That heritage is not restricted to buildings alone, was brought home to me when industrialist Mohanchand Dadha showed me a pocket watch from his collection.

Government House, Madras on a pocket watch
Government House, Madras on a pocket watch

It was an exquisite piece in 18 carat gold of the open-face variety, with the winding stem at 12 o clock, indicating that it was meant for civilian use. I turned it over and 300 years of Madras history stared me in the face. The photograph on the rear was that of Government House, Government Estate, opposite The Hindu.

Until 1947, it was the residence of the governor, the most powerful man in all of Madras Presidency.

One of the oldest residences of the city, it, or rather its core, had been in existence since at least the early 1700s when it was the property of Antonia de Madeiros of the rich and powerful eponymous Portuguese family, after whom our city probably got its name of Madras. It was rented in the 1740s from her by Governor Thomas Saunders, who found living in Fort St George impossible. The East India Company purchased the house in 1753 and it became the Governor’s official residence thereafter.

Given its importance, it was a prominent target during wars, and Comte de Lally in 1759 and Hyder Ali in 1767, raided it. But with the coming of peace, much attention was lavished on it, the precinct becoming a vast wooded park and the house itself being expanded. Under Governor Edward, the 2nd Lord Clive, with the designs of engineer John Goldingham, a detached banqueting hall was built in 1801. Today we know of it as Rajaji Hall.

Several governors, their wives and guests recorded their impressions of Government House. Arriving in 1877, Viceroy Lord Lytton recorded that the house was, “a rather ugly one in the centre of a park not very well kept up.” Governor ME Grant-Duff left behind a magnificent account of the place during the height of the monsoon. For all its size, Government House had no spare bedrooms! Guests had to be accommodated in tents till the governor’s guesthouse, The Lodge, was built in the garden.

Thanks to Government House, the part of Mount Road adjoining it became a fashionable downtown locale, with the best hotels, music shops, jewellers, watchmakers and furniture showrooms coming up.

One of these was P Orr & Sons, which probably made this watch, almost certainly a retirement gift for someone on the governor’s staff.

Raj Bhavan at Guindy had been the governor’s weekend home from the 1820s. In 1947, it became the governor’s official residence. Government House on Mount Road accommodated police departments thereafter.

In 2007, it was decided that the new Assembly-cum-Secretariat would be built on the site.

The plan could well have accommodated Government House but for whatever reason, it, along with all other heritage structures in the compound barring Rajaji Hall, was brought down. Watches like this one keep its memory alive. If only time, like this watch, would stand still.

This article appeared under the Hidden Histories column on June 11th 2013