Monday, May 31, 2010

Missing the 'I'

A few years ago, some additions were made to the Chennai Egmore station, on its western side. They were the latest in a series of additions that were made to the buildings of this station, which traces its origins to more than a century ago. In those days - the station was opened in 1908 - it is said to have cost Rs.17 lakh to build and between Henry Irwin (the designer) and Samynada Pillai (the builder), they managed to work in some Dravidian elements into the structure. The original lobby and porch on the eastern side thus set a pattern which was not broken in the later additions to the buildings, in the 1930s as well as in the 1980s.

The newest addition, on the western side also remains largely true to the original style of construction. But if you've ever glanced up at the bas-relief crest on the eastern side, you'll notice a difference here. On the western side, the builders have strayed just a little bit. While they have retained the elephant motif of the eastern face - that was probably part of the logo of the South Indian Railway - but they have been unfaithful to the letters. The 'I', which is present in the older version (though painted over to merge with the background, now) is missing here.

Maybe that's the way it should be - future generations can argue about how the S.I.R. became the S.R. - and that's a story for another post!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let them pass

A couple of years ago, we were allowed inside the OTA for a few hours. We wandered around, looking at the birds, the trees and the flowers inside the campus - at least those parts that we were escorted around to.

As we were walking out, we had to wait to let cadet officers - both gentlemen and lady cadets - march past us. Been a long time since one heard the synchronised crunch of marching boots!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Everyday antique?

It is said that the first 'irons' to press wrinkles out of cloth were used in China in the 1st century BCE. But when they began to appear in the western world of the 17th century CE, they had forsaken the Chinese technology and were instead being heated from the outside. After a while, it was accepted that the Chinese had got it right and charcoal irons, boxes with heavy plates at the bottom and a hinged lid that had a handle attached became the standard design.

A certain Mary Florence Potts of Iowa made some improvements to the earlier, externally heated 'sadirons'. She first had the baseplate pointed at both ends, which enabled the sadiron to be moved back and forth, rather than in just one direction. Further, she patented a 'detachable handle' design and sold her product as a set of 3 sadirons and one detachable handle - with that, one of the irons was always being heated up, one was cooling down and the third was being put to use all the time.

These days, of course, electric irons with thermostats and internal heating elements have replaced the charcoal iron almost everywhere. Yet, a sight that would not be out of place at Gochsheim Castle (reputed to have the largest collection of over 1300 historical irons) is played out in several areas of Chennai every morning, when the local iron-man sets up his practice for the day. The flames leaping out from the maw of the appliance remind us that for all our modernity, our clothes continue to depend upon a technology that's been around for over 2000 years!

Friday, May 28, 2010


I used to wonder why his blog hadn't been updated for a long time; a couple of weeks ago, I knew the reason why (at least, that's what I think the reason must have been). And today, Samanth Subramanian's first book, "Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast" had its Chennai launch. It was indeed fitting that the launch was at Landmark, for it was at Landmark's annual quiz, several years ago that I'd first met Samanth. In the years since, he has made that quiz more or less his own, becoming - for the city's quizzers at least - a legend himself.

Though I haven't read the entire book yet, I'm sure I'll like it. Those parts I rushed through (I had some vague thoughts of asking profound questions at the launch) made for easy, yet insightful, reading. I was slightly taken aback when I saw a Hyderabad based story - when was that city last on the beach? Despite the fish connection, it seemed a little out of place, but with some biographical background, I thought it was probably as close as this author would get to talking about himself in the book. And Samanth's confession that this one was indeed the story closest to his heart validated that thought.

It was, however, the toddy shop story that was first excerpted in the Mint a couple of weeks ago. And I just couldn't resist this picture of the author with the toddy shop.... !

Thursday, May 20, 2010

No way out

The building may be 97 years old, but the fencing around it, and its gates, are possibly much younger. In 1913, when Ripon Building was opened to house the Corporation of Madras, the


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mount Abu in Madras

Many believe that the best marble monument in India is not the Taj Mahal, but rather, the Dilwara Temples near Mount Abu in Rajasthan, sacred to Jains. It was from these temples that the Jains who had settled in Madras drew architectural inspiration from for their newer temple in the city.

