Coimbatore celebrates the anniversary of its birth on November 24, 1804 with the celebrated environmentalist-indologist-author Nandita Krishna flying down from Chennai to speak on ‘environmental concerns amid fast urbanisation’, it’s also time to reminisce on the many giants a couple of generations back, who had invested their money, toil and foresight in turning a little town and a cluster of villages to what it is today.
Not many in the present generation would know this birthday, though. “This is the first time we are attempting this elaborate initiative to spread awareness about the Coimbatore Day amongst our youngsters. We began celebrating the Day two years ago on a smaller scale but from now on, we are going to boast, justifiably, about our hoary past,” says Rajesh Govindarajulu, one of the architects of the Day celebrations.
He also happens to the grandson of the late P.A. Raju Chettiar, the doyen of the jewellers in this part of the country.
It is said that Saint Vyasaraja, the Rajaguru of Krishnadevaraya, had visited Coimbatore in the 16th century and established three of the 732 shrines of Hanuman he built across India.
“This only goes to prove Coimbatore’s strategic importance even in religious terms,” says R. Venkatesh Babu, MD of Sree Annapoorna Hotels. An Englishman, Sir Robert Stanes was among the pioneers who had lit the entrepreneurial fire in the region. In 1888, he set up the Coimbatore Spinning and Weaving Company Ltd, also known as Stanes Mills, after starting a coffee curing factory.
He helped several others to set up ventures of great significance to the development of Coimbatore. Lakshmi Mills Company was set up in 1910 at Papanaickenpalayam in the city and soon others followed, thanks to cheap labour and electricity from the Pykara hydel power station.
Even earlier, a retired railway engineer and maverick-millionaire called Swamikannu Vincent, had started movie theatres in the city and installed German power generators for his theatres. He then went on to establish the first electric printing press and a rice mill.
Coimbatore got electricity for the first time when the British government allowed him to supply his surplus generation to the little town. The lights that Vincent lit then never dimmed as one entrepreneur after another descended upon Kovai.
Textile mills, foundries, motor pump-set factories, model jewellery ventures, hospitals and educational institutions cropped up aplenty. There was also huge demonstration of unrestricted philanthropy from several of the prospering businessmen—S.P. Narasimhalu Naidu known as the Raja Ram Mohan Roy of the south and Rao Bahadur A. T. Thiruvenkataswamy Mudaliar, a multifaceted entrepreneur and Dewan Bahadur Sulur Lakshminarasima Iyer, to name just a few. Iyer had owned vast tracks of land and did much to the cause of sanathanadharma through the Sringeri Mutt.
“He never kept count of what he donated to whom,” says a Kovai insider.