Lt. Col. Herbert Andrews Newell of the Indian Army was an indefatigable traveller. Between 1905 and 1921, when he was in India, he covered almost the entire country, doing several of the journeys in his trusted car – a 1913 Sunbeam, 12-16 hp. He wrote detailed accounts of his wanderings for the leading magazines of the time. In 1921, a compilation of some these was published as a book – Topee and Turban, or Here and There in India. It includes an interesting account of a journey from Madras to Mahabalipuram.
Newell sets off at 7.30 am due south on Mount Road and notes that it was a fine avenue of banyan, tamarind and the “sausage tree, an alien from Madagascar.” Much of the western side of Mount Road he notes comprised paddy fields submerged under water with the Long Tank (present day T Nagar) mirroring the palm trees on its banks. He crosses the still surviving Teachers College at Saidapet which was in his time “gleaming white in the morning sunshine.” From there it was on to the Marmalong (now the much-enlarged Maraimalai Adigal) Bridge which in his time had yellow pillars, each mounted by a white cross indicating that “nearby was holy ground.” The Adyar’s left bank was a “wonderful display of lingerie and other garments” for this was where the dhobis washed clothes.
Guindy apparently then had a statue of King George V for he makes a sharp turn to the right and drives on via the Dalrymple memorial to Pallavaram which was but a “low ridge of sharply pointed hills.” To the left a vast expanse of water and in front, several guinea fowls that scattered on seeing his car. Chromepet, where he stopped for water, was a small hamlet of “palm thatched huts, cactus and aloes” with just the Chrome Leather Factory on the right. Far away a lonely hill catches his eye. This is clearly Tiruneermalai above which, then as now, rose the spire and flagstaff of the temple.
Tambaram was nothing more than a “little railway station” surrounded by tree-clad hills and everywhere the “plain sparked with the play of sunbeams upon water.” Palm trees, paddy fields and flowering trees line the route. Singaperumalkoil is where he halts to cool the engine and refill his radiator. The temple according to him was screened by high outer walls and between palms and quiet houses towered the temple’s processional car.
At 9.20 he reaches Chingleput. After breakfast at the Spencer’s refreshment room, he resumes his journey at 11.00 am. An hour later he has crossed Tirukkazhugukunram and Sadras. Somewhere near the Palar river, the road is so bad that he leaves his car and proceeds on foot. He crosses the river, then full of water, by boat. Palar joins the Buckingham Canal and through it he reaches Mamallapuram. It takes him 5 hours in all. Today we do it in half the time but with none of the scenic beauty he mentions.