CHENNAI: A clean Madras with no traffic-choked roads, people paying a toll to travel on a clean Buckingham Canal and using trams that crawled around North Beach Road — the old transport systems represent a different world.
The tramways in Chennai shut in the 1950s, and the waterways that once carried people and goods are now home to pollution and industrial effluents.
“Most people today have probably never seen a tram in reality,” says D Hemchandra Rao, who has been researching waterways and tramways in Chennai since his retirement as an architect. Rao, along with few other interested people like Winston Henry who specialises in old books and maps, has put together an exhibition on old transport systems at Fort St George with the help of the Archaeological Survey of India.
He has a special focus on Buckingham Canal as it is a manmade canal that he says, our own forefathers must have been involved in building. The canal first connected North Madras to Ennore, and was later extended up to Pulicat — the extension was 25 miles. “The workers dug for five years,” says Rao.
It was then called Cochrane’s Canal after Basil Cochrane who financed the project, and when the Madras Presidency took over the project, the canal finally spanned more than 300 km, all the way to the Krishna River banks in Andhra Pradesh. When the canal was later connected to the Adyar River, the entire waterway opened up. “This was at the time of a famine in Madras, and people had to dig in order to get food!” Rao says.
Rao has travelled along the city clicking photographs of the canal from boats in Pulicat, from where fish and salt used to be transported to the city centre. “We even went to Mahabalipuram to try and retrace the path that the boats took,” he adds.
Trams are the other quintessential part of old Madras that is now history. Winston says looking through old books got him interested in trams and he has found evidence in obscure places — photographs, council debates and maps. “Apart from indirect evidence found in photographs taken when the trams were functioning — like the overhead wires and posts, I sometimes have found post-60s photographs where a part of the road is darker in colour, indicating that this is where the tracks were removed and tarred over,” says Winston.
On rare occasions, he has come across people who have used the tram and have fond memories of it. “Some people told me the trams crept along so slowly that one could hop off any time and didn’t have to wait for a stop,” he adds.
It is when the rulers decided that buses would be more efficient, considering increasing population and travel, that the trams were shut down. Winston has traced the tram routes using an old hand drawn map of Chennai that someone sold to him for `10. “That’s what happens to history,” he laughs.
He has managed to procure an original tram ticket, which cost half an anna.
The group has also collected data on ships, those that were sunk and where they were lost. “Some of them were said to have carried gemstones,” says Winston.
All these are hidden histories that people should know, Rao says, and Madras has so much more undiscovered history, that we can find only when we really start looking.