The city of Chennai is today what urban spaces all around the world hope to be. It is a thriving centre for commercial activity and is the only metropolitan city in southern India, although Bengaluru and Hyderabad are not far behind. The city of Chennai can be dated back to 1639. Although not a part of the original Madras—which dates back to 1639--Adyar today has become a very important residential and commercial area of Chennai.But a look at the area’s colourful past reveals a lot about what it has come to represent now. At varied times it has been a fishing village, home of theology, a centre for the arts, education and social reforms.
Adyar is the area which lies toward the south of the river Adyar, which was once regarded as the southern boundary of the city. It was a fishing village where some paddy cultivation was also practiced. With their rich ecology, the Adyar estuary and creek grew into an abode of migratory birds.
The Marundeeswarar temple, belonging to the Chola period, was already a place of cultural significance. The temple is believed to have been built somewhere in the 7th century A.D. Tirugnanasambandar and Tirunavukkarasarthe Saivite saint poets are believed to have visited the temple and sung its praises, testifying its existence during their lifetime in the 8th century.
Everything changed in 1883, when Mrs.H.P.Blavatsky and Col.H.S.Olcott decided to relocate their religious organization in the area. The Theosophical Society, which was launched with much fanfare in New York in 1875, attracted a varied crowd to the area.
Madras at this time was still a conservative city and the Adyar area was considered a threat to the established order of the local society and its existing structure. In the year 1888 Mrs. Annie Besant came to Adyar to join the Theosophical society and with that a whole new chapter opened in the organisation’s history. With her entry into mainstream Indian politics the Theosophical society also gained repute throughout the country and attracted a sizable crowd of foreigners to the order.
This influx of a mixed crowd had an impact on the lifestyle of the people who resided here. With vast spaces to be occupied the houses were large and the roads wide. The people who resided here also came to represent a laid back lifestyle which was in keeping with their image as tolerant and cultured people. At this time the interior of the Adyar area was still a gaming reserve and the beach at this time extended upto the Theosophical society. The first residential area, thus, was Gandhinagar due to its proximity to the Theosophical Society.
In 1878 the Elphinstone Bridge was built across the Adyar river and provided relief to the farmers during the famine of that time. Until the bridge was built the residents of the area had to rely on ferry service to get across the river and into Madras.
H.S.Olcott “discovered” Jiddu Krishnamurthi during a walk on the Elliot’s Beach in 1909. The boy was the son of a clerk of the Theosophical society. In 1911, the leadership of the Theosophical Society at Adyar established a new organization, the Order of the Star in the East (OSE), to prepare the world for the expected appearance of the World Teacher. Krishnamurti was named as its Head.
Adyar also became a hub for reformist activities as people influenced by theosophical thought and went on to change the society they inhabited. One such personality was Mrs. Muthulakshmi Reddi. Dr Reddy was actively involved with several orphanage homes and women’s welfare organisations, and initiated measures to improve the medical facilities given to slum dwellers. In 1930, she founded Avvai Home, a home for destitute women and orphans at Besant Avenue, Adyar.
Another important landmark of the area is situated on the Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar, the Schmidt memorial. The memorial commemorates the gallantry of Kaj Schimdt, a Dutch sailor, who drowned on December 30, 1930 while helping save other lives.
Rukmini Devi Arundale started Kalakshetra inside the Theosophical Society premises in 1936 to bring Bharatanatyam, a dance form practised by Devadasis, to the fore as a classical Indian dance form. She started the Besant Theosophical High School along with her husband George Arundale. In 1939 they invited Maria Montessori, an eminent educationist, to the school to introduce her method of education, and with that the Montessori system took root in India. In the following decades several initiatives followed: the Besant Arundale Senior Secondary School, The College of Fine Arts, The Besant Theosophical High School, The Maria Montessori School for Children, The Craft Education and Research Centre and within the Kalakshetra campus. The U.V.Swaminatha Iyer Library is located close to Kalakshetra.
Adyar is also home to the world’s largest leather research institute. Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) is the hub of the Indian leather sector. It was founded in the very first year of India’s independence, on April 24, 1948. A.L. Mudaliar, a great visionary and the then Vice-Chancellor of Madras University donated his own land in the vicinity of the University for the establishment of CLRI. He envisioned it as an academic partner of the University whose research and training will help tap the leather production potential of the region.
In 1958 the game reserve in Guindy was transferred to the Madras Forest department and in 1978 it was converted to a National Park and in 1972 a snake park was started near the reserve by Romulus Whittaker.
In 1959 the Indian Institute for Technology Madras was set up in the area with technical and financial assistance from the Government of West Germany. It is regarded as one of the best institutes for technical learning IIT Madras. The institute is also known for the preservation of the Chital or spotted Deer which are found on the premises as the college adjoins the Guindy National Park and was once forest land.
The Gandhinagar club provided the residents of the area with sporting activities, mainly cricket and tennis. In the year 1955 a handful of sports enthusiasts started this club on a piece of land which had been set aside for sporting activities. The club has held fast to its traditions and continues to promote Tennis in the city with very good training facilities.
Film fanatics could visit the Sathya studio to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars. But alas, it has made way for the M.G.R Janaki college of Arts and Science for women. The Jayanthi and Thyagaraja theatres were the preferred movie halls which still exist. Others, like the Eros, have faded away.
The means of transport for connecting to the city was by ferry rides until the first bus route, No.5 from Adyar to Parrys, was initiated in Adyar which lives even today. The most famous bus to have passed through Adyar, however, was 5B from Mylai to T.Nagar.
The Voluntary Health Services came into being as a registered society in 1958, with 25 acres of land approved by the state government in Adyar. With that Adyar gained prominence as a centre for medical health. VHS became a physical entity in 1961 when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the cornerstone of the first block of buildings.
Adyar has a history of near-working class eateries, while the ubiquitous Udipi restaurant has never made a major headway in the area. On the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel road are three such eateries which have been around for a considerable period of time, the Coronet hotel, Hotel Runs and the Adyar Bakery.
Hotel Runs, a Kerala hotel in Adyar, has been running since 1964. Mr. Kunhahamed first set up a tea stall in this busy corner of Adyar. As he rushed about serving tea, coffee and buns, an ear ever open to his customers, he would hear them remark at how fast he would run around to keep their cups filled. So when he opened a hotel he chose the name Runs.
The Coronet hotel is located just a short distance from Hotel Runs and like Runs serves Kerala cuisine. Started in 1955 by Ali Hasan the hotel still has the old world ambience.
The Adyar Bakery started as the Gandhinagar Bakery, and was the only branch of McRennett, which was started in 1903. It started off as a small neighbourhood bakery and since this bakery was the only one catering to the whole of Adyar, and not just Gandhinagar, the name was changed to Adyar Bakery. “The initial emphasis was on making breads, after which we graduated to cakes and cookies. The tea-bar cake, which is an English recipe, is unique to the bakery and it remains unchanged till date” Mr R Mukund the current owner of the bakery.
The city, however, has undergone a massive change 80’s and 90’s. Adyar also has had to experience this change and with increasing number of people relocating to Madras Adyar too has transformed. Now Adyar is an important residential and commercial area with its share of restaurants, shopping complexes and Pubs. Elliot’s beach now forms a major part of the Chennai ‘party circuit’. Every convenience can be sought here, with leading consumer brands setting up shop here. For an urban population it has come to symbolise all that is modern. There is, however, some resistance to these changes to be found. But this is confined to people who had experienced the old Adyar and it will be interesting to see how much longer they hold out. The spirit of an area, the lifestyle it came to symbolize for the residents of that area must invariably fade away as is the norm in modern cities.
- Vikram Gopal