I had always assumed that this was a kind of generic name for a particular part of George Town. But on 12th June, during my wanderings in that area in the company of Stephen Hughes I was surprised to discover that there was a proper market of that name. Though what gave it the name Chengam and what that word means are both mysteries to me. It is just off Nattu Pillayar Koil Street which was the Devadasi quarter and in time any woman who was of dubious repute was dubbed Chengam sarakku. Chengam is the name of a town in Tiruvannamalai Taluk according to Google and I dont know what the connection with that place is. Interestingly, the Tiruvannamalai Matam Hall is close to Chengam Bazaar.
The market is quite a large one with the standard grid layout. In its heyday, says one of the surviving shopkeepers, it had sections earmarked for flowers, fruits, vegetables, fish, poultry and meat. The non-veg side had greater demand. The market catered to the householder as opposed to the other and greater market at Kothwal Chawadi which was for wholesale.
Even as early as in the 1930s the market was a byword for stinks and smells as evident from R Rangaramanuja Iyengar’s writings about his Friday visits to Veena Dhanam’s. But its actual decline began according to those who still sell from there when the non-veg eaters of Town gradually moved out from the 1950s and were increasingly replaced by vegetarian Marwaris, Gujaratis and Jains.
What Chengam Bazaar is known for today is mirror-making which trade occupies at least two rows of stalls. Several of the other stalls have either caved in or are in the process of doing so. A few are occupied by long-term tenants who have converted the stalls into residences. As we entered, MS Subbulakshmi’s Venkateswara Suprabhatam was wafting from one of these makeshift homes. Divine notes amidst unbelievable squalor. A corner of the market evidently serves as a public convenience.
Chengam Bazaar’s days are numbered anyway. An old crone with twisted legs and a blank look who sits at the entrance appears to symbolise its eventual fate. It is the classic case of an old precinct being allowed to run to seed and then being demolished as there is no other alternative. The place is owned by a Mohammedan family according to the shopkeepers and what is keeping them from tearing it down and selling it as real estate is some litigation. Judgement apparently is expected any day now and already real-estate developers are doing the rounds of the place. Those who still occupy the stalls hope for a reasonable settlement.
I am not at all questioning the fact that Chengam Bazaar has to be demolished. Now, it is the only way for it. But if there had been some foresight at least twenty years back, it could have been allowed to flourish as a typical Indian market, rather like the Devaraja Market of Mysore.