Mahalakshmi Somasundar • April 29, 2020 • 7 min read
It's been a little over a year since we started working on Heritage walks around the city. Madras, now Chennai, is one of the metropolitan cities in the country. The older settlements have several stories to tell, and so the city is an amalgamation of ancient, medieval and modern history. Here at Madras Inherited, we're constantly on the lookout for fresh and innovative ways to make the history of the city engaging and relevant to people of the city. Initially only covering Mylapore, Royapettah and Indo-Saracenic routes, the team now covers 12 different areas in the city - Triplicane, Mount Road, T Nagar, Chintadripet to name a few. Today, we would like to look back to 2017, to what was the first of our many walks and the beginning of a long fulfilling journey.
Picture 1 : During a walk on the T Nagar route
On a Sunday morning, a group of heritage enthusiasts assembled in Royapettah to re-discover it's streets. The area is centrally located in the city and due to its proximity to the city center, it witnesses a great many activities, mostly commercial, making the entire region one of the busiest places in the city. The locality is also filled with intriguing stories associated with the several communities that stayed in the vicinity, standing as a testimony to the layered historical implications of the neighborhood. The history of Royapettah is deeply associated with Mount road as the area was formed from this bustling thoroughfare which in turn is deeply associated with the Nawab of Arcot and the Muslim history of the area, thereby forming an interlinked triangle with each other. Royapettah's history however predates the Nawabs, the area is also deeply associated with the Vijayanagara Kings and also with the British colonial history and the Anglo Indian community. From the early 1900s, the area was filled with garden houses left behind by the reducing Ango- Indian community. It also has other relics such as clock towers, churches, bazaars which stand as leftovers of the colonial era.Ã
From there, we moved on to a garden house, Gowri Bagh also bearing the name 'The Twin House' or 'The Nutshell'. 'Bagh' meaning 'garden', this house is a typical Garden House or Bungalow that emerged as a result of the confluence of Indian and British styles. The origin of the garden houses started within the walls of White Town with houses such as the Governor's House where a garden was introduced for relaxation and leisure hours. By the late 1700s, as the city began to grow and with the subsequent shift of the Nawab of Arcot's family to Amir Mahal, garden houses were emerging in the area of Royapettah, a locality that were quieter and had more space for gardens to be laid out so that they would relax and rejuvenate themselves in such a space. The street along the side of the house opens up to an interesting view, one of overgrown trees, broken wooden shutters and peeling lime plasters.
Picture 3 : Gowri Bagh, Royapettah
Did you know there's still a palace here? Unwinding the tale of Amir Mahal and the Nawab of Arcots, we slowly advanced our way into the heart of the settlement, onto the Perumal Mudali Road. Freshly washed roads, and doorways lined with kolams greeted us as we realised the day had already begun for most of the residents. As we quietly walked on, taking in the architecture of the old, discreetly trying to peek into houses and pondering over the unsung history. The Perumal Mudali Road features a central temple in the middle, along with many smaller temples and old Agraharam houses that stretch from street to street.
A turn into the Royapettah High Road is marked by ÃâËœThe Summer HouseÃââ, a palatial house located on the corner. It is a remnant from the 1940s Art Deco Era, evident from the rounded corner and the decorative patterns that got repeated and modified eventually. A peek into the half-opened door gave a view of a corner staircase with ample headroom that became a prominent feature during that time. Narrow strip windows punctuate the wall, but the verticality is broken down by horizontal cement lintels running from end to end - an indicator of the development of this industry in the early 1900s. The circular columns are another distinguishing feature, which can be traced to the introduction of circular cement pipes by Larsen and Tourbo in the late 1940s. These were filled with RCC and used to frame the entrance of the house.Ã
Have you ever wondered about Royapettah? It was surprising that an area we come across so often in our daily lives, has a rich and diverse and layered unsung history.The buildings of and by the common man in this part of the city exuberate an old world charm, and characteristics of various styles but little is known about these places. This walk, in Royapettah, marked the launch of Madras Inherited. The heritage walks curated by MI quickly earned credibility among heritage walkers mainly due to the architectural significance in the narratives. For over a year after this, we spent time laying the foundation for these heritage walks and building a steady audience, being mesmerised by the wonders of the city simultaneously. What started as heritage walks, over the course of the past two years, has branched out into various other aspects in the field from Heritage Education, Community Outreach Events to Listing Projects.
Picture 3 : During a walk on the Mylapore route
We are a small team determined to promote sensitivity and understanding towards the history and architectural heritage of Madras and do our best to preserve the heritage of the city by undertaking necessary measures and approaches through different areas of work. From hosting a Western Classical Music concert in an old bookstore to propping up signage near dilapidated or neglected buildings of historical significance, we've been trying to work the heritage of Chennai back into the social conscience of our communities. The walk in Royapettah was only the beginning. The conversation of heritage is slow in our city, and through heritage walks and other areas including outreach events we hope to facilitate the same, reaching as many locals and tourists as we can. If there's one thing we've learnt one need not to be in the architectural or history field to appreciate and work for heritage. The next time we host an event, will we be sure to meet you?
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