Temples for the Town

The origins of the name Chennai are shrouded in mystery. And yet, two of the oldest temples of the George Town area bear it as a prefix leading to one theory that these temples gave the city its name. They are referred to as ‘Patnam’ (Town) Temples by the locals thereby giving credence to the belief.

The Chenna Kesava and the Chenna Malleeswara Swami Temples of George Town originally stood where the High Court is today. Records speak of their existence even in the 1640s and associate two of the city’s founders Beri Thimmappa and Nagabathan with the construction. The old Black Town (native quarter as opposed to the White Town of Fort St George) being in that area, the complex was used for public meetings as well. However post the French occupation of and subsequent eviction from the city between 1746 and 49, the British felt that Black Town ought to be shifted inwards and it moved to the present location which later became George Town.

The Patnam Temple complex was therefore razed to the ground in 1757 and the debris was used to construct a protective wall for the city. Realising that religious sentiments were being ruffled, the British in 1762 allotted space of 25000 sq ft in the new Black Town, on Devaraja Mudali Street for the construction of the temples. Manali Muttukrishna Mudaliar, the Chief Merchant of the East India Company and dubash (agent) of Governor Pigot, opened a subscription list for the building of the temples and donated 5000 pagodas (the then currency). The East India Company gave 1173 pagodas. Donations amounted to 15000 pagodas and construction began in 1766 and continued till 1780. The temples have close connections with members of the Manali family, one of the oldest lineages of the city, even today. Till recently, until congestion prevented it, it was customary for Chenna Kesava Perumal to be taken in procession to Manali Hostel on Govindappa Naicken Street for the annual spring festival. Now this is celebrated within the temple precincts.

This twin complex is unique for it has the Vishnu and Siva temples together, sharing a common compound wall. The Chenna Malleeswara Swami temple had a number of Devadasis attached to it till the dancing girl tradition was abolished in 1947. The Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple was known for the patronage it gave nagaswaram artistes, a festival of music in the month of July, exclusively dedicated to nagaswaram performances continuing even now, a good 300 years after it was initiated.

The Patnam Temples are airy, clean and extremely well maintained. Do they hold a message for the rest of the city?

uni uni Venkatesh