How tiny was my city

Print edition : September 05, 2014

A view of Anna Nagar from the Anna Nagar Tower. Named after former Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai, it was developed in the early 1970s by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board. It spans an area of 5 sq. km and is located on the site of Naduvakkarai and Mullam villages. Photo: V. GANESAN

The Cooum river, which drains into the Bay of Bengal. Here, the river at Chintadripet, the first planned colony of the city. Chintadripet is of a fishbone pattern--a straight spine that cuts across the peninsula with streets branching away from it and sloping down to the river. Photo: V. Ganesan

A plan of Fort St. George and the city of Madras, 1726, by Herman Moll, from "Modern History: or, the Present Sate of all Nations" by Thomas Salmon, published by Bettersworth & Hitch, London, 1739.

In 1944, J.P.L. Shenoy, then Commissioner of the Corporation, conceived the idea of a big housing colony in the Aminjikarai area. His successor, C. Narasimhan, saw the scheme through and named it Shenoy Nagar. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A large section of T. Nagar was once a 70-acre lake, the Long Tank of Mylapore. This was acquired for development as a township in the early 1920s. The part that was its focus was named after the Raja of Panagal, the second Chief Minister of Madras. The development plan known initially as the Mambalam Town Planning Scheme, Eastern Section, was named Theagaroya Nagar, after the Justice Party leader Sir Pitty Theagaroya Chetty. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The Santhome Church on Kamaraj Salai. Photo: V. Ganesan

The rajagopuram of the Sri Marundeeswarar temple at Thiruvanmiyur. Photo: V. Ganesan

Pavement shopping at Pondy Bazaar in T. Nagar. Photo: S. KANNAN

Anna Nagar Tower Park. Photo: K. Pichumani

From being a city of vast open spaces, Chennai has rapidly become a congested metro with a colossal shortage of infrastructure and seen a fall in quality of life.

Chennai that was Madras now extends from Minjur to Sholinganallur—an urban agglomeration of 1,177 square kilometres. Of this, the area under the city’s Corporation is 426 sq. km, which it has divided into 200 wards or divisions, grouped under three zones. The civic body controlled around 176 sq. km as late as 2011 when the biggest leap was made—the addition of 42 small local bodies, including nine municipalities, eight town panchayats and 25 village panchayats into the city limits. This increase is the last in a series of sporadic jumps that the city has made in its growth over 375 years.

Though Chennai traces its origins to Fort St. George in 1639, several pockets of what comprises the city today have a far older heritage. The region as a whole is considered a classic ground of early Paleolithic culture of south India, Pallavaram being particularly rich in finds. Traces of Iron Age culture have been found in Egmore and Red Hills. From the Sangam period onwards, we have continuous references to villages in the area—Mylapore/Tiruvallikeni, Thiruvottiyur, Maangadu, Poonamallee, Kundrathur, Madhavaram, Nungambakkam, Tambaram and others featuring regularly in inscriptions.

However, it cannot be denied that in August 1639, what was recognised as Madras or Chennapatnam was just Fort St. George—originally 100 sq. yards in area, with a factory or warehouse in the middle. By 1640, around 300 weaver families had settled just outside this “fort”, giving rise to Black Town, which is however not to be confused with the present-day Town which was then a couple of hamlets further north. By 1674, there were 118 houses within Fort St. George, and 75 outside of it, in old Black Town.

