What an alluring street name - Coral Merchant Street. And resonant of so much of Chennai's early history. It was once one of the most important trading streets in the city. A long time back. Things have changed ...
This is George Town - one of the oldest corners of the city, just north of Fort St. George. It's where the traders not allowed to live in the British fort gathered. It was initially known as Black Town, as opposed to the White or Christian Town where the Europeans lived.
The first Black Town was cleared when the British military decided it needed a 400 yards clear zone round the Fort to prevent a stealth attack (that's the land the Madras High Court is built on).
This second, slightly further out from Fort, Black Town took the formal name George Town just over a century ago when George V became King-Emperor.
And the coral merchants? Well, yes, there was in the eighteenth century a small community of Sephardic Jews living on this street trading in rough coral, coral beads, diamonds and precious stones. This was where Chennai's first synagogue was built. The community prospered - but only briefly. By 1800, the trade had moved elsewhere and the traders with it. There's now nothing at all beyond the street name that harks back to that era ... apart from a solitary signboard -
But this was a well situated street, and new trading communities moved in - particularly Chettiars, among the most prominent of South Indian merchant castes. I suspect the handful of once grand but now largely dilapidated mansions along Coral Merchant Street were built for Chettiar families. They still display some wonderful design flourishes - and one at least remains imposing in appearance.
Between the world wars, the sea route between India's east coast and Burma, Malaya and Singapore was the busiest migration axis on the globe. War and then the insular state socialism introduced in Burma choked off much of that movement.
Chettiar traders were particularly affected and many returned to South India. Some set up what became one of the city's principal markets, Burma Market (it's still there, though no longer flourishing) - and on Coral Merchant Street there is silent testimony to those old trading links across the Bay of Bengal.
Coral Merchant Street has a number of fine Hindu temples, including one of the few in Chennai in which Krishna is the main deity. Chettiars have a reputation for philanthropy and patronage of religious institutions - whether there's a link here, I haven't yet found out.
Another entrepreneurially minded community is still evident on Coral Merchant Street - the Jains, members of an ancient Indian religion which has perhaps four million followers around the world.
There's a small, fairly new, Jain temple and a Jain Bhavan. A bit like Quakers and Parsees, Jains have a reputation for commercial acumen.
Jainism is much stronger, relatively, in North India than in the South. I was told that while there are a significant number of Jains in other parts of Chennai, in George Town there are not more than two-hundred families, and the attendance at this temple is rarely higher than fifty.
And one of the pleasures of walking city streets - anywhere, but especially here in India - is the serendipity factor. It's a long time since I've come across an itinerant knife grinder. You might expect them to be grizzled veterans of a dying trade - but the grinder I chanced upon on Coral Merchant Street is probably barely in his teens. He had a pedal and cycle wheel which kept the grinding disc in motion, and when meat cleavers and knives were being honed, a shower of sparks erupted - alas that's not caught in these photos.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!