Surprised? Never thought that a protective wall could have existed around the old parts of the city? But we had a protective wall, which extended over much of the northern and western faces of 18th century Madras –present day George Town.

One of the surviving bastions

Those were the days when the British Raj was on a not-so-sound footing and everyone from the French to Hyder Ali was a threat. And so it was decided in 1768 that Madras ought to be protected. The eastern face had the sea as a natural barrier and so the remaining three faces were to have a wall.

Engaged to execute this wall was Paul Benfield. He was the only person to bid for the tender, a process that was probably a sham anyway. Benfield, who was then in the employ of the East India Company as Engineer of Madras, resigned his job to become a contractor. Benfield and his boss John Call, who was Chief Engineer, most probably drew up the specifications. Call added with some complacency that “when completed and mounted with cannon, and guarded with 2000 sepoys, no country enemy, even with heavy cannon will be able to force it, and I think a considerable resistance may be made against an European enemy…”

Benfield set about in right earnest and by October 1769, the work on the northern side was well advanced. It was decided that the western face would be funded by a tax for the wall. But there was considerable opposition from the residents of the city. A bolt from the blue was an Act of Parliament, which held that the Company’s servants were liable for prosecution if they oppressed the people and so the tax was withdrawn. The western face was never fully completed but the road that ran alongside became Wall Tax (now VO Chidambaram Pillai) Road. In its full glory the Madras wall ran for six kilometres and had 17 bastions. There were seven gates – Boatmen’s Gate facing the sea, Pully Gate at the northern end of Thambu Chetty Street, Tiruvatore Gate near Stanley Hospital, Ennore Gate near Mint Street, Elephant Gate where Anna Pillai Street meets Wall Tax Road, Chucklers Gate at the intersection of Rasappa Chetty Street and Wall Tax Road, and Hospital Gate facing the General Hospital. Work was stopped in 1772, it being decreed that what was completed was sufficient protection.

The gateway to Madi Poonga

By the 19th century, with peace, the wall was deemed unnecessary and most of it was demolished to facilitate expansion of the city. A portion of the northern wall on Ebrahim Sahib Street and Old Jail Road remained. In 1957, the Corporation converted the top of this wall into a park. Referred to as Madi Poonga or the elevated park, it is accessed by an archway and a flight of steps that culminates in a beautiful patch of green on the rampart. This, the name Elephant Gate and a narrow alley called North Wall Street serve as reminders of the wall that was.

This article appeared in The Hindu today –