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Chapter 10: Chepauk Palace

Among the interesting buildings in Madras must be included Chepauk Palace, which was built about a century and a half ago as a residence for the Nawab of the Carnatic, and which is now the office of the Board of Revenue. The high wall that enclosed the spacious Saracenic structure in its palace days has been pulled down, and the public can now gaze at a building that was once carefully screened from the public eye, and can enter at will without having to satisfy the scrutiny of armed men at the gate. A change indeed--from the sleepy residence of a Muhammadan ruler, with his harem and his idle crowd of retainers, to bustling offices where a multitude of officials and clerks are working out the cash accounts of the Government of Madras!

The 'Carnatic' was a dominion that extended over the territory that is now included in the Collectorates of Nellore, North Arcot, South Arcot, Trichinopoly, and Tinnevelly. The town of Arcot was the capital of the dominion, and the Nawab of the Carnatic was sometimes spoken of as the Nawab of Arcot. Chepauk Palace belongs to the history of the Carnatic, and a few historical notes will make things clear.

In our first chapter we intimated that Madras, when Mr. Francis Day acquired it, was within the domain of the disappearing Hindu Empire of Vijianagar, of which the living representative at the time was the Raja of Chandragiri, from whom Mr. Francis Day accordingly obtained a deed of possession. Seven years afterwards, the Raja of Chandragiri was a refugee in Mysore, driven from his throne by the Muhammadan Sultan of Golconda, who assumed the sovereignty of Hyderabad and the Carnatic. The Sultan of Golconda thus became the recognized overlord of Madras; and the Company were careful to secure from their new sovereign a confirmation of their possession. But the power of the Sultan was destined to fall in its turn; for Aurangzeb, the Moghul Emperor at Delhi, being desirous of uniting all India under Moghul rule, waged war against the Sultan of Golconda--who, as a Shiah Mohammedan, was a heretic in Aurangzeb's eyes--and defeated him. Aurangzeb put Hyderabad under a Nizam whom he named 'Viceroy of the Deccan' and the Carnatic under a Nawab who was to be subordinate to the Viceroy. But the Emperor who succeeded Aurangzeb had none of their predecessors' greatness; and soon after Aurangzeb's death the Nizam of Hyderabad assumed independence, with the Nawab of the Carnatic as his vassal.

In 1749 there was a quarrel for the Nawabship. The French at Pondicherry supported one claimant, and the English at Madras supported the other. This was the gallant Clive's opportunity. Exchanging the clerk's pen for the officer's sword, the youthful 'writer' marched with a small force to Arcot and captured it on behalf of the Company's nominee, and then sustained most heroically a lengthy siege. Clive triumphed; and Mohammed Ali, otherwise known as Nawab Walajah, became undisputed Nawab of the Carnatic. Later, with British support, the Nawab renounced his allegiance to Hyderabad, and reigned as an independent prince.

In his capital at Arcot, Nawab Walajah, who had many factionary enemies, would assuredly have found himself in a dangerous centre of intrigue; but he was wise in his generation; for as soon as he had gained his independence he sought and obtained from the Governor of Madras permission to build a palace for himself within the protective walls of Fort St. George. Arrangements for the work were made; and one of the streets of the Fort--the street which still bears the name of 'Palace Street'--received its name because it was the street in which the Nawab's residence was to be built. Eventually, however, the scheme was set aside; and in the following year the Nawab acquired private property in Chepauk, and engaged an English architect to build him a house. Chepauk Palace thus came into existence. The grounds of the Palace, which the Nawab surrounded with a wall, formed an immense enclosure, which included a large part of the grounds of Government House of to-day and a great deal of adjoining land.

Chepauk Palace was the scene of some grand doings in its time; and soon after it was built the Nawab entertained the Governor of Madras and his Councillors, one of whom was Mr. Warren Hastings, at 'an elegant breakfast;' and, when the feast was over, he divided some Rs. 30,000 among his guests. The Governor got Rs. 7,000, and, on a sliding scale, the Secretaries, who were last on the list, got Rs. 1,000 each.

