The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1924] Lending Character...


"I am the East Mada Street. From as long as I could remember, the world revolved around me. There were others, who saw it differently.

Circumscribing a temple and its tank, we are four streets- North, South, West and East Mada Street. I am the 'cultured' one amongst us. My southern and northern counterparts followed commercial pursuits. While they 'banked' the temple tank on one side each, the North Mada Street had retail shops on the other, while the South Mada Street had vegetable, fruit vendors selling their goods starting early in the morning through till late in the evening. Most of Mylapore, (a quaint town of Chennai, Southern India) comes here for all its needs- be it for everyday shopping like grocery or the occasional kind, like jewellery or textiles.

My western counterpart- the West Mada Street provided for the residential needs of the priests. It predominantly consisted of low slung pan-tiled units. These single-story units are quite small, having a raised entry seat, or a verandah (meant for the weary traveler to rest), contributing largely to the character of this street. This street presents a very soothing picture. At dawn and dusk, this street echoes with the voices that recite the religious hymns. Young 'brahmin'(members of a priestly class) boys that are learning the Vedas (scriptures); or the older ones, that recite them everyday, either out of religious fervor or in order to master the scriptures. Also, bordering the temple tank on one side, this street provides the western entry to the Temple.

And what of me? I exude heritage and culture. I am of a higher breed. I am home to an auditorium that sets the stage for all the concerts and dances that are exclusive to South Indian culture. I have introduced some of the finest performers to a podium. I have been a reason for seasoned performers, to yet again, perform. The buildings that stand on either side of me are full of character. Built in a style so evocative of strength and solidity; a subtle beauty pervades, one that breathes sensibility, and yet, intimidates. I also house the eastern entry into the temple. The Temple- the center of this settlement- the pretext for all our births, existences and sustenance."

The 120 feet tall entry-tower makes its imposing presence felt from any point on the four Mada streets. And, rightly so, since it is the one element that 'towers' above all the rest. The one element that seems to link the earth and the sky, yet, not flaunting that fact. Not conceited by that knowledge, just accepting it humbly. The Kapaleeswarar Temple, the temple that houses the shrines of Sri Kapaleeswarar (an incarnation of Shiva) and his Consort, Sri Karpagambal has quite a past, with inscriptions dating back to almost 1250 years ago, and finds mention in the songs of the 7th century. The temple was fortified and used by the British and the French during the 17th century wars fought off the Coromandel Coast.

The large temple tank is an open space that provides obvious spatial and visual relief in an otherwise tightly built environment. Steps circumscribing the tank, lead to its bottom. It makes an especially pretty picture during the Theppam, or the Float festival when the Lord and his consort are set afloat in the tank on a float. Done primarily to bless the life sources in water, lamps are also set afloat with prayers for a happy life. Recent years have been dry years for the temple tank. Soaring temperatures have resulted in declining water-levels. Efforts to fill it have failed. Even so, the Theppam is still conducted. Though, of late, the God and the Goddess are placed on a stationary float. Belief is that even though no water exists in the tank, the source spring still exists, and hence, this festival should not be disregarded.

The streets, usually a picture that alternates, juxtaposes and sometimes blends, vibrancy and calm; depending on the time of day, robe themselves in different attires for the various festivals, and become the roles that were written solely for them.

The Festival of Nine Nights (Navrathri) is dedicated to the Goddesses. Marked by a festival of dolls, in which each home displays all the dolls at home on an arrangement of steps. There is a constant exchange of visitors, as hospitality is a key feature of this festival. The streets themselves, are at their hospitable best, by receiving sheer numbers of people that are either guests at someone's houses or have come for their shopping, as part of preparations for the festival. The streets that otherwise gradually fall asleep by half-past eight, are now much more vibrant for a few more waking hours every night. In order to prepare for this festival, the temple holds special offerings several times daily to the Goddess, who adorns a different form everyday. Echoes of the hymns to the Goddesses and carnatic songs by the visitors are all part of the sounds of the streetscape during this festival. The Mada streets are an uprising of colours, chaos and piety. Fascinating exhibitions, eye-catching crafts, incense sticks, silver jewellery, terracotta figures, home-made juices, pickles, rice-mixes, spices, clay dolls and models, mementoes, hand-painted earthen pots, perfumed and decorative candles, are all part of the scene. It is these commodities alone, with their old-world feel, so Mylaporean, that could coerce visitors into this area, during this festival, as inching through the crowds, is indeed daunting. Many of these products are means for self-help women's groups to make a living.

