Beerkaran Street
Beerkaran Street

This week’s story is thanks to two people — heritage enthusiast Sreemathy Mohan and actor/film-historian Mohan Raman, both of whom sent me the image you see. Does Chennai have a street commemorating a beer drinker or brewer, they wondered.

I could find nothing beyond the fact that this thoroughfare, which links Cathedral Road to Teynampet, was known as Beerkarancheri till the 1960s, when the suffix ‘-cheri’ was deemed a pejorative and replaced by road. As to the name I can only hazard a guess — it may have been Pir Khan Cheri, probably named after an Arcot nobleman. Pirkhankaranai is an area near Tambaram and the two may commemorate the same person.

But all that brought to mind some interesting tales regarding the consumption of alcoholic refreshment in old Madras. The early Europeans here indulged chiefly in arrack but over time the place came to be known for its excellent cellar and the range offered at the Company’s table was bewildering: “Mountain Wine, Rhenish, Syder, Galesia, Florence, Hock, Canary, Palm, Brandy, Clarett, Ale, Beer and Shyrash wine” runs a list dating to 1717. It was, however, the Portuguese Madeira of which the British simply could not have enough. This was transported in casks or barrels, which were known as pipes (pronounced peeps) in Portuguese. Over a period of time, the word made its way into local Tamil and any barrel became a ‘peepa’, which in turn came to connote a person with a beer belly!

Arrack, however, never lost its popularity and while in 1713, the Fort consumed “eighty two gallons and three quarters, and six Leaguers of Batavia Arrack,” the honours in 1717, went to Goa arrack of which 410 gallons were drunk. When Augustus Burton came to Madras in 1718, the chief items of his luggage were, “two cases of Brandy, three chests and one cask of beer, five hogsheads, one chest and one small hamper of wine and two chests of ale”.

Such indulgence often led to rash behaviour and death and the advice of seniors was that “the securest way for preserving health after an intemperate draught of any strong liquor, is to keep close after it under some convenient covering, and to digest it by keeping warm and sleeping out the fermentation.” We can still see faithful followers of this sage practice on some footpaths.

The Directors in England were so shocked on coming to know the quantities that were being imbibed that they prohibited the purchase of European liquor, barring for the Governor’s table that received an allowance of two pipes of Madeira a month. But they had not contended with local trade. The firm of Hayward and Rider immediately came into existence for supplying liquor. In later years, the Portuguese appear to have done well out of running taverns and at least two — D’Silva and Lynn Pereira — have streets still commemorating them in Mylapore and San Thome. Our TASMAC clearly comes from a proud pedigree. Cheers!

You may also want to read – Murder in a Madras Tavern

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 14, 2015 under the Hidden Histories column