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

Vol. XXXIII No. 9, August 16-31, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V.

Mylapore’s Lost Harbour

In that Mayilai whose fringes are washed by the waves,
A settlement where men spear the fish,
In a dense and dark grove is seated Kapali
O Poompavai have you gone away without seeing His festival of Adirai?

Thus runs a verse in Sambandar’s 7th century Poompavai Pathigam. It indicates that Mayilai was a fishing village in his time. It still is, if you go to the seashore by Santhome and watch. Each morning, long before sunrise, boats set out on the waves and by the time it is light they are back, with the day’s catch. A humming market then comes up by the sea and continues for the rest of the day. Some of the fishermen set out once again in the afternoon and by late evening there is a second phase of heightened activity in the market. This is probably a daily enactment of what Sambandar himself saw. Yes, the fishing hamlet still survives, though not for long if State agencies have their way.

What has vanished without a trace is the harbour of Mylapore of which we have scattered references in works ranging from the 1st to the 18th century. This article seeks to ferret out some information about it from these sources.

That Ptolemy the Greek wrote about the great port of Maillarpha or Mylarphon in 140 CE is well known. Two other and less popular accounts surface from a reading of R.M. Paulraj’s Key Words of a Kinship (Trafford Publishing, 2006). He states that in 552AD, Cosmas Indicopleustes, a rich Christian merchant from Alexandria came to Mylapore and referred to the place as Male in his writings. The second is from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 885 AD which records that King Alfred the Great sent a delegation to Meliapour with offerings for the martyred St. Thomas and many gifts for the Christians of that village. The embassy returned with gifts of pearls and aromatic liqueurs.

San Thome Fort by Valentjin (1674) showing the sea.

But perhaps the most vivid lines depicting the harbour of Mylapore occur in the 12th century Periyapuranam, the work of Sekkizhar. It is interesting that the local source, hardly ever cited, scores over much else. The description occurs in the chapter concerning the life of Vayila Nayanar, the saint who is associated with the Kapaliswarar Temple.

“The blue ocean forever in search of a suitable repository for the pearls and gems in its possession, selects this locality of palaces and does so by means of the bobbing ships with flowered flags on their high masts. Given the black elephant calves being brought in from far off lands by ships, the dark clouds that merge in the pearl-giving ocean and the swarthy buffaloes that exist here, it is difficult to discern one from the other.”

And so there was a harbour, with ships coming from faraway lands, with elephants among other items. And the pearls are a continuing motif between the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Sekkizhar.

The next commonly cited reference is that Arabs knew of the place as Maila and Male, the latter once again in keeping with what the visiting Alexandrine wrote in 552AD referred above. That Mylapore was on an international trade route is therefore very clear.

Sinnappah Arasaratnam, in his Merchants, Companies and Commerce on the Coromandel, 1650-1740, (OUP 1986), provides further details of what the port was like and its sources for commodities, during the period concerning his research. Mylapore he says was a “Port of significance in the trade to South East Asia, long before the Portuguese came to San Thome… Mylapore and San Thome seem to have functioned as an extended port, inland market and manufacturing town. (It) had settlements of weavers producing for an export market. The port was an open roadstead, though the rivulet of Adyar and the backwaters may have provided some facility for small boat traffic. The St Thomas’ Mount rising just behind the port was visible from out at sea and a good sounding post for sailors. (Mylapore) drew from the Chingleput hinterland for its textile exports and imported goods for that market.”

As regards the kind of cloth that came from here, Arasaratnam specifies that San Thome and Mylapore had weavers “who specialised in painted and striped cotton for the Siamese, Cambodian and Burmese markets.” This is supported by the presence of the Kaikolar community till well into the 20th century in Mylapore. Their deity was Vadakoor Selva Vinayakar, whose shrine expanded in the 19th century as the Velleeswarar temple.

A further reading of Arasaratnam reveals that the port and its town were prosperous enough in the 17th century for the Dutch, the English and the French to resent its continued occupation by the fading Portuguese. The French stormed it in 1672 and their expulsion by a Dutch-Golconda combine two years later brought the harbour into fresh focus. The English and the Dutch were keen to see the town destroyed but Golconda was sharp enough to see the potential of the port. They merely demolished the fortifications and left the harbour intact. The English lobbied hard for a lease of the port but were not encouraged.

This saw a revival in the fortunes of the town and port. Mughal control of San Thome early in the 18th century saw a mint being established in Mylapore. Tax and customs concessions were given to wean shipping away from Madras and this succeeded. Merchants, artisans, weavers and boatmen flocked to Mylapore. A new ethnic community, known as Pathans, whom Arasaratnam says were large-scale shippers trading to Bengal, Surat, Mocha and Persia dominated the trade, which is when probably Muslim presence grew in the area. Kombai Anwar has it that Jonahan Street in the area probably commemorates Sonahar – a term for Muslims. Armenians came too and that probably accounts for the small stone let into the wall of St. Rita’s Church. They sailed from here to “Manila, the Burmese Coast, and westwards to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.”

The English were not clear as to how to deal with the rise of San Thome. By now, going by the diaries of Ananda Ranga Pillai, the place was known as Shah Bandar. There was brisk trade in elephants, tin, ivory and textiles. Indian merchants attached to British interests in Madras too began renting facilities at Mylapore. Some private trade of the British too went on from here. But the headquarters in England was clear. San Thome had to be finished. The Pathans were given trade concessions to move to Madras. Indian merchants domiciled in Madras were not allowed to bring in goods from Mylapore and were fined heavily if detected. And yet Mylapore continued to grow.

It was the French occupation of Madras between 1746 and 1749 that changed fortunes forever. When the English returned, they wanted San Thome in their fold and the Nawab had to comply. We know that the walls of San Thome were demolished for good and probably the harbour too was decimated though sources are silent on this. There is not a trace of the port today.

If it had been allowed to continue, we may have had a harbour for Madras in Mylapore itself. Perhaps what happens is all to the good.

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  1. Pingback: The Lost Port of Mylapore - Madras Heritage and Carnatic Music

  2. Sridhar says:

    So meticulously researched, and extremely well-written.. A fascinating read.. Thank you Sriram !

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