Another festival pays tribute to the 63 saints who have enriched Tamil (an ancient language, also the local one, still in common use) literature and who gave the devotees a medium (poetry) by which the Gods could be remembered. Highlight of this festival is a procession headed by the Lord adorned with a spear, consort and sons by his sides. The 63 saints in different palanquins, 4 in each, follow their Lord devotedly. This procession goes around the streets. On this day, all roads lead to Mylapore.

In the Temple-Cart Festival, the Lord does his rounds of the Temple in the temple cart, along the Mada Streets, with a bow and arrow, destroying evil; while his consort, it is believed, prays for his safe return. The chariot symbolizes the 'journey of life', the roads on which the chariot moves- mother-earth. Hundreds of thousands throng the streets, hoping to do their bit in pulling or pushing the temple-cart along its journey, also hoping to be blessed by a view of their Lord at his bravest. The streets proudly do their duty by the Lord and his devotees by providing a medium between the two. The streets, funnily, also act 'as' vehicles during these times. One has just to step into the crowds, and will be transported; by all the pushing and pulling that takes place; to another point, minus any physical effort of his own, except maybe the effort to brave the crowds. Then of course, there are the lucky, maybe even blessed few who can watch the proceedings from the comfort of their own homes, since these are located along the path taken by the cart. These homes were previously one-storied, thus ensuring that during the festival, the streetscape was dominated by the moving chariot- the most elevated member of the entire streetscape. The temple chariot otherwise stands stationary at the eastern entrance of the temple, lying dormant, until called upon annually.

That is how it's been celebrated for the past 300 years or so. Modern day conveniences like electricity that make their presence felt very blatantly in the form of electrical cables, etc prove a hindrance to the journey of the chariot. Hence, the procession, has now added another member to itself. This member holds a long pole, traveling in front of the Lord (inappropriately), clearing all the wires and cables in their way, by elevating them to a height higher than that of the top of the chariot, as they move along. Residential/commercial units that were previously one-storied have gone higher thus resulting in several 'mere' humans looking down upon the Lord himself, from their balconies, as he is on his journey.

"Dilapidation- Not entirely synonymous with ruin, there is a certain kind of romance associated with dilapidation- a subtle romance suggestive of growing old; of going through an entire lifetime. Watching and learning; as life passes you by, every single day and still, growing older. This is what happened to me. Gradually, with every rising sun; wisdom too, dawned on me. At first, it was a little unsettling. Eventually, it became clearer- that, that is how it had always been. There was more to the world, than what I saw. 'Coming to terms' is the single, most delineating aspect of growing old.

I am still the East Mada Street, albeit, a bigger one than before. I have come to accept the eventualities and happenings around me. Like the Great Kapaleeswarar Temple that embraces and welcomes all those that come to it and all that is in its vicinity; we are all presently, embracing our most difficult visitor- Change.

The Temple, with its fine, sculptural carvings on the tower and elsewhere, once quite an ensemble of light and shade, is now unimaginatively coated with pain(t). It has lost most of its architectural splendor. And yet, it still stands tall, magnanimous by its very presence.

Dilapidation- somehow, hinting at senility and yet- the only indication of the times that were. The luring that could induce our minds to imagine an era that was. Eras that were as alive, as buoyant and as much a reality, as today is one."

