379 years ago, on August 22nd, the British bought a small piece of land along the shores of the Coromandel coast, from the locals to build a port for trading goods. They wasted no time in building the port and fortifying it. Villages grew around this Fort and soon expanded into a town. This town named Madraspatnam/Chennapatnam, would go on to become one of the bases from which the British colonized the entire subcontinent.
Initially called the Triplicane river, the Cooum river marked the Southern boundary of this port. Even before the British set foot on Indian soil, it used to play a pivotal role in the maritime trade between the Roman Empire and India, due to its proximity to the ancient port of Manarpha or Mylapore.
There were many wooden bridges over the river Cooum which got washed away during the yearly floods. In 1804 the British built the first bridge with bricks and lime, over the Cooum river, called the Triplicane bridge/St. George’s bridge/Rajaji bridge…. and like everything else in Chennai…. renamed again as the Periyar bridge…. Designed by Lt. Fraser, it had beautiful ornamentation. Such were the standards in those days that Lt. Fraser was hauled for going over budget by a few Rupees.
In 1817 they built the second bridge… St. Andrews bridge with splay type arches. It is arguably believed that the first rail road in India was built from the Red Hills to basin bridge area closeby, to transport materials from the Red Hills for the construction of this bridge.
As the city expanded, the British built many more bridges over the Cooum like the Commander in chief road bridge in 1825 and Harris bridge which took 8 years to build due to opposition by locals due to its close proximity to a temple.
The most interesting of these bridges was the Law’s bridge which was initially built as a suspension bridge in 1831. 8 years after completion, it collapsed as the British army soldiers marched over it. It was rebuilt in 1854 and a tram used to run over this bridge.
In 1878 the city was hit by a bad famine and a man-made canal… the Buckingham canal was built linking the Cooum river to the Adyar river further down south, to bring in food and other basic goods from the North to the famine-hit Southern regions. It was later extended close to 497 Miles.
They played a critical role in reducing the damage caused by cyclones and floods. Unfortunately, the Buckingham canal bore the brunt of many subsequent cyclones and was never repaired. Soon the damaged waterways were used to dispose of the sewage. Today they have just become massive drainage gutters running across the city. They once had 49 plus species of fish….Today there are none. The bridges are covered in filth and you have to really strain all your senses to get a good look at them.
And once you do you will begin to see the architectural beauty and the attention to detail that had gone in building these bridges. You will begin to see the poles where once boats used to be tied. You will be amazed that all these years you have been travelling over bridges, almost 200 years old… You will wonder what went wrong last 60 years… that they have become so bad…. Did we ignore the problem because we saw it as a part of what the British left behind or are we just too involved in the politics of building new bridges, metro stations, etc….
It was once believed that bathing in Cooum would wash away all our sins.. Well today it does carry all our sins.