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The Rajah forgotten



Rajah Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar

DRIVING THROUGH Royapuram a few weeks ago, I spotted a sign, the `R.S.R.M. Lying-In Hospital', that had me wondering what the initials stood for. An unexpected invitation a few days ago not only had me putting two together but had me looking for more. The invitation was for the function to mark the 164th birth anniversary of Rajah Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar at the choultry of the same name opposite Ripon Building, a commemoration that's been held annually for well over 100 years. Yet almost no one I know, I soon found, knew much about the rajah.

A bit of digging, however, soon revealed a rags-to-riches story. A building contractor in Pondicherry fled from his creditors and settled in Madras where he had himself declared insolvent. His son, Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, joined Dymes & Co. and so proved himself as to become its dubash before long. Dymes, exporters of cotton and natural fibres and importers of teak, took over the premises of the Bank of Madras when the bank moved c. 1900 into its magnificent new premises on First Line Beach, now the SBI's Main Branch. In 1913, two years after the death of the Rajah, the Bombay Company, agents for Bombay-Burmah Trading Co., took over Dymes.

As the dubash of Dymes, Ramaswamy Mudaliar appears to have made a fortune and spent a good part of it on charity. The lying-in hospital, inaugurated in 1880, was his first major contribution. He also built mother and child-care hospitals in Cuddalore, his home town, and Kanchipuram. All of them are still going strong, but now managed by the local municipalities. In 1884, the large choultry near Central Station was opened and served the public well till the 1960s. After a bad spell, it is now in the process of revival, the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation managing a few rooms while the rest of the premises awaiting new life. The choultry when built had one block for Mudaliars, Nayudus and Pillais, another for Brahmins, a third for Marwaris and Chetties, a fourth for `Muhammadans', a fifth for `Native Christians and Eurasians' and a sixth for himself and his descendants. The first institution of its kind in Madras, Ramaswamy Mudaliar endowed it handsomely to ensure its maintenance and its separate kitchen facilities. He also built numerous dispensaries, smaller choultries and water troughs for animals in the city and the mofussil.

With this kind of record, it was inevitable that honours would follow. He was a Rao Saheb and had been awarded the CIE when, in 1886, he was named the 158th Sheriff of Madras, the first Indian to hold the office. He was to be Sheriff two more times. During his second term, 1887, he was knighted on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria's reign. I wonder whether he was the first non-royal South Indian to receive this honour. Four years later, he was conferred "the title of Raja as a personal distinction." Another first?

Over the years, Ramaswamy Mudaliar acquired numerous huge properties. His house Ramamandiram and another he built in the same 100-ground plot, Ramajayam, occupied the whole of one side of Flower's Road. The latter was brought in court auction in the 1940s by the Perumal Chetty family. The former remained a mini-museum till it was pulled down and the area plotted out, only a Ganesha Temple remaining of the original property.

Another of his vast properties is now the Kilpauk Garden Colony and here all that remains of family links is a small family burial ground. His lease of the 60 grounds and mansion, Serles Garden, from Lord Greenway who had himself leased the property on the road that bears his name, led his descendants into prolonged litigation in the 1940s. This property once stretched from what is now C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Road to the Canal. What remains of all this in the family is in a Trust - and is the memorial that is the Rajah Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar Choultry.

S. MUTHIAH

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