfield, who was doing the wall around Black Town, as his architect- cum-builder’.

The palace was built on 117 acres of bay-facing property in Indo-Saracenic style. It included an octagonal hamaam – a Turkish-style bath.

When the Nawabs lived here for 87 years, it was an oasis of Persian culture amid a colonial setup. Persian poetry and Mughal dances were performed daily, but soon they went bankrupt and the palaces were auctioned off.


The first British royal statue of Madras was that of Queen Victoria. Victoria was the queen who ruled that largest part of India after Aurangzeb. The 50th year of her coronation was celebrated across the world in the far-flung British empire.

In February 1887, the Sheriff of Madras announced that Rajah Goday Narayan Gajapati Rao offered to install a statue of Queen Victoria as part of her jubilee celebration.

The statue was made in London by Boebin with the Queen being sculpted as sitting on a high-back chair with a sceptre on her right hand. It was opened on June 20, 1887, by Connemara Governor of Madras. Right now, the statue is in an overgrown patch of vegetation within the university compound. However, Victoria’s statue survives, while that of her son and grandsons have been moved to the museum.


The skyline in Chepauk on August 15, 1975 looked different. The TV broadcasting in Tamil Nadu was inaugurated on July 4, 1976. The channel began broadcasting on an experimental basis from a makeshift studio as part of All India Radio. It started with 20 TV receivers in and around Chennai and transmitted one-hour educational and developmental programmes twice a week.

Regular daily transmission started in 1975. A 3.5-hour programme in the evening was welcomed by the entertainment-starved people. Additions programmes came on Sunday morning. Rooftop antennas started cropping across city terraces. A 175-metre tall TV tower was commissioned, the tallest structure in Madras then.

The Madras TV could be seen for a distance of 80 km extending up to Madurantakam and Arakkonam. Doordarshan Madras moved to colour on August 15, 1982,


Cricket was introduced to India by European sailors in the 18th Century. The Chepauk cricket ground is perhaps the first associated space with the game in this city. It was a part of the Arcot Palace in Chepauk. The Wallajah Road gate pillars of the stadium still stand testimony to Indo-Saracenic architecture. When it started, first-class cricket had very temporary arrangement for the audience. Casuarina poles were used to install seating.

In the 1960s, industrialist Ma Chidambaram from the Chettinad family mooted a permanent concrete stadium. Karunanidhi laid the founding stone and donated Rs 15 lakh. MAC also brought in some money, but his personal guarantee to complete the Rs 1.7 crore stadium was a major event to be cherished in the cricketing world of Madras.

The stadium is named after MAC. The permanent stadium pushed first-class cricket in favour of Chepauk rather than the Corporation stadium. India had never tasted victory in its first 20 years of test cricket. It was in 1952 in Chepauk that it happened against England.


The Senate House was once the administrative centre of the University of Madras but it has also hosted a variety of events from legislative sessions to Carnatic kutcheries. It was designed by Robert Chisholm between 1874 and 1879 and is often quoted as being the finest example of Indo-Saracenic architecture in India. It was the result of one of the earliest of architecture competitions in the world.

In 1864, the Madras government gave an advertisement inviting designs for the Senate House building. The Senate’s building architecture incorporates many elements of the Byzantine style.

To accommodate the Hindu part, bas reliefs of Indian gods were installed at the lintel height. The interior of the building includes stained-glass windows, rare intricate murals, and painted panels. However, even after the restoration, it’s being used as a glorified storehouse with the public being rarely allowed inside.


A country with an active labour movement, May Day is celebrated with pomp all over India. But what most do not know that the first May Day was celebrated in Chepauk in 1923. Because of its early industrialisation, Madras was a hotbed for labour movements.

The first Labour Day was organised by M Singaravelu Chettiar. After a tiff with Gandhi over how he handled the boycott of Prince Edward in his visit to Madras, a disillusioned Singaravelu continued speaking in public meetings and demonstrations and writing articles in support of labour.

On May 1, 1923, when he raised the red flag for the first time in the country’s history, he also founded his own party – Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan. Singaravelu later aided the setting up of the Communist Party of India in 1925.

The approximate location of the Triplicane May Day has the Triumph of Labour Statue by Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury, which was installed on January 25, 1959.


On the banks of the Buckingham Canal is the dilapidated Victoria Students Hostel. It was built in the Indo-Saracenic style.

Colonel Henry Davidson Love, who was a warden of the hostel, was one of the greatest historians of Madras and has chronicled the history of the city from 1640 to 1800 in his book, ‘Vestiges of Old Madras’. Students of the college of engineering stayed here between 1880-1907 when the college was functioning in Chepauk Palace.

When it moved to Guindy, the hostel was handed over to Presidency College. Gandhi visited the hostel at 3 am, and was shocked at the number of types of dining messes showing how divided the community was.


When the logistics of supplying great amounts of fodder, food, salt, and fuel to the ever-growing city of Madras could not be met by the primitive roads of the Presidency, the British decided to dig a canal across the town.

The Buckingham Canal contributed in no small measure in the city’s expansion. However, it did not have a water source of its own. So, engineers designed waterworks.

When tidal water from the sea flowed to the Adyar or Cooum rivers, it would also enter the canal. Then the locks would be closed. This ingenious system still used in places like the Panama Canal supported trade and logistics in Madras for more than half a century. The area around the rusted locks is now called the Lock Nagar.


After the DMK rule of 1967, Marina Beach became a burial place for the Chief Ministers. Four of them are buried in the angle formed by the sea and the Cooum river. One of them – Annadurai – had the largest congregation of mourners for the funeral in the world. His successors Karunanidhi, MGR, and Jayalalitha are all laid to rest in the neighbourhood. There is a prevailing rumour that MGR was buried with his watch that had a 100-year functioning battery and with some keen hearing, one could hear it ticking. One can see tourists with their ears placed on the samadhi even today trying to catch that sound.

Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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