Thursday, October 18, 2012

Then and now: View from Ross Hill

Sea in the background and a channel of water in the foreground – When I saw the postcard (picture above) on the Internet, I was sure I could take the exact same picture of today’s view from Ross Hill, but was surprised at how much the place had changed. I had to do a lot of guesswork, but I think I got it almost right, except for the altitude (picture below). The channel of clear water in the first picture is now no more than a clogged drain. I’d love to know which of the old buildings in the first picture have survived. I can vaguely make out a few red roofs in the new picture and assume they’re pretty old.

Monday, October 15, 2012

In context: The Northern Circars

In reading about Vizag during the British rule, one frequently comes across the term Northern Circars. It’s a good idea to get more familiar with these Circars: Vizag’s history is intimately connected with their evolution.

The Northern Circars are a 78,000 square kilometre strip of coastal land that encompassed areas of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, consisted of Chicacole, Rajahmundry, Ellore, Kondapalli, and Guntur.

They were originally part of the Vijayanagara Empire until the battle of Tallikota (1565), in which the Bahmani sultanate routed the Vijayanagara rulers, effectively ending the latter’s kingdom. The Circars became part of the Bahmani Sultanate and remained so for more than a century.  In 1687 they were occupied by Aurangazeb.

In 1724, Asaf Jah, the governor of Hyderabad (Golkonda), under which the five Circars were ruled, declared independence from the Mughal empire.  He claimed the title of Nizam-ul-Mulk and became the Subahdar of the Deccan.

Rise of the Vizianagaram rajahs

The Vizagapatam district was part of the Chicacole Circar and was long known as the Kasimkota division. After the Golkonda Sultanate took over, the chief local officer was the faujdar of Chicacole, who was in charge of Ganjam and Vizagapatam regions. The first faujdar was Sher Muhammad Khan (1652-84), who governed through the local chiefs or zamindars.  Among these various zamindars, the Vizianagaram rajahs grew in power gradually and started playing a significant part in the politics of the region.

The English and French had several factories in this region and struggled for commercial control of the region.  After the death of Nizam-ul-Mulk, the English and the French took sides in succession disputes. Eventually Salabat Jung, Nizam-ul-Mulk’s son, supported by the French, became the Nizam and ceded four of the five Northern Circars– Elllore, Kondapalli, Rajamundury and Chicacole–to the French in 1753.

English supremacy

But in 1759 the success of the combined forces of the Vizianagaram rajahs and the English established English supremacy in the Circars; in 1765 Robert Clive obtained the Northern Circars from the Mughal Emperor, Shah Alam, by way of inam or free gift subject to an annual payment.  Though the Nizam contested the validity of Shah Alam’s inam, the British, through a combination of force and diplomacy, obtained the Nizam’s acknowledgment of their right to the region and in 1823, the British bought the rights over the Circars from the Nizam.

Since the establishment of the company's government the whole province was divided and placed under two subordinate councils of which the larger was that of Vizagapatam, which was nearly "centrical to all the circars". About the middle of the I7th century a factory was established at Vizagapatam where, on the cession of the Circars, the chief-in-council was appointed.

Too attractive to resist

No one valued the Northern Circars more than the British, or rather, the Europeans. For landlocked Hindu and Muslim kingdoms, the thin strip of coastal territory was too far-flung and too wild to be brought under proper control. Tribal chieftains, hill zamindars, and local self-styled landlords made use of the sturdy, malaria-ridden barrier of the Eastern Ghats to keep central rulers away from the circars and run their own show.

However, the Nizam of Golconda as well as the emperors of the disintegrating Mughal empire dangled the carrot of the Northern Circars to get what they wanted from the British and the French.  Whenever they wanted British or French help in the form of troops or money, the Mughals and the Nizams would promise the Europeans more concessions in or control over the Northern Circars. And the Europeans always took the bait; for the sea-faring traders, the long strip of sea-coast was too attractive to resist. 

M.S.R. Anjaneyulu, Vizagapatam District, 1769-1834: A History of the Relations Between the Zamindars and the East India Company, Andhra University, 1982

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Arthur Cotton: A fruitful sojourn in Vizag

Sir Arthur Cotton, who gained fame and admiration throughout South India by reining in the powerful rivers of the region and is said to have been responsible for the bright green hue that is so integral a feature of the Konaseema region, lived in Vizag for a couple of years (1843-44) to recover from the ‘jungle fever’ that haunted him throughout his stay in the tropics.

His was a genius that could not stay idle even in illness. While nowhere on the scale of the ambitious projects on the Kaveri and the Godavari, Sir Arthur’s work in Vizag was not mean by any measure. He developed the groynes in the sea, which helped break the waves and control erosion. He redesigned and rebuilt St. John’s Church and drew plans for a port in the city.

The family lived in a house among the dilapidated barracks on Dolphin’s Nose, with just one neighbor – the Chaplain – who had built himself a house on the hill. From what Elizabeth Hope, Sir Arthur’s daughter writes in her biography of her father, the view seemed to have compensated for the loneliness of their living quarters: “My mother says of the experience of that time – ‘The view from the Dolphin’s Nose was very fine. The hill rose abruptly from the sea, and the great depth, looked down upon from the top, was sometimes awe-inspiring. Hawks and other large birds of prey above wheeled ceaselessly in circles, uttering their wild, weird cry.”

Hope, Elizabeth, Lady; Digby William, General Sir Arthur Cotton, R.E.K.C.S.I, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1900

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A church for the Uplands

In the early 1800s, Waltair Uplands was the preferred place of residence for the British population, at least those of them who were elevated enough on the government ladder to deserve one of the pretty white-washed bungalows that dotted the hilly places all along the coast. The devout among these fortunate people, however, faced a problem. The only church for Europeans was located in the Old Town, four or five miles away from the Uplands, a not inconsiderable distance in those days.

