CHENNAI: "Imagine a wide road laced with banyan trees on either side, which historically linked the villages of Egmore, Mylapore and Thiruvottiyur with the old town of Chingleput (Chengalpet)," guides Asmitha Athreya of Madras Inherited, over a Zoom meeting.
As we take a quick moment to visualise the green cover of a less-populated and polluted stretch, a video begins streaming, pulling us back into reality - of the Mount Road (Anna Salai) we know and have grown to witness.
Busy commuters powerwalking along the pavement, vehicles zipping (or trying) and almost brushing past each other through the traffic wave, vendors opening the shutters of their store to usher in the day’s business and myriad other sights that dot the vehicular and commercial thoroughfare of the city. The camera's angle then moves from the road to the side, giving us a magnificent view of the buildings in the stretch, some of which have stood the test of time.
Saturday evening marked, perhaps, one of those 'can happen only in your dream' moments, where we navigated through Mount Road without getting caught in traffic, exploring its history, heritage and architecture.
"This stretch is the single longest road in the city (besides Poonamallee High Road). Interestingly, its character - from the buildings, its history to its architecture - changes every few kilometres," said Asmitha, warming up the participants for what was in store.
Our first stop was the Agurchand Mansion, which often catches the eyes of the commuters for the dozen-odd signages that mount its brick-red façade. It has a story that dates back to the Nawab of the Carnatic.
"The property where the mansion is housed belonged to Azamunissa Begum, the wife of Ghulam Ghouse Khan, the titular Nawab. The property was named Rushkram and in the early 1900s, it was sold to Khaleeli Shirazee, a person of Persian descent and one of the richest men in Madras. He went on to develop the property, built a mansion between 1923 and 1925 and named it Khaleeli Mansions. This was, at the time, the city’s tallest building (the city’s first 100- foot high building)," explained the walk leader.
Post-Partition, when the legal heir of the mansion migrated to Pakistan, the building became evacuee property and was auctioned by the government. "The highest bidder was Agurchand, a businessman. It was then taken over by him and eventually named after him," she said, giving us a peek into its history.
Today, while its beautiful Indo-Saracenic and Persian fabric, including its foliated and pointed arches, stand tall as a witness to the changing times of the city, the numerous commercial establishments - from the electrical stores to the detective agencies that are housed in it - have done very little to care for its mothership.
"Despite the fire accident in the building in 2012, not much has been done to protect it. One can also find vegetative growth and loss of property in parts of the mansion. While the building is still surviving, more effort has to be made to preserve it for the future," she noted.
As we ‘walked’ further, a rather aesthetic Gove Building, more contemporarily known as the Mercedes/Titanium Motors building, caught our attention. Built as a showroom for Simpsons & Co in 1916, the century-odd-old building with a striking Victorian influence (the materials were then procured from England) is perhaps, one of the handful heritage structures in the neighbourhood that have been preserved in mint condition over the years.
"This is a sign of how good ownership and maintenance can result in the flourishing of a heritage building," she shared. Quite contrastingly, one of our stops during the walk - the Bharath Insurance Building - was in an abysmal state, fighting for its resurrection despite its century-long rich history.
What was originally conceived as a space for pharmacist WE Smith to set up a 60X40 showroom on the ground floor for the wholesale and manufacturing of pharmaceutical drugs, an office on the first floor for opticians and their assistants, and a dedicated space for surgical instrument and makers of aerated waters, it now lies in a state of apathy - with broken walls and arches, growing vegetation and a part of it used as a dump yard.
"The Kardyl building was designed by JH Stephens of the Madras PWD. The building is a product of a vision that amalgamated different layers and architectural styles into it. The building was later bought by Spencers and parts of the building were leased out. It was later bought by Bharath Insurance. But, when life insurance was nationalised in 1956, the building was taken over by LIC. The structure of the building, with beautiful domes, arches and verandahs, has deteriorated due to lack of maintenance," lamented the heritage activist about the Grade I edifice.
"It's quite disheartening to see such a magnificent building, which could have been put to good use in such a sad state. It is hard to say for how long we will get to see it in brick and mortar. We are now attempting to collect vestiges of its history and heritage and share it with the public," she said.
Through the 120-minute walk, we were initiated to the histories of buildings, including the Addison & Co, SBI Building, LIC Building and Higginbotham's. As we hopped from stop to stop, the architectural influences and motifs beginning from Persian, Victorian, Indo-Saracenic, Ottoman to Dutch made every sojourn a unique one.
Be it Addison & Co earning the name of being pioneers in bicycle imports in the city or as the first company in Madras to formally represent a motor car manufacturer; Higginbotham's rich history to now being touted as the oldest existing book store in the country and LIC’s fabric emulating the UN Secretariate building in New York City - Asmitha seasoned the walk with anecdotes while balancing it well with visual imageries, including several from a bygone era.
Our final stop, the famous Buhari, was one that left us craving for their popular Chicken 65 and biryani. "The origin of Buhari goes back to the time when AM Buhari had to leave his home town in Tirunelveli for better prospects. He landed in Colombo where he decided to set up a restaurant. In his endeavour, he also ended up creating a trademark biryani, for which, he is said to have tried and tested 200 recipes to derive the ultimate one. Later, he decided to come back to India and set up Buhari Hotel in Madras.
When it opened its doors in 1951, it not only introduced the city to a mouth-watering biryani but also espresso machines, jukeboxes, and cutlery-crockery from London, to offer a finedining experience," she explained.
However, now, Buhari is known most popularly for the Chicken 65, a dish conceived in their kitchen. "There are several theories and conjectures behind its name - one suggests that it was introduced in 1965, another that the marinade then took 65 days to be prepared, and so on. However, the Chicken 65 was never patented by AM Buhari. He said if he had patented it, it wouldn’t have reached the world," she added.
Running as a single spine through the ever-evolving city, Mount Road has been the juncture and path for several incidences and developments. "It will always hold a special place - be it for its buildings, people, architecture or food. Like in the case of the Bharath building, there are many other heritage structures in the stretch that need attention and preservation. Action has to be taken before weather, time and commercial developments take a toll on them," she concluded.
For details about Madras Inherited's heritage walks, call: 8925704437 or visit Instagram/Facebook page Madras Inherited
WHAT'S IN THE NAME
This arterial road got its iconic name for the fact that it connected the Fort St George with St Thomas Mount. The Fort was then called the Government House and served as the official residence of
the Governor from the 1740s till 1947