The Hynmers’ Obelisk in 1939, courtesy Elihu Yale, the American Nabob of Queen’s Square by Hiram Bingham, Dodd Mead & Sons, 1939

Who would imagine that the Yale Monument, so long associated with this city would now be declared as standing in the way of development? And yet that is true. Hynmers’ Obelisk, to give its correct name dates back to the 1680s. It marks the burial spot of Joseph Hynmers, second-in-council, Fort St. George, who died in May 1680. He was buried under this giant piece of masonry, at what was the Guava Garden cemetery of the British. Mrs. Hynmers married Elihu Yale the same year and in 1689, David, the couple’s son died and was buried under the obelisk. 

When that cemetery was declared a security risk in the 1750s, the surviving stones there were relocated to the yard around St Mary’s Church in the Fort. What was left behind was the Hynmers’ Obelisk and also the Powney Vault – a space where several members of that family were buried. The two kept each other company through the times when the surrounding area was the vast esplanade and later when the Law College came to be built on the site.

The Powney Vault vanished without a trace once work began on Metro Rail. This despite it being a ‘protected monument’ under the care of the Archaeological Survey of India! Now the High Court has written to the ASI asking for the space occupied by the Hynmers’ Obelisk. It is part of a two-acre space that the High Court desires for a car park. The ASI will of course, going by past record, willingly give its permission. This would be a travesty of the very mandate of the ASI. The monument deserves to be where it has been for 342 years.

The proposed letter from the building committee of the High Court of Madras to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), asking the latter to consider shifting Hynmers’ Obelisk from its present location at the Law College, has brought into sharp focus the role of the ASI when it comes to protecting monuments that are under its control. Will it stand up to its mandate or simply give in is the question. We sincerely hope it will be the former option. 

The Hynmers’ Obelisk now, hemmed in on all sides

As per the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958, it is forbidden to take up any construction activity within 100 meters in all directions of the limits of a protected monument or site. Given the congestion in most of our metros, historic monuments are fighting a losing battle. The blue board of the ASI offers very little protection. Most ancient monuments have been encroached upon, often with new constructions even sharing a wall or two with them. Entire colonies have come up in historic precincts and the ASI has been toothless in ­implementing its 100 m law. It has most often taken cover under the excuse that the violations have been in place even prior to 1958, which again is not true. At the Hynmers’ Obelisk, even though the High Court is formally seeking removal of the structure owing to the 100m law, it must be pointed out that the hostels of the erstwhile Law College premises practically hem the monument from three sides. And these are not pre-1958 constructions.

The worst violators are of course the private owners and developers whose properties abut heritage precincts. The Government fares marginally better because it at least makes a pretence of seeking permission – thus when Namakkal Kavignar Maligai had to be built, the Government approached the ASI to denotify the buildings at Portuguese Square, Fort St George and the latter gladly did it, to allow for historic structures at the place to be demolished and make way for high rise. In other parts of the Fort, the ASI itself has wilfully neglected buildings under its control and allowed them to collapse. In certain cases, such as the Powney Vault in the Law College campus, the ASI maintains that the structure still exists while reality seems to be otherwise. And then we have the famed battle that is ongoing at Pallavaram where the local property-holders are at loggerheads with the ASI as they have been denied the right to build over Paleolithic burial sites. That other agencies of the Government have been willing to legally register the sale of such properties is another matter altogether! 

The Law College

The Hynmers’ Obelisk may seem a relic of the British Raj but its proposed removal needs to be looked at from a broader perspective. Offering the space for a multi-level car park would mean deep excavations and pile foundations, all of which will only impact the already fragile Law College building, which developed over 200 cracks following Metrorail work, necessitating the shift of the college to a new campus. The High Court has now been offered the college building for its expansion which itself a decision of doubtful merit – a precinct that has been historic as an educational space cannot simply be handed over to become offices of other kinds. What of its great past and the responsibility to continue with the mandate of being a place of learning? It is to be highlighted that it was in the same manner that the erstwhile Madras Medical College campus was handed over to the General Hospital with scant regard as to whether the space can be repurposed for its new use.

The High Court also needs to debate on whether it wants to surround itself with modern high rise – most of our city’s heritage structures have vanished from view owing to such thoughtless construction. Should the High Court, which has of late been setting a trend when it comes to good heritage conservation, now take the opposite route? Most certainly not. To all heritage conservationists in Tamil Nadu the High Court has been the institution of last resort and if the proposed new construction were to go ahead it would be a great let down of cherished values.

Chennai, A Biography by Sriram V

My book on Chennai is published and can be purchased from this link