The name has been around for long, in fact so long, that nobody knows how it came about. As is usual, a number of stories with no facts to support them have been bandied around. There is no round tana in fact – all that remains is a statue of Annadurai marking the spot where it stood. But round tana is still spoken of as though it exists. It is one of those enduring lost landmarks of the city.
The Circular Thana on Mount Road
Old records clearly indicate that the name owes its origins to a round or circular police station that stood there. The word Thana is pan-Indian and has existed since Mughal times at least, indicating a police watch post. And the oldest reference to the Round Tana that I have been able to find is in the report of a commission to enquire into postal communications in India dating to 1852. The document suggests several delivery routes in the city for areas ‘far from the General Post Office’. One of these is along ‘Triplicane, Royapettah, St Thome and Adyar beyond the Elphinstone Bridge.’ The first point of call on this route is given as the ‘Circular Tannah’ at the entrance of Triplicane. Now how does this clearly explain that it was indeed a police station that was being referred to?
In 1873, the Government investigated the effectiveness of registration of births and deaths in the city. There were designated registrars who at a salary of Rs 30 per month operated out of their houses, most of which were in the poorer districts of the city and were near impossible to locate. Therefore, it was decided that the office of the registrar would be attached to local police thanas and a list was published. The seventh division of the city had its registrar at the ‘Round Tannah, Mount Road.’ All the names preceding and succeeding this are identified as the respective police tannahs of the respective areas and there is no doubt therefore that the Round Thana was nothing but a police watch post. Bradshaw’s Illustrated Handbook to the Madras Presidency of 1864 also defines a tannah as police station. This clearly gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that a right-angled bend was like the Tamil letter L and so was referred to as tana and so a roundabout became a round tana!
What did the Round Tana police station look like? We sadly have no answer. Most police stations of the time were pyols (platforms outside houses) and therefore exposed places with no protection from the elements. The Government on realising this, ordered in the mid 1800s the erection of 36 teakwood lampposts, each of 8 feet in height and fitted with ten lamps covered with glass globes, each to be near a Thana. That Mount Road police post was an important landmark is made clear from many residents of the area in the 1870s writing their addresses as simply the Round Thana/Tannah, Mount Road. William Hickey the lawyer was one, as was MA Apparow Moodelliar, pioneering ‘cholera doctor, royal Pegu pony merchant and commission agent.’ Being at the southern end of Government Estate, the area was full of saddlers, livery makers, horse merchants and carriage hirers. The famed Burghall’s Stables was just opposite and comprised the area occupied today by Simpsons, The Hindu, the Mail and P Orr &Sons.
The Vizianagaram Fountain
By the 1880s however, the police station at the Round Tana had vanished. It is quite likely that this was the station that was shifted to the entrance of the Chepauk area, where it still stands. The space occupied by the police station at the roundabout had by then been taken over the Maharajah of Vizianagaram’s fountain. In his Narrative of the Celebration of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria (1887), Sir Charles Lawson makes note of the city’s illumination and says ‘the Maharajah of Vizianagaram’s Fountain at the Round Tannah was brilliantly illuminated with a large number of variously coloured lamps.’
In 1910, the long-awaited plan to gift a statue of Lord Ripon to the city bore fruit. Subscribed to by the Indians of Madras and sculpted by Francis Derwent Wood, it was erected fronting the Vizianagaram Fountain and unveiled there by the then Governor Lord Pentland. These were the two monuments then that defined the Round Tana. Sometime in the 1920s, the statue was shifted to front D’Angeli’s Hotel. It moved from there to Ripon Buildings during the Second World War. The fountain ran dry by the 1940s and became a convenient urinal. The ’40-foot square, Indo-Saracenic in style and topped with a dome’ structure was deemed an eyesore by the then Commissioner, JPL Shenoy ICS and ordered to be removed, and re-erected in a park nearby. The latter part of the instruction was never complied with. Shenoy rather ironically erected public latrines on the spot. Beneath these was an air-raid shelter – a necessity during the Second World War.
SK Chettur’s Subway at Round Tana
In 1956, largely at the prodding of SK Chettur, ICS, the Corporation of Madras took up construction of two subways – at Harrington Road and Mount Road. The latter was approved with a Rs 10 lakh plan ‘for the construction of an underground arcade with three subways and an attractive underground shopping centre in the Round Tana in Mount Road. The shops will be situated in the outer periphery of a circle, in the centre of which will be a circular lawn about 50 ft in diameter, which will be completely exposed to the sky. Altogether 20 shops are proposed to be constructed. A six-foot wide arcade will be provided in front of the shops all around adjacent to the pedestrian walk of about ten-foot width leading to the sub-ways. A pedestrian barrier will separate the shopping crowd from the pedestrians, thus eliminating any inconvenience to pedestrian traffic. There will be three sub-ways, leading to the centre, one near the Elphinstone theatre, the second from near the Ellis Road and the third from the entrance to the Government Estates at the beginning of Wallajah Road. Public conveniences are also proposed to be constructed at suitable places as the present ones will have to be demolished. A parking space capable of accommodating around 40 cars will be provided above the shopping centre.’
Construction of the Subway at Round Tana
The actual execution of this project remained pending till well into the 1960s. Time and again questions were raised in the Legislative Assembly about it but to no avail. Eventually, work began in 1965. In an article to commemorate 50 years of the commencement of work on the ‘Round Tana subway’, Deepa Ramakrishnan in The Hindu dated June 16, 2015 writes that a large crowd gathered to watch the work. Traffic was diverted as tunnelling went on and three RCC boxes with arched roofs were pushed in. There were interminable delays chiefly owing to conflict between the many arms of the Corporation which at that time was also in charge of water supply and sewage. The subway was inaugurated by Chief Minister M Bhaktavatsalam in January 1967, in the presence of V Ramiah, Minister for Public Works. Somewhere along the way, the shopping arcade was given the go by.
The Anna Statue at Round Tana
With a new and the first DMK Government in place, there was change afoot. On January 1, 1968, Dr Sir A Ramaswami Mudaliar unveiled a statue of the Chief Minister CN Annadurai at the Round Tana. The car park had to go. A few years later, the roundabout too went, leaving just the Anna statue behind. The area around too changed considerably – gone were New Elphinstone and other such hallowed names. Even Government House does not exist and what was a green lung is a concrete jungle named Omandurar Government Estate. The subway however flourished. Once it was a byname for streetwalkers and a physically challenged beggar who controlled an entire gang of pickpockets. But now all that has changed for the better. The subway is locked up at night and during the day handles 15,000 pedestrians.
Round Tana has not existed for around 150 years but its name has rather incredibly survived. What is more, it has proliferated for there are now 120 round tanas in the city of Chennai as per Corporation records.
This article appeared with some edits in Madras Musings dated March 16, 2023
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