Monday, September 15, 2014

Mix and match

The most vegetarian of breakfasts, with the poster-boy for flesh eating folks. That is a rather interesting combination. Kozhi Idli on Avvai Shanmugham Salai has a very simple menu. There is idli and there is kozhi. The chicken comes in different combinations: kozhambu, thokku, rasam, paniyaram, cheese ball and puttu

The idli is of just one kind. And oh, there is kulfi, by the way!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What a sighting!

The Nanmangalam Reserve Forest starts at the fork of the Tambaram-Velachery and the Medavakkam Main Roads and spreads over about 800 acres, with Greater Chennai surrounding it on all sides. It is the home of the Great Indian Horned Owl (Bubo bengalensis), also known as the Indian Eagle-Owl. Most of the forest is scrub jungle, but it also contains a few abandoned granite quarries within it. The quarry pits, with their rock faces, have enough crevices for birds to nest and several species do.

We missed the owl by a whisker at the first quarry we went to this morning. It heard us coming and away it flew, getting beyond eye-range even before our eyes could reach where it had been. We trudged around to the next quarry - a larger, deeper piece of work - but because it was slightly less accessible than the first one, we felt the owl would have a hideout there as well and we hoped it would get there sooner than later. 

We took our places at the edge of the quarry pit, looking down to the water that had collected in the pit, forming a nice little water body. And we looked across at the sheer rock face on the other side, trying to figure out where its nest could be. Then we heard the hoots. They seemed to be coming from the left and behind us: but with the quarry pit creating some echoes, we couldn't be sure. And then, I turned left and saw the big bird, gliding towards us. Dumbstruck as I made eye contact, I was sure it would either attack us, or swoop away, for there was no way it couldn't have seen us. But, it hadn't. Banking gently, it landed on the rock just below where I was sitting! For a few seconds, none of us moved. And then, I gently sent my arm out, camera at the end to take a picture. Managed to get a couple, before the bird looked around. This time, recognition followed eye-contact. Away it went, to the other side of the quarry, where it sat for quite a while, hidden by some foliage. You can see a picture taken by my friend, but the photo here is probably the only one I will get of a bird from above and behind it!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Learning law

As early as 1855, the Presidency College had established a Department of Law, which was upgraded to the status of a college in 1891. With that change, it was necessary for students to have a campus of their own. Who should be in charge of getting that done but the architect-builder do of Henry Irwin and Namberumal Chetty - and it was obvious that the style was going to be Indo-Saracenic. The design blended with that of the Madras High Court, which was just to the east of the site for the Law College. 

In fact, the site of the college was once upon a time the cemetery of the old "Whites' Town" of Fort St George. The layout of the college buildings is quite distinctive - an irregular hexagon around a central courtyard, with large, rectangular classrooms that could seat over 150 students. The towers flank a carriageway, but the more pedestrian entrance is at the opposite face of the hexagon. 

Sometime ago, the college was renamed Dr Ambedkar Government Law College, and is a constituent college of the Tamil Nadu Dr Ambedkar Law University. The tower on the right lost its finial last year, thanks to the work of the Chennai Metro. Maybe they will restore it, once the Metro is up and running. If they refuse to, would the students sue them?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Icecream on my mind

Would love to have some of that now. Too bad it would have closed for the day by this time!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

King governor

Part of the interest in this foundation stone is the organization itself. The Triplicane Urban Cooperative Society (TUCS) has been around for such a long time that their head office building considers itself to be in "New Buildings", even though those buildings were opened in 1952. 

The buildings took a little less than three years to come up. The foundation stone, dated 8th December 1949 is interesting for another reason. It was laid by the last monarch of the Gohil dynasty, which ruled Bhavnagar - and it precursor Sekjakpur - since the 12th century CE. 

