How a German war ship damaged the Madras High Court boundary wall in 1914: Unravelling history through a heritage walk

Senior Advocate NL Rajah has been conducting a bi-monthly heritage tour at the Madras High Court since 2012.
Madras Heritage Walk
Madras Heritage Walk

On the night of September 22, 1914, two months after the First World War began, a German cruiser ship called the SMS Emden entered the 'Madras' Harbour and began to blindly fire a volley of shots. 

The attack, the only time that India was targeted in the four years of the War, killed five. It also blew up a portion of the eastern boundary wall of the Madras High Court.

A plaque now stands engraved at the exact site, along the boundary wall near gate number one that is reserved for the judges' entrance.

I discovered this and several other invaluable vignettes on a heritage walk at the Madras High Court earlier this month.

The tour was part of the bi-monthly heritage walk that is curated and conducted by Senior Advocate, history enthusiast and member of the High Court Heritage Committee, NL Rajah.

Senior counsel NL Rajah
Senior counsel NL Rajah

In fact, the Madras High Court is the only High Court with a heritage campus in the country that provides such access to the public.

So, on a Sunday morning, a motley group of heritage enthusiasts, law students, senior and junior lawyers assembled at the Court Museum to walk a path steeped in history.

The walk began at around 7 AM and lasted three hours, disclosing along the way, the Court's many treasured secrets.

Corridor leading to the court of Chief Justice
Corridor leading to the court of Chief Justice

The Madras High Court was founded on August 15, 1862, "the day that would become very important in the history of the country," Rajah highlighted.

The Court used to function from another building before it shifted to the present one on July 12, 1892.

The High Court building, a listed Grade I heritage structure, was designed by architect Henry Irwin, and is one of the finest examples of the Indo-Saracenic architecture that the British thought of as a secular amalgam of Moorish, Islamic, Hindu, Gothic and European styles.

Built at a cost of ₹13 lakh, a princely sum at the time, the exposed red brick building has countless grand arches, 23 domed minarets, courtrooms with hand-painted fresco ceilings, stained glass window panels that were imported from England, patterned Italian tiles and intricate wooden fretwork.

The stunning façade, the opulent architectural details, the Court's ceremonial traditions were all meant to awe and subdue witnesses, Rajah said. The building was envisioned as an apt setting for all the ceremonies and drama that would unfold within.

The Court has the unique privilege of having a separate, distinct Postal Index Number (PIN Code) - 600104.

Door to the court of Chief Justice
Door to the court of Chief Justice

On July 10, 1686, an Admiralty Court was established in Madras. A year later, the East India Company sent Sir John Biggs from England to act as a Judge-Advocate of the Admiralty Court.

Later, a Mayor’s Court was established through the same charter that allowed the company to constitute the town of St George. Eventually, the Court of Governor and Council was designated as the High Court of Judicature. The Court met twice a week. It decided all civil and criminal cases with the help of jury of 12 men.

The original charter of 1753, under which the Presidency Courts in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were all established, is still intact, preserved and displayed at the Madras High Court museum.

Rajah recounted how a few years ago, the chartered High Courts of Bombay and Calcutta had proposed that the document be circulated among the three chartered courts to be displayed in each of such court for a year. 

"However, we at Madras, put our foot down and said no since, the document is too fragile," Rajah said.

Old lighthouse inside the High Court campus
Old lighthouse inside the High Court campus

After the museum, we went to the unused lighthouse, the oldest structure in the complex, a fluted Doric column built in 1838. The imposing 135-feet-tall stone structure encases a spiral staircase, and was originally lit with oil and wick, to guide the ships.

The central domed minaret of the High Court in the main building too hosts an unused lighthouse, the second of the three oldest lighthouses in the city.

Constructed in 1892, this one, 175 feet tall, had a kerosene-fuelled light visible 32 kilometres away at sea. On the base of the lighthouse, the Heritage Committee has created two photographic exhibitions - one on how Madras is the first modern city of India, and the other on the contribution of legal luminaries to public welfare.

Spiral staircase inside one of the lighthouses
Spiral staircase inside one of the lighthouses

In the 162 years of its history, the Madras High Court has passed several landmark judgments such as the guardianship case of philosopher J Krishnamurti, who was adopted by Annie Besant [Annie Besant vs G Narayaniah on 25 May, 1914] and the Lakshmikanthan murder case which led to celluloid superstars NS Krishnan and MK Thyagaraja Bhagvathar being convicted by a jury [MK Thiagaraja vs Unknown on 29 October, 1945].

The Court has also witnessed legal luminaries such as T Muthuswami Iyer, PV Rajamannar,  VL Ethiraj, VO Chidambaram and C Rajagopalachari in action.

The High Court has also contributed to the preservation of other heritage structures in the city. Its judgments in the recent past helped prevent the demolition of the DGP Office on Beach Road and the Bharat Insurance Buildings on Mount Road in the city. Around 400 heritage buildings have now been protected after the Court held them as structures worthy of preservation.

"The High Court is not an institution just for judges or lawyers. It is a public institution meant for all the citizens of the country and therefore all of us must know about it," Rajah opined on the importance of the heritage walk.

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