First city of modern India


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MADRAS that is Chennai, the Queen of the Coromandel, is a comparatively new city, less than 400 years old. During its first 150 years, however, it was the Gateway of India. Today, the first city of modern India is India’s fourth largest and the Gateway to the South.

Over the centuries Nestorian merchants and Arab navigators, Greek philosophers and Roman centurions, ‘Portugee’ hidalgos and Dutch burghers, English East Indiaman and French musketeers, even Danish sailors and German scholars descended on Coromandel’s ancient shores in search of diamonds and pearls, ivory and sandalwood, cordage and sails and, above all, the finest cottons in the world.

These were the riches of a great hinterland where for centuries ancient kingdoms had risen and fallen and risen again. To the South lay the maritime Pandya and Chola kingdoms, possessors of an amazing artistic legacy. To the West were the Pallavas, who had absorbed the skills of the Chalukyas and the Hoysalas and sculpted veritable open air museums. To the North were the last vestiges of Vijayanagar and the southernmost outposts of the Mughals. Their nayaks and nawabs added the final touches to the endless wealth of art, craft and skill that thrived in Coromandel’s hinterland.

To Coromandel’s shores, following the trade routes first navigated by the Arabs, then centuries later by the Portuguese and Dutch, the British came in the early 17th century. Seeking a permanent trading settlement and investment in a textile-producing area, Andrew Cogan, the chief agent of the East India Company at Machilipatnam, sent his Factor at Armagon near Nellore, Francis Day, scouting for a place where the Company, established on the first day of 1600, could find ‘cloath better cheape’.

That he’d found it was what Day reported in July 1639, explaining too the land grant that his dubash Beri Thimappa had negotiated. England on that July day was richer by a strip of ‘no man’s sand’ three miles long, one mile wide at its broadest, protected by the surf-wracked waters of the Bay of Bengal on its east, an estuary in the south and a river to its west. All it needed was a thorn hedge to its north to protect it.



This would be England’s main settlement on India’s east coast, Cogan determined, and within a year he had established a factory, in effect a stockade enclosing a warehouse and a few homes. On 23 April 1640, St. George’s Day, they grandiosely called it Fort St. George, the heart of what they named Madraspatnam after the neighbouring fishing villages that the Madra (Madeiros) family of San Thomé owned. To its north, along the bank of the west river, Thimappa settled weavers and dyers, bleachers and washers he had brought in from the land of the Telugus and they named their settlement Chennapatnam after the father of the Nayak whose largesse to the East India Company had given them a new home and the security of assured business.

Around the two towns, the Madras that is Chennai grew, taking in declining ancient settlements with histories more than 2000 years old. The Company’s Governor and his Council in Madras were, from the 1640s till 1772, in charge of all English East India Company settlements from Surat to Bantam in Java. It was no wonder, therefore, that the foundations of modern India were laid in Madras, which during this Age of Trade truly became the Gateway to India.



The rest of India may have long forgotten the contribution Madras has made over the years to the development of ‘modern India’. Sadly, however, even its own citizens rarely remember their city’s contribution to that India, and Madras remains not only a forgotten city but also a ‘City of Neglect’.

In Fort St. George we have the genesis of many a facility that subsequently grew into a nation-wide system. It was here that Streynsham Master and William Langhorne and ‘Pirate’ Pitt who gave England two prime ministers, codified rules and regulations for the new settlement and introduced record-keeping – one strand that grew into red tape, and the other into archives. It was here, in the Church of St. Mary’s in the Fort – the first church built by the British in India – that the country’s first orphanage and western-style school were established; today, they have both grown and are thriving. St. George’s School set the pattern for education, private as well as state-sponsored. Also, St. Mary’s established a library that was to evolve into the present library system. And the banking facilities first established here went through various avatars before becoming the State Bank of India.

It was in this Fort that Governor Elihu Yale set up the first western-style hospital in India, primitive though it was. Outside its walls, he inaugurated the first municipal corporation in the country. The Survey School started here was to grow into Guindy Engineering College, the oldest technical training institution outside of Europe. And it was here that the Indo-Saracenic architectural form was first introduced in the country.

Until Calcutta became the Company’s headquarters in the late 18th century, Madras cast the seeds for much that has influenced India’s present. It was here that Job Charnock was equipped for the mission that culminated in the founding of Calcutta; Stringer Lawrence lay the foundation of the Indian Army in Fort St. David and Fort St. George, Cuddalore and Madras with the Madras Regiment; Clive and that army played their part at Plassey; the first revolts against the British were in Madurai and Vellore by those from that army, and there was much more as the years rolled by.



