10 stories from the Adyar

Yesterday’s monthly talk organized by Tamil Heritage Trust had Venkatesh Ramakrishnan talking about the ‘History of the Adyar River’.

Venkatesh is historian and bilingual author, who has written Tamil books like Kaaviri Maindhan, Thillaiyil Oru Kollaikaaran. His book Gods Kings and Slaves, a non-fiction about Malik Khafur’s invasion of Madurai was a top-seller. Venkatesh runs a group of ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ enthusiasts, and has led several walks to areas covered in the novel. Few years back, he and a group of friends did a cultural mapping of the Cooum river. Although I wan’t active on the group, I had the opportunity to accompany them on couple of small trips around the Cooum. At first, I was amused that he was studying a river like Cooum, that has become a cesspool. But his stance was quite clear – ‘If we understand it better, perhaps we will treat it better’. Last year, Venkatesh made several talks around the city to improve awareness about the Cooum. And after the 2015 floods in Chennai that witnessed an overflowing Adyar river, Venkatesh and his team started mapping the Adyar.


Venkatesh began his talk saying that most civilizations have developed around banks of rivers. Buddha used the Ganges as an example in his teachings. Chola architecture, Carnatic music grew around Cauvery. Culture was always related to perennial rivers. Rain was in abundance, and hence the patronage for arts, culture etc. But what about rivers that have turned into urban sewers ? What civilization can they claim to have developed ?

Studying the history of a river is like a slice of a cake. You get to enjoy a cross-section of various layers. If the Cooum was about the imperialism of the British, Adyar was about the aspirations of people who came to Madras from elsewhere.

The Adyar river doesn’t really join the Bay of Bengal. The opening near the sea is only for the tidal water to come in. This can be seen near the broken bridge. In terms of water quality, Adyar is much better than Cooum due to the tidal waters. It would be unfair to treat it just as a cesspool. In fact Cooum and Adyar came close to each other near the Mambalam tank, where T.Nagar is now located. That leads to the question : Did water from the 2 rivers crisscross many years ago ?

Venkatesh’s talk was so full of facts and anecdotes, that writing down his entire talk would be a mammoth effort. I will try to write 10 very short stories (or episodes) from his talk.

10 stories about the History of Adyar :

(1) The oldest known discovery on the Adyar river was Pallavaram Axe. This was discovered by Bruce Foot (ASI) in the 1800s when he went for walk in Pallavaram Parade Grounds. He was stunned with this discovery that he didn’t mention about it for 1 year. The axe is said to be 1.5 Million years old, which predates the homo-sapiens.

(2) Saint Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ is believed to have visited Madras in the 4th century. Almost all places – Little Mount, St. Thomas Mount, Santhome where Thomas is believed to have lived in Madras are around the Adyar. The first clear evidence about Thomas is from Marco Polo who visits India around 1300. Among other places, he visited Mylapore. He talks about an area where Nestorian Christmas lived, and that Thomas was buried. Legend has it that the river near Santhome once got jammed because of a wooden log, and caused flooding in the town. And Thomas took out his girdle and removed the log.

(3) If the legend of Thomas is interesting, then a similar legend on Thirumangai Azhwar for the same river in Thiruneermalai makes it more interesting. Thiruneermalai is the only padal petra sthaam on Adyar. It is believed that Thiruneermalai gets it name because the river (Adyar) got flooded for around 6 months ! Thiruneermalai also has a connection with Carnatic music. Sonti Venkatramaniah, the Guru of Tyagarajar stayed in Tiruneermalai, sang songs in praise of the Zamindar before he started teaching music. Tiruneermalai is also famous for its secretive weddings. Many celebrities have got married at this temple. It is here that MS Subbulakshmi (who lived near the Adyar river in Kotturpuram towards the later part of her life) got married to Sadasivam.

