When in Chennai, the ordinary joe might head to Marina Beach for the sunset, or visit Mylapore for its colourful temples and old messes. But few know that 15 minutes away from the latter lies a neighbourhood brimming with stories.
Historian V. Sriram is quite the custodian of memories when it comes to the 17th-century colonial area of George Town. A heritage activist leading walks for over 20 years, Sriram is all fondness even when he points out its rundown buildings, dilapidated warehouses, and narrow streets. “Located right behind Fort St. George, the seat of the state government, George Town is representative of the oldest part of colonial Madras and was called the ‘Black Town’ until 1905,” he explains. When it was formed around 1649, it was mostly inhabited by Indians associated with the fort.
Time has not been kind to many parts of this beloved Chennai nook. The picture Sriram paints of George Town is anything but rose-tinted—narrow streets (the broadest of them, Broadway Street, is only 50-feet-long) and three- and four-storey buildings dating back 200 years. Many of them were demolished to make space for new retail spaces and residences. The ones that remain are poorly preserved and block the sunlight streaming into the streets. “But the residents are blessed with plenty of breeze because the sea is close. Most buildings here are replicas of each other—a narrow entrance opens into a central courtyard that leads to a set of rooms, behind which lie a sprawling backyard.” In many cases, the ground floors of these houses are crumbling warehouses, proof that businesses flourished here once upon a time, guesses Sriram.
And still for Sriram, it is George Town he nominates as a must-visit for its colourful, unique character. When he speaks about it over the telephone, you can almost see him leading a motley gaggle of characters into the area’s back alleys and pet corners during one of his walks. “The neighbourhood is divided by trade. One street sells only paper products. Another, mechanical devices. Then there’s the flower bazaar, and a wholesale flower market that’s best visited at 3 a.m., when the day’s fresh flowers are brought into the stalls. Hefty men and women elbow their way to the front line, uttering the choicest of profanities if someone tries to get too close. By 5 a.m. the frenzy ceases and a lull falls upon the neighbourhood until 9 a.m., when other local shops open their shutters,” says Sriram, fondness lingering in his voice. “Another thing you must not miss is a meal at New Prakash Bhavan.”
During the colonial era, one part of George Town spoke only Portuguese and the other, Tamil and Telugu. “As a result, a bevy of translators emerged in the area, many of them crooks who ended up owning most of the houses in the blocks! Some even had streets named after them,” smiles Sriram. “Then there was Linghi Chetty (of Linghi Chetty Street), a mint master with the East India Company. He was quite the patron of the arts, and has Carnatic songs dedicated to him and his family. Some streets are named after colourful characters who built grand homes for their mistresses, and left behind some very complicated wills which took the High Court 40-50 years to sift through,” chuckles Sriram.
The discovery of George Town has been his passion project for years. But his favourite memory is a decade-old, when he was conducting one of his usual walks around the neighbourhood. “I was passing by a flower seller, and heard him grunt to his companion in Tamil: ‘You know that nutcase who comes here with groups? Well look, he’s back again…’ I couldn’t help but burst out laughing!”
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.