Today’s Post Office Street

We have thus far in this series been looking at lost/barely surviving landmarks in our city, but what of an entire street that has vanished from the map? That may not be fully correct for Odakkal Street does appear to exist but with a new name and a completely different profile. In its heyday this was a place that at least every sailor on shore leave was familiar with for it was one of the most notorious red light areas of the city.

Odakkal/Odacaul/Odacul/Vodacaul/Wodacaul Street, for these are the various names by which this particular thoroughfare was referred to in city maps, ran west to east, connecting at its eastern end Moore Street to North Beach Road (Rajaji Salai), just north of the General Post Office.

I was first alerted to the colourful past of the place when I read Dr KN Kesari’s delightful memoirs Chinnanati Mucchatlu (translated into English as Life and Times of Dr KN Kesari by Vasantha N Menon) –

“Nellore Brahmins were well known for their water transport business. They also had pearl and coral business. They were sent to Madras Harbour from Bunder Srikakulam, Kakinada and other such places. They had their business near the Beach at Odakkalu Street. Slowly this business stopped and prostitutes began to stay there. They would call out to men as they passed by. The English would stop and ask, “Why do you call me?” This gradually became corrupted to Odakkalu Street. Anyway, no decent person would pass this thoroughfare for obvious reasons.”

Dr Kesari was not entirely correct when it came to the street’s etymology. Odakkalu took its name from Vadikal, which in Tamil means outlet. Henry Davison Love, in Vestiges of Old Madras (1913) is clear as to how the place got such a name. The East India Company decided in 1779 to auction the wasteland it possessed in Black Town. The total area was 664 ‘Lots’ and one among these was along the Vodocaul or Water Channel. Love in a footnote adds, “this channel, now obliterated, ran eastward to the sea. The name is preserved in Odacal Street, which connects Moor Street with Jehangir Street at the north end in the present General Post Office.” Love, the Victorian, does not mention what Odakkalu Street was famous for. Dr Kesari who lived from 1875 to 1953 was describing the place as he remembered from childhood and that was more or less contemporaneous with Love’s time in our city.

That this area was not always a location with such a poor reputation is evident from its past records. The street extends after Moor Street to Kachaleeswarar Agraharam. This was where Kalavai Chetty, the builder of the Kachaleeswarar temple, settled dancing girls attached to the shrine sometime early in the 18th century. While it may be convenient to connect their presence to the later degradation of the area into a set of bordellos, we must also remember that the Devadasis (dancing girls) could never be equated with the harlot. Anyway, by the mid 19th century, the traditional courtesans had all migrated to the western side of Black Town, closer to Peddanaickenpet. That Odakkal Street was then a rather respectable quarter of the town is proven by the fact that Thomas Jarrett (see Jarretts’ Gardens under Lost Landmarks in Madras Musings dated 1st March 2018), that ultra-devout Christian, had his office on Odakkal Street in the early 1800s.

A street directory dating to 1877 clearly connects Katchaleeswaran Temple and Odacul Street. It then helpfully gives details of various lanes and thoroughfares that link with Odacul Street at different places. These include Muthumari Amman, Angappa Naicken, Sembudoss and Thambu Chetty Streets. There is only one thoroughfare that answers this description today and also connects with the GPO and that is Post Office Street. There must have been a strong desire to rename the street and clear it of all its negative connotations and when the GPO came up at the eastern end in the 1880s, it must have provided a convenient excuse.

The rise in the flesh trade here appears to have happened simultaneously with the development of the harbour on which work began in 1875. From then on we have continuous records of the Government monitoring the area. The entire locality was divided among seven ‘gomastas’ who were all selected on the basis of their incorruptible nature and more importantly, being well past their prime. They were entrusted with the task of going around warning the women to get registered with the Government and also subject themselves to regular medical examinations. This did work to an extent and around 700 women were documented but several gomastas had to be dismissed for they had become ‘corrupted’.

A handbill of the 1890s that is quoted in Global Anti-Vice Activism, 1890-1950, Fighting Drinks, Drugs and “Immorality” by Jessica R Pilley, Robert Kramm and Harald Fischer-Tine gives details of the way the place was – you have a picture of dark complexioned women in white saris standing near the thresholds of their houses calling out to passersby to step within. The more prudish people would therefore walk in the middle of the road, unmindful of the carts and other vehicles. If they did step on to the footpaths they were bound to enter into conversation with the “lewd creatures”. From there to ulcerous sores on the body that could only be soothed by margosa leaves was but a step. The area was most dangerous after eleven at night and the total number of women employed in the trade was in excess of five thousand!

By 1914 however, the business had sharply diminished. The Government acquired much of the place for development and the results of that are probably what we see when we walk down Post Office Street today. That of course does not mean Madras became wholly moral overnight. It is just that the trade shifted elsewhere, to Chengam Bazaar on the western side of Town. The term Chengam Sarakku came to mean a woman of easy virtue. By the 1940s however, the trade died out from there as well and dispersed across the city. Certainly, Post Office Street has no vestiges of the time when it was the notorious Odakkal Street.

This article is part of a series on Lost Landmarks of Chennai. The earlier episodes can be read here.