… and the museum, minus tower

The road that once skirted this landmark still bears the name but of the Pantheon that once dominated this thoroughfare there is not a trace. It is to HD Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras that we turn for a brief history of the property.

Comprising 43 acres originally, it extended from Casamaijor’s Road to Police Commissioner’s Office Road. The land was granted to Hall Plumer, Civil Servant and Contractor, who built a mansion there. By 1789, the building and its surrounding land had been taken over as Public or Assembly Rooms and designated the Pantheon. Plumer was still the owner and it was only in 1793 that the property was acquired from him. The administration of the place, together with the conduct of “amusements for the settlement” was entrusted to a committee of gentlemen and this was a veritable who’s who of the city for it comprised Basil Cochrane, Col Henry Malcolm, Benjamin Sulivan, George Powney, Charles Floyer, Mark Wilks and James Brodie, among others. The entertainments, balls and dinner parties that took place there were the responsibility of a master of ceremonies. “Notwithstanding the great heat of the climate, the Pantheon at Madras exhibits, once a week, a brilliant assemblage of our fair country-women,” exulted the Monthly Magazine in 1807. “They having bravely traversed an immense ocean, cheerfully reside on the sultry shores of Hindostan, to solace our countrymen during their long absence from their native isle. It is really a pleasing sight to behold this lovely group forming.” Being asked to abstain from the Pantheon was the height of social disgrace as happened to Sir Paul Jodrell, physician to the Nawab, and his family, for certain unknown transgressions, as early as in 1789.

The Rev. William Taylor, in his Madrasiana, written in 1889, has some details of how the Pantheon was constructed and its architectural style –

“To account for the origin of the building, it is needful to go back to about the beginning of the present century, when Madras was very Grecian in taste; Grecian couches with chintz covers, printed with uncial Greek letters, Grecian tripods and lampadas; of course, plays also. A considerable number of civilians and officers had been smitten, in early life, with Garrick’s and Kemble’s performances, and were stage-struck themselves. It became necessary to build a theatre, and it was done. A stage manager was commissioned from England; and a Mr Rowbotham was imported in that capacity. By his instructions the roof over the stage was laid with iron grooves, so that a heavy cannon shot being rolled over them produced a mock thunder.”

Taylor, going over the place long after it had been given up as a venue for entertainments, could still trace its original plan – “You would have gone up a few steps into a large oblong hall; going out at the other end, a narrow platform would conduct you to some steps, leading up to another oblong hall, with a room on the south side to which you would descend by steps. This style of construction was for the purpose of a theatre. The entrance hall was for the audience; the broken space was filled in by the orchestra; the hall above was for the stage, green room and manager’s apartment.” Taylor did not think much of the Pantheon’s architecture but conceded that it was built more for use than show.

The Pantheon undoubtedly reached its zenith when Edward, 2nd Lord Clive was Governor of Madras between 1798 and 1803. He was a bon vivant and hosted several balls and suppers at the Pantheon. In the midst of all this, he unwittingly also caused its eventual demise, for he was busy supervising the construction of the Banqueting (now Rajaji) Hall, which he declared open on Jan 1, 1803. With that, gubernatorial patronage of the Pantheon ceased to a great extent.

The traveller Maria Graham, later Lady Callcott, writing in 1818, left behind a brief description of the place, when it was still in its prime – “I was two evenings ago at a public ball in the Pantheon, which contains, besides a ball-room, a very pretty theatre, card-rooms and virandas. During the cold season there are monthly assemblies, with occasional balls all the year, which are very well conducted. The Pantheon is a handsome building; it is used as a freemasons’ lodge of modern masons, among whom almost every man in the army and navy who visits Madras enrols himself.”

It is interesting to note that the Pantheon was made available to Freemasons. That was sometime in 1800, when the Lodge of Perfect Unanimity, today the oldest of the Masonic lodges in Madras, began holdings its meetings there. The monthly rent was 15 pagodas. The Masons held civic receptions here as well, the most noteworthy one being in 1805 when Col Sir Arthur Wellesley, a Mason of Trim Lodge No 494 of the Irish Order was given a grand farewell on his departure to England, where after defeating Napoleon he would become the Duke of Wellington and twice Prime Minister of England. The Pantheon was not devoid of earlier Masonic links, for Dr James Anderson, the famed botanist, had grown mulberry trees in its gardens as well.

But by the 1820s, the Pantheon was no longer what it once was. As early as in 1821, a part of the compound was sold and the central house was acquired by Edward Samuel Moorat, who owned extensive property in the area. A whole set of stellar tenants – Thomas Fiott de Havilland, Thomas Parry and George Arbuthnot- occupied the place. In 1830, Moorat sold the Pantheon for Rs 28,000 to the Government, which set up the Collector’s Cutcherry there. It was known thereafter as the Land Customs House.

By 1850, the Madras Literary Society, housed in the erstwhile premises of the College of Fort St George on College Road (present DPI campus), began hunting for a space for its newly formed museum. It proposed a swap to the Government, wherein the Land Customs Office could move into College House while the Museum could occupy the Pantheon. This was duly agreed to and the shift was made. It is interesting to note that the Masons had already shifted to College House, as early as in 1830. It is very likely that the Literary Society, which was a Masonic hub in many ways, was influenced by this decision.

The burgeoning collection of the Museum necessitated the construction of additional wings at the Pantheon and they successfully hid the original structure. William Taylor in his Madrasiana writes that “to come at the original building you have to remove the colonnade, or portico, the upper storey, and lastly the two sides, leaving only a small lodge on either side; and then the old building will remain which was once called “The Pantheon”.

The Pantheon soon came to be known as the Museum. In the late 1800s, work began on the Connemara Public Library and the Museum Theatre in the same compound, and together with the National Gallery (originally the Victoria Memorial Hall), which came up early in the 20th century, all traces of the Pantheon that once stood here vanished. But to most people it is still Pantheon Road and not EVK Sampath Salai to give it its post-independence name. Memories in Madras do not fade all that easily.

This article is part of a series on lost, forgotten and barely surviving landmarks of the city. You can read the earlier instalments here