The British were not content with just their Fort and Town. There were continuous representations to the powers that be, and there were several of them then for the granting of one village or the other on rent in the neighbourhood. The ancient settlement of Tiruvallikeni was the first, being leased to the East India Company in 1672. During the tenure of Elihu Yale as Governor (1687-92), Egmore, Purasawalkam and Tondiarpet were taken on annual lease from Zulfikar Khan, the representative of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

Map of Madras

The first reliable map of Madras was drawn between 1707 and 1710 on the orders of Governor Thomas Pitt, whose fortune made here would later ensure that two of his descendants became Prime Ministers of England. Pitt’s map shows several recognisable features—the Fort had acquired a new Governor’s House, the core of which is today’s Legislative Assembly and Secretariat. The church of St. Mary’s, built in 1678, is visible. More importantly, it shows that old Black Town had spread to where the High Court now stands. The two hamlets further north are clearly marked Muthial Peta and Peddanaigue Pete. The Island is another feature. This was created by making a cut in the North River, a stream that is now part of the Buckingham Canal. Work on it began in 1696 and when completed, it encompassed the Company’s Garden and a second house for the Governor. Pitt, it is said, enjoyed the great outdoors and so acquired another house, this one in the distant village of Guindy, thereby marking the first steps towards the present day Raj Bhavan there.

While the map was being drawn, the English had added to their portfolio by renting Thiruvottiyur, Nungambakkam, Vyasarpadi, Kathivakkam and Sathangadu. All the rented villages were by 1720 made over to the English by way of a grant. An important development in 1717 was the settling of weavers in an exclusive area demarcated for them—Chinna Tari Petta, or Chintadripet. Nestling in the arms of the Cooum, it was selected because of the presence of several trees, carefully tended by Dubash Sunkurama, who is commemorated in a street name here after the land was forcibly taken away from him. The first planned colony of the city, Chintadripet is of a fishbone pattern—a straight spine that cuts across the peninsula with streets branching away from it. All the streets slope down to the river, thereby ensuring natural drainage. Unlike Black Town and the other villages in the area, segregation based on caste was strictly forbidden in Chintadripet, a first step towards a cosmopolitan life. Two years after Chintadripet was founded, Governor Joseph Collet set up another weaver’s village near Thiruvottiyur. It was named Colletspettah after him and is today known as Kaladipettai. A grant in 1742 added Vepery, Periamet, Pudupakkam, Ennore and Sadayankuppam to the Company territories.

In 1746, the French occupied Madras, staying on until 1749 following a peace treaty. The return of the English was a turning point, for major expansions can be traced from then on. The first steps were taken in self-defence. Old Black Town, by then comprising 8,700 houses, was considered a security hazard and demolished, the residents there being moved into the twin villages of Muthialpet and Peddanaickenpet, which taken together became New Black Town. In 1772, a survey fixed the southern boundary of Black Town with six stones, each an obelisk of 15 feet. Construction beyond this was forbidden for a clear line of sight to the sea was needed. One of these boundary pillars survives, standing in the shadow of Dare House, at Parry’s Corner. The space beyond developed as the Esplanade and remained as such until the 1860s when the High Court came to be built on it. A similar boundary and esplanade appear to have been created at the north-western end of Town as well, with five obelisks marking the edge. None of these survive, but one of the plaques was later built into the wall of the Washermanpet police station and was found quite serendipitously a few months ago by a correspondent of The Hindu. There is yet another boundary obelisk standing all by itself between two railway lines between Basin Bridge and Korukkupet stations. It is not clear what this was supposed to demarcate.

Santhome and Mylapore

One of the most significant acquisitions for the British on their return from exile was Santhome and its adjunct Mylapore. They had cast covetous eyes on this erstwhile Portuguese settlement since the 1670s, but their attempts to gain control over it had been thwarted by the French and later by the Golconda and Dutch forces. Now in 1750, with the local rulers, the Nawabs of Arcot, being more amenable, Santhome and Mylapore became British controlled. A survey done in 1798 shows that the limits of Madras were then the Adyar river on the south, Chetpet, Kilpauk and Perambur in the west and Royapuram in the north. This was to remain the extent of the city until the early 1900s.

Black Town had fully developed by the 1790s into the maze of streets that we see today, most of them named after Dubashes who battened on East India Company trade. Several of them built temples, which remain, though the palatial mansions of the patrons have long gone, making way for shops and warehouses. One thoroughfare alone stands out for its width—Broadway, or Prakasam Salai as we know of it now. Developed by the lawyer and speculator Stephen Popham, it became the fashionable European quarter of Town—home to shops, restaurants and churches.

