Lost, but hopeful.

Buckingham Canal, Chennai.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

 The story of Chennai’s resilience and survival, has time and again, proved to be a reflection of mankind’s role in the existing natural and man-made physiographic features. Be it the monsoon flooding of areas built on lakes and marsh lands, or the weakening of the intensity of natural disasters by the strategic positions of natural and man-made waterbodies; our efforts in conserving, as well as in modifying the city’s landscape, has always played an important role. 

When it comes to surface drainage, the Greater Madras Area’s coastal physiography consisting of beaches, dunes, backwaters and lagoons, plays an important role through the aid of four main rivers:  the Araniar in the North, followed by Kosasthalaiyar River, Cooum River, and Adyar River in the South; all, largely flowing West-East. Meeting the Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum, and Adyar Rivers is the Buckingham Canal, that runs parallel to the coast. Within the city, the Canal meets the Cooum River near the Central Jail, and continues South, before it intersects the Adyar River near the Greenways Railway Bridge.

This man-made Buckingham Canal, and the promises resting on its potential have existed for about two-hundred-years now. After the Canal was built in 1897, it served as an important water route and improved the connectivity of Madras to the other nearby trade centers. During the World War II, it is said that the boat traffic in the Canal, was at its peak. Today, although far from this narrative and largely seen as a lost space in the urban fabric of the city, the Buckingham Canal is still relevant through the role it plays in acting as a buffer against several natural disasters. It has been acknowledged that the intensity of devastations in the city, during the Tsunami of 2004 and the floods of 2015, were reduced by the Canal’s course, running parallel and within 5 Km of the coast throughout its entire length. 

Two of the four-parts, that make the Buckingham Canal one of the longest canals in the country, are steeped in rich history. The Northern part known as the Cochrane Canal, was originally a river called the “North River”, that was seen as a noteworthy geographical feature by the British. In the early 18thcentury, the stretch between this shallow river and the beach, was marked by six block houses which were said to have been built to delineate the northern boundary of the city. The same can be seen in the Wheeler map of 1733.

In talking about the course of this now-forgotten-river, historian and author S Muthiah, in his book Madras Rediscovered says “…In fact, the course of the river was, almost throughout its passage, parallel to the sea – that is to the West of the Fort and about two kilometers from the coast. But in its last stage it changed course; at the south west corner of the present General Hospital grounds it bent back sharply on itself, then travelled northeast for about 800 yards to join the silted mouth of the Triplicane river.” Maps of the city, before the early 19thcentury, document this course of the North River.

A boundary map published in May 1794 by Laurie and Whittle shows the North River flowing parallel to the East coast,
before meeting the Triplicane River.

Source: http://www.davidrumsey.com

In this River, as detailed by author W Francis in Gazetteer of South India Volume 1, the first portion of the Buckingham Canal was built beginning in 1806, by Cochrane and his private enterprise. By 1837, the construction was taken over by the government. But, up until the great famine of 1876, only a small progress, costing about 5 lakh Indian Rupees had taken place. In 1876-78, the Great Famine of Madras, which is often seen as one of the darkest periods in the city’s history, became a driving factor that encouraged the completion of the second-part of the undertaking as famine relief work by the Duke of Buckingham. This today, is the 8 Km long stretch of the Canal linking the Cooum and Adyar Rivers. This stretch was later connected to the Cochrane Canal in the North and the South Coast Canal in the South. At the end of the construction, around 90 lakh Indian Rupees was spent on the Canal.

The Buckingham Canal in 1961.
Source: The Hindu archive.

The finished Canal, as envisioned, was a navigable water system interlinking other streams. It spanned over an expanse of 420 Km, with a 163 Km long stretch in Tamil Nadu and the rest in Andhra Pradesh. In its intact state, the Canal is said to have had a capacity of up to 5,600 cubic feet per second. However, after about a hundred years, a rapid decline in the purpose and maintenance of the Canal, transformed what could have been a solution to the extreme and alternating conditions of drought and heavy rainfalls in the city; into a squalid, incidental buffer reserved for natural calamities. 

Yet, as long as one can look at the Buckingham Canal, and can’t help but believe in all that it can be, not all hope is lost: On one hand, its indispensable positioning on the city’s map and its undeniable potential, have constantly placed it as a key feature in many urban development projects, since the beginning of this century. On the other hand, a common man’s hopes for the Canal, gives us, the people, the right and the responsibility of reviving it, one small step at a time. 

Let’s all do our best!

Published by Sushmitta Renganathan

I am an Architect and Urban Designer, passionate about playing my part in conserving the beautiful rarities in our society. I care about the diversity, environment, conservation of arts and culture, gender equality, and intercultural dialogue. My passion for designing, writing, and photography, help me to assert myself on the issues I have the privilege to witness and understand.

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