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Vol. XXXIII No. 16, December 1-15, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V

The river we lost

How many rivers does Chennai have? Most people will say just one – the Cooum and sneer even while they say it, as though it is all the river’s fault that it is what it is today. To this lot, all of Chennai’s rivers and canals go by the name of Cooum. The more knowledgeable ones will say two – the Adyar being the second. A smaller group will include the Kosasthalaiyar which flows to the extreme north and supplies us with water. Besides these there is of course the Buckingham Canal, and along with it a staggering forty-four drain channels that protect the city from flooding during rains. Absent among these is the river we seem to have lost completely – the Elambore.

And yet it was one of the principal reasons for Francis Day zeroing in on Madraspatnam for building Fort St George. In his Vestiges of Old Madras, H.D. Love states that an understanding of the position of the Fort is important and begins with the two rivers in its vicinity. “Two streams flowing from the west and north respectively had a common outlet to the sea about a mile south of the village of Madraspatam,” he writes. The first was the Triplicane River, now known as the Cooum which wound (and still does so) around “the villages of Chetput, Nungumbaukum, and Triplicane.” Love then goes on to describe the second river – “called the North or Elambore River, (it) flowed parallel to and about a mile distant from the coast, along the west side of Madraspatam, till it reached the site of the present General Hospital. It then bent sharply to the east, and when near the sea, turned southwards again for about three-quarters of a mile and met the Triplicane River at its outlet.” In today’s parlance therefore, the river must have come from north to south near where the Central Station is and then turned east, flowed parallel to but south of what is Poonamallee High Road, turned south in parallel to what is now Flag Staff Road and met the Cooum at its mouth.

Love notes that neither the Elambore nor the Cooum could reach the sea except during the rainy season and this is true of the latter even today. “The site chosen for the fort was a point on the surf-bank of sand which lay between the Elambore River and the sea, three quarters of a mile north of the outlet, and just south of the town or village of Madraspatam,” he writes. The river therefore was an important consideration in the overall scheme. Because it, and the Cooum, could not reach the sea, there was a large backwater and a marsh just south of where the fort would come up. Thus the proposed site had the sea on the east, the Cooum and the marsh on the south, and the Elambore on the west. It can only be presumed that the densely packed villages of Muthialpet and Peddanaickenpet provided the necessary security in the north.

The dotted line indicates the rough route of the Elambore River.

Sometime early in the 17th century, notes Love, a cut was made to link the Elambore and the Cooum at point where the latter turned east and ran parallel to the former, with just about 300 yards (0.27 km) separating the two. He surmises that this was done to equalise the flood levels. That meant the two rivers were now linked at two places – one near where the GH is, and the other at the mouth. This caused the marsh earlier referred to be surrounded by water on all sides and as early as 1643 it is referred to as the Island, a name that it still enjoys – the Island Grounds are known as Theevu Thidal even now.

In 1675 we read of fresh developments. The Council decided that it would not permit any buildings or gardens on the land between the Great Ditch separating Gentu Town and Potters’ Town and the “River to the Northward.” This was marked thereafter for the Washers to “wash, dry or whiten their calicoes,” a commodity vital to the company’s trade. Love identifies Gentu Town as Madraspatam and therefore Old Black Town (on the site of which stands the High Court today), while Potter’s Town he says was Comer or Peddanaickenpet. Comer was evidently a corruption of the Hindi kumhar or potter. The Great Ditch was therefore what is now NSC Bose Road and in the 17th century it had a canal that “irrigated fields to the northward.” This must have clearly been a branch off the Elambore. The space so cleared for the washers in today’s parlance marked Mint Street and beyond it, what is even today Washermanpet.

Elambore River was left undisturbed over much of its course thereafter but the part close to Fort St George would see many changes. The first was in the 1680s when Elihu Yale suggested the river’s course be diverted further west, with the land thus acquired being used to extend the fort westwards. This was not done immediately but took place in the 1750s when following the French occupation and subsequent rendition of Madras, the river was diverted. What is interesting is that in the 1740s the fort extended beyond the river, with the waterbody actually flowing within the fort along Charles Street. Even in the 1750s we see a small arm extending into the fort and this seems to have been built over later.

Outside of the fort what was called the Island Bridge was constructed to enable its residents to cross over the Elambore and into the Island. This would later become the Willingdon and still later the Periyar Bridge. In 1721 there were torrential rains and we read of how the water in the Elambore flowed two feet over the bridge causing extensive damage to it. It was clearly a thriving water body in the season. But the diversion of its course caused some lasting damage for by 1762 it is being referred to as a rivulet, indicating that it was rapidly drying up. But it was still important enough in the 1780s for work to be undertaken to straighten a bend in it close to the Ekambareswara Swami Temple on Mint Street.

Early in the 1800s, Basil Cochrane proposed cutting a canal connecting Pulicat to the northern edge of the city. This was to facilitate the easy movement of timber and other goods to the metropolis. The canal absorbed the Elambore into itself right up to Basin Bridge. The rest of the story is well known – when the Buckingham Canal came to be dug as a famine measure in the 1870s, it linked Cochrane’s Canal across the city to South Canal which began near the Adyar and ended at Cuddalore. Thus the Elambore completely lost its identity. The Buckingham Canal, from Pulicat to the Island flows along what was once the Elambore River.

There are plenty of questions that remain unanswered. The first concerns the names – Elambore and North River. If by Elambore it is Egmore that is meant, that locality is nowhere close to the river. On the other hand, it is the Cooum that flows by Egmore. Of course over the centuries the Elambore may have shifted its course, a feature that is common to all rivers in this area, including the Palar. The fact that the Cooum is referred to as Vriddha Ksheera Nadi (Old Milk River) in native records seems to indicate that the Palar (Milk River) once flowed along this course. And so the Elambore too may have moved. The name North is even more intriguing and as Mr. Muthiah often remarked, “North of what?” – the only explanation can be that the river flowed north to south which may have been an unusual feature in an area where all others moved west to east.

Lastly, no account gives us any idea as to where the Elambore originated. What was its source of water? We have answers for the Cooum and the Adyar but for the Elambore we have no clue. Sometime in its history it was also known as the Palliacate River and that seems to indicate it originated from the Pulicat lagoon. This is also corroborated by its eventual merging with Cochrane’s and later Buckingham Canal. But taken overall, the river is still a mystery.

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