(4) Several institutes were found along the Adyar. The Trigonometric Society of India which measured and mapped India was started in St.Thomas Mount. The first location to be mapped was the Race Course, which is also on the banks of Adyar. The measurement was started by Lambton and completed by a person named Everest, after whom Mount Everest is named. Lambton’s statue can be found at the St.Thomas Mount. The King Institute of Preventive Medicine in Guindy is along the Adyar. King Institute’s biggest success is from the fact that the medicines produced by this institute were instrumental in eradicating small pox in India. The first Agricultural College in India was at Saidapet when wheat was grown in Mount Road ! The college was later shifted to Coimbatore, and the building in Saidapet now functions as the Teachers’ Training college

(5) Three Bharat Ratnas have lived or studied near the Adyar. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan studied at the Saidapet Agricultural College, MS Subbulakshmi lived at Kotturpuram, MG Ramachandran lived in Gandhi Nagar. Interestingly, there is a movie where 2 Bharat Ratnas – MS and MGR acted together. The movie is ‘Meera’ where MS played the lead, and MGR played a small role as Minister. It is hard to imagine if there will be another movie that will have 2 Bharat Ratnas on its star cast!

(6) The Battle of Adyar River took place in 1746. The battle involved 200 men of the French army, that had captured Madras from the British, and large force of 10,000 men belonging to Anwaruddin Muhammed Khan, the Nawab of the Carnatic, who sought to take Madras from the French. In the battle, which took place near the banks of the Adyar River, the French defeated the Nawab’s forces, and handed over a jolt to the British. The war was significant, as it taught the British the importance of organized armed forces. Few days after the war, Robert Clive would go on to form the Madras regiment, the precursor to Indian army.

(7) There’s some movie history too ! When the Talkies started in 1930s, Meenakshi Movie Tone (the place that later became Sathya Studios, and now MGR Janaki College) where the first talkie was shot. The studio did not have a roof, so the shooting had to be done in sunlight. When sunlight was inadequate, the crew would go eat lunch, and throw excess food on the banks of Adyar. Food attracted crows from the other end of the river (Theosophical Society). And when the crows made noise, it meant that shooting was disturbed. So they hired a person (Joe ?) to shoot the crows. This person’s name was mentioned in the credits of ‘Pavalakkodi’ that had MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar, Tamil cinema’s first superstar in the lead role. The movie also has another Adyar connection. Papanasam Sivan, who wrote 30 songs for Pavalakkodi, also wrote songs on the other side of the banks of Adyar. This was ‘Devi Vasanthe’, penned about Annie Besant in Vasantha Ragam.

(8) Venkatesh was quite vocal in his criticism for Annamalai Chettiar, the founder of Annamalai University. A political animal, Annamalai Chettiar was perhaps one of the most powerful Indians with deep pockets. His wielded tremendous influence on Lord Willingdon, the Governor General of India. He told Willingdon that Madras needed a Mayor, and convinced him to conduct a Mayor Election, that his own son (Raja Muthiah) contests. When it was found that his son was under age by 6 months, he postponed the elections by 6 months ! Later when his son became the Mayor, he becomes the owner of 100 acres of land on Marshall’s road in Egmore that houses the Air India Building – a property still owned by their family ! Albeit never a king, Annamalai Chettiar also gets the title of ‘Raja’ from British. The Chettinad bungalow today is a palatial house on Santhome High Road.

(9) The Theosophical Society is perhaps one of the biggest establishments along the Adyar. Olcott and Balavtsky started secret society Cairo, New York and India. Olcott school has the earliest mid-day meal schemes, which even Kamarajar acknowledges. Maria Montessori taught at TS, and being an Italian, she was arrested in India during WW2. Margaret Cousins who set the Jana Gana Mana to tune spent her last days in Theosophical Society, and was cremated in Adyar. The Indian National Congress had its genesis under the Banyan Tree. One of the 3 meetings held under the Banyan tree led to the formation of INC. Another famous personality – Jiddu Krishnamurthy is discovered on the banks of the Adyar.


(10) In his magnum opus ‘Ponniyin Selvan’, Kalki wrote several lines praising the river Cauvery. Kalki wrote his novel sitting at his residence in Gandhi Nagar on the banks of the river Adyar. He even says that the Ponni river got its name from the pon (golden) color of the water. One can see glimpses of that in Adyar river while while driving across Kottur bridges during sunrise.

Video of the talk available at :

(Photos Courtesy : Facebook)