Garden Houses of colonial era in Chennai - may fade away soon for good

Dilapidated garden house, Pallavaram, Chennai.

That in this transient world nothing is permanent is a reality and the Hindu God Nataraja's cosmic dance symbolizes his balancing act between constructive  and cataclysmic forces acting on the universe.  In daily life people across the globe witness the sea-saw battles in their arduous life-journey  and the  ebb and flow of fortunes. In the Indian subcontinent we have read in the history about the rise and fall of so many prominent kingdoms including  the English colonists who ruled India for more than  200 years and having looted as much as they could, they at last left the Indian shores  through the Gateway of India, Mumbai where many British higher-ups and royals landed here with grand and glittering reception,

 C.S.I. Higher Secondary School for the Deaf, Mylapore, Chennai.

With the passage of time and emergence of India as the largest democracy in the world, we are left with countless monuments and heritage sites  by the past rulers and people associated with them. In Madras (Chennai), home to innumerable colonial structures, in particular those built in Indo- European style by the British, along with them there were several houses of architectural wonder along with big gardens. Called  Garden Houses, they were built in  Palladian-style   with colonnades  proportionally spaced series of  well designed columns supporting the roo,  spacious, deep-seated verandah in the facade, tall windows and fine arches. The buffer space on the ground floor and the first floor between inner part of the house and the facade was meant to cut down radiation and heat emanating from the outer portion. The impressive doric columns could be set in pairs for better look in some buildings. 

Palladian colonnade with verandah and high ceiling,

Palladian architecture.

Commonly flat-roofed, the pediment (the crowning feature of the Greek temple front) is designed to be above the portico. It may carry decorative features and in  some buildings it may extend outwardly with a view to providing shelter from summer heat and monsoon rains. These early colonial residences were not like building of the Victorian era that were ostentatious. they were mostly in the suburbs of Royapettah, St Thomas Mount and  Pallavaram. The garden houses' origin can be traced to the Portuguese colonial period in India and the design style was very much closer to Roman style. 

In constructing such  Garden houses in  Chennai mostly masonry  buildings with Madras terrace, lime brick mortar was widely used. As for  plastering on walls and  round huge columns,  well ground chunum (in Tamil Chunnambu) was used along with certain specified ingredients like eggs white, country sugar, (panai vellam)  kadukai, etc. This traditional native technique gives a good and shiny finishing touches to the wall imparting marble like look. The luster is a long lasting one.  The flooring with selected hues was done using well-ground Chunum. Red-oxide flooring  was an attractive one in those days. The advantage of  lime-mortar walls  is they provide perfect insulation against heat  even during  hot summer seasons. These garden buildings,  no doubt, bear testimony to the expertise and skills  of the local masons and artisans. 

In Thanjavur city many of the old residential  buildings constructed during the Maratha period  in the late 18th  and 19th century CE  on the four main veethis (streets), had well finished shiny wall plastering using more or less the same old technique. They had flat or gently curving roof to drain out rain water and in the front one could see balustraded parapet set firmly in place with  an iron rod inside  connecting the top and bottom. With a few exceptions, most of the big residential  buildings with or without a garden are replaced by modern ones.  

The Garden Houses of Chennai, built by the nouveau riche British residents had  practical purposes. On the shady verandah, inmates  could relax  and enjoy a cup of tea  and in the evening they  could go for a stroll in the  garden that had all kinds of plants and trees. The lush greenery  around the house made the interior of the building cool and could cutdown  air pollution. 

With the exception a few like the one that houses the C.S.I. Higher Secondary School for the deaf-and-dumb in Mylapore, most  of them have become derelict for many reasons; one being lack of funds to maintain  them, besides no masons with good knowledge of old construction technique.  Other reason is  owners' show no interest to retain them as the repair cost is prohibitive. Further, to them monetary benefits outweigh the buildings' historical or heritage values. 

The government should chip in and preserve these old garden houses of the colonial era to retain the cultural and historical continuity of the bygone era with the present one.