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