The Grand Tour III-3: Madras (Chennai), City of the South

1 - MAdras High Court

The Indo-Saracenic towers of the Madras High Court, George Town.

Madras (today’s Chennai), is India’s fourth city, after New Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. It has a fascinating history and a rich wealth of architectural heritage, but is often looked over for its more glamorous sister-cities.

What is perhaps surprising for those not in the know, was that Madras is older than Bombay and Calcutta. It was established in 1639 by the Messrs Andrew Day and Francis Cogan of the Honourable East India Company, when they successful managed to lease a plot of coastline from the local rulers.

On this small strip of coastline, the EIC would build their first fortified settlement, known then and today as Fort St George.  Madras would grow to become the most important port along India’s South-eastern coast, better known then as the Coromandel Coast, and home also at various points in history to Portuguese, Dutch, Danish and French trading settlements.


Map of Madras in 1914. Fort St George is visible at top right. North of the Fort is George Town; south is Triplicane and the Marina; further south is Mylapore and Santhome. Poonamallee and Mount Roads are also visible. [Public Domain.]

2 - Fort St George

Fort St George today, with the Secretariat Building at left, and what remains India’s tallest flagstaff at right.

3 - St MArys steeple

The steeple of St Mary’s Church, in Fort St George. It is the oldest British-built building that still stands today, having been erected in 1680.

The entire area Madras sat in rightfully belonged to the Nawabs of the Carnatic, the Carnatic being a territory consisting of large tracts of Southern India, including parts of today’s Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.  It is the origin of the Southern, or Carnatic style of Indian Classical music.  The Nawabs were forced by the British to move from their ancestral seat of Arcot to Madras where they had a most splendid palace built on the Marina.  In 1855, the last Nawab died without an heir and the British promptly absorbed the Carnatic into the British Empire.

4 - Chepauk Palace

A glimpse of the Chepauk’s Palace, now government buildings.

Being a major port settlement, Madras grew rapidly in the course of its 360-year history. Initially, Madras referred to the European city within Fort St George. But very soon, the Fort itself ran out of space and the city proper expanded beyond the Fort.  The second oldest part of the City is George Town, which was the erstwhile “black town”, with a multi-cultural and multi-religious population then and today.

In the 1800s, the European City (White Town) expanded westwards to encompass Poonamalee Road, Mount Road and the suburb of Egmore; and southwards along the Marina. These areas still play host to a surprising number and array of monumental civic, educational and commercial buildings from the period. In particular, the most impressive buildings — those of Madras University – stand along the Marina.

6 - Armenian Church

The Armenian Church, in George Town.

7 - St Thomas Church

St Thomas Syrian Orthodox Church, George Town.

8 - Sri Mallikeswarar Temple Georgetown

Sri Mallikeswarar Temple, George Town.

9 - Victoria Public Hall

The former Public Hall or Town Hall, Poonamallee Road.

10 - Public Works Dept

Public Works Department, along the Marina.

5 - Senate House

The Senate House, along the Marina, in spectacular Indo-Saracenic style.

11 - Higginbothams

Higginbothams – one of the oldest bookstores in Madras, Mount Road.

12 - Rajaji Hall

Rajaji Hall, Mount Road

13 - Museum Theatre

The Museum Theatre, in the wonderfully Victorian exposed brick style Government Museum Complex, Egmore.

14 - Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja,

15 - Whalebone Museum

Another whalebone here, in the Natural History section of the Government Museum complex, Egmore.

And then there is the very ancient settlements of Santhome and Mylapore, once one and the same settlement.  Santhome is known worldwide for being the home of the Basilica of Santhome, which stands on the supposed tomb of St Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus. In fact, the Coromandel Coast saw one of the earliest communities of Christians in India arrive in the 3rd Century, in the wake of St Thomas’ arrival and subsequent death on these shores.

Nestorian Christians from Persia arrived in the 13th century, followed by Portuguese Catholics in the 16th century, and then finally the British in the 18th century.  Each of these Christian communities would demolish the church that stood before and rebuild another far grander in form – the present church dates from 1898 and is in an Anglican High Gothic style. Today’s Chennai, and in particular Santhome, is still home to a healthy community of St Thomas Christians.

Mylapore – Santhome’s twin – also has a similarly illustrious history, having been known in antiquity as the fabulous trading port of the Tamils, from whence it is believed Tamil culture spread to the East Indies (today’s Southeast Asia). The city’s most important Hindu temples still stand here, in particular the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, dedicated to Shiva and Parvathi.

16 - Santhome Cathedral

The Basilica of San Thome (St Thomas), Santhome.

17 - Santhome Virgin and Child

Virgin and Child, interior of Basilica of San Thome.

18 - St Thomas Mount Main Church

Church on the peak of St Thomas Mount.

19 - Kapaleeswarar Temple

The magnificent Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore.

Madras, being the capital of the Tamils (the state of Tamil Nadu), boasts many Hindu temples in a magnificent Dravidian style, characterised by towering gopurams featuring a pantheon of Hindu deities. This is the style of Hindu temples also found in many Southeast Asian cities, including Singapore, where the Tamils and Tamil culture settled.

This Tamil link also explained why I felt surprisingly at home in the city. It was very comforting to have the same Tamil script, Tamil language, Tamil architecture and even food (southern indian curries and paratha) that I grew up with in Singapore here in their place of origin.

21- Dose

Dosa for breakfast. =)

22 - Paratha

Paratha for breakfast – not quite as fluffy and light as Singapore’s prata, but comforting enough.

In the next couple of posts, the Grand Tour will see us wander the streets of Old Madras.


  • K. Kalpana and Frank Schiffer, 2003. Madras – The Architectural Heritage. An INTACH Guide. Chennai: INTACH.   This is an EXCELLENT and INDISPENSABLE resource and I couldn’t have done the city without this.  
  • S. Muthiah, 2008. Madras Rediscovered. Chennai: Westland Limited.
23 - Madras Law College

We end of where we began: Madras Law College, George Town.

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, Cities & Regions, Culture & Lifestyle, Heritage, India, Landmarks & History, Photography, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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