Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 8, August 1-15, 2017

125-year-old home of a 155-year-old Court

High court

Excerpts from a talk given by N.L. Rajah, Senior Advocate, at a function organised by the Madras Bar Association on 12.7.17 to “celebrate the 125th anniversary of this epic building”.

Why must we celebrate this building? I would say for four main reasons. First, the unique architecture of the building; second, its role as a witness to some momentous events in this country’s history; third, its status as the edifice in which some of the greatest cases of the Indian legal history have been decided; and, lastly, as the monument which has nurtured the development of some towering stalwarts who have contributed immensely to the public life of this country of ours.

The building

Our building is of Indo-Saracenic architectural style. It was inaugurated on July 12, 1892. Three other buildings that came up around that time, the High Courts of Bombay, Calcutta and Allahabad, followed the Western Gothic style of architecture reminiscent of the castles, churches and cathedrals of Europe.

‘Indo’ in Indo-Saracenic-refers to the Hindu type of architecture and ‘Saracen’ to the Muslim form, Saracen being a name the British gave to Muslims. But, its execution did not stop with merely integrating just these two forms of architecture, it went on to integrate the stained glass panels, typical of Christian places of worship, and Moroccan arches of varied styles.

In governance, making a political statement through a public building is commonplace. For example, when the first regional party to come to power in a State in India, namely the DMK, formed the government in Tamil Nadu, one of the first monuments to be constructed by it was Valluvar Kottam thus strongly affirming the Dravidian identity.

Likewise, the British had built this building in an attempt to make a political statement that they aspired to be a binding force bringing together India’s countless creeds, faiths and cultures under some common principles of non-intrusive governance. That accounts for the merger of several styles of architecture.

The birthplace of Indo-Saracenic architecture was Madras. It was here that an eccentric architect Paul Benfield designed Chepauk Palace which style was to be replicated later in many parts of the country and even today you will find evidence of it in Pakistan and in Malaysia and Singapore. This crafty architect also kept increasing his bills for raising the palace and made the Nawab borrow heavily. When the creditors came calling, the poor Nawab was unable to pay up. The East India Company intervened and agreed to take over the debts which in the early 19th Century stood at a staggering figure – running to crores of rupees at the time. The Carnatic Nawab’s debts became a subject of heated discussion in the British Parliament with that famous orator Edmund Burke leading the charge.

Ultimately a deal was struck by which the British agreed to take over the debts, and the Nawab surrendered his sovereignty over virtually the whole of South India, stretching from South Orissa to Kanniyakumari. All of this time in became the Madras Presidency and then Madras Province.

To design the Madras High Court building, the English architect Henry Irwin followed in Benfield’s footsteps, and the work was executed by a very successful Indian contractor Namberumal Chetty. He was so successful that he owned a train. A large expanse of land all along Spur Tank Road and Harrington Road till the Museum at Egmore belonged to him. This is why the area came to be called Chetti Pettai and, later, Chetput.

There are some very important elements of symbolism in this building. Right behind the Chief Justice’s chair, on the stained glass are images of an elephant in the centre with two owls on both sides. The elephant is supposed to symbolise strength and the owls wisdom. Two recurring motifs on the outer walls of the High Court are swans and snakes. The swan symbolises ‘Anna Patchi’ which has the capacity to separate milk from water, thus a reassurance to the thousands who seek justice in these courts that these courts will separate truth from falsehood and make truth alone the basis of its judgments; the snake is emblematic of the concept of karma in Hindu belief. Indeed, symbolism has been lavishly used while designing this building.


The High Court has two statues outside, a bust and three statues inside. The first statue to be installed inside the court premises was that of Muthusamy Iyer. On the demise of Sir Muthuswami Iyer, there was a proposal to erect a marble statue for him in the High Court. The proposal was opposed by many, chief among whom was V. Krishnaswami Aiyer, a legal luminary whose opinion carried much weight with the vakils of Madras. He was, without doubt, a great admirer of Muthuswami Iyer but felt it was against the principles of the two great faiths of India to have statues put up for people. The British judges of the High Court brushed aside his objections and went ahead with their plan and the statue was installed.

By a strange turn of events, after Krishnaswami Aiyer’s death, a statue in his honour came up for consideration.

When a public meeting was held on January 16, 1912, at the Banqueting (now Rajaji) Hall to consider the matter of a suitable memorial for Krishnaswami Aiyer, the opposition nearly managed to turn down the proposal for a statue in his honour. Their chief argument was that Krishnaswami Aiyer had been opposed to statues. But they had not contended with Sir S. Subramania Iyer, then a Judge of the High Court and a mentor to Aiyer. His emotional speech carried the day and swung opinion in favour of a statue. The next day, The Hindu expressed distress that a man of Sir Subramania Iyer’s stature had displayed emotion in public to win an argument.

The statue, the first on the beach for an Indian, came up in due course outside Senate House in recognition of his services to the Madras University. In 1935, Sir S. Subramania Iyer’s statue was located alongside and there the two remain till date gazing at the sea.

Momentous events

Many momentous events have happened inside the High Court or close by but with the limitation of space, I will mention just one. When the Simon Commission came to discuss Indian independence in Madras, there was a huge protest at Parry’s Corner near the High Court buildings. The then British Police Commissioner, Trevor Philips, wanted to open fire into the crowd, but going by the law he had to get permission from the Chief Presidency Magistrate, Justice Pandalai, who was then the CPM on duty in the area. Justice Pandalai refused to give permission to shoot, although two British judges, Justices Beasley and Wallers, who were senior to him, came out of the High Court and urged him to do so. “They are my countrymen, not yours and I will decide,” was his reply. Sadly, the crowds got more restless and violent and Justice Pandalai gave orders to shoot but with the condition that shots must be fired below  the knees. Notwithstanding this, these shots unfortunately killed a youth from Triplicane called Parthasarathy.

T. Prakasam, a leading vakil of the High Court, who was one of those leading the crowd roared in anger, moved between the Police and the crowd and, baring his chest to the Police, asked them to shoot him before firing a single shot on the crowd. The Police backed down and Prakasam then, carrying the body of Parthasarathy over his shoulder, managed to pacify the crowd. The crowd cried “Andhra Kesari ki jai” in appreciation. That is how he got the title of Andhra Kesari. If it had not been for Prakasam, we would possibly have had a Jallianwala Bagh right outside the High Court. It is in memory of his contribution in nipping a catastrophe in the bud that the road leading to N.S.C. Bose from Raja Annamalai Mandram has been named Prakasam Salai and a statue of Prakasam installed there.

(To be concluded)


  1. S.v.rangarajan says:

    Happy to know the things

  2. Pingback: Chennai to Hyderabad - A Train Journey » 90rollsroyces

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