And now, the bard, having sung of Chennai 1 to 12, takes up his lyre and sings of Chennai 600013, namely Royapuram. This is a thin but extremely historic and important stretch, that extends along the coast, with George Town to its south and Kasimedu to the north. To the west is Washermanpet. There is just one PO here. 

Central to Royapuram is St Peter’s Church and there has been a persistent legend that has of late become fact –that Royapuram takes its name from the Tamil for St Peter – Royappar. But this does not hold water as far as chronology is concerned. The East India Company records, (HD Love), mention this village as early as in 1742. It was only in 1799 that the community of boatmen known as Gurukula Vamsa or Varunakula Mudalis, who were all Christians and operating from Chepauk, moved to Royapuram, when their erstwhile settlement was requisitioned by the Government (ref Edgar Thurston). They obtained permission to build St Peter’s (he was the patron saint of fishermen) and began construction only in the late 1820s. So Royapuram as a name remains a conundrum like so many place names in Chennai. WhatsApp University of course differs. The church was an impressive castellated structure that in recent times of prosperity has acquired a set of terrible pediments and crosses. Another famous church here is dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows (Mater Dolorosa) – it began in 1905 in premises occupied earlier by St Peter’s School. Mother Teresa’s Little Sisters of the Poor too has a presence in the area. 

Royapuram has a number of streets whose names are as mysterious as the place itself. Who for instance is Mannarswami and where is his temple? MS Koil Street neatly bisects Royapuram longitudinally. Where is Kal Mandapam and why are there so many Kal Mandapam Road variants here? Some people say it denotes the Kasimedu cemetery, but I am not so sure. Then we have GM Pettai, which I finally found out is Ghous Mohideen Pettai (I initially thought it was Gal Mandapam Pettai) but I don’t know if this is the same man who was a Legislator in the early years of Indian independence. 

Though the British eyed Royapuram even in the 1740s, it remained an obscure village up north until 1853 when the Madras Railway Company decided to build its terminus here. That decision itself had much to do with the Madras Chamber of Commerce dictating that it wanted the station to be close to where the offices of its members were (First Line Beach ends in Royapuram) and the harbour. Much of the work was done by George Barclay Bruce and by 1856 the tracks were ready up to Arcot. The MRC had a grand inauguration from Royapuram, and from then on, till the 1870s, this was the principal station for Madras. Central gained prominence only from 1875. In its time, the Royapuram station has played host to Governors, Viceroys and British Royalty. Devadasis have danced here. Now the station is a mere shell, and the railways were all for demolishing what is India’s oldest surviving station, but the courts intervened. The station survives, after a fashion. Far worse is the condition of the MRC office – a brooding Victorian edifice. Last seen, it had practically collapsed. 

Royapuram has many schools – of all religions and denominations, but the best known are Northwick’s (1847), St Kevins (1905), St Peter’s (1938), St Mary’s (1969) and St Annes. Schools may be many here but there is only one tuck shop – Kunhiraman’s, which has been around for ages and still flourishes in this era of Swiggy, Zomato and other horrors. There was a Persian Bakery here as well at one time. But gone is the Mater Dolorosa Parish Club and all that it stood for – Anglo Indian glory. The presence of the railways meant the community migrated to this area and for long Royapuram was synonymous with dancing, music (particularly jazz) and great Christmas celebrations. The cakes were legendary. Today much of that colour has vanished. 

Royapuram is built around a square that has four Madha Church Streets on the sides. Among these, West Madha Church Road is the most interesting for it has apart from St Annes and the Mater Dolorosa Churches, the Jamia Masjid and the Parsi Fire Temple! This community, which has had an association with Chennai since the 1800s, obtained permission to build a fire temple here and it was thanks to the generosity of the Clubwallah family that it became reality early in the 1900s. There is also a Parsi community hall and a colony for the elderly. Parsis here are buried as there is no Tower of Silence. 

The harbour transformed Royapuram in more ways than one. While it brought prosperity, it also destroyed the fabric. The eastern face of Royapuram got increasingly cut off from the sea as the harbour expanded and today all you can see from the area is one continuous high wall behind which are enormous oil tanks positioned by the Chennai Container Terminal. The Naval Coast Battery is at the northern end. Begun as Madras Volunteer Guards in 1857, this became the Coast Battery in 1941. The premises has some awesome concrete bunkers and warehouses. That reminds me of the old pillbox – a second world war bunker that stood abandoned by Royapuram for years. It was to be demolished when Chennai Petroleum Corporation wanted to lay a pipeline through it. But then, The Hindu, with the initiative by Ramya Kannan and Deepa Ramakrishnan ran an article in which yours truly also helped and presto, the pillbox was saved. It still stands. 

The western end of Royapuram abuts Stanley Medical Hospital (see Chennai 600001). Separated from it by the vast Anna Park is the Raja Sir Savalai Ramaswami Mudaliar Lying In Hospital – the maternity home for the area built by the famed Dubash in the 1870s. Also famous is the MV Diabetes Centre, which began in Royapuram. Anna Park itself was once Sir William Rose Robinson Park, named after a police chief of the 1870s who also officiated as Governor. It was here that Anna announced the formation of the DMK in 1948 and so it was named after him in 1969. Check out the lampposts here – they are genuine antiques. 

To the south of Royapuram, just where the flyover takes you back to Rajaji Salai was the Biden Home for Sailors, set up in the 1850s. The space is now a park to which the only access is jumping off the flyover – its gates are forever locked. The flyover itself, though a necessity, is a monstrosity. It cuts off all access to the area just below it. And if you are not watchful, you can go round and round, without ever getting to the correct exit. By its side once were some grand old railway bungalows and warehouses – all of these are gone. Royapuram in many ways is a sad reminder of a more gracious way of life that is lost. This is best illustrated by the number of emails I get from Anglo Indians settled in various parts of the world asking for information on street names, houses and burial records in Royapuram. Looking for roots is a tough and often depressing activity. 

To the north of Royapuram is Kasimedu, known for its fishing harbour, that came up in 1968. Nobody has been able to explain to me why there is a tall obelisk at the entrance. This is a place full of colourful boats and is abuzz with activity twice a day – at dawn and again at dusk. Cassimode, as it was known in colonial times, was where structural fabrication of steel tanks for storing oil was done in the 1930s. To its west is the Kasimedu cemetery, accessed through a colonial gatehouse. 

I end this episode with one question – does anyone remember a temple tower half submerged in the sea and buffeted by waves, that used to feature in the signature reel before regional news on old DD? That was at Kasimedu. What happened to it? Please enlighten me. And what was it? 

You can read about Chennai 600012 here

You can read about Chennai 600014 here