Though it was easy enough to come up with the idea of building a new church in the Uplands, funds for churches were not easy to come by at the time, as the British East India Company left religion alone as a matter of policy and rarely paid up for churches, orphanages, chaplains or such other religious paraphernalia.

The chaplain of Vizagapatam, Vincent Shortland, raised the money from the congregation; in fact it was the congregation that paid for the furniture and most repairs over the next several years. Captain J.H. Bell of the Madras Engineers designed and supervised the construction of the building, which could house 150 people. The church -- named after St. Paul -- was completed in 1838 and consecrated by one Bishop Spencer.

Apart from the addition of a belfry in 1863 and the rebuilding of the same structure after it was destroyed in a cyclone in 1872, on the opposite side of the original one, the church has survived until today almost unaltered.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Good Friday at St. Paul's Church

It was squally in the morning but by afternoon the sun had torn itself free of the still lingering clouds and had begun to evaporate the odd puddle, with the result that the atmosphere was moist and hot and, on the whole, unbearable.

At St. Paul’s church, there was a pile of shoes outside and a pile of people inside. The old, white-washed structure peeped out from behind modern palms and as I stood outside waiting for my little girl to catch up with me, the entire impression was one of pleasant luxury.

Inside, sunlight streamed through the open windows painted a pale cream, but for some reason, the church’s organizing committee thought it fit to switch on the tube lights, whose ghostly white light clashed with the sunshine and made sure there were no shadows anywhere. I wished the power would be switched off for a while, though the heat might have made me delirious, just so that I could see what the place looked like back when it was built – 1838.

The girls were drably dressed because Good Friday was no day to deck up in diamonds, fake or real. The men were, as usual, all brown, black, white and grey. The pastor’s voice sounded sonorous through the microphone but when my wish was granted and the power was switched off, his real voice revealed itself as puny and would not carry across the aisles and upstairs to the balcony seats. So he stopped speaking until the generator was switched on and then his voice was back to its sonorous self, except that it now had to compete with the generator’s drone.

I was deaf to the meaning of the pastor’s words but his voice filled me with great peace. It probably had a similar, though, soporific effect on my girl, and she soon fell asleep with her feet in my dad’s lap and her head in mine. So, though the entire congregation rose and sat on orders from the pastor at regular intervals, I stuck to my chair and my mind hovered in that pleasant area between sleep and wakefulness, which often gives the impression that it delivers deep insights, but usually only results in some vague but commonplace ideas.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The steep climb to Araku

The first few British expeditions to Galikonda were localized to the area now known as the Araku valley and were a far cry from today’s tourist sojourns in well-equipped, if not luxurious, resorts.

The first exploratory team that went up Galikonda and the surrounding plateaus in February, 1859, consisted of five members led by the Inspector General of Hospitals, Dr. Duncan McPherson, under orders by the Commander-in-Chief of Madras, Sir Patrick Grant, to see whether the hill would make a good sanatorium for soldiers serving in the ‘Northern Division’ of the Presidency.

They explored a few ridges and ranges and named the saddle that joins the crescentic ridge of Galikonda Grant’s Ridge (after the Commander-in-Chief); they selected a valley 600 feet below Grant’s Ridge for the sanatorium and named it Harris Valley, quite a misnomer, as it is more a plateau than a valley, located a vertiginous 4,000 feet above the sea.

Later that year a company of 60 Sappers (soldiers) cleared the ground and cut out approach routes.

In March the next year a group of 21 men of the European Veteran Company at Vizagapatam tested out the climate and living conditions in the valley. The expedition can only be called a disaster. With little more than thatched huts to protect them, these soldiers, mostly older veterans, faced the full fury of rain and wind and the malaria parasite. Only one of them escaped sickness. One can imagine the men trying to weather it out among the thick fogs common to the region, foliage dripping rain and the choppy breezes chilling them to the bone. Three of these men died, two on the hills and one on the way back to Vizag.

The Government, however, unwilling to concede victory to Nature’s forces, sent another party of younger European soldiers to the valley in May; but sickness attacked all but one man of this group too.

After trying out other locations such as Kapkonda, a higher hill, the venture was abandoned in 1861. I can’t claim to have tried very hard, but from the few sources I referred I’m unable to gather when the Araku valley was finally tamed.


Francis, W. – “Vizagapatam District Gazeteer”; Asian Educational Services; first published, Madras 1907

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Visakha Museum

A visit to the Visakhapatnam museum last month proved to be a disappointing affair. The objects on display were a motley collection, mostly donated by eminent and not-so-eminent citizens; most were of doubtful historical value. For instance what’s the historical value of currency notes from Latvia donated by a Latvian citizen who visited the museum a couple of years ago? Or the collection of modern coins from a dozen countries around the world? Or the modern paintings by just a couple of painters? It looked as if the museum was just kind enough to accept whatever people offered, without trying too hard to acquire anything by itself.

However, there were a few objects that made my visit worth the trouble -- a telescope from the old observatory, some old photographs of the city’s coastline, and larger-than-life portraits of the Vizianagaram and Bobbili rajahs (placed facing each other!) But the most interesting exhibits stood outside, in the cool gardens and lawns around the pretty Dutch building (which houses the museum). Among them I found this rock edict commemorating a change in the city’s name.

The entry fee was around Rs. 10 for an adult and Rs. 5 for a child. Unfortunately for me, the Maritime Museum, housed in the first building on the left, was closed for renovation when I visited. So all I could look at was the things in the old building.