Peek into history

Heritage

Peek into history

Think Carnatic and what plays in your mind is divine classical music. Aside from the ragas and thalam, the term Carnatic can also refer to a region in South India which was once known to be a hot seat of power amongst the Mughals, Marathas, and even the British and French. Soon, the region came to be associated with the Nawabs of Arcot.

This dynasty began with a siege between the Mughals and Marathas in the 17th century, and survived for 200 years after.

The royal house still stands erect today, with the present prince, Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali maintaining its age-old traditions. While Arcot may have been their seat of power, their home remains in Madras, or Chennai, as we know it today.

My trip to the royal house of Arcot began on a wet Saturday morning in Chennai, when I went on a Wallajah trail along with noted documentary film maker, Kombai S Anwar. The skies were covered with a thick layer of rain clouds waiting to drench the wind-swept city. The seas were choppy and the Marina looked vacant and washed out. As we walked towards the Chepauk Palace, Anwar traced out the history of the dynasty.

Towards the end of 17th century, the Marathas were trying to establish their base in the south. Aurangazeb, the Mughal emperor, sent Zulfikar Khan, an army general, to Arcot to contain the Marathas. “The siege was supposed to get over in a few months, but it was prolonged for over six years,” said Anwar, adding, “it is possible that Zulfikar Khan was actually in collusion with the Marathas.”

Continuing with his narration, Anwar informed me that a local chieftain, Yachamma Nayak, wrote a note to Aurangazeb stating, “Your man was fooling you. If I was given the responsibility, I would defeat them in a week’s time.” The letter, however, was intercepted. Zulfikhar Khan invited the chieftain over for a meeting and without revealing his knowledge of the letter, killed him.

“He made it look like an accident, by cutting off the ropes of the tent when the chieftain walked in,” said Anwar. The story, however, did not end here. Aurangazeb apparently did get to know about the incident after the siege was over and asked Zulfikar Khan to let the young successor of the chieftain ascend his rightful throne.

The story, in many ways, is the beginning of the House of Arcot. Zulfikar Khan was appointed by Aurangazeb as a Nawab of Carnatic, and is officially recognised today as the first ruler of the dynasty. “Over six years, the camp slowly developed into a town and the successors eventually made Arcot their capital,” said Anwar.

The dynasty expanded despite the strong hold that the British East India company had over Madras, from Fort St George. The Nawabs and the British seemed to share a strange friendship, often mutually beneficial to each other. “The story goes that the British used to supply expensive liquor and gifts to Nawab Daud Khan Panni. Often in a state of inebriation, he gave away villages to the British in return! At times, when he was sober, he would demand them back,” said Anwar.

However, his successor, Saadatullah Khan or Mohammad Saiyid, showed more caution, and preferred to contain the British. He built a fort in Kovalam, in the outskirts of Chennai, and invited several merchants, including the Armenian and Belgian East India Company. Anwar explained that as these were revenue states, they needed the money to fund wars and welfare schemes. Hence, trade came of importance. Saadutullah Khan also established Saidabad, known today as Saidapet. If you were to walk around the locality today, you would find a mosque named after him, right in the heart of the town.

Anwar continued with a bit of history, as we admired the Indo Sarcenic style of the Chepauk Palace. Internal feuds in the royal house took a bloody turn as the British and the French took sides in the war for succession. Robert Clive and Dupleix clashed in these Wars of Carnatic, but eventually, the British succeeded and the most important ruler of the dynasty, Mohammad Ali Wallajah, commonly known as Wallajah, came to the throne.
“Wallajah prefered to move to Madras and stay closer to the British.

His wish for a palace in Fort St George was granted eventually by the local governors, but the directors in Britain developed cold feet,” explained Anwar. However, there is still a Palace Street in Fort St George. Finally, the area around modern day Chepauk was offered to them and a palace was built for them. Even today, one can see parts of the palace such as Kalas Mahal and Humayan Mahal where the darbar was held.

Our next stop on the trail was the 18th century mosque built by Wallajah in Triplicane, Chennai. Being my first entry into a mosque, my initial observation was that of a natural pond that seemed to have formed in the front. As we explored the mosque, the second one to have been built in the city, we found ourselves detaching from the urban strappings and chaos of the city.

We examined the dargah of Bahrul Uloom, a highly revered scholar invited by Wallajah to teach in his madrasa, placed adjacent to the mosque. “Wallajah personally carried the palanquin of the scholar when he entered the city,” said Anwar, drawing our attention to the chronogram in the centre of the shrine, right above the Mihrab. ”One can gather Wallajah’s secular approach to life from the fact that the chronogram he had selected for the dargah was written by his Hindu Munshi, Makan lal Khirad,“ he added. 

The trail led us to the heart of Mylapore, where Anwar pointed out to us the tank of Kapaleeshwar Temple and explained that it had been gifted by the Nawabs of Arcot. In fact, the tank is used by Muslims even today. Wallajah himself was connected to Mylapore in many ways. Wallajah wanted to be buried in Meccan or Trichy, where another sufi saint’s, Nather Wali, dargah is located. However, he was temporarily buried in the dargah of renowned scholar, Dastageer Sahib, in Mylapore.

 We finally landed at the last point in our trail — Amir Mahal, a sprawling mansion in the middle of the city, and home to the current Prince of Arcot. After the death of the last nawab in 1855, the house was heavily in debt. The British eventually confiscated the palace and other properties and moved the nawab’s successors to Shaadi Mahal. “Eventually, the Crown recognised the house as that of Amir I Arcot or Prince of Arcot and they shifted back to Amir Mahal,” said Anwar.

The charm of the house still rests with its artistic and cultural legacy. Aside from the monuments, one can lose themselves in the library built by the nawabs, which stocks books gifted by previous governors of Bengal and kings of Egypt.

As if he were reliving a past life, Anwar shared a description of Triplicane, drenched in the tunes of courtesans, which mingled with a few Hindustani lyrics sung from a nearby street, Ghanabad. “There is also a story of Nawab Saadutullah Khan and his noblemen conducting an improptu mushaira in a church located near St Thomas Mount,” said Anwar. Relishing in these titbits of rich cultural heritage, and reflecting upon a forgotten secular past, we made our way back to Marina Beach.

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