Though the foundation stone credits his royal title, it was not in that capacity that he was present on this occasion. Though he was the last of his dynasty, Maharaja Raol Shri Krishna Kumarsinhji Bhavsinhji Sahib Gohil, KCSI, had a first to his credit. He was the first Indian Governor of Madras (his predecessor Lt Gen Sir Archibald Edward Nye was the last British governor) - and it was in that capacity that he was here!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Universal wish

As soon as you get inside the Theosophical Society's grounds, you get to see this sign. Can't help wondering if Earth has to fade away for peace to prevail!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Old boathouse

The campus of the Women's Christian College in Nungambakkam sits on the southern bank of the Cooum. In days past, some of the colleges in the city had the practice of inter-collegiate classes. It is said that students from the Queen Mary's College, on the Marina, would come over to the WCC for some practical classes.

Even during the mid-50s, this practice of mixed classes continued. And it was not only from the QMC that students came; students of the Presidency College, also on the Marina, had a few classes jointly with the WCC students. The classrooms alternated each week, so the students would have got know both campuses fairly well. 

The easiest mode for students from both Presidency and QMC to come to the WCC campus was by boat. Even though the QMC was a bit of a way away from the river, that was apparently the favoured mode of transport. Presidency College, being closer to the river, would have had an easier time, even if they had to go against the flow to reach the WCC. At the WCC itself, there seems to have been a boathouse for the students to shelter in. It has been a long time since boats moved on the Cooum. It is therefore a wonder that the boathouse, unused for a long time, continues to remain standing inside the WCC campus!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Quiztime, again

Saturday afternoon, and it was probably the last big event of this year's Madras Week celebrations. The Murugappa Madras Quotient Quiz for school kids was held on the 6th. The Sir Mutha Venkat Subba Rao Concert Hall was packed - teams from over 250 schools took part in the quiz. 

The kids seemed to be having a good time. That's one of the enthusiastic team captains jumping up to get the answer sheet for her team!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Happy Onam!

Can't call it the Onam day celebrations, because, for one, Onam is a multi-day festival and for another, this happened yesterday, the Uthradam day. Ente Keralam had put together an Onam sadya along with a performance of Ottamthullal

Even though it was supposed to be for the patrons of the restaurant, the performance was staged just outside it. Passing by, the traffic was thick enough for me to get more than a glimpse of the dance, even if I wasn't able to make out the lyrics. 

Happy Onam, everyone!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Blue board store

Here we have another of the 'blue boards' that were the last word in store signage several decades ago. It is not an enamel board, and it has other colours than just white letters on a blue background. That's probably some of the concession to modernity that Shri Nataraja Stores made when they opened for business. The board has been around for a while; the city's English name is still being used on this one.

There is still a lot of tradition around the board, as befitting an old shop in Triplicane. The mango leaves adorning the board is not something that you would find in the modern trade. And yet, they are not so traditional to have the store opened at the crack of dawn!

Friday, September 5, 2014

The teacher's place

This stately bungalow sits away from the road, being both aloof and in the middle of the bustle at the same time. Much like its most famous occupant, who entered politics rather late in life, and was not too closely associated with any particular political movement. And yet, he was a significant enough politician to be made the first Vice-President of the Republic of India.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher, teacher, statesman and the first Vice-President of the Republic of India rose from humble origins to become the first citizen of India. He is one of the two Presidents of the country who did not come through a political party or through the political system. Radhakrishnan's stature as a scholar of philosophy propelled him to several awards and appointments, including the Bharat Ratna. His birthday, September 5, is celebrated as Teacher's Day.

Dr. Radhakrishnan bought this property in Madras during his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of the Benares Hindu University, in the early 1940s. When his term ended, Dr. Radhakrishnan came back to this house, where he finished his masterful commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, which was published in 1948. But he didn't stay here long. With India becoming a Republic on January 26, 1950, Dr. Radhakrishnan was chosen to be the first Vice President and then went on to become the second President of the country. He returned here in 1967, and lived here until he passed away in 1975. The road - until then called Edward-Elliots Road - was renamed Radhakrishnan Salai in his honour. And yet, there are several Chennaiites who are surprised to learn that this was where the man lived!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The other leg

The focal point of the bronze gallery at the Chennai Government Museum is the Natesha at the far end of the ground floor. But that is not the only statue of Siva as the dancer. One half of the first floor of the bronze gallery is given over to a display of about a dozen Nataraja idols. Despite all the irritants in getting a proper view of them, this is something that everyone should have on their must-see list. 

