Madras Day: Tracing a city’s transformation as Chennai turns 375

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The city of Chennai has a lot of reasons to celebrate on August 22, which marks its 375th anniversary. The Madras Presidency under the British rule stretched across much of southern India and got renamed as Tamil Nadu after Independence. However, the city along the coast of Coromandel remained to be known as Madras, and was later renamed as Chennai in 1996. Often known as the doorway to south India, the heritage sites and architecture of temples, caves and palaces of Chennai have attracted people from around the world. This city has given its land to monument rich architecture right from the Pallavas, the Cholas to the British empire. Today, Chennai shows a myriad mix of old heritage structures and new modern buildings that traces the transformation the city has gone through. A lot of the history of the city stands intact because of the interest towards preservation of such structures by individuals and organisations. 

Archaeologist Dr S Suresh, is the state convenor of the Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) for Tamil Nadu, a non-government body that works towards restoring heritage sites across the country. Extensively involved in the restoration project of the Senate House, University of Madras, he says, "The Senate House took us many years to work on and it was restored completely in 2006. It was a quite a prestigious and challenging project." 

Talking about the unique heritage sites in Chennai, Suresh, who holds PhDs in Classical Archaeology and Medieval Indian Art says, "One of my favourite sites is the 'Ice House'. There is an intriguing history attached to this structure which stored ice imported from America back in 1845." The structure was built in such a manner that ice could be perfectly stored for days without melting. Suresh adds that ice was also imported and stored in ice-houses in Mumbai and Kolkata but those buildings have either been demolished or are beyond recognition. He proudly verifies that Chennai has the only existing Ice House which is still well preserved. The Ice House was renamed as the Vivekanandar Illam and American tourists who visit this place find it astonishing that the ice-trade between the two countries dates back almost two centuries.

Benny Kuriakose, a well-known architect involved in designing many landmark buildings in Chennai and Cochin as well as in the conservation of heritage structures in Chennai is of the opinion that the ‘vernacular architecture’ of heritage sites, based on local materials and needs, is relevant today as well. Kuriakose explains, "Modern architecture is such a deviation from the traditions and it is believed that one need not design according to the climate. While we cannot go back to our old lifestyle, we have to find a path between vernacular architecture and the kind of modern architecture which is coming up in our cities. The optimum use of materials and the way vernacular architecture looked at climate, have to become more relevant in India."

The journey of this city and the transformations it has undergone is worth reminiscing about on the occasion of its 375th anniversary. Suresh says, "It is not just Chennai, but other cities like Madurai in Tamil Nadu also observe August 22 as Madras Day. In fact, even Tamilians abroad have Madras Day celebrations along with food festivals to commemorate the heritage and rich culture of the city."

Also Read: Chennai's 375th anniversary: This Madras Day, take a ride down a historic lane

A Few Firsts: 

Higginbothams Library
India's oldest and well-known bookstore, which is still in existence, Higginbothams has expanded to many cities and can be seen in more than 50 railway stations across Indian and in Chennai Airport. 

University of Madras
One of the oldest universities in India, the University of Madras was incorporated in 1857 by an act of the Legislative Council of India after a long demand for a higher education institution in Madras Presidency by its residents.

Madras Club
Founded in 1832, Madras club is the second-oldest surviving club after Calcutta's Bengal club. In 1963, the club merged with Adyar club and moved to its present location Mowbrays Cupola on the banks of the Adyar river.

Buckingham Canal
The first of its kind in India, the canal was built in 1806 as a saltwater navigation canal by the British. The Buckingham canal stretched for 9 km from North Madras to Ennore. Subsequently it was extended 40 km north till Pulicat. The canal use was stopped in 1965 after the destruction caused by cyclones. Presently, it lies in a sad state and has been reduced to a sewage drain.

The first newspaper of Madras was the Madras Courier. Its first copy was published on October 12, 1785 by the East India Company's printer Richard Johnston as a 4-6 page tabloid-sized weekly paper. The Madras Courier survived for 36 years after which it was closed down. 

The first bank in India was the Madras Bank, founded by Governor Gifford at Fort St. George in the year 1682. 

The Chennai Corporation is the second oldest civic body of its kind in the whole world, second only to the London Corporation. 

The first observatory in India set up in 1792 in Nugambakkam, Chennai. It set the Indian Standard Time. 

The first radio broadcasting service in India began in Chennai with the Presidency Radio Club founded in 1924 by CV Krishnaswami Chetty. 

The Neils Blue Caps, the first British regiment was formed in India in 1688. This later came to be known as the 102nd Royal Madras Infantry and later as the Dublin Fusiliers. The oldest regiment of the Indian Army today is the Madras Regiment, raised in 1758 and now headquartered at Wellington near Coonoor. 


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