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Vanishing waterways

Historically, rivers have spurred on civilisation but ironically today, rivers face the challenge of survival, thanks to rapid urbanisation.

Vanishing waterways
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Illustration: Saai

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CHENNAI: Each year, the fourth Sunday of September is celebrated as World Rivers Day. Historically, rivers have spurred on civilisation but ironically today, rivers face the challenge of survival, thanks to rapid urbanisation. Madras has three rivers and numerous waterways. The city has repeatedly proven that it has least regard for its waterbodies. Some streams have even become main roads like the KB Dasan Road in Teynampet which was an overflow stream of the long tank. Whatever waterbodies remain, they have been dammed, encroached upon, filled with sewage and garbage, or completely disappeared from its place.

Meera on Otteri nullah

The Otteri Nullah is a 12-km-long east-west watercourse that passes to the north of Kilpauk. It also bisects the Buckingham and Carnatic mills where it was used to ship in timber for the boiler. Dinshaw Tehrani was a young Zoroastrian from Iran who arrived in Madras empty-handed as a stowaway. He was working as a porter in Central Station when some compatriots, staying in a nearby hotel, noticed him and offered him work in a film studio as a menial labourer. Surprisingly, Dinshaw was able to learn the fundamentals of sound engineering and eventually started the Newtone Studios, a partnership enterprise on the south side of the Otteri Canal, with financial assistance from the Chettiars. Newtone Studios, Kilpauk, was well-known for creating numerous films. Meera (1945), one of the Tamil filmdom’s cult classics, with MS Subbulakshmi playing the titular role, and Ashok Kumar (1941), in which MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar played Kunalan, the son of King Ashoka, were both shot at this location. Many films took advantage of the canal to shoot riverside shots. The studio was replaced by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan School.

Meera

Rowing on Ennore creek

Rowing was an essential ingredient of British universities and it was only natural that officers who were educated there would seek similar aquatic activities in Madras where they were posted. In 1867, many Britishers took to the sport in full vigor in the city and their congregation was christened the Madras Boat Club. The first formal sailing and rowing activities of the MBC took place on Ennore Creek, which is fed by the Kosasthaliyar and is a well-known backwater. Ennore was a logical recreation centre, as it was under the full control of the company. Since all the salt requirements of the city were met by the Ennore area roads, the safety quotient was excellent. The Ennore Boat Club had 32 rowing and 24 non-rowing members and even sent a team to Pune for a regatta. It held annual regattas which even had events for women. As the city grew with focus on the south, boating moved to Adyar and the long tank (where T Nagar now stands).

Rowing on Ennore creek

Battles near water

History is written mostly around battles that changed the fate of residents. Many battles have been fought on the banks of the waterways of Madras. The ancient battles of Takkolam and Pullalur too were close to the origins of the Cooum. The Cholas and Pallavas battled it out against the northern invaders. In colonial times, the battle of Adyar between 300 French sepoys led by a Swiss general thoroughly thrashed 10,000 soldiers of the Nawab of Arcot, led by his son Anwaruddin, on an elephant. This battle happened in Quibble Island on the Adyar river just before it joins the sea. Tipu won some decisive battles against the British on the banks of the Cooum in Perambakkam and Puillalur (where rockets were used for the first time). This is perhaps the only time an Indian king had won a battle against the powerful company.

Battles near water

Gods on the Cooum

Looking at the Cooum today, one could scarcely believe it had been a holy river once. Cholas, the Vijayanagaram empire and the Naiks built temples on either bank of the Cooum. A fishermen’s temple with terracotta and painted idols is the last temple near the Napier bridge. It was called the Pali in the 8th century Devaram texts – the holiest of the Shaivite cult. The Cooum originated, according to Hindu mythology, when Shiva, enroute to battle with 3 demons, slipped from his chariot and balanced himself with the tip of the bow. The impact gave rise to a spring of water which flows as the Cooum. Sage Valmiki had an ashram in Koyambedu and Sita, with her twins, stayed there for some time. The original name of Koyambedu is Kusanagar, named after Kusha – one of the twins. There are idols of a pregnant Sita and Rama dressed in skins and barks in this temple.

