Until a few months ago, 483, Pantheon Road in Chennai was a heritage Indo Saracenic building on the verge of demolition. Originally built in 1842, the two-story red brick structure with Doric columns and Madras terrace roofing served as the police headquarters until 2013 when the force shifted to a new building. Like many other heritage structures in the city, it fell into neglect until 2020 when it was decided to restore it and turn it into the Tamil Nadu Police Museum.
I visited the museum, which opened in October 2021, a few weeks ago. A plank in the portico reads: ‘Office of the Commissioner of Police, Madras. Originally built in 1842; Repurposed in 1856; Restored in 2020; Tamil Nadu Police Museum Estd. 2021’, giving me a glimpse of the building’s antiquity. The British government bought the sprawling building and 14 acres on which it stands for Rs.21000, and made it the police headquarters in 1856.
I walk into the cool interiors and find a well-laid out museum that documents the transformation of the Tamil Nadu police from colonial times to a technologically advanced force that is the fifth largest in India. On display are country made bombs, forensic kits, an array of modern guns and the daggers and swords that were used till 1857 War of Independence. It’s a walk through the history and a lesson in modern law enforcement.
“Any museum is a work in progress and cannot be made in a day,” says Steve Borgia, the honorary executive curator and founder of INDeco Hotels. He reels of the names of the many police officers, curators and architects who helped. “This passion project arose from my admiration for the police force. In spite of the dangers on the job, the low salaries and poor infrastructure, the police work hard to keep us safe. Our objective with the museum is that yesterday’s valor should be known to today’s generation.” Conservation work began in October 2020, and cost Rs6.4 crore.The complex has a souvenir shop and a cafeteria as well. Many of the objects were donated by officers, well-wishers or were in the police archives, and Borgia says that families of former officers are still contacting them to donate more objects.
In the portico stands a powder blue Plymouth Belvedere, used by the top brass in the 1960s and 70s. In the verandah that runs around the building are showcased the different vehicles used by the police over time—from the seemai vandi (penny farthing bicycle) used for patrols in the 19th century to motorcycles, motorized speed boats, and even former chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s bullet-proof SUV.
The first high-ceilinged hall with wooden beams showcases landmark cases solved by the Chennai police. One wall is dedicated to the gory ‘Auto Shankar case’, the investigation relating to a local don and serial killer who was active in the 1970s and 80s. The 1965 anti-Hindi agitation gets a lot of as does the Veerappan case, the operation to track down and kill the poacher and sandalwood smuggler who kidnapped Kannada superstar Rajkumar. Lifelike mannequins in uniforms of various police wings and the police band stand guard in the rooms.
One section is dedicated to the fight against counterfeit currency. There is an antique printing machine and the story of Kallanottu Krishnan, a textile mill owner from the 1950s, who decided to get over the problem of being short of cash to pay for the many mills he bought by printing counterfeit currency notes. How the police identified and nabbed the gang makes for interesting reading.
Police without prisons would be incomplete and one section expands on the history of Madras Central Prison, one of the oldest Indian prisons dating back to 1837. Inmates have included Netaji Subash Chandra Bose and former chief ministers to LTTE chief Prabhakaran and militants. It was in use till 2006 when it was shifted to Puzhal.
The Tamil Nadu Police has many firsts to its credit, which I learnt at the museum. To me, the most interesting one was that the colonial Madras police established the country’s first fingerprint bureau in 1895 when Inspector E.A. Subramania Iyer learnt the technique from Sir E.R. Henry in Kolkata. One section highlights the role of the police in disaster response, managing floods, cyclones and building collapses.
Downstairs is a replica of the police commissioner’s office room—a roll-top table, ink-wells and the wall lined with portraits of the past chiefs, including Letika Seran, the 36th chief commissioner and the only woman Commissioner of Police.
Just before you exit the museum, the words below an old photo of the city police from 1935, sum up the idea you are left with after the tour: “Oh, you men in khaki, you face what others fear.”