Posted in Men who made Madras, Personalities

Robert Clive and the Battle of Purasai

By S.V.Kaushik

 I know what you were thinking when you read the title….

  • Really, did Robert Clive fight a battle in Purasai?
  • Was he the Englishman who colonised the place we now call Purasaiwakkam?

My response to the first question is: it all depends on which Purasai you are talking about. And the answer to the second question is: no, that honour goes to another corrupt English Governor called Elihu Yale.  Let me explain.

The place where you go shopping for Diwali, Saraswati Puja, Pongal and just-like-that summa (சும்மா) — the Purasaiwakkam that we Chennai-ites knowwas first taken on lease from the local Moghul Underling, by the Madras Governor Yale.  During the 1680s, British trade in Madras had grown so much that both Fort St. George and the adjacent Black Town (now George Town) were choc-a-bloc. So Yale decided to expand the town by leasing the nearby Purasaiwakkam. It was a nice wooded area with a lot of trees: flowering trees known in Tamil as Purasai. So Purasai-wakkam was simply “The place of Purasai trees”.

Most residents of Purasaiwakkam would find difficulty in describing the Purasai tree to you. That’s because those trees have just vanished from Purasaiwakkam: it is now a concrete jungle where several generations have lived without ever sighting a Purasai. One old resident told me that the only Purasai tree of Purasaiwakkam can be found inside the Gangadeeswarar Temple. Perhaps, it has survived because it is the Stala-Vriksha (holy tree) of the Temple. It is also known as Flame-of-the-forest, or Butea Monosperma. It looks like this:


Butea monosperma

Now you are thinking: enough of this botanical-bluster, where is Clive in all this? Be patient my friend, and I’ll tell you.

Clive Mir Jaffar

Clive after the victory in the Battle of Plassey

 Do you remember Robert Clive’s most famous battle? The Battle of Plassey – where Colonel Clive’s small army defeated the Bengal Nawab’s huge army. Well, “Plassey” is the anglicised version of “Palashi” which was the correct local name of that battlefield. “Palashi” is the Bengali word for …. why, Purasai of course! The place was full of Palashi trees and hence the name Palashi or Plassey.


Plassey Railway Station, now: note the lovely Purasai tree in the background!

Now, Clive’s “small” army had a “large” contingent of “Namma Ooru Veerans” a.k.a. the 1st Madras Regiment.  All these Tamil soldiers of Clive’s expeditionary force, what would they have called this place of Palashi trees? Why, Purasai of course. For them it was the Battle of Purasai, no? Touché!

Grateful acknowledgement: All the pictures in this blog-post are courtesy WIKIPEDIA.


Posted in Men who made Madras, Personalities

The Last Grand Nawab: Wallajah

By S.V. Kaushik

December 2106: India played the 5th Test against England at Chepauk Cricket Stadium. Over a 1300 balls were bowled from the Wallajah End before England was crushed. Ever wondered why the Wallajah End is called Wallajah? Your response would probably be “That’s because, that’s where the Wallajah Road is, Silly!” Yeah, so why is the Wallajah Road called Wallajah? Ah, THAT requires a serious answer. Wallajah Road is so called because that road leads to the Chepauk Palace of the Nawab Wallajah. And who was this Wallajah? To find out, let us travel back in time when the English were far more powerful than they were in the Chepauk stadium last winter.

The Nawab’s full name was: Amir ul Hind, Walla Jah, ‘Umdat ul-Mulk, Asaf ud-Daula, Nawab Muhammad ‘Ali Anwar ud-din Khan Bahadur, Zafar Jang, Sipah-Salar, Sahib us-Saif wal-qalam Mudabbir-i-Umur-i-‘Alam Farzand-i-‘Aziz-az Jan, Biradarbi Jan-barabar [Nawab Jannat Aramgah], Subadar of the Carnatic. When they decided to honour him, there wasn’t enough street for a name so long as that, so they just called it Wallajah Road! Walla Jah, we are told, means “supremely dignified gentleman”.


Indeed, Nawab Wallajah was not only dignified but also a fascinating gentleman. Although he was the legal heir of the 7th Nawab of Arcot (Anwaruddin Khan), he started his career as the 9th Nawab. No, this was not because he chose to work his way up from the bottom. Before he could lay his claim to the throne as the 8th Nawab, Chanda Sahib (a relative) usurped it.  So Chanda Sahib became the de facto 8th Nawab. For 3 years (1749-52) Wallajah battled tooth and nail to dislodge the pretender; and the British supported him (in fact, they supplied all the teeth & nails!). At the end of the war, Wallajah emerged very victorious and Chanda Sahib ended being very dead. Thus Wallajah rose to become the 8th Nawab, after eliminating the contentious pretender (or was it the pretentious contender?).

He shifted his capital from Arcot to Madras, because that’s where his dear friends, the British, lived. How could he forget them? He lovingly built the beautiful Chepauk Palace, very close to the British Fort St. George. (It is said that he wanted to live inside the British Fort St. George, but the English were nervous about the security risk. But they did make a Wallajah-Gate on the Cooum-side of the Fort so that Wallajah could enter freely and hobnob with the British bigwigs).

