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Face behind the name

The word "Chenni" in Tamil means "face". Could Chennai perhaps have got its name from the ancient Chenna Malleeswarar and Chenna Kesavar temples? Leafing through the pages of history...

CHENNAI OR Madras, as it was known till recently, is said to have got its name from Chennappa Naicken, a chieftain, who owned the area adjoining the port, when the British set foot on Indian soil. Some historians claim that the British bought the land from him. A few others say Chennai got its name from the ancient twin temples of "Chenni Kesavar" and Chenni Malleeswarar," which in those days, stood just east of the present High Court building. This seems more appropriate as the word `Chenni' in Tamil means face and the Kesava Perumal and Malleeswarar temples are like the face of the city.

Both the temples referred to by old-timers as "Pattanam Koil" and Pookadai Koil," were demolished by the British and later, re-built. They are located in what was once called George Town. The Mada Veedhis around them are today known as China Bazaar or Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road (North Mada Street), Devaraja Mudali Street (East Mada Street), Nainaiappa Naicken Street (West Mada Street) and Rasappa Mudali Street (South Mada Street). With the famous Kandakottam Kandasami Koil in the South Mada Street, the Kumarakottam Sri Vaania Sivasubramania Swami temple in the North and the Ekambareswarar temple in the West, the entire area could well be described as a temple city. Now, with the hustle and bustle of urban life and thousands of shops selling a variety of wares, this city hub has become congested.

Though not as ancient as the temples at Thiruvanmiyur, Thiruvallikeni, Thirumayilai, Thiruvotriyur or Thiruvetteeswaranpettai, the history of these shrines dates back to 1646 A.D. Past records state that grants were made for their upkeep by Nagabattar and Thimmappar. The present High Court grounds were once a fine flower garden with hundreds of trees.

Way back in the 17th-18th Century, the seashore extended as far inland as Angappa Naicken Street. Fishermen's huts lined the coastal stretch, right from Thiruvanmiyur to Thiruvotriyur. The land on which the Fort St. George stands was once a banana grove, said to be under the control of Madhuresan, a fisherman chieftain. The East India Company bought the garden from him and converted it into a trading centre.

The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British virtually used it as a battleground. Not to be left out, Hyder Ali stormed the area. On hearing that the temples were being looted by Hyder Ali's forces, the devotees removed the idols to safer places. The priest of the Chenna Kesavar Temple was said to have carried the idol all the way to the Thiruneermalai Temple for safe custody. When the East India Company wanted to build a fort, it brought down the Chenna Kesavar and Chenna Malleeswarar temples.

This caused unrest among the residents and the Company authorities sought the help of some prominent persons who were serving in the fort.

Of these, Manali Muthu Krishna Mudaliar, who was translator for Lord Piccode, suggested re-building of the temples and gifted Perumal Koil Thottam, Chekkumedu and Tondiarpet garden for this purpose.

The Company offered 3,500 sovereigns but Mudaliar accepted only the land and refused to take the money.

He built the two temples with his won funds in 1700 A.D. When Thomas Monroe was Governor, he installed the Moolavar idol, which was found amid the rubble of the demolished temples.

The Utsavar idol of Lord Chenna Kesavar and His consorts could not be found and Manali Muthu Krishna Mudaliar set out in search of them. He went to Thiruneermalai but the priest who had brought the idol had passed away.

Others could not identify the idol of Chenna Kesavar so Mudaliar brought an idol from the Thiruneermalai temple and arranged for its installation in the temple.

Since then Manali Muthu Krishna Mudaliar's family has maintained the temple. They and other philanthropists have made grants from time to time for conducting daily pujas and festivals.

The temple, with its main shrine dedicated to Chenna Kesavar and His consort Sengamalavalli Thayar, shrines for Anjeneya, Vishvaksenar, Garudan, Venugopalan, Rama, Andal and the Azhwars and Acharyas, is a neat structure along with the adjacent temple of Chenna Malleeswarar. There is a passage connecting both the temples.

As one enters the Chenna Malleeswarar Temple one is greeted with the sweet fragrance of flowers sold by the shops at the entrance. The temple too has shrines for Vinayaka, Subramania, Navagrahas, Somaskandar and Chandikeswarar.

The Goddess here is known as Brahmarambikai. All the 64 Saivite saints are enshrined here. So is Lord Dakshinamurthy, God of Learning, who is seen seated beneath a banyan tree carved in stone. There are shrines for Bhikshandanar, Natarajar and other deities too.

While the Malleeswarar Temple celebrates its annual festival for 10 days in August, the Chenna Kesavar Temple festival, also a 10-day event, is held in the Tamil month of Chithirai.

T.A. SRINIVASAN

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