I did mention earlier that the postal authorities must have randomly allotted postal codes, did I not? Well here you have the proof – after 600001 being given to much of George Town and then 600002 to the northern half of Mount Road, they suddenly jumped back to Park Town and gave it Chennai 600003. It is almost as though after they had completed the formalities with Chennai 2 and were relaxing with cups of tea someone brought to their notice that there was vast bit of city in between 1 and 2. Chennai 600003, for the record, comprises the southern end of George Town known as Edapalayam, the entire Island Grounds and Park Town. It therefore is a huge heritage quarter.
There are as many as four post offices here, as compared to three on Mount Road. It must have been done in a fit of contrition for overlooking the area while numbering. The POs are Edapalayam, Madras Medical College, Park Town and Ripon Buildings.
Let us start with Edapalayam – the area of shepherds. Today there is not a blade of grass here but in earlier times this being just south of George Town, must have been pastural space. Of the various gates of the old Town Wall, Chuckler’s Gate opened here and commemorates the communities of Chaklis, who were Dalits and hence outside the caste system, living just outside the wall. The southern end of Mint Street falls in this area and from here connects to Central Station. Two important temples – the Kandaswami Shrine at Rasappa Chetty Street and the Chinna Kadai Mariamman Temple are here. The former was immortalised by Ramalinga Swamigal in song and he also discoursed there.
WallTax Road, whose name has been explained several times before to merit repetition here, roughly cuts this postal district into two halves. This was where once stood WallTax theatre a popular venue for performances and where allegedly, as per High Court records, MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar and NS Krishnan plotted the murder of Lakshmikantham. There is no sign of the theatre. Also not in existence but remembered in name is Elephant Gate, which was yet another of the entrances to the walled town. Also not to be seen anywhere is any vestige of Nari Medu or Hoggs Hill, which spanned much of where the Park Town PO, MMC and Central Station, etc are. Remembered in street name even now is John Pereira’s Garden, which gave the area the name Jambura Thottam.
Mint Street, Rattan Bazaar Road and Sydenhams (Raja Muthiah) Road, all run north to south and end on Poonamallee High (Periyar EVR) Road. And between them in my view, runs the most beautiful stretch of colonial heritage buildings in our city. You have on the southern side, the Madras Medical College structures and thereafter the General Hospital. The former has been here since the 1830s but the latter, hold your breath, since the 1770s! Across the Stanley Viaduct you had the old Central Jail, which has since become the new MMC campus. In between you also have the Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Choultry and Siddique Serai. On the northern side are the Lady Hope Nursing Students Hostel, the Southern Railway offices, Central Station, (sadly no Moore Market), VP Hall and Ripon Buildings.
Behind the buildings on the northern side looms the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, which was constructed in the 1950s as the Corporation Stadium and played host to test matches when the Madras (later TN) Cricket Association and the Madras Cricket Club were not on speaking terms with each other. Done up in the 1990s when the SAF games were hosted in the city, it still remains a premier venue for events as witnessed during the high-profile Chess Olympiad inauguration which was held in the indoor stadium here. All of this, as also the buildings referred to earlier, came up on what was once People’s Park – a vast expanse of green that Governor Sir Charles Trevelyan envisaged for the city in the 1850s. It also gave the area the name Park Town. A veritable lung with several ponds, a swimming bath and much else, including a health facility in the 1940s known as Ashok Vihar, it has almost vanished, leaving behind only a small but exquisitely maintained park – My Ladye’s Garden. This is the Mayor’s garden and in more gracious times it has hosted many a public reception at the Corporation’s initiative. Flower shows here were famous too, at one time. The film Missiamma has a song set here. At one time People’s Park hosted the zoo as well, which was India’s oldest, founded in 1850s. It was shifted to Vandalur in the 1980s where it is a great attraction. There was a lovely lily pond in the zoo where boating was permitted – my mom has taken me there when I was six. A song from the film Kakkum Karangal is the only visual record of the zoo and the pond. What we have today is a supremely ugly Lily Pond Complex, meant to house the dispossessed shops of burnt-out Moore Market. It has since served as a makeshift magistrate’s court as well, as many shopkeepers refused to move in. A part of the area has also been occupied by an open-air flea market and a shanty colony. Hidden somewhere behind all of this is probably the Ashley Biggs Institute building, where the Southern Railway Club used to host boxing championships. It cannot be seen any longer. Its one-time occupant, the South Indian Athletic Association, which once hosted the enormously popular Park Town Fair, is also defunct. Also vanished from sight is the Buckingham Canal at this point – it used to flow with a broad bridge connecting the Central Station to VP Hall on it. Now there is no trace of it! The song Azhagiya Mithilai Nagarinile from the film Annai shows this stretch in all its glory.
The Metro has transformed this landscape yet again, with the coming up of Central Square, a vast intermodal hub. The heritage buildings are all lit up at night and there is a pedestrian walkway from which you can take it all the sights. But soon to mar the view is a planned mega multistorey Central Plaza building.
Just west of GH runs Stanley overbridge, once a viaduct. It connects the Park Town area to the Island, formed by a cut in the 1700s to equal the levels of the Elambore (now part of Buckingham Canal) and Cooum Rivers. The Island was once a military base for the EIC and still has large chunks occupied by the Indian army. The Munro statue is right in its midst, with the Gymkhana Club behind on army land. Also here are cemeteries belonging to the St Mary’s Church in the Fort, the St Andrew’s Kirk and the Armenian Church, all of them threatened by squatters. Hidden somewhere behind all this is St Mary’s Bridge, which my friend DH Rao tried his best to locate. Several bridges connect the Island to Chennai, the most graceful one being Periyar, once Government House and later Willingdon Bridge
The Island was where the Governor’s Bodyguard was once housed, at a time when Governors went about in horse carriages with an escort. The men, largely recruited from Vellore and Arcot, put up a shrine to Muneeswaran, which became known as Bodyguard Muneeswaran Temple. The Governor’s bodyguard has since vanished, its vast barracks taken over by the MTC bus shed. But Bodyguard Muneeswaran became a protector from accidents, in keeping with his name. Chennai takes its new vehicles to this temple and offers worship as a supernatural insurance policy. Not so well known is the Governor’s Bodyguard Mosque, just behind! Island Grounds today is best known for its exhibitions.
Read Chennai 600002 here
Read Chennai 600004 here