From Royal Enclave to Residential Area

Why Royapettah? Several explanations have been given for this name but the most convincing one is that because it belonged to the Nawabs of Arcot it became Raya (ruler’s) pettah (district). And, after the British took over, the royal family was finally given Amir Mahal on the edge of Royapettah to live in. The residence may be tucked deep inside the compound, but the ornamental gateway is a sight to behold. And if you are lucky, you will hear the ceremonial drums beaten on special occasions from the first floor gallery of the gateway.

Close to Amir Mahal is the clock tower, a Royapettah landmark. Built in the 1930s in the classic art deco style it is still functioning. From here begins Westcott Road. On the left is the vast Woodlands Estate, once the residence of the Rajahs of Ramnad. In the 1930s, it was sold to a businessman and the new owner leased it out to a young man who had made a success of running the city’s first Udipi style restaurant on Mount Road – Krishna Vilas. K Krishna Rao was his name and he made Woodlands a success- as a 40-roomed hotel. But the lessor soon wanted the place back and so in the 1940s, Krishna Rao moved to Mylapore and began New Woodlands, the first of the famous worldwide chain of hotels. Happily, old Woodlands still functions. Its South Indian style lunches are known to few and inside the hotel it is as though time has stood still in the 1940s. Period furniture and ambience is what it offers for a low price. At its edge stands the better-known Woodlands Theatre.

Opposite these is the Wesleyan Church with its associated educational institutions, set in a vast green enclosure. The church was begun in 1819. Further down the same stretch is the empty expanse of the YMCA, which is used for exhibitions. By far the best-known landmark on Westcott Road is the Royapettah Hospital. Begun as a native infirmary in 1843 in a side street and meant to cater to the requirements of those who lived in South Madras, it has expanded since 1911 when it became a hospital. Parts of it, especially its morgue section, date back to an early vintage and are Gothic in appearance. Bodies from the morgue were taken by horse carts and the area became well-known for horse dung according to noted writer Ashokamitran. He has it that rose-growers from all over the city would come to Royapettah to buy horse-dung as it was a great manure.

Royapettah High Road, which can be called the spine of the district, begins just after one wing of the hospital. On its left, almost unnoticed is the local post office, the second oldest in the city and having been in service since 1830 or so. The police station, a short distance away is also of a venerable age. Painted a bright red, it is a classic, a perfect example of Raj-style police stations. Just behind the police station, and perhaps rather appropriately so is the “town of killers” (Kolakarapettai), which is happily far removed from the truth. The name is a corruption from the days when a colony of stone-workers (kallukkaran) lived here. Here stands Pilot Theatre, the first in the city to get a wide screen when they came into vogue in the 1960s. The theatre still functions, going strong despite challenges. Opposite Pilot are two icons of Royapettah. The Sultan Market, an arcaded Indian style shopping area is now empty and faces an uncertain future. But Mani’s Auction House, famed for its old furniture is thriving. Around it have come up several showrooms selling the modern variety of furniture.

Just after Mani’s is the Provident Fund Commissioner’s Office. Now a modern building, it was once a vast garden house, named at various times as Gowri Vilas and Acharya Griha. In olden times it was Nawabi property and a secret passage was said to run from it to Amir Mahal. Opposite this building is Swagath Hotel, a throwback to the 1960s. It still functions though its competitor and another landmark of Royapettah, Ajanta Hotel with its art deco façade has vanished to make way for a modern one – Deccan Plaza. Diagonally opposite Swagath is Adarsh Vidyalaya – one of the well-known schools of the city.

Religion is firmly entrenched in Royapettah. Some of the old shrines here are the Srinivasa Perumal and Gangai Amman temples. The Gaudiya Mutt, established here in 1932, is a small piece of Bengal transhipped to Chennai. Its Krishna Jayanthi celebrations are famous. Further down Gaudiya Mutt Road is the Balasubramania Bhakta Sabha, a place where bhajans were performed regularly and where Tamil scholars such as Maraimalai Adigal and Tiru Vi Ka met. Royapettah High Road is now named after Tiru Vi Ka.

Royapettah was always known for its professionals. Dr KN Kesari who made the Kesari Kuteeram brand of medicines, in particular Lodhra tonic, lived here. Commemorating another well-known physician who did work in medical research is the Dr T Sitapathy clinic, run by his descendants, now with the 4th generation of doctors in the family. Another medical man was Jammi Venkataramanayya who beginning practice in 1900, perfected Jammi’s Liver Cure, which saved countless children suffering from infantile cirrhosis. Jammi Buildings, shaped like a ship and now home to several offices commemorates him. Ehrlich Laboratories in Balaji Nagar, a locality in Royapettah, is a well-known diagnostic facility going back several years.

Balaji Nagar takes its name after Balaji Rao a prominent legal luminary of the early 20th century who lived there. Another famed lawyer was S Doraiswamy Iyer who lived at Palm Grove, a lovely Palladian building, which later became the Kesari High School founded by Dr KN Kesari. It was perhaps due to the office-goer type of residents here that the Indian Officers Association, founded in 1907, struck roots here. For years it functioned from Mohana Vilas, a stately bungalow on Royapettah High Road where members could stay for nominal rates. Now this has become a commercial complex, owned by the Association. Several famed lawyers lived on Lloyds Road which cuts Royapettah High Road. Some of their bungalows survive though several have become high-rise. The one that stands at the corner is aptly named Lloyds Corner and it was the residence of VP Raman, Advocate General of Tamil Nadu whose younger sons carry on the legal practice from the same place while eldest son, Mohan Raman has chosen acting as a profession, again another old Royapettah tradition. Royapettah was home to artistes too. Lloyds Road is now Avvai Shanmugam Road, named after the great thespian Avvai TK Shanmugam who lived here and whose residence still stands. Close by is Thandavarayan Street, home to several cine and stage artistes in the past, the most famous being SV Sahasranamam. MGR lived on Lloyds Road for some time too and that is where the AIADMK office is today.

Close to where Royapettah joins Mylapore, after RK Salai cuts it, is the Mylapore branch of the Young Men’s Indian Association, established by Annie Besant in 1914, it offers board and lodge to those coming to the city for education. And Royapettah has its share of schools too. Apart from those within the Wesley College campus, there are others such as Adarsh Vidyalaya and Sri Venkateswara. A unique facility for the young ones is The Childrens Club, established in 1954 and going strong. It was to provide music to those in Royapettah that the Narada Gana Sabha was formed in the 1950s, in an empty plot of land next to the Childrens Club. That it moved elsewhere later is another matter altogether.

Behind all these great buildings is a bewildering maze of streets all of them with street-houses and some spacious bungalows. Interestingly, several still have houses of early 20th century vintage, giving the impression that Royapettah is happy to live in the past.

I wrote this piece for XS Real’s blog a couple of months ago.