The legend of the historical Ross Hill in Vizag

Known for the striking white chapel enshrining Mother Mary, Ross Hill is a name that everyone new to Vizag is introduced to for the scenic beauty it offers. Not just a vantage point, the hill holds great historical significance that dates back to the mid-19th century. From how Ross Hill got its name to the various roles it played in the city’s heritage is a captivating tale seamlessly narrated by John Castellas, a Vizag heritage enthusiast and aficionado.

Today it is generally known as Ross Hill and its reputation is for the religious shrines of the Hindu Sri Venkateswara Swamy Temple, the Moslem Ishaq Medina Dargah and the Catholic Matha Mary Chapel on its crest and as a landmark for shipping entering the navigation channel into the Vizag Inner Harbour.

Ross Hill, Vizagapatam, 1865

However, an earlier historic reference as the Montage de Mosiquites (Hill of Mosquitoes) appears in the French military maps of the 1750s and Mufkeat Hill (Mosquito in old English) in navigation charts identifying the hill that overlooked the town of Vizag. A tidal swamp that became a breeding ground for mosquitoes then surrounded the town and the hill and infected most of the population with malaria. Its position was of military significance as it provided a clear line of sight from the Petta Gate towards Daba Gardens, which was the approach for any invading army. Other than the mosque, the other structures on the summit of the hill and its extremities were lookout positions called Redoutes

by the French.
Plan de Visagapatan de Establissment de, 1757

The historic hill had a very different official name in Government, Harbour and Survey papers where it is called Meppen Hill after Captain Robert W Meppen who was the Master Attendant (Harbour Master) at Vizag. This hill was the site of a bungalow built in the 1840s by WH Ross who was a judge in the Vizagapatam Sudder Ameen Court (District Court). He was an Englishman who was taken aback by the view from the hill and he planned to retire to the hilltop’s pleasant climate. He used part of his wealth to build himself a superb bungalow on the summit of the hill that was known by the locals as Ross Hill. Judge Ross could not overcome ill health and finally retired to England. The Meppens were the last of a respected old Dutch family that settled in Madras, ran a trading business as Ashton & Meppen there and later GHA Meppen established a merchant business Meppen & Co in Waltair. Captain Meppen had rented this bungalow in the 1850s, but ill health followed his family and local beliefs put this down to bad omens and that the house was haunted. The entire hill over 8 acres was sold in 1864 for Rs 400 under Waste Land Rules and it passed through many hands, including being rented to the Madras Survey Department. The Meppen Hill Station on its summit played a part in the Great Trigonometric Survey of India.

Meppen HS as part of Vizagapatam Harbour Proposal 1914

The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India (TSI) started in 1800 with its first baseline established at the high tide mark of Marina Beach in Madras. Over 70 years, Col William Lambton, and later Col George Everest, whose headquarters was in Hyderabad, first led the survey. Hailed as the scientific achievement of its time, the measurements were with instruments weighing half a ton and observations were often carried out from flimsy platforms ninety feet above ground or mountain peaks enveloped in blizzards. The project involved equations more complex than any in the pre-computer age and was accurate to within half an inch from Vizag to Bangalore. The survey killed more men than any contemporary wars. Malaria wiped out whole survey parties; tiger and scorpions took their toll. Unshaken by the dangers, an intrepid band of surveyors carried on through the dense rainforest of South India to the perennial snowfields of the Himalayas. When led by Col George Everest, the survey resulted in the accurate measurement of the world’s highest mountains K2, Kanchenjunga, and the highest of them all was subsequently named Mount Everest.

Great Trigonometric Survey Of India

The six-and-a-half mile Vizagapatam Base Line was constructed and measured on flat, dry land between Vizag and Vizianagram in 1861. The Meppen Hill Station was fixed in 1862 and later in 1876, a Longitudinal Station Clock Pillar was erected 16 feet north and 349 feet east of this point. The Meppen HS became the sole surviving survey marker to benchmark the extensive surveying work that was later necessary for the construction of the Vizag Inner Harbour in the 1920s. The Vizagapatam Series formed part of the East Coast Series that joined the Madras and Calcutta Series and measurements then extended westward to Bangalore and Bombay, linking with the Great Arc or 78o Longitude Series.

There were many owners of the hill and many tenants of the Ross bungalow over the years. Judge Ross had constructed his spacious bungalow with a large hall and a few rooms with verandahs on each side. Aside from his residence, he constructed a few small rooms for his servants. He laid gardens on the western side under the huge banyan tree. Edward Thomas Jones, VG Master and Thylyanapureddy Achayya Naidu, a local merchant, had at some time taken ownership. It was Naidu who sold some land to the Missionaries of St Francis de Sales for Rs 700 in 1864 for the construction of a chapel. On 30 March 1891, the East Coast Railway and State Railway Company took possession of 6.1 acres of land along the southern slope along the channel from the seafront to the inland port site. In 1893, the Madras High Court heard the unsuccessful claim of the then owner P Seshagiri Row Pantulu, who bought land in a court sale for Rs 130 in 1886 and claimed compensation from the Government for the ‘compulsory acquisition’ of 6 acres for the construction of the East Coast Railway line. The owner claimed that the compensation offered did not match his lost revenues from the sale of stone quarried from the rocks, the coconut tope he intended to cultivate at the foot of the hill, and the productive garden of mango, palmyra, date and other trees he was to cultivate on the hill.

Ross Hill and its Iconic Shrines

Ross Hill in Vizag may have had many name changes and residents over the years. There have been several legal disputes and claims. Cyclones have ravaged the town and the Port has developed around it. But the lasting legacy of Ross Hill in Vizag is that the same shrines that have dominated the old town’s landscape and invited devotees for centuries past will do so for centuries to come.

Should you have an anecdote or history on Vizag, the author would appreciate you contacting him at jcastell@ozemail.com.au

Written by John Castellas whose family belonged to Vizag for five generations. Educated at St Aloysius, migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966, former General Manager of Engineering at Boeing & Qantas Airways, in retirement Lecturers in Aviation Management at Swinburne University and is a Vizag aficionado.

Stay tuned to Yo! Vizag website and Instagram for more heritage stories.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts

Body of 16YO boy found floating in bag near Visakhapatnam fishing harbour, murder suspected

In a shocking incident that alerted the Visakhapatnam City Police, a 16-year-old minor boy, a…

1 day ago

18 latest South Indian movies on OTT you need to catch up on

Movies are an emotion that anyone will connect to disregarding the language barrier. In a…

1 day ago

Watch these top rated Tamil thriller movies on OTT for a nerve gripping binge

Watching a thrilling movie can be an electrifying experience, where every second feels like an…

2 days ago

Visakhapatnam sees highest number of road accidents from 6 PM to 9 PM

In a press release on Friday, 22 September 2023, Deputy Transport Commissioner (DTC) GC Raja…

2 days ago

10 entertaining OTT releases today to electrify your weekend with binge worthy content

With the weekend ahead, the entertainment quotient is sure to be high with many brand-new…

2 days ago

Amid capital shift reconfirmation, Visakhapatnam civic body paces up road expansion

Following the reconfirmation of the CM office shift by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy earlier this…

3 days ago