It would have broken Mylapore’s heart of Triplicane or Thiruvallikeni had gotten ahead of it in the postal codes. I have no doubt that some smart(ha) must have pointed out to the postal authorities that even in the Divyaprabandhams of the Alwars, Thiruvallikeni is always preceded by Mylapore. And for once, the smartha must have won against the Vaishnavas. The postal authorities saw logic and gave Triplicane the code 5. In contours, this is a narrow rectangular district, beginning just north of Lighthouse and proceeding northwards till the Island. Royapettah and Mount Road bound it on the west. The Buckingham Canal cuts its longitudinally and on its banks are Old Firewood and New Firewood Bankshall Streets, memories of another day. The area has three POs – Triplicane, Chepauk and Madras University. The last-named is the one where you went to get postal orders (remember that horror?) when you wanted to get admission into the Univ and had to pay. The Univ does not handle cash. Such is its squeaky-clean reputation. 

Much of the Marina falls under this postal zone and this is where we have on the eastern front the memorials and the statues, all of which except Gandhi and the Triumph of Labour, are not works of art. They commemorate scholars and one character (Kannagi) from Tamil literature. They were all put up during the 1968 World Tamil Conference. There is besides a rather diminutive statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose who however is not so tiny as the one in the Maidan, Kolkata. It is alleged that Mrs Gandhi, driving by in that city, asked as to who the little man was. But even these statues are works of art when compared to the stone fountain replete with snakes and birds, all of stone, that stands next to the Labour statue. You also have the Marina swimming pool here, and once we had an aquarium as well, the country’s first.

Opposite these statues is what was once the Nawab’s Artillery Park. In the place of the Nawab’s Marine Pavilion stands the University. It comprises the Senate House built by Chisholm, the Diamond Jubilee buildings and the Centenary building, all beautifully in harmony with each other. Not so nice is the University Centenary Auditorium. Designed specially for convocations, it is now used for all kinds of programmes, and has the most awful seating arrangements and acoustics – it was never meant for such events. If there was to be a Chisholm corner anywhere in this world, this part of Triplicane would be it, for we have within one kilometre and a little more, several of his creations – the Indo-Saracenic Senate House, the Italianate Presidency College, the Scottish Baronial PWD Buildings and the tower he built to unite the two wings of Chepauk Palace, Humayun and Khalas Mahals. 

Coming to Chepauk Palace, you will be hard put to find it today. It is said that the British hated it and built the PWD buildings to hide it from the sea so that first-time visitors could not see it as they sailed in. We did a much better job – we surrounded Chepauk Palace with a whole lot of buildings of doubtful merit and ensured that it got lost forever. Then we neglected it so that it collapsed and what was left caught fire. And then we are restoring it now, but behind all those ugly structures. However, it is still there, the palace the Nawab built in the 1760s – India’s first British-built Indo-Saracenic structure. How the Nawab lost it, and all his kingdom is a story for another day. Besides these structures you also have on this side of the beach, the University Examination Hall, the Govt. Oriental Manuscripts Library, the Lady Willingdon Institute of Advanced Study in Education (whose magnificent art deco front is in danger of being lost, like Chepauk Palace behind some new construction), the Lady Wenlock Park for purdah women and now used for scouts, the Presidency cricket ground maintained by Simpson & Co and Queen Mary’s College, eyed by Jayalalithaa for the new secretariat cum assembly. This side has its statues too – a horrible one of Swami Sivananda, a lovely set of three of V Krishnaswami Iyer, Sir S Subramania Iyer and Gopalakrishna Gokhale, one of Dr Sir A Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, one of Annie Besant and one of U Ve Swaminatha Iyer, which is inside Presidency College.

There is a sad tendency these days to coat bronze statues with gilt and a magnificent statue of Swami Vivekananda has turned that horrible colour. It also acquired an unnecessary turban in the process. By its side is Ice House, commemorating the time in the 1840s when ice came by ship to Madras from the USA. This building was where Swami Vivekananda stayed for a few days in the 1890s and after serving as a Brahmin widow’s home in the 1920s under the leadership of ‘Sister’ RS Subbalakshmi, it was abandoned. In the 1990s, the Government made it over to the RK Math, which now calls it Vivekanandar Illam and maintains a museum there. 

Behind all of these is Triplicane, with its narrow streets and its numerous Vaishnavite and Madhva mutts, bhajana mandirams and ‘bungalows’ of the Lord. The last named is a unique feature – these are seasonal homes to which the deities of the Parthasarathy Temple are brought during festive occasions. Central to Triplicane is my favourite shrine – the temple to Lord Vishnu as Venkatakrishnan. Celebrated by three Alwars, its sanctums were all in place by the 8th century when Thirumangai Alwar visited. Since then, it expanded and today reflects a lot of Vijayanagar and Company-era influence. Thanks to this temple, Triplicane became a cultural and religious hub, a reputation it still enjoys. During the freedom struggle, it was also a nationalist centre, with many freedom fighters such as S Satyamurti and Vai Mu Kothainayaki Ammal emerging from here. It was also the birthplace of Dravidian politics for Dr C Natesa Mudaliar, the founder of the Justice Party was from here. Triplicane was therefore always ahead in thought – no matter that Mylapore thought otherwise. It has had numerous literary associations, study groups and forums for free thinking. The Hindu itself was the result of one such body. And TV Sundaram Iyengar became an entrepreneur after attending a lecture in Triplicane by Eardely Norton where he extolled the youth of India to quit the clerical mindset. And Triplicane had its musicians and sabhas.

Triplicane is also home to Chepauk stadium – that piece of green that is one of the centres of international cricket. Begun by the Madras Cricket Club in the 1840s, it is today home to both the MCC and the TNCA. In the middle is the MA Chidambaram Stadium, commemorating the man who single-handedly ensured that the structure was built, often extending personal guarantees when loans were needed. The TNCA was not so rich then. 

Triplicane was always home to the middle and the lower-middle class – among its numerous residents was Srinivasa Ramanujan while a clerk at the Port Trust, and his wife Janaki lived here till the end of her life. Subramania Bharathi, commemorated by way of a memorial was another. The area always has had a sizeable population of Hindus and Muslims living together. Here is magnificent Big Mosque and there are several other smaller mosques. Triplicane is in many ways a microcosm of that secular fabric that stretches across Chennai. There are many schools here, with the Hindu High School on Big Street being perhaps the oldest. We also have Kellett’s and several other schools, some of them community based. The country’s only handwritten Urdu newspaper comes from here.

Ratna Café is extolled by many, especially for its sambar. That is not a sentiment I endorse. There is also a Sydoji Mess on Sydoji Street that is praiseworthy according to those who have eaten there. I still think that the Chakkarai Pongal at the Parthasarathy Temple is the best. I am not sure how many of you have seen a movie at Star Theatre. I have, and it is an eminently forgettable experience, damn the heritage. The theatre is no longer functional. 

Triplicane has a lot more built heritage still surviving in it as compared to Mylapore. In this, it may be second only to George Town. It remains one of my favourite localities. And I love Venkatakrishnan – He of the big moustache and impressive presence with Rukmini by His side.