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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.