Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXIII No. 5, June 16-30, 2023
All accounts of the University of Madras and its iconic building on the Marina have it that it was constructed on a site once occupied by what was known as the Nawab’s Octagon or Marine Villa. Beyond that they do not speak of the structure itself. What was it like and more importantly, what do we know of a structure that was clearly a Madras landmark that is now no more? This article attempts to answer these queries.
It was in the 1760s that the Nawab of Arcot decided that he needed to move from Arcot to Madras, where he could live securely under British protection. Around 117 acres of land at Chepauk was earmarked for building a suitable residence as befitting his status and work began, the notoriously corrupt contractor Paul Benfield being given the responsibility of executing the work. With Humayun Mahal and Khalas Mahal as its two wings, Chepauk Palace was soon complete and in 1768, the Nawab moved in. In 1770 he seems to have acquired further land near the sea and on it came up the artillery park, a saluting battery and a bathing pavilion. These sites respectively now house the Presidency College, the University Senate House and the University Buildings. Of these, our interest in the present article pertains to the bathing pavilion.
One of the reasons why we know so little about Chepauk Palace is that it was a Muslim prince’s residence to which very few Europeans had access. Even if they did, it was very likely restricted to the public areas such as the hall of public audience or Durbar Hall or Diwan Khana. The bathing pavilion would have been out of reach to many in even the Nawab’s personal retinue, leave alone mere visitors. In keeping with the traditions of the Mughal Court, which are what the Nawab would have followed anyway, a bathing pavilion was less a bath and more a place where he could have confidential discussions with the closest of his advisors. It was therefore only the chosen few who could have had access to it. It is no wonder therefore that we have no descriptions of the pavilion when it was still a bath.
Moreover, while today Chepauk Palace is by the side of the road, in its heyday, when it was a princely residence, it had a wall that went around it, completely cutting off the 117 acres within from public access. The main entrance was a Tripolia Gate, once again in keeping with Mughal tradition and as the name suggests, a triple arch that stood on Wallajah Road, with entry from Mount Road. The beach had no access to the complex though the bathing pavilion was closest to the sea, which as we know was then much closer to what is South Beach Road/Kamaraj Salai. The pavilion was known in old days as Hasht (Eight in Persian) Bungalow or the the Nawab’s Octagon, in view of its shape. It had its principal access from the Cooum side, that is facing north and not east, towards the sea. That was because, it was the river water that was meant to be bathed in, and even today as is evident, the Cooum flows just by the University building, passing under Napier Bridge and then emptying into the sea.
The Nawab’s family had less than a century to enjoy their palace, and even less to rule over their kingdom. The whole of the Carnatic was with the East India Company by 1801 and by 1855, when the last titular Nawab, Ghulam Ghous Khan died, it was decided that the title itself would be given up and the successor pensioned off. The Nawabi establishment at Chepauk was disbanded and then the palace brought to a sham auction in which the Government was the sole bidder. The entire property was then partitioned off, being shared by the Public Works Department, the College of Engineering and others. The Nawab’s bathing pavilion being close to the sea, became a part of Government Estate, the official residence of the Governors of Madras. It was given a new name – Marine Villa, because of its location.
Given that in the 18th century it was the only building visible from the sea, and also the only structure by the mouth of the Cooum, the Nawab’s Octagon became a local landmark. It was a boating stop for those who wished to cross from the Fort side to Chepauk before the Napier’s Bridge was constructed in the 19th century. Thus it was that on February 2, 1792, there was a tragedy by the side of this building, the kind of which keeps happening in India even today. “Too many people having got into the ferry Boat to cross over, the Boat sunk, and between forty and fifty people were floating on the water, many of whom, unable from the strength of the current to reach the shore, were drowned. Twelve bodies were found the subsequent day, and it has not yet been ascertained how many were, by the force of the river, carried into the sea.” (As quoted in HD Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras, from a report in the Madras Courier). When that tragedy occurred, the Octagon was still Nawab’s property. But by the time Love wrote his book in 1913, it was a part of Government House Park and the Cooum no longer flowed.
The compound wall separating Marine Villa from the sea had been demolished in the 19th century enabling Nicholas Penn to photograph it in the late 19th century. We can see it in all its glory standing by the side of University Senate House. This photograph, which is the best we have to date of Marine Villa, shows it to be a double storied octagon, the northern face of which extends into a rectangular portico with a verandah above it. There are crenelations in the Indian style on the roof and by the time the photo was taken the openings on all eight faces had been closed in, each now sporting three windows let into pointed-arch recesses, the central bays being taller than the ones flanking it. Wooden shutters kept the sun out even while allowing the sea breeze in. The verandah on the first floor is covered with reed mats. The building itself seems to have been whitewashed. In another photograph, present in the University archives and dating to the late 1920s, we can see that the lower floor was wider than the top one, thereby providing a verandah, also crenelated, all around. This opened into a covered extension, which presumably led to the river and also other facilities associated with a hammam.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Marine Villa was where the Governor’s guests were housed, Government House itself being woefully lacking in surplus bedrooms. In fact, if the writer Mark Bence Jones (Palaces of the Raj) is to be believed, guests often overflowed Marina Villa as well and had to be accommodated in tents in the garden! It also seems to have been a quiet getaway for the Governors and their families. Lord Lytton while Viceroy in the 1870s came visiting and noted that Marine Villa was where the then Governor, the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos went to have tea at least twice a week, with his young ladies. “The regimental band (a very fine one) of the 67th plays on the public promenade in front of the villa,” wrote Lytton on September 2, 1877. “Here we had tea yesterday afternoon, and the band played very well.” Even in the 1920s, there is a reference to Lord and Lady Willingdon, while he was Governor here, entertaining guests at the Marine Villa.
But with the University fast expanding and needing space, the days of Marine Villa were numbered. The whitewash was fading by this time and reflective of this, contemporary accounts describe the building as a dreary structure. By 1927, the fledgling Zoology department was located in it. Plans were even then afoot for a new set of University buildings and in 1935, these came up on the site of the Marine Villa. Known as the Clock Tower Building, it was built in a style sympathetic to the University Senate House. But of Marine Villa or the Nawab’s Octagon there is not a trace. Who would believe that a Nawab once bathed where the Vice Chancellor of the University of Madras now sits? Or that waters from the Cooum were once considered clean enough to bathe in?