Alangatha Pillai Street in Triplicane is narrow and rather peculiarly shaped like a capital “I”. It is accessed from Bharati (Pycrofts) Road via Venkatachalam Street. Today it is a collection of street houses, most of the old ones having been dismantled and replaced with new. Many of these are “mansions” offering accommodation for bachelors, but there are a few old houses, with very old and carved doors, that recall the “dubashi” past of this street, for it is named after one of the great merchants of Madras city and was probably his property.
The English in India employed dubashes as middlemen. These knew two languages and were hence dvi-bhashis which later became corrupted to dubash. Most of these intermediaries became exceedingly well-to-do and many an old Madras street commemorates one or the other from this profession. The senior-most among them in the 1600s was given the title of Chief Merchant of the East India Company and Alangatha Pillai held this post in the 1680s. He was referred to in Company records as the greatest of the dubashes. The Corporation of Madras, the oldest municipal body in the world after London, was set up in 1688 and Alangatha Pillai along with two other Indians, Muthu Veeranna and Chinna Venkatadri was among the first set of twelve Aldermen. Pillai is referred to as Alingall Pella in the charter. When in 1690, the Government decided to erect a Court of Judicature in Madras, Alangatha Pillai who was considered “a wise and able Jentue”, was one of the Justices “to appear for Natives, as well Jentues, Moores and Mallabars.”
Using his enormous wealth, Alangatha Pillai built the Ekambreswara Swami temple in Mint Street which in his time was called Washers Street owing to it being home to several calico washers. This temple known in Company records as “Alingal’s Pagoda” was important enough to feature in the earliest reliable map drawn of the city, commissioned by Governor Thomas Pitt in 1709/10. There is a statue in this temple and some have said that this may be a representation of Alangatha Pillai. Sadly, that is not so. For the inscription above the figurine, in Tamil, clearly states that it is of V M Appukkutty Chettiar who in the 1700s, built the pavilion fronting the shrine.
In the early years, there were two castes in the city referred to as those of the Left-Hand and the Right-Hand. These castes whose members were from business communities considered this temple to be their common property and soon this resulted in bitter communal strife. The Company finally conferred ownership on the Right Hand caste. In later years, members of the Gujarati community, who settled in large numbers near Mint Street adopted this temple as their own and still continue their patronage.
Alangatha Pillai appears to have died in 1689. After him, his son appears to have aspired to his father’s status without any of his achievements, thereby earning a firm rebuke fron the Company. Such is life.