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Vol. XXXIII No. 5, June 16-30, 2023

Lost Landmarks of Chennai

-- by Sriram V

The Nawab’s Octagon

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.

Marina Villa photographed by Nicholas Penn in the 1890s. Courtesy Sarmaya Arts Foundation. You can see Senate House by its side.

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.

Marine Villa/Nawab’s Octagon photographed between 1927 and 1933. Courtesy University of Madras archives.

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?

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  1. C.K. SUBRAMANIAM says:



    Once upon a time, the entry of Anna Nagar East and that too Chinthamani was the entry point for the residential houses and for the busy shopping centres. Later on, the Anna Nagar Tower came after The international trade fair of 1968, the area got the much needed boost and the real prices took a big break and what we see today is what we imagined of Anna Nagar in the past.

    Today, Anna Nagar is a prestigious habitation to live in Chennai. However, the event which brought Anna Nagar into focus and existence is sadly forgotten. For Madras with a century-long history of fairs, The Indian International Trade and Industries Fair of 1968 was the first industry-oriented one. Organised by the All India Manufacturers organisation to showcase Indian industrial development post-independence, it was planned to be the largest international trade fair in Asia.

    The location identified was the Naduvankarai village on the north bank of the Cooum. The fair was scheduled to open in 1967 but that being a watershed year in Madras politics the fair got postponed by a year till the new government got its bearings. Now, we have a Metro station at Thirumangalam and Anna Nagar Station for locals and it is well connected from all the sides. In the beginning Anna Nagar arch was the entry point from one side and later on we have other entry points from Koyembedu, Mogappiyar, Padi and Villivakkam. The Industrial area of Padi gave a big boost as the leading Industries EID Parry and TVS were having their units providing employment for people in this belt.

    The Anna Nagar area near the Exhibition spot attracted many Malayalis and the Telugu speaking people to form their base there. Later on Anna Nagar West has become a highly cosmopolitan area. The Ayyappa Temple is a landmark spot and the devotees throng to this temple during festival days of Vishu and Onam. Having lived in this area from the year 1983 I really enjoyed the real value of life in such surroundings. At That time Blue Star assumed greater importance for household purchases and this area was surrounded by my shopping amenities. Later on, we saw a church there and near to that Saravana Bhavan for your eating comforts. The Anna Adarsh Educational Centre brought many families to the Shanthi Colony area and it is now a prime locality. The road leads you to Hot Chips and the Thirumani Amman Temple is another divine centre for the 13th Main Road residents. Senthil Nursing Home formed the medical needs of the people. Add to this is the Adyar Ananda Bhawan providing best sweets like the Krishna Sweets.

    Now, these areas are transformed to modernways with a flyover connecting Anna Nagar to the Airport on one side and the Mogappair belt having many medical facilities and it is a major residential complex as the poor man’s Anna Nagar. The locality hosted the world expo and the venue was later converted into a residential layout by the Tamil Nadu Housing Board (TNHB) in the 1970s. The iconic Tower Park that was constructed during the expo remains the area’s landmark. The octogenarian says Anna Nagar had been developed on a planned grid format of residential blocks in alphabetical order characterised by individual houses, spacious roads, streets with no dead ends, ample footpath space, earmarked commercial zones and parks for all blocks.

    Tower Park was built in 1968 by BS Abdur Rahman and was inaugurated by former Vice-President VV Giri on January 21 in the presence of the then Chief Minister of TN CN Annadurai on January 21. Tower Park was built in 1968 by BS Abdur Rahman and was inaugurated by former Vice-President VV Giri on January 21 in the presence of the then Chief Minister of TN CN Annadurai on January 21. Anna Nagar Tower Park, officially known as Dr Visvesvaraya Tower Park, is an urban park in the suburb of Anna Nagar, Chennai. It is the tallest park tower in Chennai.. The iconic 12-story tower with a spiraling ramp overlooking a surrounding park, fountain and sport courts.. We can spend time with family, the park has restrooms, a play area, skate, dance area, People relaxing can go for morning walks as it is a very cool place!. They have well maintained rest rooms and water facilities.

    The Anna Nagar Clock Tower, a 100-feet-tall structure, will soon become a reality when the Greater Chennai Corporation opens it to the public after a 12-year hiatus, shortly after the renovation work for public safety is finished. The main component of the park is the 135-foot-tall, 12-storied tower located at the centre of the park. The tower has a cyclic ramp spiralling to the top and also has an elevator at the centre. The park, along with the tower, is maintained by the Chennai Corporation. The park has an amphitheatre, a bird-watching deck, badminton courts, a play area for kids, a skating rink, a lake, and convenience facilities for visitors.The park contains an amphitheatre, a bird-watching deck, badminton courts, a children’s play area, a skating rink, a lake, and tourist conveniences. The park, along with the tower, is maintained by the Chennai Corporation.

    At a cost of ₹62 million, the park underwent renovations and reopened in 2010. Entry to the tower has been prohibited since 2011 due to incidents of suicides and scribblers, making the city lose a valuable tourist destination. To quickly reopen it to the public, the authorities began a ₹3 million renovation project on it in 2018. The civic body began repair work last year to install grills to cover open balconies on each of the 12 levels of the building, making it safe for use by the public and ensuring visitor safety. The tower, which was originally supposed to be opened to the public last month, was delayed due to the artwork undertaken in and around the locality. While the tower has been closed to the public, the park continues to be in use.

    As an old timer from Thirumangalam area I enjoyed the tower surroundings and my children enjoyed walking around the area as the place was a landmark place. Those days, the crowd was less, but now, the number increases with lots of other attractions. A functional toy train going round the tower area can give value added attraction. Charges must be collected for entry as the maintenance level must be upgraded to provide the best ambience. The people should realise and keep the place neat and clean following Swachh Bharat Abhiyan guidelines strictly. The Dr. Vishweshwaraiah Tower gets renamed as Anna Nagar Clock Tower but as such there is no clock to prove that point. After all, cleanliness is next to Godliness.

  2. C.K. SUBRAMANIAM says:

    Kindly encourage your readers.

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