Markets have always existed in human settlements and in the eastern world, the very word ‘bazaar’ conjures up a certain image – arcaded building, awnings to keep off the sun, wares spilling onto the streets, brisk trade, bargaining and a high decibel level. Some of Chennai’s old markets still retain vestiges of this, though they are very much on the exit lane of time.
The history of the city’s markets is very poorly documented and given that their present ownership is often in dispute, very little information is available. The older parts of the city such as Mylapore, Triplicane and Tiruvottiyur must have had their small markets from time immemorial. But as far as the British-founded city of Madras that is now Chennai is concerned, we first hear of an overseer for the city markets only in 1777. The first appointee was Veera Perumal, who took over from the Governor’s Dubash (translator), who was until then entrusted with the responsibility.
George Town being the centre of affairs in those times, it was soon felt that a market with separate sections for fowl, flesh, fish and vegetables be erected there. A vacant plot on Broadway (now Prakasam Road) was selected and Popham’s Market (after Stephen Popham who owned the land), was completed by the 1780s. This survived for nearly a century when it was condemned as unsanitary. Work began near Central Station on the Moore Market, named after Sir George Moore, then President of the Madras Corporation. This became the most important market and Popham’s was demolished, making way for a park – Loane’s Park, named after Samuel Joshua Loane, Engineer of the Madras Corporation who was responsible for constructing Moore Market. It is now known as Sriramulu Naidu Park, after a former Mayor of the city.
Moore Market in time grew to sell far more than groceries and provisions. It had a flourishing trade in gramophones and records, books, toys and even second-hand clothes. Indo-Saracenic in style, its destruction by fire in the 1980s is a matter of eternal regret. The suburban railway terminal was built in its place but a small and exquisite replica of Moore Market still stands in a square plot in the car parking area of Central Station.
Popham’s and Moore Markets may have a well-defined history but not so the old native markets. Chief among these was the wholesale vegetable market at Kotwal Chavadi in George Town that operated on land belonging to the Sri Kanyaka Parameswari Devasthanam Trust. This was where, in the era before wedding arrangements were contracted out, everyone shopped for vegetables. Trade began at 2.30 am and ended by 9 am, by which time retail trade in vegetables, bought chiefly from here, would have begun in other parts of the city. In its heyday, over 5000 people jostled for space here. In 1996, this 18th century market was closed and shifted to Koyambedu in west Chennai. The land has since been developed as a women’s college. But surrounding it are several reminders of its past. Vegetables are still sold on the streets and not far from here is Flower Bazar on Badrian Street, stubbornly refusing to move despite Court orders. Its neighbours are Mat, Rattan and China Bazaars, mere names now, but indicative of what was once sold there. Not far from here is Evening Bazaar Road, commemorating a thriving market for western goods that came up each evening chiefly based what had arrived on the ships. Perhaps Burma Bazaar, which came up not far from here in the 1940s, is a reminder of this. Deep within George Town is Chengam Bazaar, still retaining its arcaded structure but evidently on its last legs. Chiefly a meat market once, it now has several mirror makers and a few vegetable sellers, all eking out an existence amidst squalor, even as the owners are said to await a Court order before demolition and redevelopment can take place.
Several historic markets abound in the older suburbs. Mylapore still has a Bazaar Road, probably in commemoration of a market that once stood there. In Royapuram by the sea is the Kalmandapam Market, again an arcaded structure over a century old. Of probably greater antiquity is the Chintadripet Fish Market, cramped and dirty but home to a thriving trade. In the same business and even older is the Seven Wells Fish Market, in the northern end of George Town. Said to be over 125 years old, it is considered the first separate market for sea produce in the city. Though it may come as a surprise, this seemingly vegetarian city has over 30 fish markets dotting it, and then again perhaps not so surprising given its long coastline.
A place where markets of different sizes still flourish is Triplicane. Right in the middle is the Zam Bazaar Market, which is a huge single-storied building with stalls for various shops. Owned by a Trust, it sells a variety of items. On Triplicane High Road is the Abdul Hakim Market, less than a century old and on the Royapettah side is the Mir Sahibpet Market. The one that has closed is the Sultan Market, which was mainly for meat sellers, on Royapettah High Road. Locked up now, it is still possible to see its handsome arched entrance and the wide bays for the stalls.
The ancient suburb of Tiruvottiyur has its market as well, largely the property of the temple of Adipuriswarar. The celebrated Devadasi, Bangalore Nagarathnamma is said to have built additions to it in early 20thcentury and bequeathed the shops to the temple. Indeed, several temples of Madras have played a role in the construction of markets, by way of making use of their land and also generating revenue. The Karaniswarar Temple in Saidapet built its market in 1949. Of earlier construction is the one belonging to the Kasi Viswanathar temple in Ayanavaram.
Mylapore had the Tanneer Turai Market built in early 20th century, thanks largely to the family of Bhashyam Iyengar, a famous lawyer and judge who owned vast lands here. It was envisaged as a waterside market, with goods being brought in by boat via the Buckingham Canal. In the 1960s the waterway ceased being navigable and so the market began depending on surface transport for its supplies. In the last few years, the Trust that maintained the market changed hands. The shopkeepers left and the buildings were demolished. The shell now awaits a new future.
Tanneer Turai’s is a story that can be told of most of these older markets. Not having kept abreast with modern notions of hygiene, shopping comfort and ambience, they are all likely to vanish, sooner or later. Which is a pity, as something representing the flavour of the city is lost. Perhaps it is time for some promising architect to come up with a design that blends the markets with modern taste and comforts.
The writer is a well known historian of the city