Place names

A place for murderers!

Print edition : September 05, 2014

A street in "Kolaikaranpettai". The origin of the name is still fiercely debated. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

One of the wells that Francis Whyte Ellis dug in 1818 still survives. Only four wells remain in the area in North Chennai called Seven Wells and they are enclosed in sheds. Photo: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Salt Cotaurs, the place in north Chennai where salt from nearby salt pans used to be packed before being transported to various places. Photo: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The historian R. Nagaswamy pointing to Rajendra Chola's inscription of A.D. 1015 referring to Vyasarpadi at Dandisvarar temple at Velachery. Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Many place names in the city have interesting tales to tell and there are fierce debates over some.


WE ASK a policeman near Mint Clock Tower where the Seven Wells locality in North Madras area is. “To which area in Seven Wells do you want to go?” the police constable wants to know from us. “We do not want to go to any specific area. We just want to see the seven wells in that area,” we tell him. “Ah, the seven wells are right behind this compound wall,” he says, pointing to a compound wall.

We search for the wells in the premises but we are not able to locate them. It is an area that comes under the Defence Ministry and is called MES Vihar now. It houses an apartment complex for the civilian employees of the Army. We were looking around this apartment for seven open wells, each with a circular parapet wall. We are told that only four wells have survived. But it is difficult to locate them because asbestos-roofed sheds have been built over them. On the walls of the sheds are written the well numbers and their sizes.

There is a fascinating history behind the name Seven Wells. The man who dug wells in this area was “Ellis Dorai”, or Francis Whyte Ellis, an unalloyed admirer of the great Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. Ellis, an Englishman, came to India in 1796 as an official of the East India Company and rose from the ranks to become the Collector of Madras.

Wells and poems

He learnt Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. He was a lover of the Tamil language and literature, especially its Sangam-age poetry. He researched the Dravidian languages, and in a treatise in 1816 wrote that the south Indian languages were not derived from Sanskrit but formed a family of languages that were related to one another. Ellis translated a portion of Tiruvalluvar’s famous work, Tirukkural, into English.

According to R. Nagaswamy, former Director of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department, Ellis dug 27 wells in Madras in 1818 to provide drinking water to the city’s residents. He consecrated these wells by conducting the Hindu religious rite known as punyaha vachanam and dedicated them to the people.

In a long Tamil poem that he composed, Ellis says that he dug 27 wells in Madras, inscribed the poem in stone and erected the inscription near the well that he dug at Royapettah in Madras. This well is located behind the annexe of the Government Royapettah Hospital but the long inscription is now on display in the Tirumalai Nayak Palace in Madurai.

In the poem, Ellis calls Tiruvalluvar the “divine poet” and goes on to explain why he dug the 27 wells. He says that “I [Ellis] deeply ingrained in myself the rich meaning” of the Tirukkural couplet that begins with the words “ Iru punal”. The couplet says that rain, springs, hills and flowing rivers are the strong fortifications of a good country. The inscription quotes the Tirukkural couplet in full. In the poem, Ellis proudly declares himself “ Chenna Pattnathu Ellisan”—Ellis who belongs to Chenna Pattanam. He lavishes praise on George III, then the king of England.

A pamphlet published in the 1970s by Nagaswamy on Ellis says the staff of the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department located the well and discovered the inscribed poem behind the hospital.

Ellis was in India for 23 years and attained proficiency in Sanskrit, the Dravidian languages and specialised in linguistics and history, said Nagaswamy. Ellis died of food poisoning in 1819 when he was a guest of the Collector of Ramanathapuram. His grave is in Dindigul in Tamil Nadu. On the tombstone is engraved a poem similar in style to Purananuru of the Sangam Age, which is datable to the first century B.C. to the second century A.D. The epitaph also mentions that Ellis dug 27 wells and ponds in “Chennai”.

Like Seven Wells, many place names in Madras—Salt Cotaurs, Tondiarpet, Vysarpadi, Villiwakkam, Mandaiveli, and so on—have a history behind them. Salt Cotaurs was the place where salt used to be packed and sent by train to various places. The salt pans were situated a couple of kilometres away. According to Nagaswamy, the word “Cotaurs” originated from kottaram in Tamil, which means granary.

Area of crimes

But a teaser is “Kolaikaranpettai” in Royapettah. In Tamil, kolaikaran means a murderer and pettai means a settlement of people. There is a section of place-name enthusiasts who argue that “Kolaikaranpettai” could be the twisted form of “Koolakaranpettai”. In Tamil, koolam means salt and the locality had several salt merchants, they say. But koolam in Tamil really means grains and not salt. Another take on “Kolaikaranpettai” is that the name is derived from “Kolamkaranpettai.” In Tamil Nadu, women draw kolams, that is, designs, in front of their houses every morning with a white powder. The seller of this white powder is called kolakkaran.

