Where Thanneer Thurai Market once was

In the annals of the High Court of Madras, the contribution of the Vembakkam clan is unique. This is a small village in the Chingleput District and was spelt Vembaucum in pre-independent India. It was from here that a number of legal stalwarts emerged – Sir VC Desikachariar, VC Seshachariar, VV Srinivasa Iyengar, VC Gopalaratnam and so on. Among these, Sir Vembakkam Bhashyam Iyengar, not to be confused with another legal luminary of the same name of later vintage and not knighted, has a statue in the compound of the High Court of Madras.

Born in April 1843 in Madras, Bhashyam, the second son of V Varadachari, Head Sheristadar, District Court, Tirunelveli, was employed in the Registration Department initially and rose to become District Registrar, First Grade. He studied law during his leisure hours and having passed the BL in the first class, enrolled as a Vakil on July 22, 1872. There followed a hugely successful legal career, marked not by brilliant oratory, but “cold logic, subtle reasoning and relevance of statement.”

Bhashyam Iyengar became the first Indian to be appointed the Advocate General, in 1897. He was elevated to the bench in 1901 and was knighted. In 1904 he chose to resign as judge and revert to practice in the same court, which was permitted at that time. The reason cited was that his earnings on the bench were but a fraction of what he made as a lawyer! Subsequently, while arguing a case, he was faced with a judgement of his own that ran counter to his thread. He is said to have famously dismissed it as being ‘obiter’ (said in passing), and so did not matter! He suffered a stroke while arguing in Court on November 16, 1908, and collapsed at the foot of the statue of his friend and colleague Sir T. Muthu-swamy Iyer. He died three days later. The lawyers of the Court volunteered to carry his bier, but the orthodoxy of the times prevented this unique farewell.

Sir V. Bhashyam put his wealth to good use. The family resided in Lakshmi Vilas, a palatial bungalow once owned by M Venkataswami Naidu, the Dubash of Parry & Co. It was where the Kamadhenu Talkies (now Kalyana Mandapam) stands on Luz Church Road. He also bought up much of what was to the east of this expanse, separated from his house by Royapettah High Road. This vast acreage was given the name Vembakkam Gardens. In today’s context its frontage was on Royapettah High Road while the rear extended to Mundagakanni Amman Koil, Nattu Subbaraya Mudali and Kalvi Varu Streets. Here he put up a second family home, named Ambuja Vilas, after his wife Ambujavalli. The house itself spanned thirteen grounds. To the south of this property, on another part of Vembakkam Gardens was the Mylapore Ladies’ Club, set up by family members. This institution would in turn give birth to the Vidya Mandir School, to which Bhashyam Iyengar’s family donated the land.

To the north of Ambuja Vilas was empty land of eight and a half grounds and it was on this that Bhashyam Iyengar planned a market for Mylapore. The spot was conveniently located, between Royapettah High Road on the west and the Buckingham Canal on the east. He therefore built the facility – a series of raised platforms sheltered under sloping Mangalore-tiled roofs. The wholesale commodities arrived by boat via the Canal and so the shops dealing in them were located on the east, while the retail outlets – for fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers – were on the west, facing Royapettah High Road. The transport by water was, however its best feature and so Thanneer Thurai (waterside) market it became. It is interesting to note that at least till the 1970s, the Corporation of Madras recorded it as Bhashyam Iyengar’s Market.

Given its location, the market soon became a great convenience for several of the surrounding areas. Also, as in most such facilities, the immediate vicinity degenerated considerably chiefly due to congestion and the way infrastructure collapsed in Madras from the mid 1960s. By then, the Bhashyam Iyengar family had long relinquished its ownership, the market being sold to a consortium of 18 merchants, all of whom had shops there. They in turn rented out the remaining spaces to others.

The cessation of transport of goods by water in the 1960s marked the beginning of the end for the market. Produce now came by road transport, which meant the blocking of Royapettah High Road or, worse, the narrow lanes to its rear, each time goods were unloaded. With the proliferation of cars and two-wheelers, the market became a byword for traffic hold-ups. But it was still a charming open-air facility, where you could walk around and buy what you wanted. You could also enjoy the sharp wit and repartee that the sellers indulged in, provided you were not at the receiving end! Some of these jokes made it to Ananda Vikatan as well. One of the best-known being:
Buyer: Such exorbitant prices!
Woman vendor: Yes, with the profit I make, I plan to build a bungalow in Mylapore.

Rather incredibly, a real estate developer found the Thanneer Thurai market a suitable place to put up a private residential complex. It is an indication of how in Chennai a spot designated for some purpose can be used for something entirely different, with no thought or worry about the immediate environment. The builder began buying off the owners of the market piecemeal. Some of those who rented the shops went to Court, but to no avail. The takeover began in 2002 or so and was completed by 2008. The market was demolished and a multi-storey residential block stands in its place.

Several of the vendors set up makeshift shops around the compound and, so, the congestion alone has remained – as a memory of Thanneer Thurai Market!

This article is part of a series on lost and surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the earlier stories here.