The Kesavaperumal Puram column
The Kesavaperumal Puram column

Kesavaperumal Puram is an upmarket housing development in south Chennai. One end of it is along the Buckingham Canal and standing on its bank is the commemorative pillar you see in the picture.

In design, it is a copy of the 18th century pillars that once marked the boundary of the Esplanade and of which only one survives in the shadow of Dare House. Closer inspection of the obelisk revealed it to be of comparatively recent origins. It was erected when Kesavaperumal Puram came into existence in 1962.

The area has a history that is much older. Henry Davison Love, in his monumental ‘Vestiges of Old Madras,’ traces its past, beginning from 1816 when a house was built there. In 1822, it was the property of Edward Greenway after whom the adjoining road was, till recently, named. Greenway entered the civil services in 1797 and in 1811 was a judge of the Sudder Court. He marries Isabella Sullivan in 1805 and was given a ‘grant of ground in San Thome in 1807,’ all that area then coming under Mylapore/San Thome jurisdiction. He died in Mangalore in 1828.

In 1826 or thereabouts, the property became the residence of J. Olliver, who having entered the civil services in 1800, became a judge of the Sudder Court. He probably succeeded to the post vacated by Greenway and therefore, also his residence. In the 1840s, this became Serle’s Garden probably acquiring its name from William Ambrose Serle, who was registrar of the Supreme Court of Madras around 1845.

What is interesting is that the area, somewhere along the line, became temple property owned by the Adikesavaperumal and Kapaleeswarar shrines of Mylapore, though how or why is a mystery. It probably was the thottam (garden) of the Lord, where the processional deities of the temple were brought once a year for a quaint ritual of vana bhojanam — literally a picnic. Several vana bhojana thottams abound in this area, most of them slums now.

The Adikesavaperumal temple leased out Serle’s Gardens in the 1890s to Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar, dubash of Dymes & Co and sheriff of Madras. By the 1960s, the lease was subject to litigation, the land eventually reverting to the temple.

All this probably meant very little to the locals for whom, historically, Serles Garden was the boat stop, the place from where vessels could be boarded on the Buckingham Canal for travelling to Mamallapuram and beyond. That is now impossible with the MRTS running right across.

Land for housing in Kesavaperumal Puram was acquired from both the temples but it was for some reason named after Adikesava alone. The pillar records that N.N.S. Manradiar, minister for co-operation, government of Madras, inaugurated the Kesavaperumal Puram housing colony on July 7, 1962. That makes the area just over fifty in age. Interestingly, 2013 also marks the centenary of cooperative housing development in the city, the first of which began in 1914.

This story appeared in The Hindu dated 29th Jan 2013 under the Hidden Histories column