By 1800, with the British becoming the acknowledged masters of most of south India, most of those living in Fort St. George made bold to move out. Mount Road had got its present contours and the Governor, Edward, 2nd Lord Clive, shifted his residence to a vast garden house at the northern end. Known as Government Estate, this was where Governors of Madras Presidency lived until 1948, Guindy being their weekend retreat. Clive also built a magnificent banqueting hall on the premises, which is today Rajaji Hall. A few years ago, the historic Government Estate, with its age-old buildings barring Rajaji Hall, was razed to make way for the new Assembly-cum-Secretariat, which in turn has metamorphosed into a multi-speciality hospital.

With the Governor living along Mount Road, it became the fashionable district, rapidly adding the adjoining villages of Pudupet, Komaleeswaranpet, Narasingapuram and Royapettah into the city. While in the initial years coach and saddle makers held sway on Mount Road, in later years it became home to upmarket entertainment facilities, hotels, retail establishments and, from the early 1900s, car showrooms. Several landowners built their palatial town residences further down Mount Road. By the 1940s, they were selling, to make way for office establishments. Lord Clive was to also get the business community to move out of the Fort in 1800. They followed the lead of Parry & Co, which had set up office in the 1780s at land’s end, now known as Parry’s Corner, and built their edifices further down the same thoroughfare, which we now call First Line Beach, or Rajaji Salai. Beginning with the 1850s, these establishments, led by their representative body, the Madras Chamber of Commerce, were to agitate for a proper harbour for the city. Work began in 1875 and as it progressed until 1914 or so, the sea began receding in the south, leaving exposed a fine beach. All along this front were coming up a series of fine buildings, many of which still survive. The first of these, the Chepauk Palace, is now a burnt-out shell, awaiting restoration. The first Indo-Saracenic building in India, it was designed in the 1760s as the residence of the Nawabs of Arcot.

T. Nagar

In 1871, the first Census of Madras City was conducted —and recorded a population of 3,97,852. There were eight divisions in the city, which was then “a conurbation” comprising several diversely populated district towns and a “loose agglomeration of villages”. Ever since its inception, the city had an uneven spread of population. Some areas had a density of less than 15 people to an acre, while others were horribly overcrowded. At this time, Madras was a city of distances, its size out of proportion to its population. Ten years later, the situation was much the same. The 1931 Census showed the population to be 6,47,232, not even double that of 1871, and yet the area had increased by another 3 sq. miles [one mile is 1.61 km] with the inclusion of parts of Mambalam which became the new colony of T(heyagaroya) Nagar. Difficult though it may be to believe now, a large section of what is now T. Nagar was once a lake—the Long Tank of Mylapore, which spanned 70 acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare]. This was acquired for development as a township in the early 1920s. By 1924, more land, from Mambalam, Puliyur and Government Farm villages and a portion of the Mylapore division, comprising a total of 540 acres was acquired. Modelled very much on the lines of which New Delhi had been developed when it came to layout, it had a large park as its focus from which radiated three arterial roads, all connecting to Mount Road.

The land in between these was made over for development, 410 acres earmarked for private development and the rest to be left as open spaces, to be developed as parks and for the construction of public buildings—police stations, electric substations, markets, bazaars, fruit stalls, hospitals, dispensaries, pumping stations, model schools, places of worship, industrial buildings and government offices. The entire plan was developed by the Corporation in association with the Madras City and Suburban Town Planning Trust. Housing plots were divided into one, half, quarter, one-eighth, one-twelfth and one-eighteenth of an acre. The cost of acquisition of the land was Rs.4.90 lakh!

