Gateway to the South

The capital city of TN is comparatively laid back owing to the sense of pride and aesthetics that come naturally to its dignified natives

This is about Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, the gateway to the southern part of India. Like other cities in India Chennai too has had to change but interestingly, this large and undoubtedly splendid city, despite its ever growing population, it always seems to have room for more.

Its 150-foot lighthouse has always been the best view of the city and harbor, from the 150 ft lighthouse on the vast Marina Beach. A beach unlike the beaches in other states it is not always packed with people and filled to over-flowing. In fact at certain times in the day, it may seem almost deserted. But like the sea breeze that cools the city every evening, the beach is busier than before and modernity is bringing in fashions and activities into this normally sedate city these days.

The winds of change blew slowly and differently in sedate Chennai. In a way historically, it happened when the city donned a new name – giving up its old name Madras and was re-christened Chennai. The change in the name meant that it was no longer named after 'Madrasapattinam', which was the British settlement but was named Chennai after the parallel local area known as 'Chennapattinam.

With the past of many decades, the hamlets that had integrated to form Madras have witnessed phenomenal growth but despite this, Chennai continues to be a comparatively laid back city in comparison to other Indian metros. This has much to do with the sense of pride and aesthetics that come naturally to the dignified people of Tamil Nadu.

The erstwhile city of Madras is less than 400 years old, but gives the feeling of having been around for much longer. The British reached the area fairly early in their occupation of India and left traces of their military might at Fort St George and their religious presence at St Mary's Church said to be the oldest Anglican Church.

However Christianity appears to have been in the area many years earlier – in the16th century Portuguese explorers are known to have built a church over the tomb of St Thomas - one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus - which was known as the San Thome Church. In 1893, the British rebuilt it giving it the status of a Cathedral. Designed in the neo-gothic style, this is one of the few known churches in the world, to have been built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus. The St Thomas Cathedral Basilica located on the hillock St Thomas Mount, is also known as the International Shrine of St Thomas and draws pilgrims from all over the world.

Chennai can be said to have grown from a combination of villages that were gradually added to the original British settlement. These were either annexed or rented from erstwhile rulers, or given as grants, forming the different areas that are part of the Chennai that we see today.

The 'White Town', was the area where the English settled down and in 1644, built a fortress, which came to be known as Fort St George. It was the very first Fortress built in India by the British and in time became the coastal city of Madras leading up to the modern city of Chennai. The construction of the fort led to further settlements and plenty of trading activity, in a location that had so far been uninhabited land. Needless to say, the Fortress was the centre of all the activity. Even today, Fort St George continues to be part of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and other official activities.

The East India Company which had entered India in 1600 for trading activities already had a license for trading at Surat. But to secure their trade lines they felt the need of a port closer to the Malaccan Straits to trade in spices. They managed to buy a piece of coastal land originally known as 'Chennirayarpattinam'(or'Channapatnam') where they began construction of a harbor and a fort. Soon, the Fort became the hub for plenty of activity, with a new settlement known as George Town. It was this area that faced the sea and fishing villages that went on to add villages that grew to form the city of Madras. It was also from here that the English established their influence over Carnatic and kept at bay, the rulers of Arcot and Srirangapatna as well as the French Forces in Pondichery. The Fort now serves as one of the administrative headquarters for Tamil Nadu and still houses a garrison of troops in transit to various locations in South India and the Andamans. The Fort Museum contains many relics of the Colonial era, including portraits of many of the Governors of Madras, maintained by the Archeological Survey of India with the administrative support of the Indian Army.

Actually The St. George Fort has two sections that are worth seeing – the St. Mary's Church and the Fort Museum. St. Mary's Church is the oldest surviving church built by the British in India as well as the oldest Anglican Church in India. St. Mary's Church is said to be the oldest Anglican church – "East of the Suez' and the oldest British building in India. It is said have been built in 1680 when those who lived in the fort needed a place of worship. The church was built with voluntary contributions from the English who lived at the fort.

Work on this charming building began on March 25, 1678 and the church was established in 1680. It has certainly stood the test of time very well. The tombstones in its graveyard are said to be the oldest in India. Another interesting structure is a 150 ft tall Flagstaff, made entirely of teakwood. Special in many ways, St Mary's Church is famous and has been referred to as the 'Westminster Abbey of the East'.

However, one of the most striking buildings here is the Fort St. George Museum. It houses the relics of the British personnel who inhabited this fort. The construction of the building was completed in 1795 and served as the Madras Bank, while the large hallway upstairs served as the venue for public meetings as well as for entertainment. The banqueting hall Wellesley House is named after Richard Wellesley, the Governor-General of India. The 14.5 ft tall marble statue of Lord Cornwallis (1738-1805) is considered a rare masterpiece of art. Carved in England, it managed to survive the rough seas and reached India safely.

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