It’s nothing more than a dilapidated structure abandoned by the wayside today but back in the 18th century CE, this was a haven for merchants, travellers, pilgrims and itinerants. A simple yet sturdy caravanserai, it was a place where they could rest their weary feet, swap stories over a hearty meal and catch a good night’s sleep before they were on their way with the first rays of light the next day.
This caravanserai is called Pillai Chatram, a rest stop on the road from Bengaluru to Chennai just a few kilometers beyond Kanchipuram. If you can wade through the undergrowth and pause in the colonnaded verandah, you can almost hear the chatter of traders and wayfarers, their faces framed by lamplight reflecting off the walls.
Pillai Chatram was built in the late 1700s and was constructed at a cost of £ 5,515 by Vira Perumal Pillai, a dubash or interpreter to successive British governors of Madras between 1778 and 1789.
It was one of many inns and dormitories built for the convenience of travellers and pilgrims across major transit routes in South India. At a time when travel was slow and arduous, caravanserais like Pillai Chatram played a vital role in connecting people and places.
Officials of the East India Company – including Francis Buchanan-Hamilton and Benjamin Heyne – vividly describe their halts here, published in reports, while British landscape artists William and Thomas Daniell memorialized one such chatram at Binjaveram with a pencil and wash sketch.
Built on an acre of land, Pillai Chatram consists of two square courts surrounded by low buildings along their interior perimeter.
The larger enclosures are divided into small rooms or apartments, where travellers would rest. While records mention that the rooms were walled on three sides and open in front, the separating walls are no longer standing at Pillai Chatram.
The apartments are small with few windows, and there are alcoves and ledges carved into the wall to hold lamps. Poorly finished figures – from deities to the sun and even depictions of bestiality – are carved in bas relief into the stone surfaces.
Pillai Chatram is built of bricks and plastered with lime and mortar. Some rooms have ventilation close to the ceiling, allowing hot air to rise and escape, thus cooling the structure. The roofs are stone slabs supported by square stone pillars. The exterior roof is flat and tiled. The space across the courtyards is left open. Incredibly, even in the Chennai-like summer heat, Pillai Chatram feels cool and aerated.
An open colonnade or verandah runs around the exterior perimeter of the chatram, which was used by local officials to transact business.
The English term for ‘transit houses’ was ‘choultry’, a generic term that does not distinguish between chatram, mantapa and tanni pandal (water shed or tent). While chatrams were strictly used by travellers, mantapas – with a flat roof and a single apartment – were built for the reception of idols carried in processions although they could be used by travellers when available. The tanni pandal was a temporary shelter or a brief rest stop in the shade for weary travellers. Water or buttermilk would be sold here or even provided free to Brahmins, fakirs and mendicants.
These caravanserais were also important nodes of social life in pre-modern South India and took on a variety of roles such as schools, post offices, toll booths and feeding houses, among others. They were often funded through private charities and sometimes with land grants and other resources donated by villages, temples and the government.
Many wealthy merchants did so as a religious duty, often to buy social prestige. When a person erected such rest houses for travellers, the word ‘Chatram’ would be added to his name as a title of honour; for instance, ‘Pillai Chatram’ or ‘Subedar Chatram’.
We first visited Pillai Chatram 12 years ago, when the structure, although old and abandoned, stood firm. When we returned early this year, our hopes gave way to despair. Pillai Chatram is crumbling, its pillars are weak, interiors abused for nefarious activities, the roots of trees growing on the roof are tearing its walls apart, the verandah is collapsing, and the people of the village fear increasing encroachment.
Beyond its garbage-laden corridors and weed-infested walls are memories of a way of life that is lost to modernity. The advent of the railways, the telegraph, changing modes of governance and social mores in the 20th century diminished the relevance of these once vital institutions.
As you make your way through the undergrowth, layers of dust, a litter of pups and hanging roots of a peepal tree fill the place with an air of melancholy.
Many threats plague heritage structures today but nothing is more cruel than social amnesia.
Photo Courtesy: Sashi Sivramkrishna/ Lingaraj G Jayaprakash
Sashi Sivramkrishna is Director at the Foundation to Aid Industrial Recovery (FAIR), Bengaluru.
Lingaraj G Jayaprakash is a researcher at FAIR and at the Sustainable Futures Laboratory, McGill University, Canada
The writers are also researchers with the project, “200 Years Later: Retracing Francis Buchanan’s Journey of 1800-1801 through Southern India.” You can follow the journey here: http://buchanansjourney.org