This is an area that is just west of Park Town (Chennai 600003). It has just one PO, at Vepery but there are in reality, two clear-cut areas that constitute this postal code – Periamet, and Vepery. This an area with some amazing history, which can never be condensed into a thousand words.
Periamet probably as it names suggests, was a piece of high ground, keeping company to Hoggs Hill/Narimedu. It is today best known for its dense concentration of skins and hides merchants, for this area, for reasons unknown, has been a leather hub since long. As per HD Love, the area was known to the British as the Great Metta. In the late 1600s, Podala Lingappa, Seer Lascar of the Nawabs of Arcot, decided that he could arm twist the British by building a massive stone warehouse here, of dimensions 100 feet on each side. All goods into Madras by the land route had to be deposited here and permitted to move into the city only when the Company paid him duties. But before it was completed Lingappa was dead, and the British negotiated with the Havaldar of Poonamallee and bought it up as a useful defence location at 60 pagodas – it was said even then that the market value was 20 times as much! By the early 1800s it would seem that this area had become home to Muslim skin and leather merchants for the Periamet Mosque, now much modernised, was first constructed in 1838. By the early 1900s, the Southern India (now All India) Skin and Hides Merchants and Tanners Association had grown into a powerful body. By the 1950s, the guidance provided by the CLRI and Dr Y Nayudamma would take the Madras leather industry to great heights, one that it still enjoys. Periamet played an important role in all of this.
Rather aptly, the Madras Veterinary College, the founding constituent of the Tamil Nadu University for Animal and Veterinary Sciences functions close by. The MVC, first in India, began in 1903 in Dobbin Hall, which stood here. A year later, the present Indo-Saracenic structure was designed by Henry Irwin and constructed by Masilamani Mudaliar. The college came here because the SPCA was just opposite. Its Madras branch was founded in 1880/81, and was given a lovely building to operate from in 1898 by Raja Venugopala Bahadur of Bobbili.
Just behind these animal welfare organisations is Avadhanam Paupiah Road, commemorating the late 18th/early 19th century Dubash who came to grief over forged Nawabi bonds and dragged down several respected names of Madras such as Thomas Parry. He is commemorated as the villain in Sir Walter Scott’s The Surgeon’s Daughter. This road borders Choolai, the old brick-kiln area that supplied all the bricks for much of the city’s Indo-Saracenic wonders.
Vepery is a world apart from that of that Periamet. It was the Anglo-Indian stronghold that over the years saw the incursion of a significant number of North Indians. Taking its name supposedly from a lake surrounded by neem trees, this isolated spot was selected for his personal chapel by Coja Petrus Uscan, the 18thcentury Armenian who is still remembered for his acts of kindness in the city. He was buried in his chapel, though his heart was taken as per his wishes to his native Julfa and buried there. The British later acquired the chapel and this became St Mathias’ Church, which still is central to Vepery. The Christian association with Vepery grew over the years. The city’s oldest printing facility, the Christian Literature Society (CLS) Press, was founded here in 1761, the society itself having come into existence in 1716. The Press, later the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge Press and now renamed the CLS Press, functions in a small way. Close by are numerous churches and schools. The oldest is St Paul’s, which began as the Malabar Charity School in 1716! But better known perhaps is Doveton-Corrie, which traces its origins to the first Anglo-Indian school, set up in 1784. And many of the men of God, several from the Lutheran Mission at Halle, are remembered in Vepery in road names – Rottler, Breithaupt, Grundler and Hunter. Some are buried in St Mathias, whose yard has a fabulous array of funerary monuments. Also commemorated, in a park fronting the church is Kaivar Raghavendra Rao, who played an important role in controlling the Spanish influenza in the city and became Director of Public Health, Madras.
As was to be expected, the leather industry of Periamet flowed over into Vepery. The Leather Export Promotion Council functioned from beautiful Marble Hall, which it later demolished to make way for drab modernity. Still surviving is a lovely but decrepit Nurses’ Association Building. Another heritage property is the vast campus of the PT Lee Chengalvaraya Naicker Polytechnic – South India’s first, and made possible due to the munificence of a Dubash.
Ritherdon Road and Naval Hospital Road bound Vepery and end at Poonamallee High Road. Between them, they enclose a few vast properties. The first was owned by P Venkatachellum, the family that made Indian condiments famous all across the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Remembered here by way of road name (this was earlier Atkinson’s Road) is Jothi Venkatachellum, the daughter-in-law of the family who was a minister in Rajaji’s 1952 Government and later Governor of Kerala. The property has since changed hands. Next, we have the YWCA – occupying land that it is said was once home to Robert or Edward Clive. Father and son seem to have been very restless people given the number of places we claim they lived in, in Madras. In between these is the Police Commissioner’s Office, which is now a high rise but was earlier a beautiful bungalow occupied by the Traffic Police. Fronting it was a park, courtesy Burmah Shell, where children could bring toy cars and learn traffic signs. That has vanished to make way for a plain park but given the atrocious driving in our city, maybe the park ought to come back. By the side of this property is the office of the Dina Thanthi – it occupies the space that was once the tram shed. Just behind this is Periyar Thidal, which commemorates Periyar EV Ramaswami, the man who brought self-respect to millions of the oppressed. From an overwhelming presence of God, to someone who questioned His existence, Vepery is quite a journey.
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