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Mobility in Madras

Naturally, this is also a good time to study various types of transport systems that were in use historically in Madras

Mobility in Madras

Illustration: Saai

CHENNAI: The UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution earlier this year to designate November 26 as World Sustainable Transport Day, which aims to tackle challenges and identify opportunities for environmental-friendly, cost-effective and accessible mobility that align with the global goals of sustainability.

Naturally, this is also a good time to study various types of transport systems that were in use historically in Madras. Transport was challenging in Madras. Being a newly-formed city, it had no harbour, and only two main roads – a military highway each to St Thomas Mount and Poonamalle. Most of the others were mud tracks. But the city did extremely well both in innovation, and adaptation to keep people and goods moving


The British officials used palanquins to move along unformed roads. Soon fabulously rich lifestyles came to be witnessed among natives also in the black town during its commercial upswing, when some of the citizens were richer than the kings. To them, walking on the same road as the common men was perhaps a derogatory feel. So they used palanquins like the kings of yore. Called Palankeens, they were carried by 6-8 labourers.

Palanquin-bearers also served as (punkah) fan operators in the house. When Tipu Sultan sent two of his sons as hostages to Madras, palanquins costing several thousand rupees were ordered by the Madras governor for the princes of Mysore. They were made by a company in Calcutta called Steuart and Co. The packed palanquins were sent to Mysore when the truce was declared. Surprisingly, after Tipu’s death, they were found untouched and unpacked.


Madras city developed too fast and too far away from resources. Everything from salt, food, fodder and firewood had to be brought in from afar. Roads were not well-developed nor were efficient transport systems. In 1877, the people of Madras suffered from famine and more than 6 million people perished. The British took this as an excuse to excavate an 8 km canal stretch within the city, linking the Adyar and Cooum rivers in just a year.

From 1880, the Buckingham canal moved goods and passengers through Madras. Just like a highway, this canal system had milestones, inspectors, toll stations and even travelers’ bungalows on the side. The government even passed a Ferry Act to regulate boat traffic. Boats were forced to carry lights at night similar to automobile headlamps. It also boasted an ingenious locking system, which maintained water levels. The city survived on goods transported by the boats.


The rickshaw-man was an important personality in Madras. Writers like Pudhumaipithan, Kalki and Jayakanthan frequently had them as protagonists. Films were made on them even by superstar MGR where a cycle rickshaw race was featured shot in newly-developed Anna Nagar roads. The rickshaw-man slang was identified as Madras bashai.

The hand rickshaw – a Japanese medieval development for movement of royalty was soon to be replaced by cycle driven rickshaws post-freedom. In 1955, the Congress government issued 1,000 licenses for cycle rickshaws. In 1973, terming one man pulling another as degrading, the DMK-led Tamilnadu government banned hand rickshaws and symbolically placed one last model in the Madras Museum Anthropology section. Today, cycle rickshaws are common in older parts of their city like the black town with narrower roads. Everywhere ,else auto rickshaws have replaced many of them.


Introduced in the late 19th Century, trams on rails remained a convenient mode of transport. Trams, thus, replaced thousands of bullock carts and horse drawn jutka. The trams were so slow that passengers could jump off and get on the vehicle while it was moving and wobbled with a characteristic gait. Ironically, when it commenced in 1895, people thought it was fast and unsafe and refused their valued patronage.Free rides were offered for a few days before they were charged and people started feeling comfortable.

Soon it became a preferred mode and at its height, there were 97 cars running on 24 km of track and ferried 1 lakh passengers a day. The main line ran from Parry’s Corner to Luz junction, passing through the Central station area. In the late 1940s, after the company which ran the system claimed a loss, the government took over the company in public interest. But with regular union trouble, the tramway shut down.


The first cycle was brought to Madras by an army man in the late 1890s. It was almost magic for the locals who viewed a man balancing on two wheels with wonder. Within years, Gujarati traders in black town opened cycle shops. Every road soon had air pumping shops for the wheel and also repairmen and cycle hiring.

Bicycle riders had to get a license for the vehicle from the Corporation of Madras, a small brass plate being displayed in front of licensed cycles. In the absence of other vehicles on the road, the wrath of the police concentrated mainly on cyclists. Doubles riding was a major offence. Night time riding without kerosene lamps was also an offence.

Cycles became common on the roads mainly with the working class and students. Soon thereafter, the government had to issue a warning to cyclists to not ride abreast as chatting students on the city’s roads caused hindrance to the other road users. With TI cycles entering the fray, Madras became a major hub for manufacturing cycles.


