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Vol. XXVIII No. 10, September 1-15, 2018

A 150-year-old book on Madras

From India's Digital Archives - Karthik Bhatt

  • The Digital Library of India (DLI) project, an initiative of the Central Government, aims at digitising significant artistic, literary and scientific works and making them available over the Internet for education and research. Begun in 2000 by the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India and later taken over by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, it has to date scanned nearly 5.5 lakh books, predominantly in Indian languages.
  • The book featured in this issue, The Madrasiana (W.T. Munro, 1868) turns 150 this year. It is an interesting compilation of all things significant in the Madras of its time.

    W.T. Munro was the pseudonym of Rev. William Taylor, a missionary and orientalist who played an important role in the analysis and cataloguing of the Mackenzie Manuscripts in the 1830s. Some of his other works include a memoir of the Amaravati sculptures titled On the Elliot Marbles and A Memoir of the First Centenary of the Earliest Protestant Mission at Madras marking the centenary of the Vepery Mission.

    The Madrasian is divided into four parts. The first contains brief profiles of the churches and chapels in the city while the second deals with the history of public places and monuments such as The Pantheon, The Mint, Banqueting Hall, Brodie’s Castle, the Cenotaph, etc. Part 3 is titled Archaeological Notes and contains Taylor/Munro’s writings on topics of philosophy and theology while the last section is a miscellaneous collection.

    Parts 1 and 2 contain vivid descriptions of the various structures as they stood then and the stories behind their origins. For instance, he writes that the St. George’s Cathedral was constructed as a church primarily for the aristocracy or the “big wigs of Madras” as he called them, as other churches were mostly out of bounds for them, though not officially. The site chosen was suitable, being “as central as possible to the residences of those for whose use it was principally intended”, alluding to the owners of the grand garden houses on the Choultry Plain. He hails its pillars and the portico, which was then a novelty in Madras. Writing of the Luz Church, he alludes to the well-known legend of a light coming to the rescue of Portuguese sailors caught in the rough seas and guiding them to the spot where the church now stands and says that it is the first footing of Christianity in the neighbourhood of Madras. As regards the St. Andrews Kirk, which came up on the site known as “Ellis’s Cutcherry” Munro strangely makes no mention of the unique well foundation, while he dwells long on acoustical issues it was faced with thanks to the steep dome and calls it the “worst in Madras as to the essential point of hearing”!

    Amongst the many interesting descriptions of the various public spaces is that of The Pantheon, which has a history dating to the 1770s, when it was the residence of a civil servant. In the 1790s, it served as the Public Assembly Rooms. It served as the Land Customs house from 1830, when the Government acquired it from the wealthy Armenian merchant ES Moorat, to whom they had sold it in 1821. When the Central Museum was founded in 1851, it made the Pantheon its home and several additions were made to it. “To come at the original building, you have to remove the colonade, or portico, the upper story, and lastly the two sides, leaving only a small lodge on either side; and then the old building will remain which was once called “The Pantheon;” a building by no means handsome in external appearance, but erected more for use than show”, writes Munro. Today, it is virtually impossible to make out the remnants of the old Pantheon.

    By far the most interesting article in Part 3 is the one prophesying the arrival of Veera Bhoga Vasanta Raya, said to be the Kalki Avatar. Munro writes of the Chenna Basaveswara Kala Gnanam by a poet named Chennappa and a few other works, which prophesy the coming of a messiah to restore dharma. This legend seems to have been strong enough to merit a separate writeup on his arrival and characteristics in the Madras Times.

    Two notable articles in Part 4 are the ones dealing with an account of three old Madras newspapers, the Madras Courier, the Madras Gazette and the Government Gazette and one on the Harbour project. Writing about the last, Munro details the challenges of the Madras coast including the constant threats of inundation. He gives instances of encroachments of the sea (such as the drowning of the Bulwark in 1820-22) and hopes that the entire project would receive careful consideration. Seven years from the publication of this book, the foundation stone for the harbour as we know of it today, was laid. Thankfully, it still functions.

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