Hamilton the Barber


Self -commemoration through statues & street names has been the hallmark of one-upmanship across political spectrum . On a recent visit to Chennai, I came across a  story about how the outcome of such brinkmanship can sometimes be quite bizarre .

This one dates back to the early eighteenth century , soon after the British had gained control over Madras from the French . A certain Lord Hamilton was put in administrative charge of the new jewel in the British crown . Lord Hamilton , a bachelor , was ever so worried that his name might soon be forgotten by future generations. Since commemoration through lineage was not an option for an unmarried gentleman at His Majesty’s service  , he chose the easier route of naming a newly constructed and important bridge in Madras  after himself .

Unhappily for Lord Hamilton , the vowels & syllables in his name were not quite compatible with  Tamil  phonetics , & the name “Hamilton Bridge”  soon got corrupted to  ” Amullton Bridge” .

A century later , a British colonial surveyor was assigned the task by the British Raj to   replace old “Native” names with new British names ( parochialism is , after all , not unique but universal ) . The local interpreter was asked to interpret the strange sounding name ” Amullton” ( because interpreting is what interpreters were then , as now , paid for ) . The poor man did not quite know but was far too proud to so admit , & therefore resorted to the sleight of phonetic-equivalence to make an intelligent guess.  “Amullton” , when spoken quickly ,  sounds very similar to “Ambuttan” , the Tamil word for “Barber” .

The interpreter quickly invented a story (  to legitimise his interpretation : because who would otherwise have believed him !! ) about a loyal Ambuttan who once swam across the bridge-less & flooded river in pelting rain to give a punctual morning shave to his British master . The Brit Sahib , he said , was so impressed with  commitment of his Ambuttan to the quaint British obsession with punctuality , that he funded the construction of a bridge which he gifted , as a reward for such exemplary loyalty , to his Ambuttan. Hence the name “Ambuttan Bridge “  the interpreter  concluded , gleaming with pride at his amazing ingenuity .

The surveyor , under orders to Anglicise all names , & yet not altogether insensitive to acknowledging a native’s loyalty to his British master , decided without much ado to rename the strange sounding ” Ambuttan Bridge” to an easier -on -the -British- tongue      ” Barber Bridge” .

Two hundred + years to date , the bridge continues with the Anglicised name ” Barber bridge “. In all honesty , no one knows why !! The story above at least lends enchantment to the mystery.

Cheers & ATB

About lkkanuga

65 , Mumbaikar in Gurgaon , celebrates Loneliness interspersed with occasional extended- family & old friends' reunions . Good Music , Single Malts & watching the world go by from his 11th floor terrace are his favorite pursuits. Also into pursuit of Safe & Secure Mid Day Meals for Primary School Children , in association with like minded individuals & institutions
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