Wondering as to how I can look at Chennai from a different angle, I suddenly hit upon the postal codes. I then realised how little I knew about many of them. And so, this Madras Month, I plan to write on the first 31 postal districts of the city. As I go about the exercise, I am sure I will learn a lot more about the city and hope to share the same with all of you. So here goes –
Contrary to what we would have expected, Fort St George is not Chennai 600001 – it ranks a lowly 9 and the pride of place goes to good old George Town, or at least a part of it. The area roughly encompasses First Line Beach/Rajaji Salai, Old Jail Road, Mint Street and a part of NSC Bose Road. The presence of the GPO on First Line Beach/Rajaji Salai must have been the reason. In case you have never been to the GPO, let me assure you that you have missed much. A wonderful creation of RF Chisholm, the GPO is a perfect example today of how a heritage building ought NOT to be maintained. The decline began years ago but sometime in the 1990s, the employees cooperative decided to store firecrackers in the structure just prior to Dipavali. The Great Fire, which comes to all heritage structures, swept in that night and much of the beautiful interior was gutted. It had been restored in a horrible manner and the exterior left to seed, but it is still a functional building.
First Line Beach is where the great British business houses of Madras once operated from. Parry is the only one that flourishes. Gone are Best, Arbuthnot’s, Beardsell, Gordon Woodroffe, the Mail and several others. Of note are still several heritage buildings here, notably the State Bank of India building (another fire-ravaged structure), the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court, the Harbour Police Station and the Government Stationery Depot. Facing the road is the vast expanse of the harbour, which also has the second of the 600001 post offices. As is well known the city did not have a harbour till 1875 when work began on one, being completed only in the early 1900s. The bombing by The Emden in 1914 notwithstanding, the harbour flourished, as did the city because of it. During the Second World War, the Madras harbour was the British Empire’s lifeline and transformed the city forever as a consequence.
The Flower Bazaar PO comes next in this zone and that very name brings to mind several markets that once operated from here and are still remembered in name – Kothwal Chavadi, Mat Bazaar and Rattan Bazaar. Much of the streets behind the Flower Bazaar PO are still wholesale markets for various items though shopping here can be a daunting prospect. Fronting Flower Bazaar is the statue of King George V installed in 1914. His continued survival there is something of a mystery – by day he stands guard over the vehicles parked there and at night his base is a place for the spirited. His pedestal is a urinal at all times of the day.
Behind Flower Bazaar is a warren of streets, most taking their names from prominent dubashes (translators) and officials of the East India Company. An intriguingly named area here is Mannady, which is also where the fourth post office stands. Mannady is said to take its name from the fact that the land here was developed following the flattening of a mound known as Hoggs Hill or Narimedu near the Central Station. The sand from the mound was brought to the depression that was once Mannady and the level raised. As sand (mann in Tamil) was rammed (adi in Tamil), the area got its name.
At the northern extreme of George Town stands post office number five of this area – taking its name from the Stanley Medical College and Hospital. Known locally even today as the Kanji Thotti hospital it takes its name ostensibly from a gruel kitchen that was set up here each time a famine struck Madras, which was often in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Monegar Choultry, named after an unknown headman or Maniyakkarar, is next door and functions as a home for the destitute, whose bodies following death is handed over for research to the hospital. Beginning in 1799 as the Madras Native Infirmary and Leper Asylum, the hospital got its present name from Sir George Stanley, Governor of Madras in the 1930s. It is a centre for excellence in plastic surgery of the hand in particular, this having been pioneered by Dr R Venkataswami.
The Mint PO comes next at number six. The mint, having operated at various places including Fort St George and Chintadripet, moved to the northern end of what was Washer’s Street early in the 19th century. It is no longer a mint but is instead home to the Government Printing Press, but the road leading to it became Mint Street. This long thoroughfare is a veritable Tower of Babel – it has Gujaratis, Marwaris, Telugu Chetties and Naidus, and Tamil Mudaliars. Not far from here is the seventh PO – Sowcarpet – taking its name from the sahukars or moneylenders who at one time even funded the East India Company!
Chennai 600001 is all chaos and confusion, but it is a heritage buff’s delight – tiny temples, churches and mosques, narrow streets, houses in various stages of collapse, shops that spill on to the streets, unending traffic jams, food of all kinds, non-existent infrastructure, and above all, history in every brick. Architecturally, it has everything from the Classical, Indo Saracenic, Bombay Gothic, Art Deco, Modernist and the new world Ugly. You will also see some quaint houses going back to the 18th century, with inscriptions recording donations to temples on their doorsteps.
Much of what goes on elsewhere in Chennai had its birth in Chennai 600001. Incidentally, there is a Post Office Street here, but it has no post office in it.