Wellesley House, situated on Charles Street of Fort St. George, Madras, is a skeleton of its former self. The plaque embedded on the building’s front wall reflecting its present condition; the inscription on it has faded. The last vestiges of its majesty are the large windows, spectacularly large rooms, wide wooden staircases and spacious landings on the first floor.
Built in 1798, the building was named after Arthur Wellesley, a military figure of England and twice its Prime Minister. He stayed there for a few months when he was a colonel in the British Army. A big portion of its ground, first and second floors came down in a heap on November 18, 1980. When it collapsed, a portion of Wellesley House was home to the Military Estate Office. From the debris, a banyan tree now grows menacingly. There is grass and other vegetation all around. Smoke emanates from trash dumped in a concrete bin.
Competing with Wellesley House in the sheer scale of ruin is Last House on Snob’s Alley, also in Fort St. George. It is called Snob’s Alley because senior officers of the British regiments led luxurious lives there. At the end of Snob’s Alley, or St. Thomas Street, its original name, is Last House. Although called Last House, it was among the earliest residential houses to be built inside Fort St. George. A portion of Last House still remains. There is a beautiful carved staircase inside.
The Army was the occupant of both Wellesley House and Last House when they collapsed. Many current and former officials of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) say that the insensitivity of the Army to the archaeological value of these buildings led to their collapse. “When the buildings collapsed, the Army just abandoned them and walked away. Its officers did not even inform us that they were going away,” said an officer of the ASI.
Fort St. George, besides housing Army units, is the seat of the Tamil Nadu government. “The State government recently remodelled the multistoreyed Namakkal Kavignar Maligai. It took the ASI’s permission for doing repairs on it but changed the character of the building,” alleged an ASI officer.
The Fort St. George complex is a protected monument coming under the control of the ASI, Chennai Circle. There are 13 protected monuments in the Fort, covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. The Act was amended in 2010. Of the 13 protected monuments, three belong to the ASI. Under an agreement in 1947 between the ASI and the Defence Ministry, the ASI handed over the remaining 10 buildings to the Army. But the rules stipulate that the Army should take proper care of the heritage structures and that any repairs to be undertaken in the buildings should have the ASI’s approval.
The two-storeyed King’s Barracks, a long, massive building in Fort St. George, has been converted into a big godown. This stately building today houses the Canteen Stores Depot (CSD) of the Army. Hundreds of crates lie inside King’s Barracks and on the spacious ground in front of it. Trucks are always parked in front of the building.
Madras: The Architectural Heritage , authored by K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, calls King’s Barracks “the single largest building within the Fort, enclosing 10,225 sq. m”. The book, first published in 2003 by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Tamil Nadu chapter, says: “Known by this name since it lodged the King’s Regiment, it was built in 1756, extended in 1762, and was home to the British battalion for nearly two centuries.”
An ASI official said the Army did not care even to stop the small leaks in the heritage buildings. “They keep changing the interior portions by bringing down walls, creating new partitions, adding galvanised iron sheets to verandas, and so on,” said an officer. For instance, in King’s Barracks, Army personnel had erected a veranda-type structure with galvanised iron sheets, he alleged. “The Army does not seek our approval for doing all these modifications, which damage the existing structures,” he said.
As per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Validation and Amendment) Act, 2010, the first 100 metres around a protected monument is a prohibited area, where construction is totally barred. The next 200 m is called a regulated area, where construction is allowed with the ASI’s permission. So the Army cannot make any modifications or additions to the protected monuments which it is occupying in Fort St. George.
Another ASI official gave an example of how Army personnel demolished a wooden bridge, across the Fort’s moat, near the Wallajah Gate and built a reinforced concrete bridge in its place. He said: “The reinforced concrete bridge has marred the antique look of the Fort. This was done in spite of opposition from the ASI. Besides, Army canteens have mushroomed inside the Fort.”
Indeed, boards announcing different Army “canteens” are ubiquitous in the Fort. They attract a lot of people, who drive to the Fort and cause traffic snarls, allege ASI officials. So they have suggested that the Army shift these canteens to the Island Grounds, which comes under the its control.
What is a big puzzle is how the ASI gave the Tamil Nadu government permission in 1969 to build the multistoreyed Namakkal Kavignar Maligai right in the heart of the Fort. In fact, two historical buildings, Queen’s Barracks and Garrison Theatre, were demolished to make way for this structure, which houses State government offices. Heritage buffs are aghast that the façade of this building, which was recently renovated and remodelled, does not match the British architecture of Fort St. George.
Traffic snarls are a way of life within Fort St. George, with several hundreds of cars belonging to State government officials, visitors, Ministers and legislators, and Army trucks parked around its Parade Ground, near St. Mary’s Church, and on Charles Street, James Street, and Sea Gate Street.
G. Maheshwari, Superintending Archaeologist, ASI, Chennai Circle, said the “Army is coming forward” to take the ASI into its confidence about the maintenance or repair works in heritage buildings that it had been occupying in Fort St. George. “Army engineers prepare estimates for the maintenance work they need to do in these buildings, and it is the ASI which gives the specifications for the repair or maintenance works. It is the ASI which approves the work. At least, there is coordination between the ASI and the Army” now, she said.
Army personnel said they needed a conducive working environment in the buildings they worked from in Fort St. George. So the Army has allotted funds for the repair and maintenance of these buildings, and to buy furniture. The money allotted was spent on “this judicious mix” for the buildings under the Army’s control not only in Fort St. George but in the Pallavaram cantonment and elsewhere.
“We never deface the monument, especially its exterior,” an Army official said. “We inform the ASI about the repairs and maintenance work we do. For any major modification, we take the ASI’s approval. We do endeavour to maintain the heritage aspect of all the buildings under our control.”
The CSD in King’s Barracks “will be moving out to Pallavaram”, the official said. The Army had spent up to Rs.60 lakh on maintaining King’s Barracks over a period of time. According to the Army, it waited for three months to get the ASI’s permission to cut down a tree in front of King’s Barracks. From 2009 to 2013, the Army had spent Rs.8 crore to maintain and repair the buildings that it was in possession of at Fort St. George, Fort Glacis and the Pallavaram cantonment. If the Army had vacated Wellesley House or Last House, those buildings must have been “beyond economical repair”, the Army official contended.
According to Maheshwari, the ASI, Chennai Circle, has plans to restore Last House. Indian Institute of Technology Madras would do tests of the soil and foundation on which Last House was built.