Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) or Rajiv Gandhi Expressway as it is now known, is not all that old. Several accounts of visits to what was called Seven Pagodas have survived from the 1850s. The only route was via Guindy-Chromepet-Tambaram-Chingleput-Tirukkazhukundram. The last stage involved taking a boat somewhere near Sadras to cross the Buckingham Canal. This was an un-metalled road especially towards the end. The best option was to travel by boat, leaving Madras at nightfall and reaching destination by the morning. The journey was via the Buckingham Canal and boats could be hired at Adyar. Trains were the next best option. The car came last and was to be taken only time was a constraint. Certainly, it made it the fastest to Mamallapuram – it needed only five hours. Till 1960 at least, that was the only route, though the boat journey at the end became unnecessary with a viaduct connecting the road to Mamallapuram.

It would therefore be safe to surmise that OMR as we know of it, is not all that old. It definitely gained popularity as a route to Mamallapuram only after the Kotturpuram bridge was constructed in 1987 and provided a direct link to Taramani and beyond. And it became ‘Old’ only when the newer route, the East Coast Road, was completed in 1998. Though an ancient part of South India, the villages that lined OMR receive very little mention in the works of those who documented Madras and its neighbourhood. One reason was probably that anything south of Adyar river was not within Madras city jurisdiction and came under Chingleput district. It therefore received less attention. But these were undoubtedly ancient villages and testimony to their age is the presence of several temples along this stretch, of which more in a later column. In this note let us take a look at what Jawaharlal Nehru referred to as the temples of modern India – the educational institutions and centres of excellence.

Undoubtedly, the educational and intellectual hub of Chennai is Taramani. This tiny settlement first shot to fame when the third Indian Institute of Technology was set up here with German help in 1959. Around 600 acres was forest land in the Guindy reserve was made over to IIT and nestled in its midst was Taramani. The village was shifted and even now, one entrance to the IIT is called the Taramani Gate. A probable reason for locating IIT here was the presence of other educational institutions in the vicinity such as the Central Leather Research Institute (established 1948), the Central Electronics Engineering Research Institute (1953) and the College of Engineering, Guindy. Soon others were to follow.
But what is often forgotten is the mother of them all – the Central Polytechnic (CPT). Begun as the Madras Trades School by the Department of Industries in 1912, it operated first from rented premises in Broadway. There in 1946, it was named as the CPT and by then, it had seven departments that dealt with Civil, Mechanical, Electrical and Sanitary Engineering and the disciplines of Cinematography and Sound, Printing Technology and Fisheries. The CPT shifted to Taramani in 1957/58 and over time several of its departments became independent units in the same place – the Institutes of Printing and Film Technology being two such. Today the entire area is referred to as the CPT campus. Another name is the CIT campus, for the CPT and all its offspring are Central Institutes of Technology, set up with funds from the Government of India.

Also in the CPT campus is the Roja Muthiah Research Library, founded thanks to a University of Chicago initiative. It commemorates Muthiah Chettiar, a signboard painter of Kottaiyur, Chettinad, who had a passion for collecting printed matter of all kinds. His habit of signing off his artworks with a rose earned him the prefix of Roja. Roja Muthiah’s collection of printed matter in Tamil numbered over a 100,000 at the time of his death in the 1990s. This was prevented from disintegration by several research scholars and the University of Chicago. The collection was shifted to Chennai. The RMRL was formed and initially functioned in Mogappair before shifting to Taramani in the last decade.

Media skills are honed at the Asian College of Journalism. Founded in 1994 by the Indian Express Group, it came under a not-for-profit trust in 2000 and was housed initially at 100, Mount Road, once the home of The Hindu. In the last decade, the ACJ shifted to Taramani. An institution of a different kind is the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), which was set up under the Ministry of Textiles, Govt. of India in 1986. The Chennai branch was set up in 1995 and made its shift to the Taramani-Velacheri intersection in the last decade. Mathematics has its share of OMR and has a presence at both ends. In Taramani is the Institute of Mathematical Sciences or Matscience as it is popularly known. The brainchild of mathematician Alladi Ramakrishnan inaugurated in Mylapore in 1962 by Nobel laureate S Chandrashekar and was later shifted to Taramani in 1969. It came under the Department of Atomic Energy, Govt. of India in the 1980s. At the Siruseri end is the Chennai Mathematical Institute. Founded in 1989 as part of the SPIC Foundation, it became autonomous in the 1990s. It made its move to Siruseri in 2005.

Thorapakkam, which comes immediately after Velacheri, has its own educational institutions to boast of. This is thanks to the Jain community of Madras, which can trace its links with the city almost from the beginning of time. The modern Jains from Rajasthan came to Madras from the early 1800s. And when they did, they also began contributing to what has been a Jain tradition in this region from Pallava times – the fostering of education. The Dhanraj Baid Jain College begun in 1972 commemorates DB Jain, a businessman-philanthropist who came to Madras in 1903 and stayed on. The Trust that promoted this college also branched into engineering in 1980 with the MNM Jain College, also set in Thorapakkam on a 20-acre campus.

Perhaps it was all this educational and intellectual presence that encouraged IT companies to flock to this area from the 1990s. The most visible symbol of this is Tidel Park, constructed in 2000 as a collaborative exercise by TIDCO and ELCOT. Tidel Park came up on the grounds of the MGR Film City, which was planned as a film shooting location and a tourist attraction in 1994 on 70 acres.
After Taramani, the area was largely paddy fields and open spaces interspersed with water bodies. Major development took place along this route only from the last decade when over 900 acres in Siruseri and Padur was allotted to SIPCOT to develop an IT Park, said to be the largest in Asia. A visitor to the Park would today assume that this is a different world. But what is often forgotten is another national first – the Vikram Sarabhai Instronics Industrial Estate (VSIIE). While it is well-known that the first industrial estate in the country was the one in Guindy, set up in the 1950s, what is not recollected is that as early as 1971, Chennai had the VSIIE which was the only estate devoted to electronics and instrumentation. Begun wit h 29 acres it expanded to over 140 by 1976. It is still a symbol of the region’s focus on industrialisation. Another industrial landmark now undergoing a metamorphosis is SRP Tools. Set up in the 1960s it emerged as a leader in cutting tools before being sold to the Mitsubishi group a few years ago.

Another landmark is the Aavin Dairy at Sholinganallur. This may have begun only in 1995 but it commemorates the fifty plus years of co-operative procurement, processing and marketing of milk in Tamil Nadu. The Aavin facility here processes 3.4 lakhs litres of milk per day.

So much of history and human endeavour in what is relatively a new part of Chennai. But what about the ancient history of the region? More of that in a subsequent post.

This article appeared in XS Real’s blog – http://www.xsreal.com/blog/?p=213