Koyambedu temple

Buckingham canal and Nobel prize

Madras was already an established city under the crown when the Buckingham canal was proposed. Running parallel to the coast, the canal connected the Adyar and the Cooum rivers. Provided with gates on either end, it connected to the longer canals on either side. The introduction of the waterway into the city upturned the fortunes of some areas. Prosperity accompanied the trade. Need for more people to manage the resources brought in migration. Facilities for education, culture and other needs had to be formed. Triplicane and Mylapore were 2 such areas which saw a sudden growth. In Triplicane, schools came up to cater to immigrants. Hindu High School, that came about in the 1890s by merging smaller schools, has Subramanyam Chandrasekhar as its alumni, the only Nobel laureate to have schooled in Madras.

Nobel laureate Chandrasekhar

Cochrane canal

Madras had suddenly cropped up in a vicinity not known for its agricultural abilities or resources needed for everyday living. Food, salt, vegetables, cereals, hay for the beasts of burden in the pre-automobile days and firewood had to be brought in for a huge population at a time where the roads were at best rudimentary. To get the salt in from Ennore, the company decided to make a canal using the seasonal Elambore river, so that it can hold water throughout the year. The inception of the canal was planned fully as a private enterprise and amongst others, Basil Cochrane bid for it. They had to construct the canal and collect toll on it for 45 years. He soon extended this canal to Pulicat Lake, 25 miles north of Ennore. Cochrane sold the canal to the company who paid him a royal sum of Rs 14,000 every year till 45 years were complete.

Basil Cochrane

Waterway like a highway

The Buckingham Canal, a796 km long, was in effect like a highway. 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. The cost of 33,000 pounds sterling was billed as famine relief in a food-for-work programme. 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 travellers’ 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 cyclones of 1966 and 1976 damaged the canal.

Canal milestone

Culture on Adyar river

The two banks of the Adyar river have encouraged art and culture. Native born like Sekkilar (Kundrathur) and Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar (Pammal) were literary giants. Migrants and new settlers like MS Subbulakshmi, Rukmini Devi Arundale and Kalki Krishnamurthy led the renaissance of Indian culture that has made Madras and Tamil Nadu a cultural hotspot. Indians started migrating to the banks of the Adyar only in the 1900s, as the city grew rapidly during the inter-war periods. Bharatanatyam was perfected as an easy-to-learn version of the traditional Sadir in a cottage on the banks of the Adyar river within The Theosophical Society. Ponniyin Selvan novel was written across the road in Gandhinagar. Cinema was shot in the first decade of the talkies both near the Adyar creek (AVM’s Pragati Pictures) and near the main river (Meenakshi cinetone). Raja Annamalai Chettiar living in a palace on the banks of Adyar created the Tamil Isai movement, the reason why Tamil songs are popular today.

Rukmini Devi Arundale

Bharat Ratna

Less than 50 people in India have been honoured with the highest civilian award in the 75 years of a free country. The Adyar river has an extraordinary link with this award. While S Radhakrishnan, one of the earliest recipients studied in the Teachers College on its banks in Saidapet, 3 other recipients lived on its banks. MG Ramachandran lived there, and had a studio on its banks named after his mother – Sathya Studio. C Subramaniam and MS Subbulakshmi lived in Kotturpuram on its banks as well.

Bharat Ratna medal

Bridges as charity

Till the bridges came up, rivers were barriers to expansion of the city. Madras has had its fair share of bridges since the start. Bridges, surprisingly, were considered a charity as well. Marmalong bridge was built by Coja Petrus Uscan, who was a wealthy Armenian merchant in 1728 by spending 30,000 pagodas. It lasted for over 225 years. Another bridge close to it was the Mambalam Odaipalam on Anna Salai. Located at the Jones Road-Anna Salai intersection, the brook-bridge over the Mambalam canal was built in 1786 using a bequest by the executors of the will of Adrian Fourbeck, a wealthy merchant of Madras. Today, the bridge is long gone but a four-sided commemorative pedestal is the only reminder of the 18th Century merchant's generosity, records the tale behind the bridge in English, Latin, Persian and Tamil, on its four sides.

Commemorative pedestal of Brook bridge

A thirsty population

As a city of migrants, sometimes the population of Madras has doubled within a decade. A rise in population puts a stress both on water needs and sewage disposal. This combined effect killed the Cooum. The first dam on a Madras river was across the Kosasthaliyar as early as 1860s. The water was diverted to the Red Hills reservoir. The Cooum was dammed soon thereafter. Both these rivers were dammed a second time further upstream in the 1940s. The water from these two rivers were the prime reasons for the growth of the city's population

First dam constructed across Kosasthaliyar river



Venkatesh Ramakrishnan
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