Inside Chennai’s Nawabi Bastion
I love being a tourist in Chennai, where I was born, and have spent most of my life. Triplicane (the anglicised version) or Thiruvallikeni (which in Tamil means the sacred lily ponds), is one of the oldest localities in Chennai—a multicultural neighbourhood, with the sacred 8th-century Parthasarathy temple, as well as the Big Mosque, sharing space companionably. Today it’s a crowded quarter, famous for its many bookshops and mansions that offer cheap rooms for bachelors.
I am on a heritage walk led by local historian and documentary filmmaker Kombai S. Anwar, who starts by explaining the history of the area. “It all started with the siege of the Gingee Fort by Aurangzeb for six long years, in the war with the Marathas, when the Mughal Emperor appointed Zulfikar Ali, the first Nawab of the Carnatic in 1692,” he says. The Nawab established a camp in Arcot between the Krishna and Kaveri rivers. He was succeeded by six Nawabs, .
The most famous Nawab was Muhammad Ali Wallajah, a secular ruler who donated land to churches and temples and commissioned the Madrasa-E-Azam Islamic school in Anna Salai.
Anwar welcomes our group with a bottle of attar. He tells us how Chennai has Muslims who are ethnically very diverse and speak different languages other than Urdu, and that he is a Tamil-speaking Muslim. As we walk beside the crumbling walls of red-bricked buildings, he tells us about how Nawab Muhammad Ali Wallajah built the famous Chepauk Palace, over a sprawling 117 acres, where the River Cooum joined the Bay of Bengal, in 1764. When he built the palace, the neighbouring area of Triplicane developed into the residences of the nobles, and others working for the Nawab: as many as 20,000 North Indian Muslims, who spoke Urdu, moved here.
The palace was built out of lime mortar and red brick and designed by East India Company engineer Paul Benfield with two blocks, the southern block housing the private quarters called Kalas Mahal and the northern block with the Durbar Hall called Humayun Mahal. We walk past crumbling walls with plants sprouting out of bricks, intricate jharokha windows, wide arches, latticed balconies and cupolas.
From here we amble towards Wallajah Mosque on Triplicane High Road, also called the Big Mosque, built in the Mughal style. This is Chennai’s oldest mosque dating back to 1795, built completely out of granite. Inside the large hall, is a chronogram written in Persian, which helps in dating the year of construction of the mosque. From the mosque we see a stately building with blue window shutters and stained glass—this was once the Consulate of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, started by a family in the indigo trade. Today, the heritage building is the Broadlands hotel with old-fashioned rooms and age-old punkahs. After the death of the last Nawab, the British took over the ruling family’s properties as they were heavily in debt, and finally consented to give them the title of ‘Prince of Arcot.’ We walk through a tree-lined avenue with sleek Victorian cannons, to arrive at the stately Amir Mahal, the hereditary home of the Nawabs in Zam Bazaar area. The Nawabs moved here in 1876, and it’s been their home ever since. We walk through this time capsule, lined with sofas and glittering chandeliers, porcelain vases, memorabilia from large wooden howdahs and vintage palanquins, past a winding wooden staircase to the upstairs Durbar Hall, where huge oil paintings of the Nawabs grace the walls. We end our walk in Mylapore, today a predominantly Tamil Brahmin area with the famous Kapaleeshwarar Temple, and the water tank in front of it. However, not many know that the temple was influenced by Chennai’s former Muslim royalty. The land for the tank was donated to the temple by the Nawabs of Arcot. In return for that generosity, every year, on the 10th day of Muharram, Muslim faithfuls are allowed to dip their sacred symbol of the hand in the waters of the tank.
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