S. Kannan, a former bank officer who has a passion for history and place names in Tamil Nadu, argues that “Kolaikaranpettai” must be the morphed form of “Kulasekaranpettai”. Kulasekara Alwar was a Vaishnavite saint, and Vaishnavites belonging to the “Thenkalai” sect were living in the area, he says. Alwars were the Vaishnavite saints in Tamil Nadu. To back his theory, Kannan points out that another locality called Alwarpet is situated nearby.

Sriram V., who has done enormous research on the origins of place names and street names in Madras, insists that “Kolaikaranpettai” is derived from “Kallukaranpettai”. The locality had a street called “Arrack Godown Street”. In Tamil, the word for arrack is kallu (toddy) and so Kallukaranpettai—settlement of arrack sellers—got twisted to “Kolaikaranpettai”, Sriram argues. The Arrack Godown Street is now Gangai Amman Temple Street. Villiwakkam is an ancient locality in Madras. It was called Villiwakkam, Nagaswamy said, because a tribe of bowmen—hunter-gatherers—lived there. Vil in Tamil means bow and wakkam/pakkam means a low-lying area. Villiwakkam was a forested area, in which villis, or bowmen, lived. These archers were specialist marksmen, so they were called villis. Villis used to accompany kings and chieftains on their hunting expeditions, Nagaswamy says. “Villianoor”, a village on the way to Puducherry, had a colony of villis, he said.

According to Nagaswamy, Vysarpadi was named after Vaishali, a place in present-day Bihar, which was associated with the Buddha. The Buddha is believed to have preached his Last Sermon at Vaishali. “Vysar” originates from Vaishali and padi in Tamil refers to a village. A Buddhist temple was in existence at Vysarpadi until some decades ago.

“Tondiarpet” (or “Thandaiyarpettai” in Tamil) is named after Kunangudi Mastaan Sahib, a Sufi Muslim who lived in that area. He belonged to a village called Kunangudi in Tondi in Ramanathapuram district. Born in 1790, he lived near Royapuram in north Madras in the first half of the 19th century. He was proficient in Tamil and Arabic and had a keen interest in Sufism. He composed many songs in praise of God, which became popular. Kannan said that since Kunangudi Mastan Sahib came from Tondi, he was called Tondiar and the area, Tondiarpet. There is a dargah for Kunangudi Mastan Sahib there.

Mandaiveli in south Madras was once a vast grazing area, says Nagaswamy. Mandai in Tamil means a herd of cattle and veli means open area. Many Konar (Yadava) families lived there and their cattle grazed on the grassy grounds fed by the Adyar river flowing nearby. Kannan offers a different interpretation. Mandai in Tamil also means palmyra trees. Since the open spaces there had a few hundreds of palmyra trees, it was called Mandaiveli, he says.

Chintadripet was a relatively modern area, unlike Mylapore, Triplicane, Egmore or Thiruvottiyur. It was founded in the 1730s. Conventional wisdom has it that Chintadripet is the morphed form of “Chinna tari pettai”, which means an area of small looms or a settlement of small weavers. Chinna in Tamil means small and tari is loom.

There was a scarcity of painted cloth (calico) which used to be exported from Madras to England. So, in 1734, George Pitt, the Governor of Fort St. George, wanted to establish a settlement of weavers in Madras. Sunkarama, who had been dismissed from the post of the Chief Merchant of the East India Company in India, owned a garden on a big piece of land encircled by the Cooum river. The government, through questionable methods, acquired Sunkarama’s land, ignoring his protests. Then the government settled several hundred families of spinners, weavers, painters, washers and dyers there. The place was called “Chinnatadre Pettah”, that is, Chinna tari pettah.

But Chintadripet could also be a reference to Chintz tari pettai, suggests Kannan. Chintz was a kind of fabric akin to muslin and there was a great demand for it abroad in the 1700s. “If there was Chinna (small) tari pettah”, there must have been a “Peria tari pettai” too (a settlement of big looms), he argues.

S. Muthiah, in his book Madras Rediscovered (East West Books), narrates the story of how the name of another weavers’ settlement in Madras got twisted in a bizarre manner and acquired a pejorative meaning. Muthiah says: “Between Tondiarpet and Thiruvottiyur is the former village of weavers and ‘painters’. Colletspettah, named after Governor Collet—corrupted to Kaladipettai (which, unfortunately, means loafers’ village). Collet, who was Governor from 1717-20, seized Thiruvottiyur by force and, in 1719, a little south of it, founded his weavers’ village. It wasn’t long before he also built the Kalyana Varadaraja Perumal temple here as a conciliatory gesture.”

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