That Madras or Chennai is an agglomeration of ancient villages is well known. It is now accepted that even Madraspattinam, which the British ostensibly ‘founded’, had existed long before their arrival. This is supported by at least one stone inscription and the grant to the English. However, it was very likely a non-descript hamlet with a fishing harbour – the term pattinam, which means any settlement by the sea cannot be construed to be a big town. In fact the other villages and settlements that Madras eventually absorbed into itself were far more important. This article looks at what the Tevaram, the Pasurams and the Tirupugazh have to say about these localities before they merged into Madras. Let us see how Madras Villages were seen in ancient/medieval poetry.
Mayilai was clearly a large town with a harbour. Sambandar’s Poompavai Pathigam describes men spearing the fish and even today there is a large presence of fishermen on the eastern fringes of Mylapore. Sambandar also speaks of dense groves but they have since vanished though you can get an idea of these from the Theosophical Society on the Adyar. What rings true of Mayilai even now from Sambandar’s works are the busy streets and the temple’s festivals, still following the calendar that he describes. In Sekkizhar’s Periya Puranam, composed 400 years later, Mayilai is a flourishing harbour with bobbing boats sporting tall masts and fluttering flags, elephants arriving as cargo and a flourishing trade in precious stones. Of that there is no sign. Sekkizhar’s description of the festive streets with buildings lining them echo Sambandar. By the time of Arunagirinathar, Mayilai is a well-planned layout with lotus ponds, fields, tall buildings and noted for literature and poetry.
Thiruvallikeni during the time of Peyazhwar emerges as a beautiful beach with the pearls and corals reminding you of sunset. By the time of Tirumazhisai Azhwar the sea is still the primary attraction but now there is a temple to Ranganatha here. When Tirumangai Azhwar visits the place, it is a full-fledged precinct with all the present shrines. Both Tirumazhisai and Tirumangai mention Thiruvallikeni in conjunction with Mayilai, indicating the proximity of the two areas. It was also possibly a tribute to the latter being the birthplace of Peyazhwar.
Thiruvottriyur was sung of by the three great Tevaram hymnodists – Appar, Sambandar and Sundaramurti. In the hands of Appar, the sea is the great presence here. One verse of his composed here compares the shattering of the ego to a shipwreck. Both Appar and Sundaramurti describe the seacoast at Otriyur, replete with conches and pearls deposited by the sea. Farms too make their appearance. Sugarcane is a common motif in both Appar and Sundaramurti’s verses here and the former goes into detail – the fields are full of sugarcane and rice, the latter in standing water. Pattinathar too echoes this description. Cultivation in and around Tiruvottriyur cannot be seen now but around forty years ago this was a common sight. Most houses on the western side of the village backed on to fields.
The contrast between Mayilai and Tiruvottriyur as seen from the verses is striking – the former is urban, the latter pastoral. By the time of Arunagirinathar in the 15th century however, Tiruvottriyur has changed. The sea is still there but now it is a thriving locality full of various subsects of Siva devotees. In the interim between the Nayanmars and Arunagiri, various bequests by Chola and later kings had established many Maths in the streets around the temple, several of which survive in some form even now.
The Vanishing Water at Thiruneermalai and Thiruvanmiyur
What hurts most on reading ancient poetry on the Madras region is the loss of waterbodies. In Tiruneermalai, they are the striking features of the verses of both Budathazhwar and Tirumangai Azhwar. Even today, the presence of the Periya Eri gives the place character. Gone forever is Nagal Keni, which as the name suggests was once a lake. When it rains however, and heavily at that, it is possible to understand why the Azhwars referred to the place as a water-girt hill. Tiruvanmiyur is extolled by Sambandar. His decad beginning with the words Vinda Mamalar is a faithful description of Tiruvanmiyur at least until the 1980s – surrounded by the sea, with plenty of water bodies where fish frolic, dense groves full of bees, green creepers and a temple with high walls. Today only the sea and the temple walls remain from that depiction.
The Lost World of Thiruvalidayam
The area around Villivakkam was known for lakes till the early 20th century. Potable water was purchased from there by the aristocrats of Mylapore. It is no wonder that in his verses on Thiruvalidayam, Sambandar should begin with waterbodies there. He goes on to describe monkeys, jackfruit trees and plenty of flowering plants with bees. That is the Padi of today. That we changed it out of all recognition is entirely to our credit.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 25, 2023 and can be read here – https://www.thehindu.com/society/how-madras-was-described-in-bhakti-poetry/article67208963.ece
My book on Chennai can be ordered here – https://sriramv.com/2021/12/27/how-to-buy-autographed-copies-of-chennai-a-biography-from-outstation/