The Chenna Kesava and Chenna Malleeswara Swami temples of George Town are very historic though little known. Madras was founded on 22nd August 1639. Among the natives involved in that event were Beri Thimmannan (or Thimmappa), agent to Francis Day, and Naga Battan who was a gun powder maker for the East India Company.
Within nine years of this event, Thimmannan executed an endowment to a temple of the city in favour of one Narayanappa Ayyar. The document is dated the “28th of Chitri month in Sarvathari year of Salivahana Era, 1569″ and reads as follows:
“Whereas at Chenna Puttanem I have built the Chenna Casava Perumaul Covil, and have endowed it with Manyam, a piece of ground, and other privileges, which all I do (hereby) transfer now to you, and which you are to hold and enjoy from son to grandson, as long as the duration of (both) the sun and moon performing the divine service to their utmost extent. Should any one act prejudicially towards the charity, he would incur the guilt of having massacred a black cow on the bank of the Ganges. It is the gift to Narrainappyer by Bari Thimmanen through his consent.”
There is also a record of Naga Battan endowing the same temple two years prior to Beri Thimmannan.
Did the temple give the city its name or was it the other way round? Perhaps the former is the correct explanation for Chenna Kesava was a common name for Vishnu in temples of south India. Whatever be the correct theory, it cannot be denied that Chennai and the Chenna Kesava Perumal temple grew in size together. The temple that Thimmannan built was located where the present High Court premises stand. A visitor to the city in 1673, Dr Fryer penned his impressions of the shrine, most of which is unfortunately in completely unintelligible English. But what little can be gleaned makes it clear that he did not like temples.
By 1710, the temple was referred to as the Great Pagoda of Madras in city maps. The French invaded and occupied Madras in 1746 and left in 1749. The British on their return felt the need to reinforce security and among the first steps was to relocate Black Town, which grew up all around the Great Pagoda, further inland. The temple itself was demolished in 1757 and much of its debris went into the construction of a protective wall of the town.
However, the Company, realising that it was offending religious sentiments, gave the natives of the city, an equivalent parcel of land in new Black Town for building the same temple. This plot of around 25000 sq.ft, a rough trapezium formed by present day Gengu Ramiah Street, Devaraja Mudali Street, NSC Bose Road and Nainiappa Naicken Street is where the new temple came up and stands today.
Closely involved in the construction of the temple was Manali Muthukrishna Mudaliar, the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company and dubash to Governor Pigot. Muthukrishna Mudaliar opened a public subscription to rebuild the temple in its new location and contributed 5202 pagodas (the prevailing currency) as his mite. The Company gave 1173 pagodas and the rest came from the public making the corpus 15652 pagodas in all. It was decided that the new location would have two shrines, one for Shiva and the other for Vishnu and so, the Chenna Malleeswara Swami Temple came up along with the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple. Muthukrishna Mudaliar endowed the temple with lands and the Company gave an annual grant of 500 pagodas for maintenance. The deities were consecrated in 1766 and work continued till 1780. Together the twins came to be known as the Patnam (Town) Temples, which is how they are referred to even today in George Town area.
The temples must have still been under construction when Arunachala Kavi (1711-1779), the creator of the immortal Rama Natakam came to Madras to meet Muthukrishna Mudaliar and be rewarded by him. Carnatic Music lovers of course remember Mudaliar for his contribution to the art by bringing the family of Ramaswami Dikshitar to Madras in 1790. When the Dikshitar children, Muthuswami, Baluswami and Chinnaswami must have come to the city with their parents and sister, all wide-eyed at the bustling metropolis, they must have seen the temples in all their glory. Muthukrishna Mudaliar died in 1792 and then his son Venkatakrishna (d 1817) became the trustee of the temples. In 1831, a civil suit recognised the grandson, also a Muthukrishna, as the hereditary trustee and the Manali family continues to remain involved with the temples till date. Several of them have statues for themselves on the pillars of the temple.
An endowment made by Juttur Subramania Chetty, a patron of the 19th century ensured that a nagaswaram player was honoured each year at the Chenna Kesava Perumal temple. During the Periazhwar festival each year in the month of June, a nagaswaram artiste would be invited to come and perform for ten days. He would be expected to take up one raga each evening and perform elaborately on it, finishing off with a pallavi, a ragamalika and some lighter pieces. Writing about this event in the Madras Tercentenary Volume (1939), Prof Sambamurthy says that “all the leading Nagasvaram players of the past like Sembanarkoil Ramasami, Mannargudi Chinna Pakkiri, Sivakolundu and Madura Ponnuswami and of the present like Tiruvidamarudur Viruswami were recipients of this honour.” In his biography of TN Rajarathinam Pillai, Tumilan writes that the maestro’s second nagaswaram performance in the city happened in 1917 at the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple during the Periazhwar festival. Rajarathinam Pillai was surprised to find that some of the city’s leading lights preferred to stand outside the temple and hear his performance, Sir S Subramania Iyer being one. On enquiry, he found that they felt that the shrill Timiri Nayanam was best heard from a distance. That is when the maestro thought of switching over to the heavier and deeper Bari and later mastered it. The nagaswaram tradition continues even now at this temple. However owing the diminishing returns of the original endowment, local nagaswaram artistes are employed during the festival. Big names do not come here anymore.
The first thing that strikes any visitor to these temples is the high standard of cleanliness. Dr Fryer in 1673 wrote of the floor of the old temple “stinking most egregiously of the Oyl they waste in their Lamps and besmear their Beastly Gods with”. But even that nitpicker would not have found anything to cavil about if he were to visit today. The two shrines share a common compound wall and there is a door let into this wall through which it is possible to access one temple from the other. The entrance to Chenna Malleeswara Swami Temple is from NSC Bose Road while that to Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple is from Devaraja Mudali Street.
Architecturally there is nothing spectacular about the temples. The two share a common teppakulam (tank) in which there is always some water. Chenna Kesava Perumal used to have a spectacular utsavam each year when He would go on various mounts around the George Town area. Now congestion has forced Him to remain indoors and observe all festivities from within the compound. In the old days, the spring festival would see Him going on horseback to the Manali Charities Hostel on Govindappa Naicken Street, where enthroned in the Vasantha Mandapam, He would be entertained by music. But now all that is over and done with.
Chenna Kesava Perumal is a small deity in stature and is flanked by Sri and Bhu Devis. There is a separate sub shrine for Shengamala Thayar and also for Rama en famille. The Azhwars all have shrines on side of the temple at right angles to the main deity. Andal has a separate shrine. Chenna Malleeswara is in the form of a linga and the Goddess here is Bhramaramba as in Srisailam. There are separate shrines for Ganesha, Subrahmanya, the Navagrahas and the 63 Nayanmars. The utsava murthis are small and wonderfully embellished with fine details.
The temple is a must for all those who value the history of this city.
The writer is a well known historian of the city