A walk down history lane in Chennai

The name Triplicane is the anglicised version of Thiruvallikeni, which derives from Thiru-Alli-Keni ('sacred lily pond' in Tamil)
Last Updated 03 May 2022, 08:55 IST

By Lavanya N K

What's not to love in a city with a great cultural, political and architectural history like Madras? Learning about the city through heritage walks is one wonderful luxury in the metropolis.

Many historians and writers volunteer to pass on the history of the old city to the present generation by walking them through the streets and narrating the stories of different areas, which involves a necessary unlearning of false history. These walks uphold the social fabric of the land which is harmonious, true to its origin and a reminder to acknowledge the beauty of the streets that we walk on today amidst their long-standing history. To long-term residents of the city, newbies or researchers who want to connect with the past or even relook at spaces that stand as the spaces of syncretic lifestyle, these social engagements are very much needed.

On a pleasant Friday evening, the special 'Triplicane Ramzan Walk' to the city’s Wallajah Big Mosque took place. Every year, nearly 100 attendees join the walk, irrespective of age, caste, class, religion or gender. Documentary filmmaker, historian and Tamil Muslim S. Anwar conducted this history walk as he has been doing for the past six years during the month of Ramzan. He recalls that the idea for heritage walks came from S Muthiah, the renowned writer, journalist and chronicler of Chennai.

"Muthiah was a mentor to me and my friends such as V. Sriram, a heritage activist and historian, Vincent D'Souza, editor of Mylapore Times, and many other historians," said Anwar. "These walks used to be a one-day event before and then went up to a week. Muthiah suggested that we do them regularly and that’s how they started. I took up Nawab of Arcot history, Sriram went around Fort St. George and Mylapore, Vincent conducted church walks in T. Nagar and Santhome. Later, we also came up with Dravidian movement walks and Justice Party walks… one day, Vincent suggested that perhaps I could conduct a walk in the month of Ramzan to the Wallajah mosque in Triplicane, which is the biggest in the city."

The name Triplicane is the anglicised version of Thiruvallikeni, which derives from Thiru-Alli-Keni ('sacred lily pond' in Tamil). Triplicane has a cultural mix as it includes an age-old Hindu Parthasarathy temple, the Portuguese Christian Santhome Church and the Wallajah Mosque, which is also called the 'Big Mosque'. The narrow streets are filled with bazaars run by Muslim and Hindu vendors, which allows for healthy trade and interpersonal relationships.

In one of his blogs, Anwar says, "I was amused by an account that depicted the Arcot Nawab’s Hindu minister (dewan) and Muslim generals sitting inside the church on St. Thomas Mount and singing praises to Mary. Three hundred years down the line, I still find the spirit alive."

The Wallajah Mosque was built in 1795 by Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, the Nawab of Arcot. A chronogram written in Persian by Raja Makhan Lal Bahadur, the Hindu Munshi of the Nawab, is found at the entrance of the mosque. Built in the Mughal architectural style, the entire structure is constructed with granite without the use of iron or wood.

"Tamil Muslims have a different history and understanding altogether, which is evident in the Tamil Islamic literature from the 14th century," Anwar explains. "In northern India, there is a hierarchy in the community based on caste but here, it is based on ethnicity. There are Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Urdu-speaking Muslims among whom Tamil Muslims and Urdu Muslims dominate the city. The underlying ideology that unites everyone here is the Tamil pride that has largely contributed to the Tamil identity. Sub-nationalism overrides the community standing as Muslims have also largely contributed to the Tamil identity. The Muslims are not outsiders here, they are very much an integral part of the land. Sometimes, the Hindutva propaganda tries to break it but it is immune to these things, as historically, Tamil Nadu has withstood it."

The street that leads to the mosque is filled with colourful shops selling chaddars for the dargah, kurta and burqa shops, attar shops and stalls that serve hot and delicious vadas and samosas. As we walk down the busy streets of Triplicane, 14-year-old Medha says, "I have been coming to this heritage walk for two-three years now. Every time I come, I buy attar from here. White attar has been my favourite."

The mosque has a large outdoor space, where hundreds of pigeons munch on evening snacks given by little children dressed grandly for the evening prayer and the iftar at the mosque.

Men and women are seated separately as they wait for the food to be served. One of the special things about iftar at Wallajah Mosque is the 'nombu kanji' that has been prepared and served by Sindhi Muslims of the Sufidar Trust for the past 40 years. A group of middle-aged Sindhi women served us biryani, nombu kanji, dates, cake, rose milk and a banana. As everyone sat together, we waited for the sun to set so that those gathered could pray and break their fast. One of the Sindhi women then said with compassion, "It's time, Allah saara guna maaf karein." (Let God forgive all our mistakes). And the iftar began.

People of all religions eagerly look forward to the delicious food - the biryani, the bowls of custard and the samosas - made during the month of Ramzan. Those with Muslim neighbours and friends join the feast almost every evening.

Tamil tradition has two dishes that are ingrained with the place. Nombu kanji is a nutritious gruel made using raw rice, dal and spices cooked in coconut milk to a smooth porridge consistency. Another is 'kadal paasi pudding', which is made with 'kadal paasi', also known as China grass, a seaweed that's available mostly in Southeast Asia. The flavoured 'kadal paasi' pudding tastes refreshing and helps one beat Chennai's summer heat.

People of different religions dining together during Ramzan has preserved interpersonal relationships during changing times. The narrow streets of Triplicane are where different communities co-exist in harmony and at the end of the day, it’s the human relationships that truly matter.

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(Published 03 May 2022, 08:53 IST)

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