Memories of a market

As the last physical remnant of the legendary Moore Market, its miniature model on Chennai Central grounds inspires reflection and remorse for its poor upkeep 

Published: 13th September 2021 12:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th September 2021 12:44 AM   |  A+A-


Express News Service

CHENNAI:  A stack of gramophone records and second-hand books coated in a layer of dust lie in the corner of 62-year-old Imran Ahmed’s living room in Royapettah. Picking a cloth, he inches towards the unkempt stack and brushes it while occasionally blowing the dust off the books. “I purchased some of these books and discs a few months before the lockdown from the Allikulam Complex (Moore Market Complex),” he tells, as he goes on to pick a trinket — a lock fashioned in the shape of an owl with a rusty old key. “This is not of great value, except that it is the key to many memories — of an edifice that once stood tall near the Central Station — the (Old) Moore Market Complex. I bought this from a hawker there when I was very young.

After a fire ravaged the old market in 1985, I held it close along with a few books. But, this is the only memorabilia that survives. It was a weekly ritual for my family to visit the market and purchase meat and a few books,” narrates the sexagenarian, recalling the market as a place hustling and bustling with activity. “The toy shops and bookshops used to excite me. The market used to be filled with hawkers, buyers and pickpockets too!” he recalls.

Today, there isn’t much left of it. Or so we were told. “There’s a scaled-down model of the Moore Market. It’s a fine installation. But it’s also a piece of history ignored,” he says, clicking his tongue.

Lost in time
Ashmitha Athreya of Madras Inherited, a collective that works towards heritage awareness, conservation and management, concurs. “Have you noticed how cities leave behind clues for their inhabitants to piece together? Some are small and go unnoticed while others are right in your face? It’s understandable how some of us fail to look at the former; yet, when even the latter goes ignored, who is to be blamed?” she asks, as she helps us navigate the current state of the miniature replica of the Moore Market Complex, located in the parking yard adjacent to the Central suburban station.

“I’ve had friends who’ve been to the Station scores of times, used the parking lot even more, but failed to pay even a fleeting glance to the model in red. Separated by an iron grill and shaded by a huge tree, it’s the leaves that provide it with protection and company, while the people seated around look away from it,” she shares.

According to a few shopkeepers who have been operating from the Allikulam Complex, which was built to rehabilitate the traders of the Old Moore Market, the miniature model is believed to have been installed sometime in the late 80s, few years after the original Moore Market burned down. “Sources suggest that the design and installation were carried out by a department of the Southern Railways. Although in a desperate condition today, the model gives valuable insight into the architecture and design of the old market,” notes Ashmitha.

In harmony with history
Subha Sreenivasan, a 61-year-old retired architect fondly recalls the old market’s structure — a quadrangular building. “I used to be fascinated by its structural design and wondered how RE Ellis, the designer of the Market, envisioned the building. There were several reasons for me to pursue architecture; my love for magnificent buildings like the Old Moore Market Complex was one. Even today, when I visit Chennai, I ensure I stop by the miniature model. It is a reminder of the arcades, the garden and whatnot,” shares Subha, who resides in Bengaluru.

The market was the ingenious idea of Lt Col Sir George Moore who sought to establish a clean and hygienic municipal market in a central location. It also offered space for hawkers and their second-hand goods. The market was opened in 1900 and carried products and items ranging from groceries, meat to vinyl records and books.

“Back in the early 60s, it was not uncommon for us to proudly take our guests from Bombay or Calcutta on a trip to Moore Market. But, the charms of the place just could not enthuse them into any laudatory comments. And hence, these invariably ended sulkily for us. Despite its extremely handsome appearance, its elegant Indo-Saracenic style, and almost matching floor coverage, it was certainly true that the Moore market came a distant third behind their Crawford and New Markets. Maybe it had to do with the wares on offer that in comparison, were far more modest and more suited to the much shallower pockets and puritanical tastes of the locals. But, as kids, we adored the place and loved going around it in its concentric squares,” reminisces Zoyab Alihussain Kadi, advisor, Madras Inherited and Triple O Studio.

Heritage in hindsight
Zoyab offers that the Moore Market’s location had two prospects. One: It could have been gloriously exploited as a cultural precinct. “There was the Victoria Hall with its magnificent turret on one side, regularly hosting a variety of exhibitions. Just behind the main complex was a thriving second-hand market, where one could rummage through for items that could not possibly be found in retail stores. Next to it was a largish pond covered with lilies, and added a touch of serenity to the place.

A little further was an open ground that hosted an annual circus, with its piercing searchlights at night and its menagerie of animals. There was the dormant massive bulk of the Corporation stadium that only came alive during cricket test matches. There was a mini botanical garden, popular with Tollywood directors, with its public swimming pool — My Lady’s Garden. And finally, the Madras Zoo with its lake and few rowboats, an island, and Japanese style wooden bridges. The second prospect was the imminent threat from the majestic Central Station — on the other side — that ultimately turned out to be its nemesis,” he tells, as he walks us through the Market’s layout.  

The market had two concentric squares. The four corners were the entry points. A narrow outer arcade served low ceiling petty shops that dealt mostly with philatelic and numismatic hobbies, old school and college textbooks, pet shops with mini aquariums and helpless birds in cages and the paraphernalia required for their upkeep. “The inner arcade had a clear-storey serving larger retail shops that dealt with textiles and accessories, shoes and leather goods, gifts and cheap souvenirs, a few eateries and pastry shops. The innermost square was a sizeable but neglected courtyard,” he details. 

Scattered vestiges
However, the Moore Market we’ve come to know and enjoy is a far cry from its predecessor. The old one was ravaged by a mysterious fire in 1985 and left behind scattered vestiges. “Many believe that the fire is linked to the Railways’ constant demand for more space for expansion. Some sources suggest that efforts could have been made to preserve the structure after the fire,” tells Ashmitha, adding that the site soon fell prey to ‘growth and expansion’ and the Chennai Suburban Railway Complex, an ill-conceived multi-storey building that stands out, sorely, amongst its majestic neighbours.

“Often, I’ve found myself feeling sad looking at the skyline near Central, wishing away the suburban railway complex building for two reasons — one, it is in total disharmony with its context and is insensitive to the history and heritage of its neighbours. Two, it replaced what was once a magnificent market,” she rues.

Today, the new bazaar located in the Allikulam Complex (behind the railway complex) has earned the tag of a flea market and doesn’t enjoy the strong patronage that its predecessor did. “Only a few vestiges of the original Moore Market remain, and the miniature model is the greatest of them. With the right amount of stories and imagination, one can transform themselves and take a walk through the erstwhile market of the city,” she concludes. 

A timeline

  • The Foundation of Moore Market Complex was laid in August 1898
  • The complex was opened to the public in 1900
  • The Market caught fire due to mysterious reasons and was burned down in 1985
  • A new complex was built over a lily pond in 1986 and named the Allikulam Complex or Lily Pond Complex to rehabilitate vendors from the Old Market.
  • The miniature model is believed to have been installed in the late 80s.
    Source: Madras Inherited

Moving on from the past
The Moore Market we’ve come to know and enjoy is a far cry from its predecessor. The old one was ravaged by a mysterious fire in 1985 and left behind scattered vestiges. “Many believe that the fire is linked to the Railways’ constant demand for more space for expansion. Some sources suggest that efforts could have been made to preserve the structure after the fire,” tells Ashmitha of Madras Inherited.

More lores on Facebook and Instagram page @MadrasInherited


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