The Natarajas range in antiquity from sprightly 500-year olds to more solemn 1100-year olds. They have been collected mostly from Madurai and Thanjavur; with one or two from Nagapattinam, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallore. They are wonderful examples of Chozha bronzes, prized by collectors the world over. There are several more such, which continue to be present in their temples and shrines, being used as objects of worship even today. The ones in the museum were recovered from their hiding places; they were hidden from rapacious invaders and very often forgotten for centuries before turning up on a farmer's ploughshare. 

They are much sought after by "collectors" the world over and have attracted unscrupulous middlemen, who think nothing of bribing, threatening or browbeating temple-guards in remote villages and spiriting away similar idols across the world. One of the most notorious of such antique smugglers, Subhash Kapoor (who is now in the Puzhal prison, facing trial) had managed to get several of them out, over several years, selling them not just to secretive or unscrupulous collectors, but bizarrely, even to the National Gallery of Australia. That last one is now on its way back, but many of the others would remain out of reach. The returning Nataraja is 900 years old and is in the regular posture, with its left leg raised. It is reportedly worth $5.6 million. Imagine what this one, from the 9th century CE, in a rare posture of raising the right leg, would be worth - at least now, go take a look at it!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Marriage hall

Even without any decorations on it, the entrance to this marriage hall looks quite grand. Nice place to get married in, don't you think?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What the Dickens!

That is quite an unusual way to name a store selling silks. Okay, it doesn't restrict itself to just silks, what with the display of an innerwear brand on its shutters. That still doesn't give us any reasons for the store's name. 

Let us just guess that the founder-owner is a fan of Dickens!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Rust and ruin

These gateposts mark what was once upon a time an entrance to the palace of the Maharaja of Cochin. While the post on the right shows the Maharaja's ownership with the words "The Cochin House", the one on the left bears a plaque saying "Tullock's Gardens". They would have been put up when the Maharaja bought the property from Tullock, whoever he was.

The property was itself part of a much larger expanse, that of Dr. James Anderson. Over time, it seems to have been acquired by someone named Halliburton, for a map in 1822 marks it as such. A few years later, in 1837, another map names it Tullock's Gardens, or, as  Henry Davidson Love, writing about this, says ,"Tulloch's Gardens". Was it a printer's devil in Love's work (for the gatepost very clearly shows the 'k' in the name)? Or, was it a stonecutter's devil, with the mason mishearing the last letter?

Whatever that be, little evidence of Tullock or the Maharaja remains today. A small part has been given to the Asan Memorial Association. Kerala Tourism has set up a hotel in one corner of the property. However, most of the Maharaja's property is today used for housing policemen, with those quarters having been constructed many decades ago. They are not all rust, but certainly given an appearance of being a ruin - or getting there very soon!

Rust and ruin around the world can be very aesthetic, if photographed by the CDP bloggers. Go over here and check it out for yourselves!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Unusual guards

Even with a cursory look, these figures appear to be out-of-place in Chennai. The headgear, tunic, leggings and footwear, all indicate a nativity that is not from the southernmost states, where it was much more common for guards or soldiers to be bare torso-ed. 

More details about what these figures are guarding will come up in a future post, but for now, can you guess which part of Chennai these figures can be found in?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Nucleus of a garden

This house and grounds have not changed since the time I first saw them as a school-kid, over 30 years ago. But in the 220 years or so since Dr. James Anderson built his house, the property has undergone several changes - and a lot of shrinkage. Dr. Anderson landed up in Madras in 1761, having completed his MD from Edinburgh, looking for a fortune in the territory of Fort St George. It took him a few years to be appointed as the Company's Assistant Surgeon at the Fort; that was in 1765 and over the next couple of decades, he rose to become the Physician General at Fort St George.

