When I consider that I have to write on this area today, my hands tremble. I am weighed down by a sense of inadequacy. Tiruvottriyur’s history extends so much back in time. Today it is a forgotten backwater, a civic nightmare, and a locality populated by the financially not-so-advantaged, with several massive industrial establishments fronting it. But back in time, it was a great centre of spirituality, and learning. Tiruvottriyur, though not a large postal district has as many as five POs in it – Kaladipet, Shanmugapuram, Tirvottriyur, Tiruvottriyur West and Tondiarpet Railway Colony. It is bound by Kasimedu to the south, Ennore to the north and Manali to the west. I have been several times to Tiruvottriyur and yet I come away with the feeling that there is far more to it than can ever been understood. It is one of my favourite localities. By the way, I know the area is spelt Tiruvottiyur now, but the Tevaram speaks of it only as Tiruvottriyur and I will keep it that way. The name itself comes from the town being exempt from taxes to the State – the money was diverted to the temple. It was thus removed (Ottri Vaikkappattadu) from State revenue and so became the sacred (Tiru) kept aside (Ottri) town (Ur). This in Sanskrit became Adhi (Exception) Puri (town) and gave rise to the legend that this is Adi Puri – the first place in creation. 

It was in 1986 while I was doing my engineering training at the Best & Crompton Dynamo and Starter Factory in Tondiarpet that I first came to know of the Tiruvottriyur temple. I remember going to visit it after factory hours and I was mesmerised. During the two months I was undergoing training I went to the temple several times. I did not then know of the Tevaram or the Tiruvachakam or anything about the Tyagesa cult. But there was a magnetic pull – the beautiful pavilion where Siva-Tyagesa is enshrined, the lovely gajaprshta vimana beneath with the strangely shaped linga of Adipuriswara or Padampakkanathar is housed, the unique Lakulisa idol and of course, exquisite Vadivudaimmai/Tripurasundari. And what about Vattaparai Amman and her somewhat scary history? Even then it would send shivers down my spine. In later years I came to know that the same attraction had brought several giants to this temple – the Tevara Moovar, Manikkavachakar, (probably) Adi Sankara, Pattinathar, Arunagirinathar, Ghanam Krishna Iyer, Tyagaraja, (probably) Muthuswami Dikshitar, Ramalinga Swamigal, Tiger Varadachariar and so many others. What power would I then have to resist such a pull? To me, just to live in the same city as Tiruvottriyur is enough, apart from being within calling distance of Kapali, Karpagam and Venkatakrishnan of course. I will not dwell here on the history of the temple. Suffice it to say that it is a unique shrine with a continuous record of worship from the times of the Pallavas. Its sanctum was constructed by Rajendra Chola I and then the temple has been added to over the years. Though now a precinct with many very ugly sub shrines, the temple has much beauty to be still admired. And walking around the Mada Streets you pick up a lot more history. 

Close by the seashore is the Pattinathar Samadhi. Celebrated in Nagarathar legend, he is very much the patron saint of Tiruvottriyur. At one time his resting spot was a gambler’s den but it has been maintained very well in the last decade or so. The Nagarathars have a large choultry here as well, part of which doubles up for funerals. I had gone to one and after a while my feet ached so much that I found a convenient bench and sat on it. There was a deathly silence and suddenly all eyes were turned towards me. Mohan Raman, who was also there rushed up to me and hissed,” Get off that at once. Can’t you see that is meant for the body? Don’t tell me you did not see the depression for resting the head!” I hurriedly scrambled off and have not been there since. 

South of Tiruvottriyur is Kaladipettai – in reality Collettpet, named after 18th century Governor Joseph Collett who set up a weavers’ village here. Jandrayar (named after the Janrawar caste of weavers) Street commemorates this. At the centre of Collettpet is the lovely little Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple, built by Collett for his egyb or writer – Veeraraghava Brahminy. The temple here led to many of the Arya Vaisyas of Madras making Collettpet their summer home, full as it was of trees. Here came the Calavala and Chimata families. They became patrons of KV Srinivasa Iyengar (scholar and pioneering music publisher) and his brothers ‘Tiger’ Varadachariar and ‘Puliodarai’ Krishnamachariar. The last-named would compose several songs on Kalyana Varadaraja with the mudra Padmapuri Varada. In a radio talk, Tiger has dwelt on how Collettpet was a cultural hub. Now it is a shabby little colony. Apart from these greats we have Tiruvottriyur Tyagier, the eminent composer who was the son of Veena Kuppaiyyar, a disciple of Tyagaraja. 

Industries came early to Tiruvottriyur. WIMCO (Western India Match Company) Nagar commemorates the beginnings in the 1920s. That plant, now owned by ITC and famous for its Home-Lite and Ship brands of matches was set up with Swedish collaboration. Then came the Tondiarpet Railway Yard and following it, Massey & Co, which was into heavy machinery. Thereafter in 1940, the first true industry came here. The Murugappa Group had begun making tubular furniture under the name of Ajax and when they decided to foray into abrasives, the same brand name was used. A vast shed was imported from Rangoon and the plant began in Tiruvottriyur. It later became a part of the Group’s Carborundum Universal. Ajax Subway Road even now commemorates that brand. Another early settler here was the V Ramakrishna promoted KCP Limited. KCP Road leads to that plant. Also present here is MRF’s first factory. Royal Enfield is a name here as well. Begun by the family of KR Sundaram Iyer as Enfield Motors, it has since changed hands, but the brand remains iconic. ITC has had its printing and packaging division since the 1950s here. Not standing any longer is the Best and Crompton Dynamo and Starter factory I trained in. When I last drove by the place, I could not even make out where the plant had once been. 

Toll Gate was a magical word in the 1980s – that was where trucks lined up. I don’t hear that name so often either. And there was a cinema here that specialised in reruns. I have forgotten its name. Maharani? Odeon Mani? Manickam? No idea.