Senior advt n L raja legal giant bi-monthly heritage walk around the Madras High Court complex from 2012, and last month the initiative crossed the fiftieth mark

Doing justice to an institution’s rich history

Prince FrederickCHENNAI, MARCH 14, 2020 15:46 ISTUPDATED: MARCH 14, 2020 16:35 IST

Senior advocate N.L. Rajah has been conducting a bi-monthly heritage walk around the Madras High Court complex from 2012, and last month the initiative crossed the fiftieth mark
No journey ever culminates at the intended destination. It may fall short of it; or may overshoot it. It may even veer off in a wholly new direction. No matter where a journey leads, one is none the worse for having embarked on it, if one pursues it sincerely. It can be enriching, sometimes in bewilderingly unexpected ways.

When N.L. Rajah, senior advocate of the Madras High Court and a member of its heritage committee, got hold of V.C. Gopalratnam’s A Century Completed: A History of the Madras High Court, 1862-1962, there was a faint intimation of the journey he should undertake. The book had ignited him with a fascination for the history of the Madras High Court, and he wanted to update the work.
“Though I did not update Mr. V.C. Gopalratnam’s book, I did write a book on the 150-year history of the Madras High Court,” begins Rajah, settling down at the High Court Museum for a chat about a subject he would never tire of discussing.
For Rajah, the book, The Madras High Court: A 150-year Journey from a Crown Court to a People’s Court, published in 2012, marked the beginning of another journey, this one rather path-breaking because it had no parallels from the past.

A new direction
After working on the book, he was left with a truckload of material about the Madras High Court that he felt compelled to share, using a different facet of story-telling. So, in 2012, he started conducting free bi-monthly heritage walks — on a Sunday — around the Madras High Court complex. In February this year, the walk crossed a milestone — fiftieth walk.
“High Court, you see, is not an institution just for judges, lawyers and the staff of the institution, it is a public institution meant for all the citizens of the country and therefore all of us must know about the High Court. Also, the Madras High Court is one of the three chartered High Courts of the country and is therefore one of the oldest legal institutions in the country,” says Rajah.
Additional walks
His enthusiasm to talk about the Madras High Court is so boundless that he undertakes walks beyond the bi-monthly heritage walk.

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“I have six walks in a year but this would be in addition to any special walks which any institution may request and if I find the interest quite genuine and the numbers sizeable, I then arrange for walks for these institutions. Mostly, these are colleges. These are bunches of heritage lovers. These are students of history. So, when they come to me as a group I always entertain them because I would like to feed this enthusiasm.”
Have these walks touched a chord with people beyond the city?
While pointing out that many of the consulates in Chennai send their staff for these walks, Rajah recalls how he was pleasantly surprised to find one journalist from the United States who had attended his walk write in her blog advising those who might be planning a visit to Chennai to time it in such a way that they could attend this walk.
Fresh information
Thanks to such encouragement, he is always on the lookout for fresh information about the High Court.
“And I also keep discovering more and more stuff. The more heritage walks I do, there are more people coming to me with information about the history of the High Court and we have also collected a lot of material from the district courts. There is furniture. There is memorabilia. There are valuable documents. These have now been very well-preserved. In fact, the Charter of 1753 is the charter under which the Presidency courts in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were all established. The parent documents are in the Madras High Court museum.”
He continues, “Interestingly, Madras High Court was founded on August 15, 1862, the day that would become very important in the history of the country. That is unique about the founding date of the Madras High Court. On the day that it was founded it did not occupy this building. It occupied the building called the Bentinck’s Building on First Line Beach which is where the Singaravelar Maaligai today stands. Unfortunately, we have demolished that building, and that is the building which had the Supreme Court of Madras also. There was a Supreme Court of Madras… as the High Court grew in stature, many people have even forgotten about the Supreme Court of Madras, and even the lovely building where it was housed which was unfortunately demolished in the 1980s.”
The format
Where do the participants get to go, during a walk?
“The Madras High Court is the only High Court in the country which has two lighthouses. The first lighthouse dates back to 1848. On the base of the lighthouse we have created two photographic exhibitions on two themes — the first theme is how Madras is the first modern city of India. The other theme is the contribution of legal luminaries to public welfare.” Rajah says that a walk would last anywhere between two-and-a-half hours and three hours; it starts at the Madras HC Museum where it takes about one hour. Participants also get to go to the Madras Bar Association.
On the features that make the High Court complex stand out, Rajah says, “One of the things that will strike you is the sheer variety. There is hardly anything that is ever repeated. Every court hall is different, and has its own unique features. We today live in a world of standardisation, where we want to see everything being standardised and made uniform. But our forbears lived in a world of variety and beauty.” He also points out that being set in Indo-Saracenic architecture, it captures a lot of Indian elements in its design.
A measure of success
Rajah states the success of the walks largely derives from the fact that young lawyers are now interested in the history and heritage that the Madras High Court represents.
“A large number of advocates attend my walk. I wanted the youngsters to know about their history, the grand heritage of this profession and the fountainhead of all that heritage is the Madras High Court building. I find that there is now so much of pride among lawyers about being a part of this historic building. I have young advocates calling me and telling me that some part of the building is leaking, some part where the plastering has come off.”
Rajah continues, “There are many old court buildings in various parts of Tamil Nadu; 80 to 90 of them that are more than 100 years old. The heritage committee has taken up preservation of these structures, as also the law college. Lawyers from moffusil areas are getting interested in their buildings.”

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