Though the structure is new, worship at this particular site is not. The Chandra Prabhu Bhagawan Naya Jain Mandir, on Mint Street, was built at the same spot where one of Madras' oldest Jain temples, the Swetambar Jain Temple, stood. As with the other temples of the tirthankaras, the sanctum sanctorum is elevated from the ground level. Here, the main deity is Chandra Prabhu, the 8th tirthankara. Built largely of limestone, with accents in marble, it is both completely different (from the grey granite, or the gaily coloured gopurams) and similar (to other Jain temples everywhere).

Also, just as many other places of worship do, this temple also offers free food every day - only, in keeping with Jain traditions, the food is entirely free of spices, oil and even salt!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bridge at the edge

The road does not climb - or drop, if you will - when you go across this bridge and yet, there is a feeling of leaving something behind. Heading out south of the city, the Marmalong Bridge (before it became Maraimalai Adigalar Bridge) marked the end of Madras in the early '70s. All on a sudden, there were no buildings, more greenery and one could see clear across for a very long distance. There was the other bridge over the railway tracks at Guindy, but by then, the city was far behind.

More than 30 years later, the Maraimalai Adigalar Bridge can be thought of as just another point on Mount Road; although there is still some greenery beyond the bridge, straight down to the Raj Bhavan, the buildings on the right proclaim it a part of Chennai. Still, it was almost 300 years ago that the first bridge was built here, so give us some time to believe it is not the city's boundary any longer!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Grease to silk

In the first few years of the 20th century, the then decade-old Anjuman-e-Himayath-e-Islam (AHI) wanted a building where the orphan children from around the vicinity of the Wallajah Mosque could be trained in some trade or the other. For this purpose, they built this red-sandstone structure, where the lower level was the training centre-cum-workshop and the truly indigent students were housed on the upper floor. In the 1930s, the AHI, guided by Justice Basheer Ahmad Sayeed, acquired a much larger parcel of land; by 1947, they had moved out of this building.

Enter the Mahtanis. Most likely as a consequence of partition, young Gobind Mahtani reached Madras from Hyderabad (Sind, Pakistan), to join his uncle. With the additional management bandwidth, the Mahtanis moved their small silk garments business to these premises, taking over the entire ground floor. The first floor was then taken up by India Coffee House. Maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the clothes - the building became a meeting place for the men-about-town, who would pick up their clothes at India Silk House and then saunter up to the India Coffee House for a cuppa, and much conversation. When the Coffee Board decided to close down the Madras outlet of the India Coffee House, the Mahtanis were ready to expand and they took over the vacant space to start their furnishings division.

Today, this landmark is tucked away in a crook of Mount Road's curve; one hopes the Mahtanis are able to hold on to this heritage structure against the onslaught of all kinds of modernisation happening on Mount Road!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Summer fruit

Yes, it did rain a bit a few days ago, but the heat is very much back in business. The mangoes are not early this year (the ones that have come so far are best left untasted) and the city dweller seems to have given up his preference for jack-fruit.

The watermelon continues to be a favourite, both as a solid and a liquid - here are a few of the fruits stacked up at the Koyambedu market!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Same difference?

Wandering around Royapuram a few weeks ago, I came across this store. The name was intriguing, even if the other signboards were pretty much the regular bakery stuff that can be seen anywhere in Chennai.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed inside the bakery as well. I'm not sure what kind of Persian delights I was expecting, but it seemed to have all the same breads, buns and biscuits that could be found in any old bakery. Or maybe the New Persian Bakery is very discriminating about who it serves the genuine Persian stuff to; must try to get friendly with the folks there and find out if there are indeed trays of zulbia or halva kept hidden for regular patrons!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Leaving town

One of the good things about the Chennai Moffusil Bus Terminus (CMBT) at Koyambedu is that its buildings cover less than 1% of the area it is located in. That gives it, at least in theory, a lot of scope for expansion. Built in 2002 and expected to cater to the rise in traffic demand until 2015, this is supposedly the largest bus terminus in Asia. Though Shanghai's Zhixin terminus also stakes a claim to that distinction, their numbers don't support the claim: the CMBT's 2000 arrivals/departures daily is much higher than Zhixin's 600 - 1200 range and the number of passengers is also higher by a similar factor.