The relations, however, between Nawab Walajah and a later Governor of Madras were not so cordial. In 1780 Haidar Ali with an immense army suddenly invaded the Carnatic, and annihilated a British force that was sent to oppose him; and Tipu, his son and successor, continued the campaign. The Company's treasury at Madras was straitened with the expenses of the war, and the Nawab, whose capital was in the hands of the enemy, was unable to contribute thereto; but when Tipu was eventually defeated, the Nawab was induced to assign the control of the revenues of the Carnatic to the Company. A few months later the Nawab felt that he had made an unwise bargain, and he declared his renunciation of the agreement; but Baron Macartney, the newly appointed Governor of Madras, kept him strictly to his word. The Nawab wrote various official letters, complaining in one that Lord Macartney had 'premeditatedly' offered him 'Insults and Indignity,' and in another that he had shown him 'every mark of Insult and Contempt.' The Directors in London, expressly declaring their desire to content the influential Nawab, decided in his favour; whereupon Lord Macartney, who in the opinion of his friends had been set at naught for the sake of the wealthy potentate, indignantly resigned the Governorship of Madras, and went home. Friendly relations between the Nawab and the Madras Government were thereupon resumed, and when Nawab Walajah died, at the age of seventy-eight, he was eulogised in an official note in the Fort St. George Gazette.

The career of his son and successor, Umdat-ul-Umara, was less auspicious. Although his accession was the occasion of friendly letters between himself and the Government of Madras, the Nawab's rejection of the Governor's suggestion that the financial arrangements between himself and the Company should be made more favourable to the Company irritated the Governor, and the Governor's efforts to induce the Nawab to change his mind irritated the Nawab. Meanwhile Tipu Sultan was preparing for another war with the Company, and when, after a brief campaign, Tipu was killed while fighting bravely in defence of his capital, it was declared that an examination of Tipu's correspondence showed that the Nawab of Arcot had been guilty of treasonable communications with Mysore. It was accordingly resolved that the Company should assume control of the Carnatic; but, as the Nawab was seriously ill, nothing was done until his death, when British troops were sent to occupy Chepauk Palace.

The Nawab's son refused to recognize the Company's right to control his father's dominions, whereupon the Company set him aside, and put his cousin on the throne in his stead. The Company were now the actual rulers of the Carnatic, and the future Nawabs were styled 'Titular Nawabs.' In 1855 the third of the Titular Nawabs died without any son to succeed him. Lord Dalhousie was Governor-General of India at the time, and it was Lord Dalhousie's declared policy that if the ruler of any native state died without issue, his dominions should formally lapse to the Company. On this principle the Carnatic now became a formal part of the British dominions, and the dynasty of the Nawabs came to an end; Chepauk Palace, which was the personal property of the Nawabs, was acquired by the Company's Government for a price, and was eventually turned into Government offices.

The many thousands of Mohammedans, however, who dwelt in the crowded streets and lanes of Chepauk, and who had looked upon the Nawab as their religious chief, would have been afflicted at the cessation of the Carnatic line; and after the Indian Mutiny the Government of India, respecting Mohammedan sentiment, recognized the succession of the nearest relative of the late Nawab and obtained for him from the King of England the hereditary title of Amir-i-Arcot, or 'Prince of Arcot'--an honorary title but higher than that of Nawab. A sum of Rs. 1,50,000 per annum--(not an excessive sum in relation to the revenues of the Carnatic, which are now collected by the Madras Government)--is expended annually in pensions to the Prince and to certain of his relatives; and he lives in a house called the 'Amir Mahal' (the Amir's Palace), which was given to him by the Government. The Amir Mahal stands in spacious grounds in Royapettah. At the principal entrance, the gate-house is a tall and imposing edifice in red brick. At the gateway, sentries, armed with old-fashioned rifles, stand--or sometimes sit--on guard; and the Prince's Band is often to be heard practising oriental music in the room up above.

Regarded in relation to its history, Chepauk is something more than 'one of the Government buildings on the Marina.' Let us remember that, when it was enclosed within the walls that are now no more, it was the home of Mohammedan potentates--sometimes a scene of gorgeous festivity--sometimes a scene of desperate intrigue. In imagination we may people the front garden with the gaily-uniformed Body-Guard of the Carnatic sovereign, mounted on gaily-bridled steeds; and we may see the Nawab himself coming magnificently down the front steps and climbing into the silver howdah that is strapped on the back of a kneeling elephant. A blast of oriental music, and the procession goes on its way; and we may wonder at which of the tiled windows on the upper floor the bright eyes of the Lalla Rookhs and the Nurmahals of Chepauk are slily peeping at the spectacle. The vision vanishes. The procession now is a procession of clerks to their homes when their day's work is over; and the music is a ragtime selection by the Band of the Madras Guards on the Marina, close by, with ayahs and children around. We are in the twentieth century; but for a moment we have lived in the past.