The Mada Streets have aged as gracefully as was possible. They have had to sacrifice portions of their composition (sides of the streets) to encroachments like petty shops and parking for the motorized vehicles, so prevalent these days. Several of the age-old buildings that grew old alongside the Mada streets have been wiped away due to insufficient heritage-protection measures. The North and South Mada Streets have become so taken in by commercialization that they stand for all the stores that have to do with general provisions, alternative medicines, handicrafts, art-emporiums, and pretty much any shop that has to do with religious activity. They have nonetheless become a fantastic canvas of vibrant colours, due to the presence of stores that sell traditional powders in red and yellow, florists, textiles, etc. Even the fruits and vegetables lend so much color- the tomatoes & the gourds, the apples, bananas, mangoes, oranges, the pumpkins with faces painted on them, that are believed to ward off the evil eye, all make the streets look like the palette of an artist who is just about to mix his colors.

The West Mada Street is one place where time seems to have stopped. It still houses the residences of the priests. The entry-seat to the houses is now more used as a spot for indulging in small-talk, a place where the people who seem to have been left behind, in the rat-race of modern-day life, can remark and lament on the times gone by and those that are yet to come.

In recent times, Mylapore Times- the local neighborhood newspaper strives to keep the heritage and traditional values of this area alive, given that Mylapore is one of very few pockets of Chennai, which is putting up a better fight against the external influences of globalization that is taking the world by storm. Efforts include organizing festivals, that don't necessarily have their roots steeped in religion. These festivals seek to use open spaces in a heritage zone to host events that celebrate culture, tradition, lifestyle, art, history- all that is the spirit of Chennai; and it is open to all.

The December Festival is a calling; a calling to the talented; to those that were born to step on stage; born to have the spotlight shine on them. Those with a persona that can hold several candles to the light shone on them, no matter how bright. Those who were, quite simply- born to perform. Contests are conducted to highlight tradition and culture. Tradition and culture that is so unique to this area, requires a separate podium (parameter) for exhibition and could certainly do with much more attention and exposure, even though it already attracts expatriate Indians and scholars from all over the world. Talent-searches, workshops, seminars, contests in classical music and dance, slokas (verses), bhajans (hymns), instrumental music, dance-drama, are all showcased by the December festival all over Mylapore; especially the area around the temple. These events are held, sometimes in the open-air; other times in makeshift stages or 'pandals', and at other times in auditoria. Several of these concerts are held at strategic points on the East Mada Street.

Women, young and old- that usually get up at dawn every morning and decorate the front of their house by drawing geometrical patterns on the portion of the road fronting their doorstep, as a welcome note; are given a chance to exhibit their skills on a competition scale, that is the Kolam Festival. Traffic to the North Mada Street is diverted, paving the way for the roads to adopt the role of a canvas for the ladies to splash colour and white powder on, maybe this time- even inviting colour into their dull and humdrum lives, usually limited to the kitchen and the TV.

What started out as the Kolam festival, eventually grew to a much larger event called The Mylapore Festival. The venues are the open spaces, street corners, and the Mada Streets around the Temple. Traffic is diverted for the duration of the festival. Crafts and food, vintage coins and vintage movies, folk and classical arts, popular arts, music, theater, heritage-walks and Tamil books; are all strokes in the painting that is the Mylapore Festival.

Culture and tradition, once safely and possessively guarded objects behind closed doors, have been brought out into the open- the Streets. And its getting quite a warm reception there. Culture and tradition, once the play-field of privileged few- the elite, are now on show for everyone to enjoy - Spirit of Democracy or a desperate attempt at keeping alive the flame of what is slowly being put out by the strong winds of globalization?

Maybe, the blending of world cultures and its various degrees does offer 'a world' of opportunities for people to relate to; for people who somehow seem lost in their own cultures, these days. And maybe this is the only way one can keep what is left of our individuality alive- by using public spaces to reacquaint ourselves with what we truly come from.


"Madras- The Architectural Heritage.", K.Kalapana and Frank Schiffer, INTACH, 2003

Many thanks to Mylapore Times, and their numerous issues for giving me an insight into the 'streets'.

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