As kids, most of us believe in magic and fairy tales. Fueled by fiction, be it in the form of grandma’s tall tales or nursery rhymes, this belief, often trifled as childish fantasy, is the foundation of a creative mind capable of appreciating the wonder of the world.
But only a few manage to keep this innocence of wonder alive even in their adulthood. And Ramanujar Moulana is one such rare person.
A passionate historian and cyclist, Ramanujar has dedicated the last decade to discover the wonders of the heritage city of Chennai.
He points out that old cities or places like Chennai have an unexplainable charm of yesteryear. They are not lifeless constructions built by people just to inhabit but instead are breathing reservoirs of stories, legends and experiences that transcend the boundaries of time and space. An ever-growing time-capsule of sorts, these cities carefully cradle memories of the past for the present and the future to pay a visit.
One such example of a unique historical site that might remind you of a childhood nursery fairytale rhyme, The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, is the now-defunct old Madhavaram shoe factory which is a building shaped like a boot!
“I was a child when I first saw the Boot house. We were taken there on a school excursion and it had a mini garden around. But now it’s a relic of the past,” he says, suggesting the rapidly changing city of Chennai that threatens to shroud the existence of these marvels. Fascinating places like these and the threat of letting them get forgotten inspired Ramanujar to start a journey of preserving the city’s heritage through cycling.
Cycling Through Time
It was this passion for history and heritage that first led him to join the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club. Eventually, he started Cycling Yogis in 2012 as a collective of like-minded cyclists who didn’t perceive cycling just as a hobby but as a sustainable means to explore the hidden stories cradled in the contours of the old city.
“For most people this city is Chennai but for me, it is old Madras that I fell in love with. Its fading beauty needs to be seen and remembered for the next generations and Cycling Yogis is an attempt towards immortalising that,” says Ramanujar who published two books North Chennai Bicycle Trails and Madras By Cycle: Medical Heritage Trails of Chennai, in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
Although exploring the city’s hidden marvels might seem like a romantic and carefree weekend activity for some, finding them and documenting their almost forgotten history for the sole purpose of remembrance, is a tedious and strenuous task indeed. “It would start with me sitting on my desk in front of old maps and books charting out the plan, to find places that have little to no mention online. Most of these cannot be found on Google Maps as well,” says Ramanujar, adding that the community also helped bolster the database for planning the trails.
From abandoned single screen cinema theatres, clock towers, factories and industries, legendary and hole-in-the-wall eateries to memorials and hospitals, the books published by Cycling Yogis encapsulates a time-travel guide to Madras like no other travel guide.
Discovery of Chennai’s Medical Heritage
“Most of the old cities in India have a similar old-world charm and shared experiences, but also possess something unique. For Chennai, it is the rich medical heritage that sets it apart from the rest,” says Ramanujar.
Chennai today is known to be the hub for medical tourism in India, with state-of-the-art medical infrastructure and advanced intensive care facilities, all of which comes at an affordable cost. But the city’s newfound fame as a medical hub is not as contemporary as we might think it to be. Ramanujar points out that with age-old institutions like The Government General Hospital, Madras Medical College, Adyar Cancer Institute and Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, Chennai has an illustrious history of being a medical pioneer of India.
In 2021, when Ramanujar along with his fellow cyclists was planning a book on the hidden culinary gems of the city, they came across a roadblock that changed their direction. “It was the second wave of COVID and we realised food trails were not something we should explore at this time. So we decided to pivot into something that proved to be extremely relevant at the time, Chennai’s medical history, as a tribute to healthcare workers,” he says.
Named Madras By Cycle: Medical Heritage Trails of Chennai, the book captures the history behind Chennai’s iconic and lesser-known museums, pharmacies, hospitals and medical establishments and memorials.
From hospitals and clinics to dispensaries and Chinese dentist clinics from the 1940s, the book contains a total of 10 trails spread across the city. What’s even more remarkable is that along with the historical information, each page dedicated to the trails also has a QR code printed, which when scanned will lead to Google Maps to provide a real-time guide to the travellers throughout the trails.
Talking about one of the historical sites highlighted in the book, he narrates, “Mary Anne Scharlieb was one of the first women to enter the Madras Medical College to pursue a Licentiate in Medicine & Surgery (LM&S). She went on to become a renowned gynaecological surgeon motivated to help Indian women who couldn’t seek medical help during childbirth. She also helped lay the foundation of the Kasturba Gandhi Hospital for Women in Triplicane, Chennai which continues to be one of the prominent medical institutions in the state. We have highlighted these stories in the book and more.”
Another interesting find in the book includes an account of Dr Edward Bulkley, one of the earliest registered medical practitioners in India whose tomb can be found opposite the Madras Medical College. It also contains an account of the memorial pillar dedicated to Dr WS Sawmy Naick, one of the earliest vaccinators of Madras, who drove several vaccination campaigns under the British, to fight against smallpox.
It is stories like these hidden inside dilapidated structures that Cycling Yogis and Ramanujar hope to immortalise through their books and trails. So far they have published 6 books and the upcoming one is to focus on Madras’ global connection and how the city embraced people from different nationalities throughout the annals of history.
“I hope that through this work people and institutions are motivated to preserve these structures and the stories they possess. I hope that people will see my beloved Madras’ true beauty through these books and cycling trails and fall in love the way I did,” he concludes.
Edited by Yoshita Rao