Colleague Richard Bradford and I had simultaneously fallen foul of the notorious Delhi Belly, with a spell of dizziness for good measure. Nonetheless, we felt an obligation to honour our arrangement with Subu and Abilash, who graciously offered to show us a bit of Chennai, so we resolved not to disappoint them. Chris the driver showed up at 10h00 Sunday morning, as arranged.
Picking up the other two en route, our first port of call was St Thomas Mount, a small hillock not far from Chennai airport. St. Thomas Mount is associated with St Thomas, the apostle of Christ, who is believed to have been martyred here. A serene and beautiful relic-filled church built in 1523 by the Portuguese stands on top of this 300-foot hillock. Pope John Paul II visited St. Thomas Mount on 5 February 1986. A service was in progress, following a strict Catholic format. The views from the hillside were magnificent, offering a virtual 3600 degrees panorama.
Heading into heavy traffic in central Chennai, we arrived at Spencer Plaza, built during the period of the British Raj, when, in the year 1863-1864, it was the first Departmental store to be established on the Indian subcontinent. It was reconstructed in 1985. I was on the hunt for some contemporary Indian music. Arul’s dose of music on the drive back from Vellore the week before had got under my skin! I bought the Mangatha soundtrack cd, a Tamil movie [trailer clip]. Bollywood movies are the rage in India! Richard and I abstained from lunch as the others tucked into some fast food.
Central Chennai struck me as a rather agreeable city, though I wished I was in a better state to appreciate it. Generally, it’s much cleaner than the squalor we have encountered in the suburbs, along the IT highway. An abundance of trees gives an impression of being much like any other city with a colonial past, a combination of the old and the new.
Fort St George was established by the British in 1640, marking the birth of the new city that is Madras. The fort was named after St George who is believed to have preached in the region. The British East India Company bought the land in 1639 and built the fort a year later. a commanding post in the region. The British enjoyed the supremacy in the region till 1746, when the French attacked the fort and captured it. After three years, that is in 1749 the British regained the ruling power by signing a treaty with the French.
The fort in present Chennai houses the Tamil Nadu Secretariat and the Legislative Assembly. The fort in its present form looks more like a mansion, rather any fort. The foundation walls of the structure are quite solid and the whole complex is provided with enormous gates. The building is a live example of British milliatary architecture of the bygone era. St George’s Fort also houses one of the oldest British Church in India. The church called St Mary’s was built in the year 1680. The Lighthouse in the northern compound was built in the year 1844 and superseded by one more in 1971. There is a museum in the fort that contains some of the archives of the British occupation in India. Besides other attractions, the museum contains the portraits of the British high officials of the time.
The real purpose of my visit here was to explore the connection of my grandfather, Edward Groves, to Fort St George. He had referred to it in his memoirs, having passed through Madras (as Chennai was known during the time of British colonial rule) on his return from Rangoon, Burma, to London, circa 1910, with wife and children, as a member of the British Army.
“I had transferred most of money to London, leaving enough to see us through the journey and for the next three days all we had to do was eat, sleep and watch the endless miles of the Bay of Bengal. This time we were taking the long way across and landing at Madras instead of Calcutta. We managed to find enough amusement for the children on board and the time passed much quicker than I expected, so that when we saw land in the distance on the third day it surprised us all. We disembarked the next day after breakfast and were met by a party of Yorkshire regiment, who handled all our baggage and drove us to the rest camp outside the Madras Fort. We stayed there only one and a half days and had some surf bathing on a wonderful beach. The children were very interested in the landing of the Catamaran (Native fishing boats) which were rushed ashore on the crest of very high waves”.
A troop of slim, young Tamil women in uniform manned the entrance to the fort. It’s a fascinating museum and I loved the building in which it is housed, adorned with a front veranda. Containing artefacts of its colonial, of particular interest to me were the India service medals on display, similar to those that my grandfather might have acquired, having spent much time in India in the service of the British realm (my father once had a set of my grandfather’s medals, borrowed under a false pretext by someone in our family but that’s another story).
We were then ferried to two places of religious worship. Santhome Basilica is a Roman Catholic minor basilica in Santhome, in Chennai. It was built in the 16th century by Portuguese explorers, and rebuilt again with the status of a cathedral, in Neo-Gothic style, by the British, in 1893. Kapaleeswarar Temple is a temple of Shiva located in Mylapore, a suburb of Chennai. The temple’s name is derived from the words kapalam (head) and eeshwararan alias of Shiva. It’s design is of typical Dravidian architectural style.
Rounding off the day’s trip, a walk along Marina Beachat dusk could have been more fitting. Crowds of people enjoyed the last hour or so of daylight, a line of fishing boats lay in a row on the edge of the shore. Vendors plied their trade for a few rupees.
Despite our rather dismal state of health, Richard and I had survived the day, exhausted yet intact. It had been a worthwhile experience and for that we have to thank our hosts, Subu and Abilash.