Dr. Anderson was keenly interested in botany. He set up the first botanical gardens in India, a 2-acre plot in Saidapet. That was not merely a hobby; the garden, more specifically called a nopalry, was intended to rear cochineal insects, whose secretions of carminic acid were the basic ingredient for carmine dye (used today in lipsticks and food colouring). These insects are native to South America, which meant that Spain controlled much of the carmine market; a situation unacceptable to the East India Company, which is why Dr. Anderson's nopalry was funded by them. The nopal cacti (g. Opuntia) are the cochineals' preferred hosts and with the nopalry, the East India Company was (probably) able to break the Spanish monopoly. 

With that, Dr. Anderson was as close to royalty within the East India Company. It was therefore no surprise that he was given a 110-acre grant of land in Nungambakkam. That grant covered the land between the Nungambakkam edge of the long tank - what today is Pycroft's Gardens - and extended all the way to the banks of the Cooum. (I am being a bit fanciful here, as I haven't really looked at any map from those years!). It was in these gardens, that Dr. Anderson built his second botanical garden - this time to grow mulberry bushes and silkworms. This was not as successful as the nopalry had been. Very early in the 19th century, Edward Clive (the 2nd Baron Clive) then Governor of Madras, had all the mulberry and silkworms packed off to Mysore - a move that over time led to Mysore being the home of sericulture research in India.

After Dr. Anderson's death in 1809, Anderson's Gardens was fragmented and acquired by various Company notables. This house, named after the man, on the road named after him, became part of the estates of the State Bank of India. Today, it lies in poor condition, used as dumping ground for the bank's furniture. A sad state of affairs for this house - to be overrun by worms and insects other than the ones its original owner grew!

For other school-kids who passed that way with me: No. Cochineal insects had nothing to with Cochin House being just a couple of hundred metres away.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Gone bananas

The name on this building belongs to the second generation of a family that has been in the plantain business for so long - over a century - that the third generation of the family, which runs the business today, is proud of being known as "Vazhaipazhakkarargal" - the banana people. The first generation was the patriarch who started it all. That was Ragavalu Naidu, who began as a gumastha to a Somu Naicker, who was in the plantain trade in George Town in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Ragavalu Naidu's sons, Govindaswamy Naidu and Kanniah Naidu followed him into the trade. The latter was born in 1895, married, had children and then lost his first wife in 1918, and then his second wife in 1926. He married again and his third wife was luckier, living with him well into a ripe old age. However, the business wasn't so lucky. Debts mounted and the firm of Ragavalu Naidu and Sons had to sell their properties and finally the business itself. The elder brother's sons appear to have had no interest in reviving their plantain trade, but Kanniah Naidu was keen to re-start and seems to have done so with his sons. 

Walking down Bunder Street these days, one does not usually have luxury of gazing up and around. But the stalks of the banana flanking the firm's name caught the eyes. The story of the business came from a very quick (and cursory) search on the Internet. I might be wrong, for the search results talk about M.R.Kanniah; but we shouldn't let the facts come in the way of a good story, right?!

Thursday, August 28, 2014


That is what it seems to be; this road sign on Radhakrishnan Salai has been given a coat of paint that dulls, but does not entirely hide, the words underneath.

No idea why it should be this way. Do you have any guesses?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chozha presence

The eastern coastline of India is called the Coromandel Coast, which is the anglicized version of "Chozhamandalam" - the domain of the Chozhas. From their capital at Thanjavur, the Chozha emperors ruled over a territory that at its peak covered all of south India, and most of the east coast up to Bengal. Rajendra Chozhan extended the influence of the Chozhas across the seas, taking over parts of today's Thailand, Cambodia, Lagos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

Rajendra's reign extended so far to the north that he was also titled 'Gangaikonda Chozhan', the one who acquired Ganga. It is by that title that he is referred to in this hall - Sree Gangaikondan Mandapam - in Triplicane. The hall is used for recitals, discourses and similar events, mainly associated with the temples in the vicinity. 

But I am a bit confused. The hall seems to be associated strongly with symbols of Vaishnavism, including the images of Garuda at the corners of the roof. Rajendra was the successor of Raja Raja Chozhan, who had had the Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur, where Shiva is the main deity, built. That temple was the inspiration for his son to build a similar one at Gangaikonda Chozhapuram, which was also dedicated to Shiva. So, does this mandapam really go back to the Chozha times? Or is there some other Gangaikondan being referred to here?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


This address, on 89, Radhakrishnan Salai, was once the residence of a judge of the Madras High Court. PN Ramaswami Iyer and his wife Rajam lived here. The house they owned here was named "Vinnagar". Loosely translated, it means the "place in the skies". 

