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Vol. XXXIV No. 4, June 1-15, 2024

A stairway of Madras Memories

-- by Sriram V

Despite having lived in the city for thirty years now, I had never been to Thirukazhukundram till a fortnight ago. That was when, despite the heat, some of us set out on an impulse early on a Sunday. The idea was to visit the Kothandaramaswami Temple at Oonamancheri off Vandalur but when we reached there, we found the temple locked and that the priest visits only in the evening and so we went to Tirukazhukundram.

On reaching the place we decided to climb the hill first, to worship at the Vedagiriswarar shrine. The sprawling temple at the base dedicated to Bhaktavatsaleswarar we thought we would cover later. And so we began the trek up the hill. The steps are beautifully laid out here and what is more, have a canopy overhead that prevents the sun from heating the stones. And so it was a comfortableclimb. But what ought to have taken 15 minutes ended up becoming an ascent lasting an hour. And that was because of the stone plaques let into the side walls, each commemorating a donor. They are all in a fair state of preservation but being positioned low, reading them necessitates stooping at each step. But the bending and stretching is worth it, for they are a record of Madras worthies of the 1940s. I give the time period rather guardedly, for none of the slabs is dated. But the names and their designations seem to indicate that era.

A stone plaque commemorating a donor.

Among these, some are repeated for they clearly sponsored more than one set of steps and in some cases, pavilions at the various landings as well. The Manali family is most prominent, Srinivasa Mudaliar being the administrator of what is given as the Manali Family Endowment and the Manali Lakshmana Mudaliar Specific Endowment. As is well known, the Manali family, one of the oldest lineages of Madras, trace their rise to Manali Muthukrishna Mudali, Dubash to Governor Pigot in the 18th century and the chief sponsor of the Chennakesava and Chennamalleeswara temples in George Town.

If the Manali family represents old wealth, made at a time of commerce and trade, the next is that of S. Anantharamakrishnan, indicative of twentieth century industrial wealth. The founder of the conglomerate Amalgamations Limited, his donations are acknowledged across many plaques here, in the stone pavilions at each of the three landings during the climb. He is referred to in all the plaques as the Managing Director of Simpson & Co, which at that time was probably the best known and the largest among the Amalgamations constituent units. Anantharamakrishnan’s close colleague and associate MV Venkataraman, who became chairman of Amalgamations after the former’s death is also commemorated in a couple of plaques as Director of Simpson’s. The latter’s wife Pankajam too has donated to the effort.

Rather interesting is a line-up of dubashes these being not of the category of translators who battened on East India Company corruption but professional agents who were affiliated to various mercantile and other service-related entities between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dakshinamurti Chettiar is listed as Puducheri ‘kappal dubash’, bringing to mind the profession of shipping dubashes. Who would today even imagine that such services existed? A Arumugam Chettiar, Port Shipping Dubash of Scindia Steamship Navigation Company is another name inscribed. He evidently had two wives – Thillaiammal and Nagarathinammal and both are commemorated together for posterity rather uncomfortably on a succeeding plaque. T.R. Viswanatha Mudaliar of Nungambakkam describes himself as the son of T.V. Rathan Mudaliar, Binny & Co ‘Karikappal Dubash’ – recalling when that famed corporate was into stevedoring coal at the Madras harbour. Close by is a plaque recording the munificence of the managers of Binny & Co.

That was an era when Chengalpattu was predominantly agrarian and land was in the hands of a few. There are a number of Reddiars classified as landlords in the Chengalpattu/Madurantakam area. Besides there are also several prominent Mudaliar families that still have extensive landholdings there – for example the zamindars of Kattupalli, Cheyyar and Cheyyur are all listed as donors. And there are others who simply call themselves landlords. And whatever happened to the designation of munsiff? It was so common back then.

The steps leading up to the Vedagiriswarar shrine.

With North Madras being a hub of printing and publishing, the demand was high for letterpress types and type-setting foundries were clearly the businesses to be in. Madras Choolai Ambika Foundry was one, and Arumuga Mudaliar of the famed Swadesi Type Foundry, based out of Chintadripet is another. Steel trunks were very much in vogue then and seem to have been the stronghold of Nayakars and Chettiars going by the plaques. There are similarly men who were into timber (marathotti), iron and cement (irumbu matrum chimitti) , and soda distribution. I was also happy to know that Rukmini Cookers were brought into this world by A Somasundaram Chettiar of Royapuram, who along with his wife Savitri Ammal, donated copiously towards the steps. Before the arrival of the pressure cookers, Rukmini and its clones were the solution for simultaneously preparing several dishes. They all fitted in neatly into a brass container with a domed lid. My grandmother once explained the role of each of the individual vessels to me but alas, I did not pay much heed. I do however, have a treasured set with me. I had often wondered as to who pioneered these cookers and now, I have the answer.

Another question is partially answered from a plaque that credits Arasur Parthasarathy Mudaliar with having funded partially the Kapaliswarar temple gopuram (Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar says it was a Chettiar whose name he forgot). Parthasarathy Mudaliar, claims to be donating on behalf of the Katupalli zamindar Shanmugasundara Mudaliar

View of the temple at the base, as seen from the summit.

The multilingual plaques are most interesting. The Vummidi family inscribed its plaque in Tamil and Telugu. There is one with plenty of Hindi on it. This is of Kanhaiyalal of Jaipur, adopted in Fatehpur, Jaipur, as son of Dhokalamal Shree Narain Devakaran Shyamsunder Krishna Kumar Nevatia, c/o American Research, Lower Chitpur Road, Calcutta. What was he doing here? An English plaque but with a clear explanation for its presence is that of Haripada Chandra of Midnapore, Bengal, together with his wife Susamarani. He was a makeup artiste with Gemini Studios and a resident of T Nagar. Another cinematic connection is that of CP Sarathy of Prabhat Talkies.

Lastly, who was Venkataramanujam aka VR Jam, proprietor VR Jam & Co of Broadway? I found this name fascinating. But contrary to my expectations, he was not into preserves and condiments but textiles.

Taken all in all, the climb up to Thirukazhukunram was as engrossing as the temple itself. My companions were not so happy with my stopping frequently and that meant we ultimately gave the lower shrine a miss. Which means a second visit to the place is due and heaven knows what else will be found!

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