The Buckingham Canal lock, attributed to the Cooum
The Buckingham Canal lock, attributed to the Cooum

There is a romantic notion that has recently gained ground that the Cooum was clean under the British and used for navigation. With the Government embarking on yet another project to clean the Cooum, this time at a cost of Rs 3833 Crores, this is a good time to look back at how the river was, when the British ruled over us.

When was the Cooum last clean and with water flowing in it? Sources are vague and there is a tale of Conjeevaram Pacchayappa Mudaliar bathing in it in the 1780s or thereabouts. Komaleeswaranpet, where he lived, was then the aristocratic Indian quarter because of its closeness to the river. A street even now commemorates Pacchayappa by name here though it is now sadly truncated to CPM Street, as though remembering a political party. The Komaleeswarar temple on the riverbank has a tradition of a coracle festival wherein flowers for the deity’s worship were brought by water on a particular day each year. On the opposite bank is Chintadripet, the weavers’ colony set up in the 1730s. The area was low-lying and the river flooded the periphery with regularity. There are records of the embankment being raised frequently and Dams Road, which runs parallel to the stream probably commemorates this.

By the early 19th century however the river was drying up. In 1815, the sand bar blocking its exit into the sea, near Flagstaff House, was dredged and opened up. This had a terrible side effect – the arrival of a large number of deadly sea snakes upstream, resulting in 18 deaths within the next two months. With the bar closing up once again, the only water in the river was thanks to sewage. By then, the river was referred to as the Cloaca Maxima, comparing it to the principal drain of ancient Rome. A paper in 1861 noted that the sewers at Vepery and Triplicane had discharged so much solid waste over the years that the river was by then sloping backwards!

By the 1870s it was a “foul and noisome cesspool” receiving more drainage. “The neglected and unwholesome state of the Cooum is a reproach to the city of Madras,” thundered a Sanitary Commissioners’ report dated 1871. The same document ended on a note of hope – plans are afoot it noted, for the diversion of sewage from the river, the cleaning up of the banks and the deepening of the riverbed. Meanwhile, work began on the Buckingham Canal. It joined the Cooum behind the University. The canal was operated through a system of locks. The last one can still be seen behind the Madras University and is often mistakenly shown as proof that the Cooum was navigable!

A report tabled in the House of Commons in 1883 claimed that the clean up of the Cooum was a success. “In another year or two,” it declared, “the Cooum will be free of all sewage”. We are talking the same language 143 years later!

This article appeared in The Hindu dated May 10, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column