The building that has come up in its place reflects a lot of the clouds, but can it ever be the place in the skies?

Monday, August 25, 2014


This may not look like much, but in a parched city, it is the best expression of social concern. Even after all the rain last night, there would be enough thirsty souls walking down the road where these taps are.

Do you know where?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Morning paper

Early morning, on Broadway, the newspaper bundles have arrived. The bundles need to be unpacked and re-packaged into smaller units for distribution locally. 

There were about 20 such individuals carrying out the task - that's quite a distribution challenge!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Burmese plate

Last week, after hearing about a slice of Burmese history in Madras - which I was completely unaware of until then - it was absolutely coincidental to come across this sign. 

There must be a few other Burmese outlets in Chennai, but I can't remember any of them off the top of my head!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hidden treasure

By rights, this building should have celebrated its centenary with great pomp and show five years ago. Its foundation stone was laid by the grandson of the lady whose name it bore; called the Victoria Memorial Hall, it took three years to build. Prince George (later King George V) laid the foundation stone on January 24, 1906 and it was open to public on March 23, 1909. Henry Irwin, the architect who is usually remembered in the context of Indo-Saracenic style, took inspiration from Mughal and Rajasthani designs for this building. The canopied turrets and the Jaipuri-Jaina windows got this building to stand apart from its neighbours.

The first occupant of the building was the Victoria Technical Institute which had until then been functioning from the museum itself. The VTI operated from this building until 1951, when it was taken over by the government. It continued to be associated with arts and crafts, for it now housed the National Art Gallery. There was quite a lot of art there, with paintings from the Mughal period, rock art, traditional Indian paintings and quite a few paintings from the British era. Most of those works were moved to the new art gallery building right next to this, sometime in 2003; for by then, the Victoria Memorial Hall had been deemed unsafe for use.

Last year, a renovation project was announced with much fanfare. Apart from putting up a metal screen/barricade around the front of this building, not much more was done on the renovation front. In some ways, this is quintessential Chennai: grand ideas and beautiful structures. But somehow, they stay hidden, not thrusting out in-your-face, but knowing that there is beauty here, even if you have to come over all the way to this corner of the museum and have the patience to look beyond the barricades!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grand house

Despite being one of the most historic buildings in the city, Doveton House is not easily accessible to the public, being situated inside the Women's Christian College in Nungambakkam. Maybe it is just as well, for the college has been able to maintain the building in possibly the same shape it was constructed, well renovated and with few, if any, modifications. Coming in from the main gate of the college, we get to see this magnificent building, constructed in 1798 from the designs of Benjamin Roebuck, an architect in the service of the East India Company. The purpose for which it was built is not very clear, but in the early 19th century, it appears to have passed into 'native' hands. It is said that Lieutenant General John Doveton, in whose name it continues to be known today, acquired it from a Linghi Chetty in 1837. As to whether that was the same Linghi Chetty who has a road named after him in George Town, your guess is as good as mine.

It is said that when Lt. Gen Doveton died in 1847, he bequeathed the property to a "brahmin family". Little is known of that bequest, but within a few years, Doveton House had become Company property, with the East India Company using it as accommodation for its troops and officers. In 1875, it was used for a different purpose: as the venue for the house arrest of Malharrao Gaekwad of Baroda, for his role in the attempted poisoning of Col. Sir Robert Phayre, the British Resident of Baroda. Much later, in 1914, it was the venue of the 29th session of the Indian National Congress, which was historic if only for Lord Pentland, the Governor of Madras, dropping in on the proceedings.

