Unexpected surprises in India’s southern megatropoli*: Chennai

Unexpected is the perfect word to describe our reasonably quick jaunts through India’s southern urban powerhouses: Chennai and Hyderabad. Our first time on the subcontinent, we’d spent a single night transferring through Chennai, on our way to Kolkata; Hyderabad we could only wave at from a great distance, as the train took us north. So both were new, and both great baptisms by fire for our much anticipated return to India.

They both contained versions of India we weren’t quite expecting to see, although in retrospect both were exactly what we should have anticipated: remnants of Empires in Chennai, and the dual (possibly contradictory forces) of IT and Islam’s great historical imprint in Hyderabad.

We noticed it our first night walking around Egmore: old churches; a few of them. I guess it shouldn’t have been too surprising. Madras, as it was known, was the key British port of colonial India’s southwest coast, and its close proximity to the French-occupied territory made it strategically important to keep bolstered and strong in appearance. Our proximity to the centre of colonial Madras made it obvious that this was once the home of a great many colonists.

I contemplated this – the long, long tail of European colonialism – as we sat in a church, watching Christian Indians worship in a way we are more used to seeing in temples. Their worship, although still reverentially silent, is much more physical, though, touching shrines and idols as prayers are offered.

The next day we continued our history tour, taking in the Government Museum, the old city and the fort. The museum is in Egmore, housed in the sprawling British-built Pantheon complex. The architecture of its collection of buildings alone makes it a worthy meander, but the oddball collections also make it appealing (the Brits did lurve their taxidermy, and it’s on full display here, that’s all I’m saying).

The fort, by contrast, was not entirely worth the effort: it was hard to find, hard to get into, and, given that it houses much of Tamil Nadu’s state government offices – hence the security – didn’t offer a whole lot of exploration. There was no walking on fort walls here.

However, it does hold St. Mary’s church. Completed in 1680, it’s the oldest surviving British church in India. It was stunning inside, reeking of its history, and replete with plaques noting the colonial elites who served mother Britain. Similarly, the gravestone-plaques outside on the ground, offer a more immediately accessible record of people who passed even earlier than 1680!

The centre of old Madras still contains some stunning examples of colonial-era architecture: grand symbols of former power. They still sit relatively unobscured, even as bustling street-level Chennai is being transformed by its subway system, making them appear almost monumental. Sadly, the Madras High Court, reputedly the biggest justice building in the world – it stretches for blocks – is hidden behind walls and trees, with only its minaret-like, deep-red spires poking up into the sky.

George Town is the pulsating tangle of bazaars that, like all old colonial centres here, rubs right up against its former power centre. And like all bazaars, it’s a pleasantly chaotic experience wandering aimlessly through its electronics lane, its produce lane, its wedding card street. So long as you stay out people’s way, no one seems to really mind the strange people ambling about their neighbourhood.

But amongst this freneticism, we found an unexpected place of temporary reprieve. In 2013, we’d found a similar place, in the tangle of old bazaars in Kolkata, so we at least knew that there was a history of Armenians who came to colonial-era India. But there, in the middle of a marketplace, a ramshackle gate announed an Armenian church; we decided to investigate.

The gate was obscured almost invisible behind the volume and movement of the street; we could have easily missed it. But nonetheless we found ourselves in the middle of a perfectly preserved Armenian church, courtyard, and the same gravestone-plaques we’d seen at St. Mary’s; evidence of those who made the crazily brave voyage.

There was a maintenance man there to show us around – there always is – and he said it is still used, but there are only a few Armenian families left now, so what exactly it’s used for, I have no idea. But it was a fascinating and unexpected find, and, since they are all but gone now, an honest glimpse into something truly past.

On our second day we went south to Mylapore, which is the actual old city, and existed for hundreds of years before the Portuguese arrived. There, we finally had a Hindu temple experience. Kapaleeshwarar, dedicated to Shiva, was built after the Portuguese destroyed the original seaside temple in 1566. In contrast to other Hindu temple experiences, which can be overly bewildering and chaotic, this was a relatively calming wander about.

Frighteningly, though, the huge tank next door – temple tanks apparently acting as good barometers of overall storage health – laid very bare Chennai’s alarmingly dropping water table (all over the city we’d seen water trucks making deliveries; water has become a private enterprise it seems).

Coincidentally, from 1523, the Portuguese constructed a giant Roman Catholic cathedral on the seaside, where, apparently, St. Thomas the Apostle, he who brought Christanity to India, died in AD72 (there is a relic of his nose bone in a tomb below, so it is an important pilgrimage spot). It was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style in 1896 and remains a strikingly dominant feature of the south part of Marina Beach.

But the best find was our last. Inland from Mylapore sits the Luz Church, which, built in 1516, is Chennai’s oldest remaining European building. It’s a lovely wee church, stonewashed white and blue and Baroque in style. The story goes that a Portuguese ship was returning from Malacca, in 1500, and was tossed into a hurricane. Lost, disoriented, they suddenly they see a light, which they follow to land, and then onwards, through thick jungle, until it disappears in the spot the church now stands. Luz Church (luz=light) commemorates this miraculous occurrence.

Up next: Hyderabad’s glorious Islamic past-present and its IT-led future.

* I’m aware that megatropolis comes from metropolis, and metropolis in plural form is metropoles. Megatropoles doesn’t work for me and, since this my party, megatropoli it is, so don’t @ me, ‘mmmkay?!

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