Though the plan was ready by 1924, work on the area began only 10 years later. By then, the Justice Party had long been in power and several of its stalwarts were to be commemorated in street names in the area. The focal park was named after the Raja of Panagal, the second Chief Minister of Madras. His statue adorns the park now. The entire development known initially as the Mambalam Town Planning Scheme, Eastern Section, was named Theagaroya Nagar, after Sir Pitty Theagaroya Chetty. And there were tributes to Corporation workers as well. Nathamuni and Govindu were humble drain workers who were killed when the land caved in on them. Streets commemorate them too.

With increasing migration to the city, the population was to double between 1941 and 1951, from 7.77 to 14.16 lakhs. By then, the city had to be expanded, and 19 sq. miles comprising 28 towns and villages, adding 65 per cent to the area, were brought within city limits. Chief among these were Adyar, Guindy, Saidapet, West Mambalam, Kodambakkam, Aminjikarai and Ayanavaram. In 1944, J.P.L. Shenoy, then Commissioner of the Corporation, conceived the idea of a big housing colony in the Aminjikarai area. He, however, chose to leave the Corporation in 1947 before the plans were finalised. It was left to C. Narasimham, who succeeded him as Commissioner, to see the scheme through and also ensure that it was named Shenoy Nagar, “a rich and proper tribute to his services”.

It was around the same time that the colonies of Mandaveli, Raja Annamalaipuram and Nandanam developed. Mandaveli, for long a pasture ground, had several gardens belonging to Mylapore temples. These would come alive once a year, when deities would be brought there for the quaint ceremony of vana bhojanam—a picnic in a forest. Now most of these gardens have become slums, taken over by the government and allotted to the less-privileged. KVB Thottam in Mandaveli actually expands to Kapali Vana Bhojana Thottam. Not related to any temple garden however is Nandanam—it was developed in 1952 and the then Chief Minister Rajaji gave it the name after the Tamil year of its founding. It was also in the 1950s that the posh Boat Club and Chamiers Road areas developed. For long the preserve of a few palatial houses, it became the preserve of a few more palatial bungalows, chiefly developed by the British companies of those times, Parry and Binny.

Narasimham was to oversee another development —Gandhi Nagar. The city which had always had the Adyar river as its municipal boundary extended beyond it for the first time in 1945. Local Administration Minister Daniel Thomas felt that the area immediately south of the river would be ideal for a middle-class housing colony. The space, 150 acres, belonged to the Bishopric of Madras. The negotiations were conducted by Narasimham, who settled on a price of Rs.17 lakh for 136 acres, the balance being left to the Church and, in particular, St. Patrick’s School, which had been in the area since 1875. The Premier of Madras, Omandur Ramaswami Reddiar, laid the foundation stone on January 23, 1948, and the proposed housing colony was named Gandhi Gram, later changed to Gandhi Nagar. A year later, with Gandhi Nagar becoming a popular destination, the city extended further with the various nagars of Adyar coming into existence, a process that continued well into the 1970s.

The next big development was Anna Nagar, named after former Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai. Developed in the early 1970s by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board, it spans an area of 5 sq. km and is located on the site of Naduvakkarai and Mullam villages. Ashok Nagar and K.K. Nagar were also areas almost simultaneously developed by the Board.

The addition of Velachery and Thiruvanmiyur in the 1980s doubled the area of the city compared with 1871 but the population had grown to 33 lakhs, a fivefold growth in 50 years!

From being a city of vast open spaces, Chennai rapidly became a congested metro, with a colossal shortage of all infrastructure and a rapid fall in quality of life. This can only be attributed to lack of planning and foresight by the authorities concerned. In October 2011, the expansion process was once again initiated as we noted in the beginning of this article. But with all the acquired areas being densely populated already, perhaps it is time for Chennai to look at satellite townships in greenfield locations.

Sriram V. is the associate editor of Madras Musings , the fortnightly dedicated to the city’s heritage, and has authored several books on personalities and institutions of the city.

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