There were no dreams of empire among these hardy traders, each intent on turning a quicker penny for himself rather than the Company and looking forward to going back ‘Home’ and settling down to the life of a ‘Nabob’. The dreams of empire were initially those of Jean Francois Dupleix, who governed French Pondicherry, and his ‘Begum’ Jeanne. When he seized Fort St. George in 1746, it was to allow him a free hand to play the great game of protection that would help France bring local rulers to tribute-paying heel. When Fort St. George was rendered to the East India Company in 1749, the English demonstrated they had learnt their French lessons well. Over the next two decades, they ended the French dream and sowed the seeds of the Raj, having first prepared the ground during an Age of Expansionism that operated through the use of mercenaries.

With the French no longer a power in India by the 1760s, and the Mughals in decline, the English became the dominant influence. With the Company’s new army ensuring peace, the English moved out of forts to build homes and the symbols of the Establishment. In Madras, throughout the 18th century, such building took the form of the Regency, the Georgian and the Gothic – army engineers building in the styles they remembered from ‘home’ and the books of Roman and Greek architecture they pored over.



Their large airy public buildings, uniformly lime-washed a white that gleamed in the sun, were in striking contrast to the palaces and forts of the local princely orders. The homes of the new zamindari – prosperous British merchants and traders – followed the same architectural style, but surrounding themselves as they did with gardens around the houses and tree-rich ‘parks’ beyond, they made Madras famous for its ‘garden houses’. Expansive living and extensive entertaining became the lifestyle of Madras in its second age – a sign of architectural things to come.

As forgotten today as Cogan, Day and Thimappa, not only in India but in Madras as well, is Chepauk Palace, built under the protective guns of Fort St. George as the home of the Nawabs of the Carnatic. Today, Indo-Saracenic is described as architectural form most favoured by the British, developed to depict their regal public face, and the princely order aped it to convey a similar impression. The high noon of this form of architecture was Lutyens’ and Baker’s New Delhi, though they fought shy of the term used to describe Mant’s and Chisholm’s, Irwin’s and Jacob’s masterpieces. Few remember that its beginnings were in the palace the first Nawab of the Carnatic, Mohamed Ali of Wallajah, wanted built in the Fort and then agreed to on a site across the river from its glacis.

He also accepted the services of Company engineer, later Company contractor, Paul Benfield to design and build the first British vision of a Hindu and Muslim architectural amalgam. The man responsible for the walls of the Fort and the town walls was an honest engineer who built to last, but he was also a shrewd exploiter of opportunity. And when the Nawab could not pay his bills, he continued to lead the hungry pack that had lent prodigiously to fuel Mohamed Ali’s extravagances.

In the end, the scandal of the Carnatic Debts became one of the most heated debates in the House of Parliament before settlement was reached: the British government would settle on the debtor’s behalf what it considered the legitimate claims of the creditors – and even those ran into millions of pounds (in the 18th century). In turn, it would accept the Carnatic – the Coromandel and its hinterland from Kanniyakumari to the southern districts of Orissa – from the Nawab whose accession they had backed and for which they had fought the French in the Carnatic wars. The empire had begun.



With the fall of the Company and the dawn of the Age of Empire after 1857, the Queen of the Coromandel began to enjoy its finest hour, developing as a spacious and gracious city where commerce was not rushed and seemed civilized, and art and culture and the good life flourished. Late 19th century Madras was to contribute much to the India of today, while the 50 years till World War II were to change the city’s own skyline.

It was men of the Madras Army like Colin Mackenzie, William Lambton and Francis Buchanan who were responsible for the opening up of India and discovering its wealth. Mackenzie’s land surveys and his Indological obsession, Lambton’s Great Trigonometrical Survey from Cape Comorin to Nagpur and which George Everest extended to the high Himalaya, and Dr Buchanan’s findings of the immense wealth the land offered – all led to the creation of the Survey of India, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Zoological Survey of India and the Botanical Survey of India.



Charles Trevelyan’s role in establishing the Indian Civil Service and his dialogues with brother-in-law Macaulay laid the foundations for the systems of education and jurisprudence that we are wedded to today. Thomas Munro’s sustained advocacy for greater powers to Indians and much more are not just part of the record but form an integral part of everyday life in India. And in southern India, the opening up of land in its western reaches by men from Madras enabled the development of today’s giant plantations that for a century were the driving economic force in this part of the country. These were some of the pioneering steps taken by men of the Madras Presidency.

