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Guindy: Quiet Space to a Commercial Hub

Guindy was once a sparsely populated area of the city, mainly because there weren’t adequate bridges across the river Adyar. Since it was far away from the city centre.

Guindy: Quiet Space to a Commercial Hub

Representative Image (Illustration: Saai)

CHENNAI: One of the most densely populated areas in the city, Guindy was originally an inaccessible neighbourhood that was used by the British to hunt occasionally. From such humble beginnings emerged a place that’s now the central point of commerce and development. Here are some of the most iconic landmarks we know of, and their origins


Guindy was once a sparsely populated area of the city, mainly because there weren’t adequate bridges across the river Adyar. Since it was far away from the city centre and not so accessible, only the Englishmen used it to hunt or race.

The forest, which commences along the estuary of Adyar, continues up to Guindy. With the expansion of the company into revenue farming down south, Guindy became the entrance to the city.

Though it does not seem obvious, Guindy does have a high residential population. While main roads are occupied by commercial spaces, side lanes of Alandur, Maduvinkarai and Ekkattuthangal play host to large communities

Kathipara Bridge:

With Guindy being the entrance point of the city, traffic clogs became unbearable. At Kathipara, roads branched off into Mount Road, GST Road down south, Poonamalle Road and 100 Feet Road to Ambattur. Huge populations had moved south of Guindy and needed to access the city regularly.

It was just a matter of time before a grade separator had to be installed instead of the traffic island at that spot. The Kathipara Junction Grade Separator was not planned as a series of bridges one over another. It had a distinctive 4-looped cloverleaf design, simplifying a complex interchange that allows vehicles to smoothly transition from one road to another without any traffic signals.

The 2-km bridge at an average height of 60 feet reduced traffic congestion. Over the years, the Kathipara Bridge has become an iconic landmark in Chennai. And no wonder, as it represents the city’s will to evolve with changing times.

Raj Bhavan:

Guindy Cottage or Guindy Lodge has been mentioned in 17th Century company records. But it was Sir Thomas Munro who repurchased it in 1821 to use it as a Country House for the Governor since it was situated inside thick forest lands and the climate was healthy.

The garden space was carved out of the Guindy Forest, after extensive renovations, to get the present shape by the 1860s. But they were not the first Indian residents. In 1678, it was held by a merchant of Madras – Chinna Venkatadri, who after some problems with the East India Company, gifted it to the Company’s.

It’s then recorded as consisting of three single-storied bungalows which were eventually enlarged into a rather grand residence for the Governor. The Governors of Independent India started using Raj Bhavan as their residence from 1947. There are separate suites for the President of India, Vice President and Prime Minister.

Industrial Estate:

That Tamil Nadu is far ahead in industrial production is because of its early strides, the first of which started in Guindy in 1958. Thiru Vi Ka Industrial Estate, a 450-acre campus, had humble origins in 1958 with 30 sheds.

The farsighted Venkatraman, then the industries minister in the Kamaraj cabinet (later would rise to be President of India) was one of the main forces behind the estate.

When it was decided to set up an entire area on the banks of the Adyar to cater to industrial production, Nehru flew down to open the first phase while his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, came to open its second phase.

Abundant supply of cheap and skilled labour around the estate helped its growth. But the Adyar used to flood quite often and drown their machines, and they would tackle power shortages and labour unrest.

But it set an example to the rest of the country on how to set up separate enclaves with an industrial synergy. Now, most industries here have given way to software parks.

Hunting Club:

Hunting for fun was an important pastime of the British. Madras did not have thick forests with larger game like tigers and the British had to do with jackal and fox hunting and occasionally went after the wild boar. The forests of Guindy were of bush and bramble, and were ideal hunting grounds for jackals.

The one hindrance was the cactus, referred to as the prickly pear. Hunts started at daylight, for the hunters – usually the British - had to be at their offices some four hours later. Hounds from England were imported but when Madras got hot, they were sent to The Nilgiris hills for the summer.

There were also attempts at cross breeding the English hounds with the native Poligar hounds. However, Madras possessed a well organised hunt club, meeting twice a week during the season, which was around November to March. The higher officials, who were the hunters, arm-twisted the government survey office to even print annual hunt maps. The earliest record of jackal hunting is 1776 thus making it the first hunt established in India.

Madras Snake Park:

The arrival of Romulus Whittaker, a herpetologist from America, changed the way India looked at its snakes. Earlier they were feared, and prayed to as gods as well.

With a group of local naturalists, he set up the bigger Madras Snake Park in Guindy in 1972 on a piece of land obtained on lease from the Forest Department of the State Government.

A trust, constituted to manage its affairs, decided to maintain and display a captive collection of snakes and other reptiles as a means of eliciting public interest in them and prompting the public to love and respect them.

Extraction of snake venom is demonstrated to onlookers. Most of the zoo-keepers are Irula tribes who have been weaned from their traditional occupation of catching snakes for the now-illicit trade in snake skins.

