The Life of Muslim Women in Triplicane in 1914: Extracts from a European’s Diary

The Life of Muslim Women in Triplicane in 1914: Extracts from a European’s Diary

Lady Lawley, wife of Arthur Lawley, the then Governor of Madras, in her interesting work titled "Southern India," narrates a detailed and vivid account of the plight and lives of Muslim women living in Triplicane, Chennai. The work was published in 1914 and is a valuable document of history and sociology.


MORE THAN A MILLENNIUM AGO, the venerated Srivaishnava saint, Thirumangai Alvar rapturously described Thiruvallikeni as a “thickly canopied jungle with peacocks and koels, where the sun's rays could not penetrate.” Another Srivaishnava saint, Pey Alvar is more vivid. He tells us that the place was located “by the tossing sea... where corals and pearls washed ashore liken the evening sky and the lamps they light of dusk."

The Mleccha tongue mangled "Thiruvallikeni" as "Triplicane." The forest that housed these peacocks and koels and corals and pearls have long been replaced by an unwieldy and ugly concrete jungle and urban filth. Yet, Triplicane still retains its pre-eminence as the place that cultured Madras with its magnificent Parthasarathy Temple and the artistic civilisation that took birth in the mid-19th century. 

Two centuries earlier, the British had rented out Triplicane from the Nawab of Golconda and carved a commercial settlement out of this nondescript coastal village. People from all trades and professions flooded into the new town. 

In the later part of the 18th century, the Nawab of Carnatic, Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah shifted his capital to Chepauk. With that, Triplicane witnessed a spurt of Muslim settlements. Muslim dominance in the locality continued all the way up to the early part of the 20th century, leading several British travellers and bureaucrats to describe Triplicane as “the Muhammadan quarter of Madras.” 

One such account is a rather interesting work titled Southern India written by Annie Lawley, wife of Arthur Lawley, the then Governor of Madras. Published in 1914, the book offers a firsthand portrait of almost all aspects of the Madras of that era. Curiously, she devotes half of the book describing the Muslim society, customs and beliefs in the city. It is both a fascinating and honest narrative of what she witnessed. It is also a good slice of history, which affords valuable comparisons and contrasts. 

The chapter titled The Muhammadans of Triplicane, is particularly noteworthy. It describes the physical layout of the locality followed by a rather intimate and detailed picture of the lives of Muslim women out there. 

Starting with this essay, we will publish some extracts from that chapter.  

Happy reading!

The Muhammadans of Triplicane

TRIPLICANE IS THE MUHAMMADAN QUARTER OF MADRAS. There also is situated the palace of the Prince of Arcot, a descendant of the Nawabs of the Carnatic. One of his ancestors built the palace at Chepauk, now turned into government offices. The broad street called the Triplicane high road is said to have been widened and improved by the French when they occupied Madras, 1746-49. The street is interesting. Always thronged with people, it has nothing European about it. Carriages and motors roll up and down the Mount road, but they rarely pass through Triplicane town.

The best houses are occupied by Muhammadan merchants. In the smaller dwellings live the poorer classes, also Muslims. The windows are closely shuttered with Venetians. Behind those windows, whether they belong to the rich or the poor, lies an unknown backwater, whose surface is never ruffled by the busy outer world. Unless the European has been in actual touch with the inner life of the Muhammadan it is difficult to comprehend its extraordinary limitations.

Whether it be the wife of a rich trader or of a journeyman tailor, she may not pass the threshold of the street door unless she is closely veiled. Her only means of exercise and of breathing fresh air is in the small back-yard with its high walls, excluding every other sight but the blue sky and the tall cocoanut-palm that grows in her neighbour’s yard or her own. She lives within the sound of the sea; but her eyes have never rested upon it. The roar of the surf when the monsoon wind blows comes in over that high wall. She may perhaps listen to its deep thunder as the breakers fall in a triple line on the sandy shore. It conveys nothing to her mind and conjures up nothing in her imagination. So narrow is her world that she has no desire to follow up the roar of the waves and fill her eyes with the light and colour of the Indian seas.

To be continued

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