Where have all our avenues gone?

In a beautiful, nostalgic ode to Chennai that was Madras, heritage activist V Sriram tells us about the lost landmarks of the city: the tree-lined avenues and what they have become today.

It’s a blazing summer with a drought compounding it. Most of Chennai’s roads are devoid of any kind of tree cover and with the heat radiating from the sky, the buildings, the roads and the vehicles make for a local version of hell. At a time like this, it is with a pang that I read a report of the Municipal Corporation of Madras, dating to 1868. It has, among other things, a page on how the civic body set about creating tree cover along certain roads in the city, thereby qualifying them as avenues.

The part of Mount Road between Government House (now Periyar) Bridge and Wallajah (presently Quaid-e-Milleth) Bridge was named Napier Avenue and was lined with Peepul Trees.

This is the road that cuts right across the Island and its southern edge goes past what was once Napier’s (now May Day) Park, which probably explains its name. There are plenty of photographs of the dense foliage that once existed on this road. Today, it is a wide thoroughfare but devoid of trees. Napier was Governor of Madras in the 1860s.

Coleman Avenue was named after J.G. Coleman who was a partner and later sole proprietor of McDowell & Co. At the time this avenue was being created, he was President of the Municipality of Madras. This stretch was from Parry’s Corner to Fort St. George, a space now occupied by the subway that runs parallel to the High Court compound. Coleman Avenue was lined with casuarina trees.

Ladies’ Mile is an interesting name and this evidently was at the eastern end of the Island, flanking the Cooum. This was planted with trees of various species. Victoria Avenue, to be lined with jamun trees, is a little difficult to identify, but would appear to have been near here. The document has it that this was the old Wallajah East Esplanade Road, which connected St. Mary’s and Wallajah Bridges. But with St. Mary’s Bridge itself no longer visible, locating this road would have been well nigh impossible were it not for the indefatigable researches of Hemachandra Rao.

He says St. Mary’s Bridge took its name from St. Mary’s Cemetery on the Island. It ran across the Cooum just next to this burial ground, close to where the Buckingham Canal met the Cooum. This bridge later came to be topped by the Stanley Viaduct and overbridge. According to Rao, vestiges of the old St. Mary’s Bridge can still be seen if you are willing to brave the slum that has come up under the Stanley Viaduct.

The Eicher Map shows Burial Ground Road as connecting Quaid-E-Milleth (earlier Wallajah) Bridge and the spot where St. Mary’s Bridge once stood. This road too is not accessible now owing to the dense slum that exists on it, but in its time this must have been Victoria Avenue.

Easier to locate is Cooum Riverside Avenue. This was from Law’s Bridge, the pedestrian walkway that connects Chintadripet with E.V.R. Salai just where Ripon Building stands, to Government House Gate (which is where the Assembly-turned-Multi-Speciality Hospital now is). Now known as Deputy Mayor Kabalamurthy Road, it had portia (puvarasu) trees planted on it.

The other end of Law’s Bridge was at the gates of People’s Park, for in 1868 none of the landmarks we know – VP Hall, Ripon Building, Central Station or Moore Market – existed. The tree-lined avenue there, full of portia trees, extended all along Sydenham’s (now Raja Sir M.A. Muthiah Chettiar) Road right up to De Mellow’s Road, making it a very long avenue indeed.

Popham’s Broadway Avenue, lined with portia and neem trees, is easy to locate though no trace of it survives now. It began at the St. Xavier’s Parchery and ran via Monegar Choultry Road to Tondiarpet. Mount Road Avenue ran on Mount Road, from Government House (Periyar) Bridge to Neil’s Statue, which stood at the Spencer’s Junction. This also had different kinds of trees planted on it. On the opposite side, from Waller’s Stables (now space occupied by Christ Church, the Cosmopolitan and S.V.S. Clubs and much else) to General Patter’s Road ran the Club Avenue, which had redwood and acacia trees on it. This stretch ended at the Madras Club, which was on property now occupied by the Express Avenue Mall.

Binny’s Avenue was where Binny’s Road is, leading from Neil’s Statue (Spencer’s Junction) to Commander-in-Chief Bridge. Neem trees were planted here. From this bridge ran Marshall’s Road (now Rukmini Lakshmipathy Salai). This had neem and portia trees lining it all the way along the Cooum, space occupied by the Rajarathinam Stadium, the walls of the eye hospital and up to Harris (now Adithanar) Road.

From Harris Road began Lang’s Avenue (now Lang’s Garden Road), which ran along the Cooum. This had portia and neem trees. Spur Tank Avenue was from the Mounted Police barracks to Munro’s Bridge. The former is in Adithanar Road and the only thoroughfare connecting it to any bridge is Pantheon Road as it ends at present day College Bridge. This must have once been known as Munro’s Bridge and the road to it was planted with neem trees, as were several stretches along Purasawalkam High Road, which came to be known as Purasawalkam Avenue.

Coranaeswarar Covil Road, named Barber’s Bridge Avenue, was as the name suggests in Mylapore, leading to the famed Hamilton/Barber’s and now Ambedkar Bridge. This road, lined then with portia trees, is now known as Paripurna Vinayakar Koil Street. Pycroft’s Avenue, leading from Bell’s (now Babu Jagjivan Ram) Road to the Beach (where Kannagi Statue now is), had redwood trees.

Bell’s Road itself came to be called Bell’s Avenue, with redwood trees planted on it. Neem trees lined Wallajah Road from Round Tana (where Anna Statue now stands) to Chepauk Palace and the stretch was called Alexandra Avenue, after Victoria’s daughter-in-law and future Queen of England. Along the Beach, connecting the old Fort glacis via Napier’s Bridge to the space now occupied by the samadhi-s was Band Practice Road. Lined with portia trees, this became South Beach Avenue.

The peepul and casuarina failed to take root wherever planted and on their failing, were replaced with neem and portia trees. It is noteworthy that no alien species were planted anywhere. The total cost came to Rs. 3,037, as 11 p 11. This was funded by revenue from grazing contracts on the esplanades and on roadsides, sale of hay and clippings of trees. The money earned from these activities was Rs. 4,527 as 10 p 10. The Municipality thus made a neat profit from the whole project. Those were innocent times.

It would be interesting to walk along these stretches and see if any old trees of those species are still standing.

[This article has been republished with permission from Madras Musings where it first appeared. The original piece can be read here.]

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