Our first walking tour of Old Madras takes in the two oldest sections of the city, both of which date from the initial founding of the city, some 370 years ago. They constitute Madras’ Old Town and make for a charming, though a little overwhelming visit.
Fort St George
Fort St George, named after the patron saint of the English – he of the dragon – started as a modest trading settlement in 1640 on the Coromandel Coast. It was a fortified settlement, housing European – mostly Portuguese, but also English – merchant families who resided in the city.
The Fort as it stands today dates from 1783, after a French siege and brief occupation between 1746 – 1749 and a second French siege in 1758. In the aftermath of these two attacks, the British would strengthen fortifications and expand the size of the Fort, resulting in what the visitor sees today.
The Fort today is still the seat of the State Government and also the headquarters of the Army. Despite the high security all around, it is definitely possible for tourists to enter and to visit the parts of the Fort still open to the public. One just has to be very upfront and tell the guards what one’s intent is – and he or she would graciously spirit one past the lines of waiting citizens to the Fort Museum (which is the starting point).
Bear in mind, that given most structures in the Fort are occupied by Government and Military, photography is definitely not permitted.
Just north of Fort St George sat “Black Town” – so called because it was home to the many local clerks, porters, weavers, interpreters and administrative personnel that worked in the Fort. The old Black Town was a planned city, as the map above shows. Unfortunately, it was razed by the French in the course of their sieges in the 1700s, and completely rebuilt by the British thereafter.
The area was renamed “George Town”, after the visiting Prince George of Wales (the future King George V); and it is Madras’ Old Town proper, bustling with commercial activity and everyday life.
In form and nature, it resembles its cousin, Georgetown in Penang, in that both European and local commercial and banking centres were located here; and the area is also home to a multi-cultural community. A delightful array of Hindu and Jain Temples, Mosques and Christian Churches of many different denominations may be found in the various neighborhoods here.
Our walk takes us down North Beach Road, which is the British commercial and civic heart of the city, and takes in a few other key streets such as Armenian Street (the heart of the Armenian community), Mint Street (where the Gujaratis and settled) and Popham’s Broadway, which, as its name suggests, was the Main Street of George Town.
- 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.