Life was not easy yet. He fought wars against the Mysore Kings and the Tanjore Mahrattas. The British were his allies; naturally, they were the sole suppliers of all teeth and nails — on credit! Wallajah ended up owing outrageous sums of money for the hardware and outsourced manpower!

Yet, Wallajah did not let petty accounting interfere in his business of noblesse oblige. He contributed to public causes like there was no tomorrow. He built shelters in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, sent Haj pilgrims on his private ships, contributed to mosques and even commissioned the famous Madrasa-E-Azam (Islamic school). His munificence was not restricted to Muslims either. He donated heavily to Srirangam and Triplicane Parthasarathy Temples. He donated land to the Mylapore Kapali Temple for building a Tank. (In the annual Float Festival of that Tank, his descendants still receive the first honour). He also donated land to Christian institutions like Bishop Heber school and St Joseph College in Trichy. Indeed, in charity, he was truly secular— long before  the SECULAR tag became politically fashionable! By now, Wallajah was very, very broke. SECULAR charity needed SECULAR funding. So, he borrowed from all communities: the British, the Armenians and other Indians. SECULAR economics!

By the Treaty of Paris 1763, he was recognised as a King, independent of the Moghul Emperor (it was good to have international certification even in those days).  But it did nothing to change  local Economics. His ultra-deficit financing model would have made even the US Government cringe, but Wallajah was ever full of courtesy and grace. Once an Armenian lender, Shawmier Sultan, came to enforce his dues. Wallajah charmed him into tearing up his promissory note (“My Lord, my claim is but just a little dust on your shoes”). Wallajah responded in kind by gifting the Noomblee village to Shawmier! In victory he showed kindness. When he defeated the Tanjore Mahrattas, his soldiers raided the Tanjore Treasury. To their disappointment they found that everything had been spent in the war— only the personal jewellery of the Queen Mother remained! Wallajah ordered his soldiers to return it to the Queen Mother and treat her like Royalty should be!

Wallajah lived like a King, gave like a King, and died like a King. But he left behind huge debts that made his descendants vulnerable. The British exploited this and took over his kingdom by means fair and foul. They could not completely forget his friendship, however: they allowed his successors to sport the honorary title of ‘Prince of Arcot’ and receive a tax-free pension from the government. That has not changed till date!

His memory lives in names like Wallajah Mosque, Wallajapet, Wallajabad, Wallajah Gate and Wallajah Road. And even a kid will tell you, every other over in the Chepauk Cricket Stadium has to be bowled from the Wallajah end!


Posted in Culture, Men who made Madras, Personalities

Mind your language

Connect the dots… English medium schools, Lord Macaulay, Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle, Madras university

It’s only been a few days since the government ‘suggested’ the use of Hindi over English in social media platforms. This reminds us of another story, but from a different era – the story of how we ended up making English our own in the first place.

If you are able to read and understand this post, thank Lord Macaulay. He was in India in the 1830s, at a time when the British were beginning to realize that they were just a small handful of men, ruling a vast country of many millions. They really needed help. The local Indians were of little use, because very few of them were exposed to western education at that point in time. And fewer still spoke English.

So the British decided to educate the Indians and use them to govern the country. And this was when an argument broke out. Should the Indians be taught in the vernacular, or in English? It was the raging debate of that time in British India.

Enter Lord Macaulay. He pushed strongly for English to be made the medium of instruction.

‘Whoever knows English has ready access to the vast intellectual wealth, which the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations’, he reasoned.Macaulay’s plan was to create a class of Indians, who would serve as interpreters between the British and the millions they governed; a class that would be Indian by birth but British by thought.


It’s been close to two hundred years, and Lord Macaulay’s language of choice still holds strong in India.

Later British administrators recognized that they couldn’t completely ignore native languages. By then they had figured that it was only by teaching local languages that they could get the masses to learn English. Charles Wood, the then secretary of state came out with a plan to overhaul the education system. He made the study of local languages at the primary level compulsory. And he modeled higher education in India completely on the British system. A direct result of his plan was the setting up of 3 universities – the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, all modeled on the London University.

So why the brouhaha now? Language has a funny way of being confused with one’s identity and race. They aren’t the same. What Macaulay ‘forgot’ to mention was that until the late 17th century, even in England, the medium of instruction was Latin and not English. Newton wrote his Principia in Latin. Most grammar schools in England were devoted to teaching students Latin and Greek, the classic languages. Some schools even punished students who spoke in English during school hours. So much for ninety generations of English!

As for our tryst with English, it was a matter of sheer chance. Did you know that in 1746, the French defeated the English and captured Madras? The British never really won it back. By then, England and France had been fighting each other for a long time. Finally it must have dawned on them that neither was better than the other. So in 1749, in a small sleepy town called Aix-La-Chappelle, England and France signed a treaty. They agreed to exchange certain territories captured from each other. And just like that, without so much as firing a single shot, Madras came back to the British. If not for that one small twist of fate, the world would probably have benefitted from a chutneyed version of French, instead of English.

Would we have fared better if we had not adopted English as our own? The debate still rages on – in at least a dozen Indian languages.