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

Vol. XXXIII No. 8, August 1-15, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V.

The Village of Puliyur

If I said Puliyur my guess is that the majority of people would not even know where it is. But if I said Kodambakkam or Vadapalani I am sure it will be instantly recognised. Puliyur was what it was till the 1940s or so, and what is more, it had that name from the Sangam Era. Yes, among the plethora of localities that make up Madras that is Chennai today, and of whose etymology we have no clue, Puliyur ranks high up among the few with an ancient history. Let us see what there is now of that hoary past.

As per K.V. Raman in his Early History of the Madras Region, the Mackenzie Manuscripts record that the Kurumbas, a martial tribe, had their headquarters at Madhavaram/Puzhal. The Purananuru states that even established kings were afraid of these people, such being their prowess in battle. They divided Thondaimandalam into 24 kottams of which, from the names at least, it would seem that three were in what is modern Madras/Chennai. These are Puzhal, Ikkattuthangal and Puliyur. The last named as per Raman seems to have been headquarters of a major district, “places like Elumur (modern Egmore), Mayilarpil, (modern Mylapore), Poondamalli, Pallavaram and Tamparam (the modern Tambaram), were all in Puliyur Kottam”. Clearly it was much bigger than what are important modern localities today.

The Vengeeswarar temple as seen from Sannadhi street.

Puliyur now is just two roads, leading to Trustpuram in Kodambakkam – an indication of what time came do. But it is worth a visit to just search out what remains of a once powerful fort. There is firstly the temple, dedicated to Siva as Vengeeswarar. Given that one of the Tamil words for tiger is Vengai, this name makes sense – Puli being the other and which gives its name to the village. The shrine is now much modernised with a multi-tier gopuram of recent vintage. Maintained impeccably, the precinct rather regrettably makes copious use of synthetic paints. But unchanged over time is the vimana or canopy that shelters the sanctum of Vengeeswarar. This is apsidal or to give it its correct Sanskrit equivalent, Gajaprshta in shape – curved like the rear of an elephant. The design also dates the structure to the Pallava/Chola times and there are many of the same contours around the city. In later, probably Vijayanagar, times the Lord here got a Sanskrit name – he became Vyaghrapuriswara, which means the same as Vengeeswarar. The sanctum of the Goddess houses a particularly gracious idol. She goes by the name of Santhanayaki.

The Gajaprshta vimana of the Vengeeswarar temple.

The eastern access to the temple is easily the most impressive. A long Sannadhi street leads you to the shrine and shows the way the village was laid out around this temple. There are besides vestiges to indicate that there were once four Mada Streets around the temple. The South and West Sivan Koil Streets still exist. Of these, the former by its proximity to the temple has some meaning to its name. The latter is completely cut off from the shrine by busy Jawaharlal Nehru/Grand Southern Trunk Road. The presence of the flyover on this road just to the rear of the temple further adds to the alienation of the West Sivan Koil Street. Of the northern and eastern equivalents there is no trace. It is quite likely that North Sivan Koil Street was absorbed into Arcot Road and the eastern likewise was gobbled up by Doraiswamy Road. There are besides unverified accounts of a temple tank now completely encroached upon but as to where that is I am unable to identify with any certainty.

If that was the core of Puliyur, locating its bounds is even tougher. There is a Thalayaripalayam to the immediate east of the temple. This shows that there was a settlement of village security guards here. There are other Thalayaripalayams in Chennai city, and each is by an ancient village. A Palayakarar Street running further east of Thalayaripalayam shows that there was a headman as well. Two caste streets, remembering Vellalar and Vannier communities, still survive. These are two communities that had a major presence in much of what became Madras city. A Mosque Street exists in parallel as well, showing that there has been a Muslim community in the village for quite some time.

The major roads that must have once led to the village – Puliyur Roads 1 and 2, Sivan Koil, Vellalar and Vannier Streets all follow a north south alignment, ending on Arcot/NS Krishnan Road. Puliyur therefore seems to have comprised all that lay south of Kodambakkam and west of Mambalam, including what would one day become Ashok Nagar. Clearly, Arcot Road whenever it came up cut the village into two.

After its heyday under the Kurumbas and also possibly the Pallavas and Cholas, Puliyur seems to have settled into a more humdrum existence. It became just a village in Chengalpattu District, of which Saidapet was the closest important town. The road just east of the temple therefore got the name Saidapet Street. It must have been a thoroughfare leading to Saidapet. It now ends abruptly on GST Road for with the construction of that highway, there was no further need for a narrower access to that town. Another thoroughfare that begins and ends nowhere in particular is Nerkundram Road. Did it lead to that village further west at one time?

Puliyur seems to have been fated to be overshadowed by later developments. In the 1920s, a small shrine for Murugan came up on its northern side. This, over a period of time became bigger and bigger, acquiring the name of Vadapalani. That in turn became the name of the locality itself. While Vengeeswarar lost his Mada Streets, his son had a completely new set developed, replete with a temple tank. Thousands throng the Vadapalani temple, with hardly any coming to visit Vengeeswarar.

But there was more to follow. At around the time the Vadapalani temple was just a portrait of Murugan and nothing more, the Government was draining the Long Tank of Mylapore to form the new residential colony of Theyagaroya Nagar. Tracts of what was once Puliyur village went into its formation, other portions coming from Mambalam and Government Farm villages. These were all made part of Madras. What was left behind, and that included the neighbouring village of ‘West’ Mambalam, remained under Chengalpattu jurisdiction. Development took place in a highly one-sided manner – T. Nagar being the showpiece belonging to the city, with the remnant being part of the Chengalpattu mofussil that nobody cared much about.

The world of cinema was however discovering the place and studios were coming up to the west of Puliyur by the 1940s. For some reason, all of this would be known as Kodambakkam, perhaps because that was a part of the city, while Puliyur was not. The village would take its time to become part of the metropolis, this happening only in 1949, when in a major expansion, Madras dug into Chengalpattu once again and gobbled up chunks of it. Puliyur too was one of the localities.

That marked the beginning of several new colonies in the vicinity. Trustpuram came up because of the City Improvement Trust. Then came United India Colony, put up by the eponymous and then privately run insurance company, as part of its investment in real estate. Much later would come Ashok Nagar and KK Nagar and numerous Colonies. All of them had individual identities while the village that was there from time immemorial lost what little it had.

Puliyur today survives in property documents, for land records still recognise it as a village. And then deep in Kodambakkam, on Arcot Road, there is a Puliyur Kodambakkam Mosque.

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