Published: 07th August 2018
India's Oldest Old Age Homes: How a 236-year old free 'kanji' centre became a shelter for aged destitutes
The home was set up in 1782 by Monegar and Rajah of Venkatagiri and has since then housed some of Chennai's oldest and poorest
Outside the walls of the 236-year old Monegar Choultry, everything has changed. The traffic signals situated just a couple of metres up the road clogs up the traffic, the population has quadrupled many times over, crowds rush in and out of Stanley Hospital, the noise is excruciating and the heat, unbearable. Inside the walls of the Choultry though not much seems to have changed in the last 200 years. The Choultry's manager of 40 years says nothing has changed. If the walls and the trees had mouths, they would probably agree too.
How it started: The nameplate that hangs outside Monegar Choultry, the gates have remained the same for 200 years.
The Choultry is one of the oldest old age homes in the South, possibly in the entire country too. Set up in 1782, the story of how the home came to be is quite an interesting one. Firstly, you need to know that the word "Monegar" is an anglicised version of the word "Maniakarar" meaning the village headman. After a devastating famine that struck the Madras Presidency, the village headman started to distribute porridge to the poor and starving before they went off to fish or do their daily work. Some would drink the porridge and rest there as well, that area is now the Stanley Hospital. When the government acquired the hospital and the land surrounding it, the centre was moved to a Choultry set up by the Rajah of Venkatagiri. The centre then became a home for destitute old people and has remained in the same choultry since then. Since it never really had any particular name, it came to be known as "Monegar Choultry".
The entire building was demolished and rebuilt 25 years ago, a decision that the builder instantly regretted, Bhavani, the manager of the home said. "They found that the building was built with such strong material, things that you never get any more. They had used "karuppu kallu" and good pure soil. Also, the architecture of the building was much nicer, that's why they actually left a part of it remaining," she explained. The 36-grounds land comprises of one main building with dormitories for men and women separately. The kitchen structure is also 200 odd years old and the architecture remains intact, so does their prayer hall. Most of the trees have remained, one of the reasons why both the noises and the pollution from outside doesn't really penetrate inside that much.
In-tact - The courtyard inside the building, the left side of the building has the women's rooms and the right has the males.
Currently, there are about 50 people inside the home but Bhavani tells me that the maximum number of people the home has held is 200, "Those days there were no other old age homes, now in the last couple of years, so many have sprouted up everywhere. They even have paid ones, so people choose to go there." The home runs purely on donations, even the first renovation was done with most of the contribution coming from HelpAge India. Do they ever fall on hard times because of this, I ask Bhavani but she says they don't. "A lot of people come forward to help, people want to come here to celebrate their anniversaries or birthdays and so we get by. Some have been donating for decades now, so we always get the payments on time," she said.
But what about when the home needs maintenance or repairs, I ask after noticing loose tiles and blackened walls, "If we need something we ask and some of the donors will agree to help, we don't take any money. The donors will get someone to come and fix it." But the blackened walls are only on the outside, the inside of the home is well maintained and the inmates all seem to be comfortable in their own spaces. Many of the women inmates help around the home as well.
The Original: The portion of the building that has remained untouched in the last 236 years
The Choultry only admits people who are completely destitute and only if they are able to produce a letter from the corporation saying the same. But once they are "home", they are treated very well, Bhavani says, "We try to provide them as comfortable an environment as possible."
Even though it has remained in its place for so long, Bhavani says even the neighbours don't really know what the building is, "People just think its a tiny forest because we're surrounded by trees. Even the road is named after the Choultry but nobody knows the history of the name or the home. They just call it MC road, they have no clue about how much both Monegar and the Rajah have done for the people here."
Like previously mentioned, the home was started after the famine struck, since then the building has braved many natural disasters. Most recently the Vardha brought down lots of branches and trees but none of the buildings were damaged, "That's what makes me believe that there is a God. The trees was swaying so much, we were so scared it would fall on the building. But it was so amazing to see that when it finally fell, it fell right next to the building. It brushed against the building but it did not fall on it, it was a very very narrow escape," Bhavani recalls.
At work: Bhavani sitting in her office at the home, she has run the show for 40 years now
Curious to know how Bhavani herself came to be part of the Choultry, I ask her if it was something she always wanted to do and had she never thought of quitting even once in the last 40 years? "My husband did not want me to be too stressed out with a proper office job, so I did my geriatric training and was brought here to work as an assistant to the doctor. It was a job as well as a way to give back to society. So I stayed on, worked under others too and now for the last15 years I have run this place," she explained. Bhavani's husband died only last year and in the building right opposite, Stanley Medical Hospital. Her four children are all happy and well settled, she tells me.
She started off with Rs 250 per month, now she earns Rs 2500 but she has no qualms about it, "I think this is what God intended me to do and I'm happy doing it and I'll do it as long as I'm capable of it," she says with a bright smile. Even the table that Bhavani sits down at has an old world charm to it, I ask her if it's quite old too, "This has been there since the very beginning, you really think you'll find such a well designed and good quality table anywhere today?" Well, she's certainly right, they just don't make them like they used to. Furniture, buildings and people.