The history of Poonamallee, a small town located a few kilometres to the west of Chennai, is quite fragrant like its lands. Poonamallee (earliest mention as 'Poo-than-malee', meaning beautiful flower gardens, found in Paranthaka Chola’s inscriptions) gets its name from its flower fields.
Poonamallee is the birth place of the Vaishnavaite saint Tirukachi Nambi Alwar, who is believed to have been born in 1009 AD. Hence, the history of the town dates back at least a thousand years. Hindu mythology has it that goddess Lakshmi “emerged from a jasmine” and appeared as a divine vision to Nambi Alwar, thus explaining the town’s ‘floral’ reference.
The town was also the centre of action for the East India Company of the Madras region. Rightfully so, the town houses what was once a powerful Mohammaden fort (lies south-east to the centre of the town) built by the Nawab of Carnatic which later housed the Britishers.
In a curated heritage tour titled Exploring Poonamallee, Nivedita Louis, a writer and history enthusiast, mapped some of the oldest buildings and sites in the area earlier this month. This heritage tour was more of a ‘ride’ where the participants rode from one point to another, given that it was a comprehensive tour.
The heritage tour
The ride began early at the Victoria Memorial School for the Blind. In the sun’s muted, early morning rays, the small group of heritage enthusiasts quickly bustle around the campus, taking in its size and understated buildings rich in the Indo-Saracenic style.
Victoria Memorial School for the Blind
The sprawling campus was once a garrison that had barracks and stables and was also used as a prison and infirmary. At one point, the stables here had close to 400 horses, says Nivedita. The famed Poonamallee Arab horses were bred here, she adds. Nivedita also informs us that this campus was the place where the Madras Regiment was stationed at one point.
In a chance encounter, Nivedita stumbled upon a few fragmented inscriptions on stones in the campus that belonged to the Chola period.
“I found them when I came here as part of the research for my tour. Two Chola inscription fragments have been discovered – one belonging to Rajendra Chola and another to the Vikrama Chola period. I've now notified the museum regarding this,” she gushes enthusiastically.
Chola inscriptions found on the floor of the veranda
From here, the tour proceeded to a small temple in which the locals worship an ancient sati stone. “Although, for them, the sati kall (sati stone) is Lord Muneeswarar,” she adds.
A little away from the Muneeswarar temple is St John the Baptist Church which was initially a small thatched roof chapel in 1818. Walking across the narrow street, historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan observes that we could be walking on what was once the fort’s walls.
A short drive from the church takes you to what looks like a house right out of Malgudi. This humble, single-storey, tile-roofed house was once called Doris Lodge. The lodge itself was constructed before 1854 on Muslim Inaam lands and was later “mistakenly” leased out to one Mr G Trustwein of British East India Company. In 1908, all leases were cancelled and everyone were asked to reregister their properties. The decrepit looking building was later sold to a local teacher, Prabavathi, whose sons occupy the house today.
From Doris Lodge, we head to Panaiyathamman temple located on the main road (a few sculptures with interesting details lie abandoned here) and later to the Big Mosque that lies a short way ahead. Nivedita observes that the Big Mosque, built in 1653 by Rustam, son of a Golconda courtier named Astirabad Dhulfiqar, was the first Indo-Saracenic style mosque in Tamil Nadu.
Big Mosque, Poonamallee
Our next stop is the ancient Vaitheeswaran temple with its interesting sculptures of women warriors on the mandapam walls. Close to the temple is the Hindu Primary School that has been functioning since 1895.
Mandapam walls of Vaitheeswaran temple, Poonamallee
Hindu Primary School
Nivedita guides the group to more heritage spots. The birthplace of Tirukachi Nambi Alwar, the Wesley Church built in 1900 where Elijah Hoole preached in Tamil, the Mary Magdalene Church built between 1816-1819, and finally concluding the tour with the cemetery where the oldest grave dates back to 1795!
Birth place of Tirukachi Nambi Alwar
All through the tour, the layered history of Poonamallee unravels. It has more to offer and it seemed like an entire day could be spent exploring its secrets. This town too, like most places, has stayed neutral to religious influences, only binding itself to their stories and metamorphosing into a treasure trove of heritage buildings and legendary tales.