Now, with plans to build a 3000-slot parking lot for 2-wheelers, it is likely that all the traffic density forecasts will be hit for a six - and then we'll have to look for a new bus station soon!

Monday, May 3, 2010


Last month, there was a minor furore when the Emirate of Sharjah banned lungis in public places. The lungi is a comfortable garment, one that is still worn daily by millions, even though its popularity has fallen a bit in recent times. In its heydey, the lungi was not mere casual, lolling-around-the-house-wear. Though in the land of its birth, the lungi remained at the bottom of the sartorial scale, it was a prized posession in the countries it was exported to. With its strong, check-patterns in bold colours, it provided that extra spiff to the starched white shirts worn over it. Malaya, Ceylon, Siam - places where the lungi morphed into the sarong, were countries that the garment was introduced by the Dutch or the Portugese.

Many of these countries referred to the lungi as 'Palayakat'. One school of thought is that the word is a corruption of Pazhaverkadu (now called Pulicat), north of Chennai, where the Dutch had their fortress before the British presence on the Coromandel coast. These simple rectangles of cloth were probably the central players of a brand-building (okay, category-building) exercise a couple of centuries ago. The British varied the dimensions of these rectangles, or converted them into running lengths, and popularised them as 'Madras Checks' in its colonies, including the ones in America. Palayakat is a forgotten term now - certainly in Chennai, where lungi still holds sway, but companies behind the popular old brands still use the term: like Sangu-mark lungi-gal, which is a brand of The Madras Palayakat Company.

There could be another story of origin for the word, however. It could have originated from 'palasar-e-kattu', 'palasar' being the manner of tying the veshti, urging the users of the humble lungi to wear it like its more formal counterpart!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

By the yard?

Though it has been referred to as 'metre coffee' many a time, I don't think I've ever asked for it by that name; indeed, I don't think any Chennaiite would think of it as such, for the term has almost always been dropped by visitors to this city. In specialty restaurants across India, some waiters serve South Indian coffee with a flourish, pouring it from one tumbler to another in such a way that the hot liquid falls a height equal to the waiter's armspans - well, that's close to a metre and surely an apt description.

Not that a visitor to Chennai would be disappointed if he asks for coffee at the roadside stall. The vendor would pour all liquids in the same fashion, raising one vessel as far as his arm can stretch. Maybe the distance travelled cools down the milk, but then, what is the point, if it is going to go back into the boiling pot, anyway!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Read this, please

Born as Kuppuswamy Iyer at Pattamadai, he went on to study medicine, which he practiced in Malaya as the head of an 'Estate Hospital' there. Struck with a feeling there was more to helping people than just curing illnesses, Kuppuswamy gave up his position and travelled to Rishikesh. By the time he was 40, Kuppuswamy had been Swami Sivananda for nearly 4 years. After a further decade of travelling around India as a wandering monk, Swami Sivananda established the Divine Life Society on the banks of the Ganga at Rishikesh. Since its founding in 1936, the Divine Life Society has grown both within and outside India.

On the occasion of his birth centenary in 1987, Madras city named a road after him, turning Adams Road into Swami Sivananda Salai. A statue of the saint was set up at the eastern end of the road, just where it joins Kamaraj Salai. Somehow, the statue seems to be of a roadside bookseller, pressing his wares on the passer-by. True, Swami Sivananda wrote close to 300 books, but he is to be remembered for much more than that.

At the western end of Swami Sivananda Salai, there was (is it there still?) a statue of Lord Ampthill, who was Governor of Madras between 1901 and 1906. I'm not sure if it was planned that way, or if it is just coincidence; one of Kuppuswamy's first forays into the public eye was in 1901, when, as a 14-year old, he sang a song to welcome the newly appointed Governor of Madras at the Kumarapuram railway station!

I'm back, on the monthly Theme Day for the City Daily Photo community. To see photos of statues from cities around the world, check this link out!