The zero where it all starts
Chennai’s 0 km milestones, one of the many pieces of inconspicuous heritage in the city, could do with a little more celebration. Here’s why, says Ashmitha Athreya of Madras Inherited
CHENNAI: How often have we cared for ‘milestones’ when it’s not in the context of growth spurts, life achievements and metaphors? If not to check out the name of the village you’re passing by on the way to the city, would you even stop to check out the ones on the highways? In that case, how likely are you to notice a nondescript member of this family almost camouflaged near the wall on the busy stretch of Muthuswamy Road? If your answer is in the negative, well, you should probably slow down and take a closer look the next time around. For, tucked away in this overlooked part of the city, is a piece of uncherished heritage — our very own 0 km milestone.
“In capital cities around the world, the kilometre zero — also known by names such as zero stone, point zero, or zero marker — is a specific location from which distances to other places are measured. It could be an obelisk, a milestone, an inscribed plaque (on the wall or floor) or a sculpture. The earliest example dates back to the Roman Empire, where the Milliarium Aureum (Golden Milestone) was erected by Emperor Caesar Augustus near the Temple of Saturn in the ancient Roman Forum in 20 century BC. This historical monument denoted the specific point from where all distances in the Empire (to and from Rome) were measured,” begins Ashmitha Athreya, of Madras Inherited, an organisation that works towards heritage awareness, conservation, and management.
In quiet service
While ours truly might not account for all of the Empire, it serves as the technical starting point for three primary roads of Chennai — the NH 45 that winds down south to Thiruchirapalli, NH 4 that takes off westward to Bengaluru and the NH 5 that sticks to the coast all the way to Kolkata. Google Maps, if you were to look for the route from Chennai to these cities, would peg the starting point somewhere closer to Chennai Central Railway Station; but the milestone isn’t all that far from there. “As you turn right from EVR Periyar Salai into Muthuswamy Road, make sure to keep your eyes glued. You’ll pass by the 1 km sign on your right. A few moments later, on your left, will be this little piece of heritage,” offers Ashmitha.
Yet, chances are you wouldn’t notice this landmark. And it wouldn’t really be your fault. “Generally, km 0 markers are designed to stand out — either in a grand manner or using creative design details. In India, a popular km 0 marker is located in Nagpur. It is believed to have been erected by the British and meant to signify the geographical centre of colonial India, although there is no evidence to attest to this purpose of the monument. The marker consists of four horses and a sandstone pillar. It’s been designed as a monument itself. While it no longer holds that position, since the borders were redrawn post-Partition, the marker still stands. It’s being taken care of by the Municipal Corporation there. But, it’s not the same with its Chennai counterpart,” she narrates.
Relegated to anonymity
Our humble milestone looks like any other of its brethren in yellow and white. What more, with the modifications over the years, it now stands on the footpath, behind the protective railing and right next to a black and white wall. “I get questions about why it (this marker) could not be celebrated in a similar way. We could have a plaque or a monument in its place. But, the fact that the marker is on a footpath doesn’t help its situation and there’s only so much that can be done. Maybe, we can install a plaque on the wall,” she suggests.
The reason that none of this is even being discussed is the direct result of the lack of heritage awareness, she points out. Without which the question of conservation never arises. While there is already a call to the government for the creation of Heritage Management Board that would attend to all heritage structures in the city and help individual citizens occupying these spaces to preserve them better, Ashmitha surmises that such an official body would be of great help to better celebrate these pieces of history too. While we are a long way away from that becoming a reality, there’s nothing keeping you from driving by Muthuswamy Bridge and stopping to notice legacy, add to its digital footprint.
Popular km 0 markers around the world
Santiago, Chile — a plaque at Plaza de Armas, the main square in downtown Santiago
Havana, Cuba — a replica of a 25-carat diamond embedded in the floor. The original diamond is believed to have belonged to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and sold to the Cuban State by a Turkish merchant.
Cairo, Egypt — at the Attaba Square Post Office, where the bust of Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, is considered to be km 0
Paris France — a marking on the square facing the main entrance to Notre-Dame
Berlin, Germany — a reconstructed milestone pillar
Madrid, Spain — a plaque on the ground in front of the Royal House of the Post Office. It’s in Puerta del Sol, a public square that’s considered the figurative centre of Spain.
Budapest, Hungary — a monument of the number zero, with the word km on the pedestal below
London, England — King Charles statue at Charing Cross