Just as we jumped over ten kilometres between Chennai 13 and Chennai 14, we need to perform another leap to reach Chennai 15 – Saidapet. This is an area that I have always wanted to study in detail but have never managed to. My account here is definitely going to be superficial (haha, as though the others were not). But first the bounds – Saidapet has West Mambalam and T Nagar to its north, Kotturpuram and Guindy to the east and south east, St Thomas Mount to the south and Nandambakkam to the west. The district is largely to the north of the Adyar but it extends to one wedge in the south and that is Little Mount. There are two POs in Saidapet – Guindy North and Saidapet.
This is a very historic locality. Saidapet has a past that is largely unconnected with Chennai city and has more to do with Chengalpattu District, which given the number of waterbodies in it was always considered an important agricultural belt by successive kingdoms. Under the Nawabs, the area was designated a jaghir (revenue district). For various reasons, Chengalpattu town declined as a capital of the district and Saidapet came to be preferred. The area takes its name from the third Nawab of the Carnatic, Saadatullah Khan, who before he took that title given to him by Aurangzeb, was known as Mohammed Syed. The locality, also known as Syedabad, was developed by him and a mosque bearing his name still exists there. Over time, Saidapet developed into the biggest town in the district and was made over to the British along with the rest of Chengalpattu in 1769. In 1859 it was assigned the status of district headquarters. The post of Collector of Chengalpattu became an important one and in keeping with that status, an impressive Collectorate was built by the side of the Adyar River at a place known as Home’s Gardens. A beautiful Indo-Saracenic edifice it was demolished in the 1990s and gloriously ugly Panagal Building stands in its place. Another structure was the Chengalpattu District Court located near Guindy (now the Saidapet District Magistrate’s Court and happily restored). In 1949, Adyar, Guindy, Saidapet, West Mambalam and Kodambakkam were added to the city. With that Chengalpattu went back to being district HQ of that eponymous district and Saidapet lost all importance, being relegated to a suburb of Madras. But it still carries some vestiges of past glory.
The first bridge over the river Adyar connecting Saidapet with St Thomas Mount was built by the Armenian merchant Coja Petrus Uscan in 1726. It was to enable pilgrims to the latter site cross over with ease. Known as the Marmalong Bridge (the name said to have been a corruption of Mambalam) it later came to be replaced by the much broader Maraimalai Adigal Bridge. commemorating the Tamil scholar and the founder of the Pure Tamil Movement. Coja Petrus’ bridge is remembered by way of a stone plaque by the side of the present bridge, which records his munificence in three languages – Latin, Armenian and Persian.
Chengalpattu appears to have later been a favoured location of British ‘Free Merchants’, that is those who did business outside of the East India Company’s control. One among these was Adrian Fourbeck, who in his will had decreed that a bridge over a small canal in the area be built. The bridge constructed in 1786 and the canal over which it flowed have vanished but the pillar commemorating the structure still stands, with inscriptions in four languages – English, Persian, Latin and Tamil.
Being outside Chennai and yet not far from it, the Chengalpattu District became the location for some interesting experiments. The first was the creation of a Nopalry – a place where the Nopal cactus was cultivated. This was the brainchild of Dr James Anderson, the Physician General of the East India Company. In the 18th century, Spain enjoyed monopoly over crimson dye, produced from cochineal insects in Mexico. Anderson discovered the same insects in Madras and decided to rear them here as an alternative to Spain. In his view, the weather of coastal South India being more or less similar to Mexico, the insect would thrive. The Government was encouraging and land was allotted in Saidapet. The insect was known to feed on a cactus known as the nopal and this was specially imported from Philippines, China, South Africa and England. The Nopalry was set up on a two-acre plot in Saidapet in 1791 and entrusted to Anderson’s nephew Dr Andrew Berry. It was the first ever botanical garden in the country. However, the rearing of the cochineal was not a success and when in 1809 a cyclone destroyed the nopalry, it was closed and the surviving plants were shipped to Lal Bagh in Bangalore.
More successful was the Government Experimental Farm, also set up in Saidapet. This came up on two vast parcels of land known as the Roshanbagh and Home’s Garden Estates. The idea had been that of William Robertson and Charles Benson, both Government servants and the farm was founded in 1865. Apart from developing new agricultural practices, the 300-acre farm also had a high-school level agricultural teaching facility. This became a college in 1876, India’s first in agriculture and continued operating at the same place till 1906. By then, the land under cultivation had been steadily brought down by the Government. The college would have been closed had there not been an inspired decision to shift it to 500 acres in Coimbatore in 1906, where it became the Agricultural College and Research Institute (becoming, in 1971, the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University). The 300-acre space that the Government Farm once occupied in Saidapet is even now known in official records as Government Farm Village though most parts of it were taken away to form the colony of Theyagaroya Nagar (T Nagar) in Chennai city in the 1920s!
Another educational institution that operated from Saidapet was the Teacher’s Training College, founded in 1887. It had begun life at Vepery in Chennai but in 1887 was allotted part of the Government Farm land and moved in there. It continues to operate from the same campus and is now known as the Institute of Advanced Study in Education (Government College for Men). The campus, which ought to have been a heritage precinct, suffers from neglect, its oldest block that had students such as the Rt. Hon. VS Srinivasa Sastry now a ruin. Metro Rail also took away some other heritage structures from this institution not that anyone there seemed so bothered about the loss.
The Karaneeswarar Temple is at the heart of Saidapet. My guess is that this was set up for the weaver community that was settled here in the 18th century. Of late, there have been great efforts to endow this shrine with an antiquity it does not possess. Another temple is that of Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal which as per Wikipedia dates to the 15th century but ‘has elements going back a thousand years’. I don’t think this can be right. The Little Mount is associated with the legend of St Thomas, the apostle, which if true means it dates to the 1st century AD. I am a bit of a doubting Thomas on all legends religious – no matter what religion. But there are numerous temples in Saidapet, each with a street named after it. It just speaks of the village-like origins of the place. Bazaar Street was where the market was. There is also a Kothwal Chavadi here and there are Chetty Street and Brahmin Street though we have a caste ban on street names (only in this and not in anything else) in Tamil Nadu. Much of the land along the Adyar in Saidapet was once where the washermen laundered the clothes, beating them on stones along the banks and hanging them out to dry on the riverbed. This was a familiar sight till the 1980s. Dhobhikhana and Salavaikarar Streets commemorate this community. The southern part of Saidapet, starting off from Five Lights, is all new – there are streets named after freedom fighters and political leaders. VGP Road, remembers VG Panneerdas, the man who began the retail and real estate revolutions in the city and who had his offices in Saidapet. Also here are precincts such as Customs Colony and Central Excise Colony, remembering when government officers got together to buy land in the city.
Jones Road, an important thoroughfare of Saidapet, commemorates JR Jones of the Madras Corporation, who first came up with the idea of piped water from Red Hills. Jones Tower there commemorates the same man. Janakiram Chetty Street commemorates a Mayor of Madras of the 1930s or 1940s. He came from the once powerful Gopathi clan, of which GN Chetty was also one. Todhunter (now Thaadandar) Nagar honours Sir Charles Todhunter, ICS, Chief Secretary Madras in the 1920s. Panpet commemorates EGR Fane, a 19th century Collector of Saidapet. I am still trying to find out who Jeenis of Jeenis Road fame was.
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