In more recent times there have been other landmarks. The call for the formation of Congress was first given in Madras, as was the call for satyagraha made during Gandhiji’s visit to the city. It was here that prohibition was first introduced. It was in Fort St. George that the Justice Party, the first non-Congress government in any part of India, took office. Later, when C.N. Annadurai led the DMK into the legislature in Fort St. George, it was the first time in independent India that a regional party had come into power. It was in Madras that we first heard the call for greater states’ rights, which hopefully will one day lead to a reappraisal of the Constitution and a more equitable and federal form of central government. Here too was developed the country’s first and biggest industrial estate. And no city in India has a bigger festive music season – or an older one – than Madras.



To serve British soldier and administrator, planter and trader and the investors and investments that kept growing, garden houses for the new settlers, some of the handsomest buildings for the houses of commerce, and palatial public buildings meant to awe with their Indo-Saracenic imperialist aspect were developed by architects and engineers like Robert Chisholm, Henry Irwin, John Goldingham and Norman Pogson, men who also pioneered a college of art, revival of old building methods, the training of engineers and the study of the stars.

The faded splendour of several of the buildings they raised still survives today – the garden houses and palaces of the Raj such as the Senate House, Presidency College, Guindy Engineering, the High Court and the Law College, the General Post Office and the Bank of Madras, the Museum and the Connemara Library, the Art Gallery and the Town Hall.

Perhaps the most significant part of the city, in contrast to other over-crowded areas, is George Town, the Indian settlement that was shifted from its original location north of the Fort to a planned, gridironed square of criss-crossing streets further north. What The City is to London, unprepossessive George Town is to Madras. Both the wholesale trade and the city’s private wealth have thrived here from the middle of the 18th century. Both the Indians and the British working here made the Madras to the south of it what it was before World War II, a city of spaciousness and grace, a bastion of conservativeness and courtliness, a commercial centre where the pace of wealth generation allowed for the leisure to enjoy the good life.

World War II changed all that. As the Japanese war machine rolled over East and Southeast Asia, the Allies were left with only two ports in Asia to serve their counter-offensive – Colombo and Madras. It was not merely the soldiers from Britain, North America and Africa and other parts of India who changed Madras. The ‘war effort’ transformed Madras turning it into a bustling industrial city instead of a quiet trading post that was also a charming laid-back capital. The demands of the war effort attracted thousands of job seekers from the hinterland of the Coromandel, making Madras a ‘million’ city before the end of the war, more than doubling its population in that fateful decade.



Post independence and Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of an industrialized India, the great trading houses of the Coromandel, which had semi-industrialized during the war, decided to become major industrial conglomerates. Newcomers joined the wartime immigrant population, adding to congestion and creating hovels and tenements. Then, with independence and time, the Presidency disintegrated into various linguistic states. Madras state became Tamil Nadu, but Madras remained its capital. The Queen of the Coromandel was, however, on its way to becoming a metropolis.

Maybe as befitting a metropolis, there is a little less graciousness and a little more rough-and-readiness. But where else in the country is faith greater and more obvious? Or where can you find a year-long cultural season that peaks in December-March with over 2000 concerts, at its climax offering four a day at around a dozen venues for 15 days? Indeed, faith and culture and an unsurpassed variety of southern cuisine, much of it vegetarian, enable Madras to remain closer to a heritage that was ancient when Madras was born. That is the greatest charm of Madras that is Chennai, even as consumerism and ‘westernization’ take hold.



Indeed, the expressions of faith in Madras are not confined to the garb of pilgrims, the sectarian marks of the faithful or the sacred designs drawn daily in front of houses, big and small. It is most evident in the number of places of worship that abound in the city. Truly a city of a thousand shrines, there is scarcely a street in Madras that does not have its pavement shrine or a towering symbol of someone’s faith. Ancient temples, many over ten centuries old, churches built by the Portuguese, the British and the Armenians, mosques where Sunnis and Shias have worshipped for centuries, even Jewish and Chinese cemeteries are all part of the fabric of Madras. Here people show a greater measure of mutual respect for each other’s faith, while religion has developed side by side with a rich tradition of religious art and architecture.

In fact, this art and architecture and the crafts of the ages are what combined to inspire men like Benfield and Chisholm, Irwin and Pogson. What they created may, in terms of the Coromandel’s historic past, be comparatively new, but without the skills of artisans who worked with lime and mortar, mud and rock, wood and metal, there would not be the buildings and the skyline that made the fort-centred town Day, Cogan and Thimappa founded, the Queen of the Coromandel. Its contribution to the India of today may be forgotten, its memorials to heritage may be under threat, but it remains a city of faith and culture where hope of a still better tomorrow is born afresh every time the sun rises and bathes the Coromandel in hues of fire and gold.