I know how they allotted 14 to Royapettah – I am sure on arriving at Royapuram for 13 someone must have pointed out that alphabetically Royapettah was the closest and so it got 14, no matter that it is several kilometeres to the south and has Mylapore and Triplicane (respectively Chennai 4 and 5 as its neighbours). The area is bound by Mylapore (with Lloyd’s Road/Avvai Shanmugam Salai separating the two) to the south, Triplicane to the east, Mount Road to the north and Gopalapuram to the west. There are a record four POs here, making it the first locality thus far to have so many. These are at Lloyd’s Estate (contrary to its grand name, it is a housing colony with numerous run down buildings), Pudupakkam (the area to the north of Music Academy and up to Lloyd’s Road was once called New Town or Pudupakkam), Royapettah and Triplicane South.
Royapettah is best known for the Royapettah Hospital, begun in the mid 1800s and the place where Sir Ronald Ross began his research on malaria, assisted by Amy Skelland, an Anglo Indian nurse. The old Royapettah hospital is a quaint, Indo-Saracenic structure with a Gothic staircase tower. Today this part, which is separated from the newer wing (made famous as where MGR was admitted after being shot by MR Radha), by Peter’s Road, is better known for the mortuary. The bigger and newer wing of Royapettah Hospital is on Westcott Road, where it neighbours Old Woodlands Hotel, where K Krishna Rao began his hotel chain in the 1930s. Once the Ramnad Raja’s palace, it is now a run-down hotel that till recently provided delicious lunches. Next to it is the Woodlands Theatre. Behind this is the vast Amir Mahal compound, once the Royapettah Police Courts and later modified by RF Chisholm in the 1880s on the lines of Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight and made the residence of the Princes of Arcot. Most people get to see only its entrance arch but deep inside the compound is a grand princely residence where His Highness the Nawab, a jolly and most noble individual, lives.
On the opposite side of the Royapettah Hospital, separated by Westcott Road, are the famed Bata showroom, the YMCA grounds -now made over for Chennai Metro, and Kesari Kuteeram – this last being once the grand residence of Dr KN Kesari, noted Ayurvedic physician and the inventor of Lodhra tonic and the publisher of Gruhalakshmi, a Telugu magazine for women. He was also a noted diarist. Lodhra still flourishes, managed by his grandson but the old bungalow has become high rise, with the factory on the premises moving to the outskirts of the city. Dr Kesari’s great-grandson is the singer P Unnikrishnan.
Behind all these buildings is a vast compound belonging to the church – it spans the entire area from Peter’s Road to White’s Road, ending near the Wesleyan Church, known in old times as the Tana Mada Kovil owing to the Royapettah roundabout that has since shrunk but still has the lovely art deco clock tower dating to the 1940s. In this vast area are several schools – Emma Foulger, the Wesley Higher Secondary, and the Meston College of Education. There are some lovely heritage buildings in this campus though the church itself has undergone some avoidable modernisation. Rather incredibly, this vast swathe of land, has apart from the CSI secretariat, a Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam dharmasala and also a mosque! It has further schools all along Peter’s Road as well.
On the White’s Road side is Government Hobart School for Girls, once a Nawabi palace but now running rapidly to seed. Facing this is enormous Express Avenue Mall, once the first home of the Madras Club and later the Express Estate from where the Indian Express Group of newspapers used to be brought out. Woods, Whites and Patullos Roads surround this huge piece of land. The old Madras Club buildings, a heritage conservationist’s delight, survived till the early 2000s, when the Goenka family decided to develop the place, leaving only historic Hicks Bungalow, the family’s residence. In Patullo’s Road are the offices of Sundaram Finance and next to it and opposite, some historic buildings with some automobile history. This was where Rane Madras began to grow into an industrial conglomerate as also Lucas Indian Service. Goodyear and Dunlop were here too. Forgotten but still surviving is Commercial Credit Corporation, the creation of cricketer-turned financier RE Grant Govan and India’s first hire purchase company.
On White’s Road was once the famous TVS petrol pump, known for its absolute accuracy in measurements and good service. Opposite is the property of KCP Limited, better known today for the successful Wild Garden café that Kiran Rao runs. Towards the Mount Road end you have Satyam Cinema, once the property of the Rajas of Venkatagiri, and known as Osborne House. The Rajas demolished the house to build Royal Theatre which on changing hands became Satyam, as a doffing of the hat to Sathya Sai Baba who was the spiritual preceptor of the Venkatagiri family and had often stayed at old Osborne House. Another theatre – Melody does not exist. Also closed but still standing is Midlands on General Patters Road, begun by AK Ramachandra Iyer but later changing hands and being named Jayaprada. At the tip of General Patters Road was Wellington, another old theatre but now a commercial complex.
Much of Royapettah and neighbouring Gopalapuram had many Andhra zamindaries – Kurupam, Jeypore and Venkatagiri being some. Also somewhere here, in a garden bungalow named Fallowfield, the Barnard Institute of Radiology began, marking Chennai’s long history with cancer cure. It has since moved into the GH campus. Incredible though it may seem, much of GP Road, now a flourishing motor spares market, was once full of garden houses. The best known was Patter’s Gardens, which later was owned by the Lodd Govinddoss family, who still own much of the acreage here, all of it given over to development. Somewhere deep inside is the samadhi of Lodd Govinddoss. The area is also known as Border Thottam, a corruption of Patter Thottam. In the 1930s, such being the silence of the area, that the Congress party and the Music Academy, conducted concerts here. The MA had its seasons of 1936, 1937 and 1938 in Royapettah, the first two on GP Road itself and the last in Woodlands! The MA would eventually buy its land on Royapettah on which its landmark auditorium stands.
The southern end of Royapettah has Lloyd’s Road now renamed after veteran actor Avvai Shanmugam, whose house is still here. A number of actors moved to this area – Sivaji, MGR, SV Sahasranamam to name a few. MGR’s legacy is the ADMK’s party HQ here, which regularly makes life hell for neighbours. Reflective of a more dignified age is neighbouring Hema Malini Kalyana Mandapam, once called Satyagraha and the residence of Justice Somayya of the High Court of Madras. On the rear of the same property is decaying but still functioning Swagath Hotel. This stretch is better known for its line of furniture shops but noteworthy in all that mess is Mani’s Auction House, housed in premises of the Chellammal Gramani Estate – remembering a woman who though illiterate was farsighted enough to donate much of her wealth to the Pachaiyappa’s Trust and therefore to education. Chellammal College commemorates here. She is buried in non-descript slum on Lloyd’s Road close to the beach end. Also there are the Armenian Jewish and Chinese burial grounds. Don’t venture there is my advice. Also on Lloyd’s Road is Lalithapuram, at the end of which is the Indian Bank HQ. All of this was once Lalitha Sadan, the palatial home of a Dubash who was ruined by speculations during WWI. Also vanished is Mauryalaya, the equally large home of Sir T Sadasiva Iyer, judge. The Gaudiya Math, a piece of Bengal in Madras, functions from where the house was. Close by was Pilot Theatre, now awaiting redevelopment and next to it is Pilot Lane, now a walkway but once a channel for piped water. It ends at Kolaikaranpettai, a name that its residents have been forever trying to change. Who was murdered here, if at all, remains a mystery. In the southern end of Royapettah are quiet housing colonies – Jagadambal Colony, Sripuram, and a few others. The area then merges with Mylapore.
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