In 1916, Doveton House and other buildings in the 11 acres of its gardens were bought by the Women's Christian College. A description by Dr. Eleanor McDougall, the first principal of the college, describes it as having "stabling for twenty horses, a band stand...the tallest porch in Madras". The purchase was funded by by a gift of $25,000 from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Legacy. John D. Rockefeller's munificence continued in the form of further funding for building a chapel and a science block. The college continued to grow over the years, but Doveton House has remained its nucleus, housing the Principal's office on its ground floor. As I said earlier, the building remains true to its original construction, but try as I did, I could not make out where the "...little tower", as Dr. McDougall wrote, "for monkeys to live in..." could have been!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Four years on

How long does it take to write a book? Quite a while, apparently. It has taken a lot of travelling, a lot of cloak-and-dagger meetings, and a whole lot of surreptitious telephone notes and sketches for Samanth Subramanian to get his second book out on to the shelves. The first was four years ago, and the years between, on the evidence of the first few pages of his new book, have been spent well.

This Divided Island does not have a political agenda. It is very easy for the Lankan civil war to grab any discussion about it and drag it to an abusive free-for-all. The first evidence of that was in 1985, when some of my college-mates went on a signature campaign against the government of Sri Lanka, and the years since have hardened stances. 

I am looking forward to reading this book. I thought I would be able to finish a substantial part of it before its Chennai launch ten days ago, but it is not a light read. There will be no chest thumping, guts-and-glory story. The stories will be of ordinary Sri Lankans, voiceless people who were the worst affected in the 3-decade long war. The war ended in 2009. These stories will live on for ever!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Slow day

In the background, the Pallavaram hills look on; they have seen several days in their time, and this is no different from the many they have seen. They must be very old hills, for they have been worn down to almost sea level. This is also the area where traces of a palaeolithic settlement have been found.

The slowness is seen in the parking lot of the Chennai airport in the foreground. Usually a mess of vehicles trying to go every which way, the lot seems quite sleepy - but this was last week, before the long weekend, when almost everyone had probably got to where they wanted to go!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Going, going...

Auctions in Chennai bring to mind only one name: Murray. That name was borne by a gentleman who, in January 1915, was appointed as a judge of the Madras High Court. Three other names he had, for he was fully Sir Victor Murray Coutts-Trotter; and it took him another nine years to become the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. During his tenure as the Chief Justice, he learnt that the firm Dowden & Co., auctioneers, was shutting down and moving back to England. The courts needed an auction house and Sir Victor looked around for one. He finally sounded out S. Vedantam, who was working with Dowden & Co., about the need to set up one. 

Vedantam took the justice's approval to name the firm after him. And so was born, in 1927, the firm Murray & Company. Whether the Hon'ble Justice had any stake in it is unclear, but very soon, Murray & Co., was appointed as the Receivers for the Madras Presidency. With business growing, operating out of a small office on Thambu Chetty Street, near the Court, was not good enough. A branch was opened on Mount Road, within the grounds of Kushaldas Estate. 

That branch, was in these premises, tucked in behind the LIC building. A year ago, the building was deemed unsafe for occupation and that, probably more than anything else, forced the firm to move away to Mylapore. Over the 87 years of its existence, Murray & Co. has handled several auctions, both public and private. They have sold a hospital, a king's residence, army surpluses... pretty much everything that is fit to be sold. Given a few months, they would probably have been able to find a buyer for it themselves!

Sunday, August 17, 2014


The ninth avataram of Vishnu was the one who knew of his Godliness right from his birth, unlike the earlier avatarams who were completely ignorant of their divine spark. Krishna knew that he was a God and was not exactly shy of showing off. Stories about his childhood are legion and these stories are recalled today, as much of the country celebrates his birth with much festivity today.

Most of the celebrations in Chennai are of the "at home" variety. The common theme is the outline of the boy Krishna's footsteps as he trails them after knocking down the pots of butter - and then there are all the eats to be had, the music to be listened to, all of which celebrate Krishna's carefree boyhood rather than his life as an adult. 

For this day, here is a painting of Krishna with Yashoda, his foster-mother. There are several representations of this duo, but this is not one of the more common ones. But it is by Raja Ravi Varma, the man who single-handedly gave a face and form to most Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. This oil-on-canvas can be found in the Chennai museum, along with a few others of Ravi Varma's canvases. Go on, enjoy the day!