The Wallajah trail in Madras 3


Eid Mubarak folks.It is also the beginning of the Madras Week celebrations and my thoughts go down to Chepauk down Wallajah Road. Well it has got nothing to do with cricket though. I did a heritage walk with my friend Anvar around the locality last year and wrote this story on the House of Arcot, which was published in Sunday Herald. On the occasion of Eid and Madras Day, I would like to share this story with you.

Think Carnatic and what plays in your mind is divine classical music. However besides the ragas and thalams, Carnatic also refers to the geographic region in South India, which was once a hot seat of power among various dynasties from the Mughals to the Marathas, from the British to the French and is often associated with the Nawabs of Arcot . A dynasty that started with a siege between the Mughals and the Marathas way back in the 17th  century , it lasted for more than 200 years ,but the royal house continues till date with the present Prince, Nawab Mohammad Abdul Ali ,who keeps up the tradition till date .Arcot may have been their seat of power, but Madras or present day Chennai is where their home is.

My tryst with the royal house of Arcot started on a wet Saturday morning in Chennai when I went on a Wallajah trail , led by noted documentary film maker Kombai S. Anvar. The skies were covered with a thick layer of rain clouds waiting to drench the wind swept city. The seas were choppy and the Marinalooked vacant and washed out . As we walked towards the Chepauk palace, Anvar traced for us the history of the dynasty. 



It was towards the end of the 17thcentury and the Marathas were trying to establish their base in the South. Aurangazeb, the Mughal emperor sent Zulfikar Khan , an army general to Arcot to contain the Marathas .” The siege was supposed to get over in a few  months, but it prolonged for over six years,” said Anvar, adding, “ it is probable that Zulfikar Khan was actually in collusion with the Marathas. “ He narrated a story. 

“A local chieftain ,Yachamma Nayak .wrote in fact a note to Aurangazeb saying your man was fooling you, if I was given the responsibility,I would  defeat them in a week’s time. “ The letter however was incepted and Zulfikhar Khan invited him over for a meeting without revealing his knowledge of the letter and killed him.” He made it look like an accident , by cutting off the ropes of the tent when the chieftain walked in.”  said Anvar. The story however did  not end here. Aurangazeb apparently did get to know about the incident after the siege was over and asked Zulfikar Khan to put the young successor of the chieftain on his rightful throne . 

The story in many ways is the beginning of the House of Arcot . Zulfikar Khan was appointed as a Nawab of Carnatic , a title given to him by Aurangazeb and is today officially recognized as the first ruler of the dynasty . “ We still refer to the Carnatic as Arcot is yet to feature prominently on the political map then ,” added Anvar.  “Over the six years, the camp slowly developed into a town and the successors eventually made Arcot their capital.” 

The dynasty grew  even as the British East India company slowly established its hold in Madras from Fort St George . The Nawabs and the British seemed to share an unlikely friendship, often mutually beneficial to each other . “ The stories go that the British used to supply expensive liquor and gifts to the Nawab Daud Khan Panni who in an inebriated state often gave away villages to the British . Sometimes he used to become sober and demand them back too,” said Anvar. 

However, his successor Saadatullah Khan or Mohammad Saiyid  was a little cautious and preferred to contain the British and wanted to build a rival fort in Mylapore .I learnt that he eventually built one in Kovalam, on the outskirts of Chennai and invited several merchants ,including  Armenians and the Belgium East India company. “These were revenue states and they needed to earn money to fund wars and welfare schemes , so trade was really important.. “ Anvar explained. Saadutullah Khan also found Saidabad  which is today known as Saidapet .Even today if you walk around the area , you will find a mosque, named after him, located  right in the heart of the locality. 


Anvar continued with a bit of history as we admired the Indo Sarcenic style of the ChepaukPalace.Internal feuds in the royal house took a bloody turn as the British and the French took sides in the war for succession. Robert Clive and Dupleix clashed in these Wars of Carnatic, but eventually , the British succeeded and the most important ruler of the dynasty, Mohammad Ali Wallajah, commonly known as Wallajah came to the throne . 

“ Wallajah prefered to move to Madras to stay closer to the British and his wish for a palace in Fort St George was granted eventually by the local governors , but the directors in Britaindeveloped cold feet,” explained Anwar ,adding that there is still a

Palace Street

in Fort St George . Finally, the area around modern day Chepauk was offered to them and a palace was built for them. Even today you can see parts of the palace called Kalas Mahal and Humayan Mahal where the darbar was held . 


Our next stop on the trail is the 18thcentury mosque built by Wallajah in Triplicane in Chennai. It is the first time I am entering the premises of the mosque and I see a natural pond formed in front of it .We seemed to be completely cut off from the urban strapping and the chaos of the city as we learnt that this is the second mosque to be built in the city. The dargah of  Bahrul Uloom, a highly revered scholar invited by Wallajah to teach  in his madrasa is adjacent to the mosque . “Wallajah personally carried the palanquin of the scholar when he entered the city.”said Anwar, drawing our attention to the chronogram which is right in the centre , above the Mihrab .” Wallajah was one of the most secular Nawab. The chronogram that he selected was written by his Hindu Munshi, Makan lal Khirad. . “ 

The trail took us right into the heart of Mylapore , where Anvar said that the tank of Kapaleeshwar temple was gifted by the Nawabs of Arcot to the temple and even today Muslims use the tank . Wallajah himself was connected to Mylapore in many ways. Wallajah wanted to be buried in Meccan or Trichy, where another sufi saint, Nather Wali’s dargah is located.” However, he was temporarily buried in the dargah of a renowned scholar, Dastageer Sahib , in Mylapore.” 

We finally landed at our last point of our trail, at Amir Mahal, the home of the present Prince of Arcot., a sprawling mansion in the heart of the city. After the death of the last Nawab in1855, the house was heavily in debts . The British eventually confiscated their palace and properties and the Nawab’s successors were moved to Shaadi Mahal. “Eventually the Crown recognized the house as Amir I Arcot or Prince of Arcot and they shifted here to Amir Mahal., “ said Anvar, adding that the current Nawab still enjoyed certain privileges such as the rank of a state cabinet minister.

The legacy of the house is still left behind in their arts, culture, secularism besides just their  monuments . The library built by the Nawabs even today stocks books that were gifted to them by the then Governors of Bengal and kings of Egypt. “ There was a time when Triplicane danced to the tunes of courtesans and a street  called Ghanabad used to be here where Hindustani music flourished. Why, there is even a story of Nawab . Saadutullah Khan and his noblemen conducting an impromptu mushaira in a church near St Thomas Mount where they wined and dined with the Armenenians, “ concluded Anvar as we headed back to the Marina beach.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 thoughts on “The Wallajah trail in Madras