In Chennai, a group of “cycling yogis” preserve the hidden gems of history

ALike children, most of us believe in magic and fairy tales. Fueled by fiction, whether in the form of grandmother’s tales or nursery rhymes, this belief, often trivialized into childish fantasy, is the foundation of a creative mind capable of appreciating the wonders of the world.

But only a few manage to retain that innocence of wonder even into adulthood. And Ramanujar Moulana is one of those rare people.

A passionate historian and cyclist, Ramanujar has spent the past decade discovering the wonders of the heritage city of Chennai.

He points out that old towns or places like Chennai have an inexplicable old world charm. They are not lifeless constructions built by people just to inhabit, but rather reservoirs of stories, legends and experiences that transcend the boundaries of time and space. A sort of ever-changing time capsule, these towns carefully cradle memories of the past for the present and the future to visit.

One such example of a unique historic site that might remind you of a childhood fairytale nursery rhyme, The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, is the now defunct old Madhavaram shoe factory, which is a boot-shaped building!

“I was a child when I first saw the Boot house. We were taken there on a school trip and there was a mini garden around it. But now it’s a relic of the past,” he says, suggesting the rapidly changing city of Chennai that threatens to obscure the existence of these wonders. Fascinating places like these and the threat of letting them fall into oblivion inspired Ramanujar to embark on a journey of preservation of the city’s heritage through cycling.

Cycling in time


It was this passion for history and heritage that first led him to join the Tamil Nadu Cycling Club. Eventually he started Cycling Yogis in 2012 as a collective of like-minded cyclists who saw cycling not just as a hobby, but as an enduring way to explore the hidden stories cradled within the contours of old town.

“For most people this city is Chennai but for me it is old Madras that I fell in love with. Its faded beauty is to be seen and remembered for future generations and Cycling Yogis is an attempt to immortalize that” , says Ramanujar who has published two books. North Chennai Cycle Routes and Madras by Bike: Chennai Medical Heritage Trailsin 2020 and 2021, respectively.

While exploring the city’s hidden wonders may seem like a romantic and carefree weekend activity to some, finding them and documenting their nearly forgotten history for the sole purpose of remembering is a tedious and arduous task. “It would start with me sitting at my desk in front of old maps and books laying out the plan, to find places that have little or no mention online. Most of them can’t be found either. on Google Maps,” says Ramanujar, adding that the community has also helped strengthen the database for trail planning.

From abandoned single-screen movie theaters, clock towers, factories and industries, legendary and holey restaurants to memorials and hospitals, the books published by Cycling Yogis sum up a time travel guide to Madras like no other travel guide.

Discovery of the medical heritage of Chennai


“Most of India’s old towns have a similar old-world charm and shared experiences, but also possess something unique. For Chennai, it is the rich medical heritage that sets it apart from others,” says Ramanujar.

Chennai is today known to be the hub of medical tourism in India, with state-of-the-art medical infrastructure and advanced intensive care facilities all at an affordable cost. But the city’s newfound fame as a medical center is not as contemporary as one might think. Ramanujar points out that with centuries-old institutions like Government General Hospital, Madras Medical College, Adyar Cancer Institute and Government Kasturba Gandhi Hospital, Chennai has an illustrious history as India’s medical pioneer.

In 2021, when Ramanujar and his fellow cyclists were planning a book about the city’s hidden culinary gems, they came across a roadblock that changed their direction. “It was the second wave of COVID and we realized that food trails weren’t something we should be exploring right now. So we decided to turn to something that turned out to be extremely relevant at the time, the medical history of Chennai, as a tribute to healthcare workers,” he says.

Appointed Madras by Bike: Chennai Medical Heritage Trailsthe book traces the history of Chennai’s iconic and lesser-known museums, pharmacies, hospitals, medical institutions and memorials.

From hospitals and clinics to 1940s Chinese dispensaries and dentist clinics, the book contains a total of 10 trails spread throughout the city. What’s even more remarkable is that in addition to historical information, each dedicated trail page also has a printed QR code, which when scanned will lead to Google Maps to provide a real-time guide for travelers while along the trails.

Speaking of one of the historical sites highlighted in the book, he says: “Mary Anne Scharlieb was one of the first women to enter Madras Medical College to pursue a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (LM&S). She then became a renowned gynecological surgeon, motivated to help Indian women who could not seek medical help during childbirth. She also helped lay the foundation for the Kasturba Gandhi Women’s Hospital in Triplicane, Chennai, which continues to be one of the state’s leading medical institutions. We’ve highlighted these stories in the book and more.

Another interesting find in the book includes an account by Dr. Edward Bulkley, one of India’s first licensed physicians whose grave is opposite Madras Medical College. It also contains an account of the Memorial Pillar dedicated to Dr. WS Sawmy Naick, one of the first Madras vaccinators, who carried out several vaccination campaigns under the British, to combat smallpox.


It’s stories like these hidden inside dilapidated structures that Cycling Yogis and Ramanujar hope to immortalize through their books and trails. So far they have published 6 books and the next one will focus on the global connection of Madras and how the city has welcomed people of different nationalities throughout the annals of history.

“I hope that through this work, people and institutions will be motivated to preserve these structures and the stories they hold. I hope people will see the true beauty of my beloved Madras through these books and cycle paths and fall in love like me,” he concludes.

Edited by Yoshita Rao