The zoo holds 40 species of snakes, crocodiles, iguanas, and turtles. Zoo-born offspring are released in the wild or exchanged with other zoos.

Madras Race Club:

The crowded city still has one of the biggest urban race-courses in the world. But when it was formed, it was surrounded by paddy fields and battlefields. As many as 81 cawnies of farmland of Venkata Puram next to the Guindy forest and Velachery – were allotted by the Chengalpattu Governor to conduct horse races.

Families were brought here to relax in an adjoining club, recorded in the East India Company records that “the entertainment took place in the cool season when the ladies of the settlement are invited to a splendid ball”.

Soon, the British let the zamindars and petty kings of the south, who considered the race club almost like a second home. In 1920, the Maharaja of Bobbili and Maharaja of Venkatagiri built the viewing stands.

The visiting British royalty too made it a point to visit the course. Twice, the princes of Wales visited the club, which came to be dominated by the mercantile community of Chettiars, who as horse owners and executive members of the club, controlled racing for nearly 75 years.

The Plague Man:

Cities that encourage migrations are overcrowded and suffer from unsanitary measures that encourage epidemics. In the early 1900s, other cities in India were lashed by waves of plague which killed substantial citizenry. But Madras looked apparently immune.

The Secretary of State for India, even set up a committee to enquire into the reasons for the city’s immunity to plague. It was because of one doctor who is remembered in the King Institute of Preventive Medicine and Research Guindy.

Walter Gaven King, a member of the Madras Medical Service, was the personal surgeon to the Governor. But King was more interested in preventing pandemics like cholera, smallpox and plague which were killing thousands every year.

His training of sanitary inspectors was a measure that England adopted over the empire soon enough. When plague threatened India, he introduced 80,000 plague passports to enable tracking movement of people from plague-affected areas.

This, along with quarantine measures that he suggested, the spread of plague in Madras did not become catastrophic. The King Institute in Guindy now has 5 heritage buildings, and the smallpox vaccines made here saved millions across the world.

The Memorials:

Somehow, even memorials of Chief Ministers of Madras have taken political overtones. While 4 Dravidian CMs have memorials on the northern edge of the Marina, 3 Congress CMs – Kamaraj, Bakthavatsalam and Rajaji – are grouped around the memorials of their mentor Mahatma Gandhi.

Governor Sri Prakasa allotted 10 acres to the Gandhi memorial mooted by Kalki, the writer, in the 1950’s. Soon, other memorials cropped up. Kamaraj memorial has a huge charka on top of it.

Rajaji’s memorial has a crown on top. There are glaring similarities between the crown on the roof and the sketch Maniam did for Rajaji’s retelling of the Ramayana titled, Chakravarthy Thiru Magan.

Battle of Adyar:

The French were eyeing Fort St George and once caught the British unawares. The French tricolor flew over the fort for 3 years before Madras was restored bloodless through a treaty. However, the French weren’t pleased.

They repeatedly tried to attack Madras. This time the British were well-prepared and met the enemy far away from the fort walls. One such battle was fought in the foothills of the St Thomas Mount now called the polo grounds.

Count Lally, the French general of Pondicherry, moved towards Madras. The native sepoys stationed outside Fort St George marched towards south and reinforced the field troops at St Thomas Mount cantonment.

In the time gained, the British had improved the infrastructure at Fort St George and made it strong and well stocked. Two famous warriors fought on the British side. Lawrence acknowledged as the father of the Indian army and Indian warrior on whom, a now-shelved movie was proposed – Marudhanayagam – fought in this battle

College of Engineering:

The orphans of British soldiers had to be trained in some skill. At the time, the company was moving from trading towards ruling the sub-continent and there was also a need to survey the lands they had conquered. So, matching the two needs, a survey school was started in the fort.

The trigonometric survey was ambitious and reached the Himalayas from the starting point of St Thomas Mount. This institution grew into one of the oldest and reputed engineering colleges after moving to Guindy.

WA James designed an Indo-Saracenic building amid a verdant forested setting, which has, for over a century, made some of the best engineers of the country. Today, it serves as the central authority of engineering education in Tamil Nadu.

Originally the College of Engineering Guindy, it was called Anna University in the 1970s. Without Kotturpuram bridge, it was isolated from the city and boys used ferries to cross the Adyar river.

A Cave in Church:

A cave on Mount Road is something most Madras citizens would find hard to believe. This little-known cave is behind the altar of the church in Little Mount. It’s traditionally acknowledged to be one of the places where St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus, lived and preached when he came to India.

Hacked out of rock and with a small spring nearby it’s reported to have been done by St Thomas, an apostle of Christ himself. Adjacent to the Adyar river, this is where he hid from his enemies.

In 1551 AD, the Portuguese built a church over the site but in 1970, a part of this old church was demolished and a larger circular church was built to accommodate more devotees.

Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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