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Vol. XXVII No. 10, September 1-15, 2017

From agraharam-s to self immolations

by S. Anwar

Sriniviasa Theater

Padmapriya Baskaran (left) in front of the Srinivasa Theatre,
West Mambalam. (Pictures courtesy: Jothivel Moorthy.)

I didn’t realise West Mam- balam had such a colourful history. But then the past comes alive when you hear it from someone who has grown up in the area and is so passionate about history like Padmapriya Baskaran, a blogger and heritage enthusiast and, most importantly, a neighbourhood girl who has spent most of her life in this self-contained and conservative neighbourhood.

If T’Nagar is crowded, to me West Mambalam is congested, barring a few stretches and it is with great difficulty that you negotiate your way. So I had never before really bothered to look at it in a historical sense, though I was aware of the fact that Mambalam existed much before Theyagaroya Nagar was born in the early 20th Century.


At the Kothandaramar temple in West Mambalam

The Madras Week walk through West Mamblam began at the Kothandaramar temple, near the Madley subway. The Kothandaramar temple was built by Adi Narayana Dasa, a descendant of Gopanna, popularly known as Bhaktha Ramadas, who was a revenue collector under the Golconda ruler Abul Hasan Tana Sha. A great devotee of Rama, he is supposed to have used the state money collected for the construction of the temple at Bhadrachalam and hence was imprisoned for misusing state funds. As legend goes, he was finally released when Lord Rama and Lakshmana appeared in the guise of traders and paid the due amount in gold to the Sultan.


right: the statue of Vankayala Kuppaiah Chetty

The Kothandaramar temple, built on the model of the temple at Bhadrachalam, was later renovated by Vankayala Kuppaiah Chetty, a rich businessman, who apparently was being slowly poisoned by his own relatives. Vankayala Kuppaiah Chetty stands with folded hands frozen as a sculpture right in front of the sanctum sanctorum. The street adjacent to the Kasi Viswanathar temple is also named after him, though the name has been truncated just to Kuppaiah.

The next stop from the temple was the school run by the Ahobila Math, one of the three schools in Chennai city that follows the Oriental method of teaching. The Ahobila Math Oriental School was started in 1953. Co-educational, the children still wear traditional attire to school. Past the agraharam, where the tiled houses are giving way to multi-storey buildings, we stopped at the Srinivasa Theatre. Built in 1963 by Devanathan, right in the heart of a city which is going the expensive multiplex way, the highest priced ticket at this theatre even today is Rs 130 and lowest is Rs 7. You get to see the latest releases too and all in DTS sound!

Moving past the Haridass madam, also known as Bajanai mandapam, we reached our next halt, the Kasi Viswanathar temple. Padmapriya said as a water source was one of the main reasons for any army in those days to make its camp, it was around the Long Tank (that has now disappeared to emerge as T’ Nagar) that the Vijayanagara army had camped. The commander of the Vijayanagara army was keen on a pilgrimage to the holy temple of Viswanatha at Kasi (Varanasi), but as he could not make it to Kasi, he decided to build the temple right on the banks of the Long Tank and hence it is known as the Kasi Viswanathar temple. The temple, believed to have been built about 400 years ago, was in a very dilapidated condition, but was renovated just a few years ago, recounts Padmapriya.

A little further from the temple stands the Thandu Thulukkanathamman Koil, which in itself seems to convey that it should have been a deity worshipped by the camping army, as thandu means the camping ground of an army, explained Priya.

The gohshala adjoining the Kanchi Mutt was started about 30 years ago with three cows and today has a little more than a hundred cows. Every Friday, devotees assemble for the Goh pooja which is telecast live. The milk from the gohshala is distributed to schools nearby free of cost.

The last stop was of course the Public Health Centre, a medical facility started as a small thatched hut which has now emerged as a full-fledged hospital with 150 beds and a cardiology section. We also passed by the deity Elliamma, which is one of the seven frontier deities of the erstwhile Mambalam village. The Telugu inscription nearby stands testimony to the village having been a Reddy Zamindari village.

During the course of the walk, Padmapriya kept adding details about other important landmarks in West Mambalam which we couldn’t cover. Arya Gowda Road has been named after Arya Gowda, a Badaga leader with political affiliations to the Justice Party. He is supposed to have donated vast tracts of land in the West Mambalam area when the Justice party was trying to create new settlements. Two of the subways that connect T’ Nagar to West Mambalam are named after men who self-immolated themselves during the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965. The Duraisamy Subway, according to Corporation records, is actually the Dheeran Sivalingam Subway, pointed out Padmapriya. On the night of January 25, 1965, Sivalingam, who was just 21 years old, and working with the Corporation of Madras, committed self-immolation, protesting against the imposition of Hindi. As he lived in Viswanathapuram, adjacent to the railway gate, which gave way to the subway in the late 1960’s, it was named after him.

Aranganathan who went to pay his last respects to Sivalingam apparently decided to follow him and committed self-immolation the morning, recalls Priya. In a matter of 24 hours, seven people took their lives protesting against the imposition of Hindi and this gave jitters to the ruling Congress Party.

The walk, restricted by time, covered only a small part of Mambalam, we realised when it ended only too soon. A longer walk is what Padmapriya should plan, when she can bring many more stories alive with her passion.

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