I am strongly convinced that the postal authorities allotted codes by drawing the names of the places from a hat. There is just no sequence that emerges. Thus, after Chennai 600001 was given to George Town, Chennai 600002 was allotted to a part of Mount Road/Anna Salai and its surroundings. There are three post offices in this district – the Anna Salai head post office which is where Taylor’s Yard once was (all right I am showing off), the Chintadripet PO and the Madras Electric Supply PO, which is where the TNEB is now, in a place called TNEB Awanu (at least that is what the signboard says, my guess is that it should be Avenue), where the Army Clothing Board once was.
This postal district begins just south of Island Grounds and proceeds along Anna Salai, encompassing Chintadripet, Pudupet and has as its eastern bound General Patters Road. It ends close to the Express Avenue Mall. The much-abused Cooum is an important part of this stretch and actually defines the topography – the peninsula of Chintadripet and Pudupet/Komaleeswaranpet nestling in its bend. As Anna Salai/Mount Road is an important part of this area, we may as well begin there. In the 18th century it was largely the Great Choultry Plain, taking its name from the Uthandi Choultry that stood where Whites Road intersects Mount Road. It became important as a thoroughfare as it connected Fort St George to St Thomas Mount (and hence the name) where the garrison was housed. Troops had to move quickly and so it grew rapidly, acquiring its present size by 1799 when Thomas Fiott de Havilland drew up its contours. Havilland himself lived at Eastern and Western Castlets, where Addisons and Rayala Towers now stand, and that was where he plotted the two churches – St George’s Cathedral and St Andrew’s Kirk – that he built.
Earlier to all of this was Chintadripet, meant as a village for weavers. It was all once Sunkurama Chetty’s garden and Governor George Morton Pitt diddled him out of it, laying it out as Chinna Tari Pettah – the small village of looms in the 1730s. Chintadripet was developed by two dubashes, Vennala Audiappa Chetty and Chinntambi. It was the city’s first planned locality and forbade segregated housing on the basis of caste – how advanced can that be! Central to it is the twin temple to Adikesava and Adipuriswara – old Audiappa immortalised himself though he went bankrupt developing the locality. Even today, Chintadripet retains much of its old plan – a fish bone pattern with a spine from which streets radiate to the river. The Zion Church is here, with memories of Miron Winslow, who wrote one of the earliest Tamil -English dictionaries. Probably because of its caste-free housing, Chintadripet in the early 20th century became home to the Dalit movement. Iyotheedas Panditar lived here and brought out his magazines that did much to bring awareness about caste inequalities.
On the other side of the Cooum river is Komaleeswaranpet – once an aristocratic quarter where worthies such as Swami Naick and Pachayappa Mudaliar lived. Also here is the small but exquisite temple to Siva as Komaleeswara. Close by is Pudupet, the underbelly of the region, home also to a thriving grey market for auto spares. Its exact counter is on the opposite side of Mount Road – General Patters Road where we have the organised auto spares market. Both owe their origins to Mount Road, or at least this part of it, this being the first automotive retail district of the city. Beginning from 1903 or so, and with Addisons, a whole host of companies began retailing automobiles, with upmarket showrooms on both sides of the road. Addisons, Simpsons, George Oakes (all three to become Amalgamations), the Rane Group, the Ucal Group, the MCtM Group – everyone had their origins in car showrooms here. And so a grey market and a spares market would come up just behind. Much later, TVS would reinforce the auto connect of the area.
If First Line Beach was home to the companies that made up the Madras Chamber of Commerce, Mount Road was home to companies that comprised the Madras Trades Association – a body that unlike the MCCI has died a quiet death. In its heyday it had members such as Addisons, Simpsons, WE Smith (whose Kardyll turned Bharat Insurance Building is a sad ruin now), Spencers (alas burnt and now replaced by a fast-emptying mall), Higginbothams (keep going you old dear), Connemara and P Orr & Sons. Musee Musicals is a survivor from those days, playing home to the Madras Musical Association, another old-timer. Members of the MCCI and the MTA most cordially detested each other but all were united on two counts – building a harbour and making a go of the Madras Club, which functioned where Express Avenue Mall now is. Since then, there have been other clubs here such as the Cosmopolitan and the Suguna Vilasa Sabha. The Hindu, The Mail, Swadesamitran and The Indian Express, all operated from Mount Road along with Ananda Vikatan. Today most newspaper printing has moved elsewhere and the Swadesamitran and The Mail have folded up.
With so many industrial establishments here, it is no wonder that Chintadripet and Pudupet became the hub of trade unionism. Napier’s Park nearby commemorates in its present name the fact that M Singaravelar observed May Day for the first time in India in 1923, in Chennai. Pumping Station Road next to it reminds us of something else – that most parks of the old city were kept going by sewage – much of our waste was then biodegradable.
This was also once the entertainment hub – beginning with names such as the Lyric and Elphinstone and moving on in my time to Paragon, Plaza, Globe, Anand, Little Anand, Devi (and all her babies), Safire (and other precious stones), Alankar, Gaiety, Chitra, Casino, Wellington and so many others. It is ironic that almost all have gone, but the first Mount Road theatre, the Electric, still survives as the Philatelic Bureau.
Some built heritage still survives – the Amalgamation properties are all there, as is P Orr & Sons. State Bank of India’s Mount Road office is a wonderful building. But the Madrasa e Azam has collapsed owing to sheer neglect. And we have LIC as an example of the modern. There is also VTI, as is the Poompuhar building which is where the Department of Industries, India’s first, began.
Of eateries there were plenty here, with Buhari’s perhaps being the sole survivor.
Few of us have ventured into the streets that branch off Anna Salai, with the possible exception of Ritchie Street, the electronics market. For that matter, I doubt if the millennials even know Mount Road. There was a time when walking along it, window-shopping, gazing at cinema posters, pausing at the doors of showrooms and offices to get a whiff of air-conditioning and snacking at the eateries was all part of the Mount Road experience. Now the emphasis is only on ensuring that we drive past it as quickly as possible. It could have been Chennai’s Oxford Street. That it became just another arterial road is a tragedy.
Read Chennai 600003 here