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Vol. XXIX No. 24, April 1-15, 2020

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

Lost LandmarksThe entrance to what was once the Deorhi of Mahfuz Khan.

When Arcot nobility lived in Black Town

The name Mahfuz Khan Deorhi (Devadi in local parlance) does not strike a bell any longer.

It is now known as Mofuzkhan Garden Street, in George Town. That such a place existed first came to my notice from En Suyacharitai (My Autobiography) of Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar, written in 1963. The book begins with the childhood of his father Pammal Vijayaranga Mudaliar, wherein the son writes that Pammal Sr first studied in a school that was located in Mahfuz Khan Deorhi, which was in reality a large garden, with the residence of Mahfuz Khan in it.

Now where was this precinct? Sambanda Mudaliar very helpfully gives all the details – it was on one side of Acharappan Street in George Town, which is where the ancestral home of the Pammal family was and still is. Between Vijayaranga Mudaliar and his son Sambandam, there was continuous occupation of that house from at least 1830 to 1964, which must be a record of sorts. But let us get back to the story of Mahfuz Khan Deorhi.

“My father while young studied in a wayside school located in Mahfuz Khan Deorhi and he later related to me a funny incident that happened then. This was on one side of the street where I live now and it was a garden in the 1830s. It was customary for Mahfuz Khan, the owner, to come once in a while to this garden, travelling this distance in a palanquin. Once when he was crossing the school, the students made a huge clamour and he stopped to enquire. The teacher, on being summoned by this aristocratic personage became nervous and said that the boys were excited on seeing him and hence cheering. The delighted noble immediately ordered that the boys should be given the day off. The students therefore made it a practice of cheering loudly whenever Mahfuz Khan came that way.”

Now this must have been in the 1830s or 1840s, when Pammal Sr. was a young boy. However, there are records of such a garden house being in existence from the 1760s at least thereby tracing the origins of this property to an earlier Mahfuz Khan, eldest son of Anwaruddin, the Nawab of the Carnatic between 1744 and 1749. Nowadays Mahfuz Khan is chiefly remembered for the grossly over-exaggerated Battle of Adyar where he suffered defeat at the hands of the French. It is often said that this was the one confrontation that decisively established the superiority of the European army, whose sepoys were disciplined enough to vanquish a huge force under Mahfuz Khan. The numbers quoted are usually 300 under the French versus 10,000 under Mahfuz Khan, the battle happening near Quibble Island in San Thomé. Reality it appears was not so simple.

The diaries of the dubash Ananda Ranga Pillai depict this to be a mere skirmish. Moreover, there appears to be a conflict on dates as well. H.D. Love has it that the battle happened on October 24, 1746 at San Thomé. It is interesting to note however that in Ananda Ranga Pillai’s diaries, there is no mention of an encounter on that date. And it would not be correct to assume that there was a time lag in receipt of letters at Pondicherry. In fact, even on October 29th, Dupleix in Pondicherry received M D’Espremenil who was stationed in Madras and there is no mention of such a momentous victory if it indeed was so great.
The actual confrontation as per Ranga Pillai was on November 2nd 1746.

The description tallies with that of Love but most interestingly, it would appear that the French were no less disorganized than the Arcot troops. There was complete miscommunication between their commandants who were dispersed at various places – the Fort, the Egmore Redoubt, the Company Gardens and near the Nungambakkam tank. They had been instructed to be on the defensive and not attack and so had loaded most guns with just powder and no shot. But when the water supply to the fort was cut, M La Tour who was near the Captains Gardens had to act. He ordered fire and on hearing this, the various French units across the city assumed battle had begun and fired too. This caused panic in the Arcot army and Mahfuz Khan fled from near the Nungambakkam tank where he had camped. There is no mention of any battle near the Adyar. What is even more interesting is that after such a so-called momentous defeat, Madame Jean Dupleix felt it necessary to send rich gifts to Mahfuz Khan. Clearly, the latter remained a force to reckon with.

Being the elder son of Nawab Anwaruddin it was expected that Mahfuz Khan would succeed him but was not to be. It was the younger, Mohammed Ali, who became the Nawab of the Carnatic, after many battles quite well known, in 1755. The victorious British made Mahfuz Khan the renter of Madurai, on the condition that he paid an annual tribute of fifteen lakhs, to be divided between them and the Nawab. Of course, the usual history repeated itself –he came into conflict with the palayakkarars and with Yusuf Khan, the commandant of Madurai who is even now commemorated in Kansamettu (Khan Sahib Mettu) Street in that town. After many rebellions and with the English wanting him out, Mahfuz Khan eventually settled in Madras in 1759, and lived probably in Mahfuz Khan Deorhi.

He appears to have been of a restless spirit. A year later, he was petitioning his brother Mohammed Ali (Nawab Wallajah) for Rs 100,000 to fund his pilgrimage to Mecca. This was given, along with an escort, on his signing a bond. A few days later he was back; he had used up much of the money in settling his creditors and so could he have Rs 5,000 more? Wallajah gave him double that and saw him off. Having gone up to Chittoor he however returned. In 1767, he entered into treaty with Hyder Ali and went off to Madurai. The furious British had him captured and brought back. He was entrusted to Wallajah who kept him prisoner, but well provided for, till his death. This again was probably at the Deorhi.

There is a brief description of what H.D. Love claims is the house of Mahfuz Khan, dating to 1765. This is by Jemima Kindersley wife of a captain in the EIC’s army – “A short distance from the town is a small elegant house and garden where the Nabob of Arcot sometimes resides; the heat of the climate admits of an open, airy stile of building which is pleasing to the eye; a roof supported with pillars is more elegant than a wall with windows and doors; besides the rooms being unencumbered with chimnies makes it more easy to lay them out in uniformity…” (spellings as in original).

Love bases his assumption that this is Mahfuz Khan’s house on the fact that the Chepauk Palace was yet to be built. But let us not forget that by 1765, the Nawab of Arcot was in residence in Madras too, most likely at Deorhi Sardar ul Mulk Dilawar Jung Bahadur, which is present day Devadi Street in Mylapore. This could well be a description of that house, which too has vanished.

There is no record of when Mahfuz Khan died but the noble that Pammal Sr saw was probably a descendant. Now for another interesting connect that George Town has with Arcot nobility – Buddi Street, which is parallel to Mahfuz Khan Deorhi. This was once Budda Sahib Street and probably takes its name from Bade Sahib aka Zain-ul-Abdinone of the brothers of Chanda Sahib and therefore a nephew of Nawab Anwaruddin. He had requested the EIC to provide for a town house in Madras for his family en route their pilgrimage to Mecca. This was probably where they lived. Bade Sahib’s wife, who was a resident of Pondicherry, he having left her there for safety during the Maratha siege of Trichy in the 1740s, is frequently mentioned by Ananda Ranga Pillai. There are conflicting accounts about Bade Sahib’s end – most state that he was killed by the Marathas in 1741 and they sent his body with due honours to Chanda Sahib who was holed up in Trichy, berating him for sacrificing so brave a man. The news of his death was duly conveyed to his wife in Pondicherry and there was widespread mourning. Two days later, news arrived that he was only seriously injured. But he fades from history thereafter.

Both Mahfuz Khan Garden and Budda Sahib Streets end at the Madrasa-e-Islamia, which is very likely the place where the original DeorhiMahfuz Khan was. Acharappan Street too ends there. The school, most likely a successor to where Pammal Sr studied, even now has its address as MK Garden – in Chennai everything can be reduced to two, or at most three, initials.

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