By Shona Adhikari
Chennai/Madras is less than 400 years old, but gives the appearance of having been around much longer. The British reached the area fairly early in their occupation of India.
This is about Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, the gateway to the southern part of India. Like other cities in India, Chennai too has had to change but interestingly, this large and undoubtedly splendid city, despite its ever growing population, it always seems to have room for more.
The best view of the city and harbor is from the 150 ft lighthouse on the vast Marina Beach. Unlike in other states, this beach is not always packed with people. In fact, at certain times in the day, it may seem almost deserted. But like the sea breeze that cools the city every evening, the beach is busier than before and modernity is bringing in fashions and activities into this normally sedate city these days.
The winds of change blew slowly and differently here. Historically, it happened when the city donned a new name – from Madras it was re-christened Chennai. The change in the name meant that it was no longer named after ‘Madrasapattinam’, which was the British settlement but after the parallel local area known as ‘Chennapattinam’.
In the past many decades, the hamlets that had integrated to form Madras have witnessed phenomenal growth, yet Chennai continues to be a comparatively laid back in comparison to other Indian metros. This has much to do with the sense of pride and aesthetics that come naturally to the people of Tamil Nadu.
Madras is less than 400 years old, but gives the feeling of having been around for much longer. The British reached the area fairly early in their occupation of India and left traces of their military might at Fort St George and their religious presence at St Mary’s Church, said to be the oldest Anglican Church.
However, Christianity appears to have been in the area many years earlier – in the16th century Portuguese explorers are known to have built a church over the tomb of St Thomas – one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus – which was known as the San Thome Church. In 1893, the British rebuilt it giving it the status of a Cathedral. Designed in the neo-gothic style, this is one of the few known churches in the world to have been built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus. St Thomas Cathedral Basilica now draws pilgrims from all over the world.
Madras can be said to have grown from a combination of villages that were gradually added to the original British settlement. These were either annexed or rented from erstwhile rulers, or given as grants. The very first village to be added was Triplicane, an area given on rent by the Ruler of Golconda, followed by more areas such as Egmore, Nungambakkam, Vepery, Tiruvottiyur, Tondiarpet, Vyaasarpuri, Ennore, Periapet, Perambur – each bringing its own historical and traditional values. Among the newest to be added after the two World Wars were Adyar, Guindy and Saidapet.
The ‘White Town’ was the area where the English settled down and in 1644, built a fortress, which came to be known as Fort St George. It was the very first Fortress built in India by the British and in time became the coastal city of Madras. The construction of the fort led to further settlements and plenty of trading activity, in a location that had so far been uninhabited land. Fort St George continues to be part of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly.
The East India Company which had entered India in 1600 for trading activities already had a license for trading at Surat. But to secure their trade lines they felt the need of a port closer to the Malaccan Straits to trade in spices. They managed to buy a piece of coastal land originally known as ‘Chennirayarpattinam’ (or ‘Channapatnam’) where they began construction of a harbor and the St George Fort. The Fort became the hub for plenty of activity, with a new settlement known as George Town. It was afrom here that the English established their influence over Carnatic and kept at bay, the rulers of Arcot and Srirangapatna as well as the French Forces in Pondicherry. In 1665, the fort was enlarged and strengthened with an enlarged garrison, after hearing the news of the formation of the French East India Company.
The Fort with its 20ft tall walls was able to withstand a number of attacks during the 18th century. However, it was briefly in the possession of the French from 1746, but was restored to England under a Treaty in 1749. The Fort now serves as one of the administrative headquarters for Tamil Nadu and still houses a garrison of troops in transit to various locations in South India and the Andamans. The Fort Museum contains many relics of the Colonial era, including portraits of many of the Governors of Madras, maintained by ASI with the administrative support of the Indian Army.
Actually the St. George Fort has two sections that are worth seeing – the St. Mary’s Church and the Fort Museum. St. Mary’s Church is the oldest British building in India. It has certainly stood the test of time very well. The tombstones in its graveyard are said to be the oldest in India. Another interesting structure is a 150 ft tall Flagstaff, made entirely of teakwood. Special in many ways, the St Mary’s Church is quite famous and has often been referred to as the ‘Westminster Abbey of the East’.
However, one of the most striking buildings here is the Fort St. George Museum. It houses the relics of the British personnel who inhabited this fort. The construction of the building was completed in 1795 and served as the Madras Bank, while the large hallway upstairs served as the venue for public meetings as well as for entertainment. Today, the fort museum showcases a host of artifacts such as coins, medals, paintings, and letters, belonging to the colonial period.