Agastyeswara temple and tank, Nungambakkam
Agastyeswara temple and tank, Nungambakkam

Valluvarkottam High Road was in the not-so-distant past called Village Road. For much of its length it runs along the old village of Nungambakkam. Of that village there is no trace until you come to a small Shiva temple with a large tank fronting it. Standing there it is possible to imagine Nungambakkam’s rural past.

According to KV Raman’s The Early History of the Madras Region, Nungambakkam features in a 11th century copper plate pertaining to Rajendra Chola. He also adds that there are mentions in epigraphs of the large Nungambakkam Lake which was alas, filled in to make way for a residential area in the early 20th century.

In East India Company records Nungambakkam features repeatedly under different names – Nimynbacka, Lamgabawca, Lungumbaca, Loongombauk, Lingumbauca and Moongumbaukum are some of the variants. In 1673, Governor Sir William Langhorne was appealing rather plaintively to his agent at Golconda that Nungambakkam was one of the few areas convenient for recreation and ought not therefore be handed over to the French. Five years later, the English were asking for it to leased to them. This was granted in 1708. In 1723 however, the Nawab, Sadatullah Khan began demanding the return of Nungambakkam along with five other villages, together with arrears in lease payments. But that was never to be. A redoubt was constructed here by the British by way of an advance guard for Fort St George. This was demolished by the early 19th century by which time the British were undisputed overlords. Much of the area was under cultivation in 1798.

That was also the era of the dubash and one of these was Subba Devanayaka Mudali. His eponymous grandfather had been dubash in the 1760s to Sir Eyre Coote, conqueror of Pondicherry. Since then the family had been in East India Company service. By 1820, the grandson is frequently mentioned in Company records and is also referred to as the Dharmakarta (trustee) of the Agastyeswara Temple, the Shiva shrine for the village of Nungambakkam. Devanayaka had extensive landholdings in the area and did much for either the construction or the renovation of the temple. He did the same for the Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal temple, a Vishnu shrine that is in the vicinity.

Devanayaka Mudali finds mention in the Sanskrit work Sarva Deva Vilasa. Translated first into English by the great scholar Dr V Raghavan, this 19th century anonymous creation is structured as a walkabout in Chennai by two poets, Vivekin and Ativivekin. In it is a description of a soiree at a garden of one of wealthy patrons where Devanayaka is also a participant. He has clearly all the trappings of wealth and his mistress is described “as so beautiful as to be mistaken for a goddess.”

But sadly, the good times were ending. In 1824, Government records indicate that Devanayaka was in serious financial trouble and was sometime later “shut up because of his pecuniary embarrassments.” What became of him thereafter? His temple still flourishes.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column