On 10 March 1910, just 7 years after that momentous invention of the Wright brothers, a bi-plane was demonstrated in Madras. By 1906, D’Angelis a Corsican baker, was running the best hotel in Madras. Giacomo was also very interested in new technologies. In 1903, the world was agog with the Wright brothers achievement and Angelis too dreamt of flying.

He had a great collection of advertisements and newspaper articles on how a plane could be built. Using just that, he soon engineered a contrivance with a small horse-power engine, took it by a bullock cart to Pallavaram and successfully piloted the first powered airplane flight in all of Asia. D’Angelis arranged a public viewing in March 1910 on the island in the middle of the Cooum just before it joined the sea.

The news spread like wildfire that a man was about to fly and a huge crowd gathered. The local newspapers reported the exhibition widely, so did ‘India’ newspaper edited by Subramania Bharati.


Singapore had fallen to the Japanese and the British needed a backup base. In a highly secret operation, the largest military base of the British Empire was set up in Avadi. It covered 20 square miles and was entirely self-dependent in terms of water and electricity. Air Force planes flew sorties and patrols from Avadi. While RAF planes landed on its three runways, it still wasn’t enough.

Lakes were used as secondary runways and were developed to support hinterland landings in case of emergencies. American-built Catalina Flying Boats had been patrolling the Indian Ocean and China Seas for Japanese trails. They landed on the Red Hills lake which was the city’s water reservoir. When the Japanese bombed Madrasm it was rumoured (because of rain-induced floods) that the bombs had breached the lake in 1943.


Meteorologically, November 1966 was unique and Madras was hit by two cyclones. The wind even pushed the Rameswaram passenger train off its tracks. In Madras port, the bulk carrier Mari Hora had brought wheat and was shipping it to the 3 daughter ships (including Stamatis). Based on a wrong weather report, the port had not shooed the vessels from the harbour which is the norm during a storm.

The Stamatis jostled violently by the storm, broke its anchor and drifted. It was dragged near Marina and beached near the mouth of the Cooum River. Ten days later, attempts to pull the ship out of the sand were made but Stamatis would not budge. The owners sold the ship as scrap , but the wreckage could not be completely removed. For decades, till 1990 it also turned into a death trap. Many, who swam close were lacerated, often fatally by the rusting sharp steel girders. In Pongal 1983, as many as 19 dead bodies were washed ashore.


At the end of the great war, abandoned air force strips became motor racing circuits. Next to Red Hills lake was the Sholavaram Air Force base. From 1953 to 1989, it had hosted races that attracted top drivers from across the country. Liquor baron Vijay Mallaya won the car race for 1,600 cc and above in one of the last races here.

In the 1960s and 1970s, motorcyclists from Sri Lanka were a regular feature at these races. The best bikes were ridden by them because of their easier import policies than India. The races happened in February and 40,000 spectators used to find their way there. Towards its last years, there was a live telecast by Doordarshan. So popular were the races that chief minister MGR himself visited it 3 times. Soon, they moved to their own site in Irungattukottai and the Airforce reclaimed the strip.


For a mercantile town, a ship not being able to approach a coast was a serious liability. The founder of Madras, Francs Day, was often accused of making a grievous error in the choice of a fort. A huge sand bank 2 miles out of Madras threatened to wreck the hulls of the ships that approached the city. But that did not stop the enterprising East India Company, which imported and exported using boats to the ships anchored on the high seas.

These included passengers and even live animals like elephants. Madras did not have a harbour for more than 200 years, although a proposal was made in 1769 during the Warren Hastings period. Only in the 19th Century, after lots of pressure from business interests and Chambers of Commerce, the foundation of the port was laid by Governor Charles Trevelyan in 1859. Many times, the construction was washed away by cyclones, but the job was completed and Madras had a deep sea harbour.


A car was in regular usage in Madras in 1901 just four years after the first Indian car in Calcutta. AJ Yorke, one of the directors of Parry & Co., owned an automobile. He drove it from Ben’s Gardens (now in RA Puram) to Parry’s in black town every day along Mount Road. Once automobile registrations started, the South’s first registered car, MC-1, belonged to Francis Spring, who was Secretary of the Madras Railway Board (man responsible for the Madras Harbour).

T Namberumal Chetty, the most wealthy building contractor, owned the first Indian-owned car in Madras, the MC-3. Not stopping with imports, Madras also made the first Indian car. Samuel John Green, supervisor of carriage-building at Simpsons had developed a steam-driven car, the first motor car to be made in India. Soon, accidents were reported with cars hitting unaware pedestrians or cattle. One car even broke the Egmore bridge and almost landed in the Cooum.

Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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