A protective wall for Chennai


Unlike today, the city of Madras that is Chennai was not entirely peaceful in the 1750s. The English decided to build a protective wall around it. The work was entrusted to Paul Benfield who, by virtue of his building the Chepauk Palace can be considered to be the originator of the Indo Saracenic style of architecture, a style that took shape in Madras. Work proceeded slowly (obviously tardy progress in civil work is an old Chennai tradition) and when partially completed in 1772 and it ran for 3 ½ miles and had 17 bastions. Outside the wall, large open spaces were provided for allowing a clear line of fire on approaching enemy.


Within the walls, a good clear space of at least 50 feet was provided running along the perimeter for good communication in times of war. The idea was to develop this space into a road, the cost of developing which was to be covered by a tax to be levied on the residents. Then as now, the very mention of additional taxes obviously irritated people and there was a spirited protest. The tax was given up but when a small section of the road was built, it became Wall Tax Road. In Tamil it was the Otrai Vadai, as it allowed buildings only on one side of the road, the other being occupied by the wall. With the coming of peace in the 1800s, parts of the wall were demolished and the open space on the west of the wall became People’s Park and Central Station. But Wall Tax Road even today retains parts of the wall, all of which run parallel to the railway tracks.


The Railway Mail Sorting Office on this road is a gem of the Indo Saracenic style. There was a proposal a couple of years back to build a Railway Hotel on the site, but it appears to be given up and so we may still have this heritage building with us.


In its day, Wall Tax Road was also the theatre enclave, for it housed two very popular theatres. The first was the Otrai Vadai Theatre which staged the plays of stars such as MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, SD Subbulakshmi and the TKS Brothers. The Empress Theatre which stood in the Salt Cottaurs at the northern end of the road was of an earlier vintage. Today, the Padmanabha Talkies, one of the earliest cinema theatres of the city, is the sole remnant of that era. Wall Tax Road was renamed VO Chidambaram Road after the nationalist who ran a shipping company to compete with the English.