Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Exploring Chennai....

I was born and brought up in the beautiful and vibrant coastal city of Chennai in South India, a city that has made me much of whatever I am today. Its a city where the reminiscents of our glorious past happily co-exist with the modernity of the present to create a fusion of a culture that is indeed unique. For quite sometime I had been wanting to dig deep into the history of my city and walk through the very streets and buildings which were the witnesses of many an event in history. This thought materialized on a beautiful Saturday morning  and I set off to visit the historic St. George's Fort -  the very place from which the city of Chennai (Madras) grew. For the uninitiated, the study of the history of Madras (Chennai) is of utmost importance to historians, as Madras sowed the very seeds for the establishment of British empire in this part of the world which would later expand its branches all over India and in Asia.

Fort St. George was one of the first few forts constructed by the British in India . The British who originally came to India as traders, acquired the permissions from the Nayaka king, Damerla Chennappa Nayaka to  construct a fort to conduct their trading activites. Francis Day of the East India Company had played a major role in this  by convincing their superiors that the area around the present day  St.George's fort  with its proximity to the beach and the availability of very good quality painted cloth would contribute greatly to the fluorishing trade in the region. Francis day along with Andrew Cogan laid the very foundation for the city of Madras which would later expand to become a very big metropolis city  in India.
The British had divided the fort and the area around as "White Town" where much of the Europeans lived and the area beyond as "Black Town" where the locals (Indians) lived. A classic example of racism practised by them during those times.

The present day St.George's Fort is converted into a museum. It houses several valuable artifacts and is a treasure trove of information for the history lover.Below is a picture of the St. George's fort museum from outside.

The fort museum is surrounded by greenery all around. Walking in the pleasant weather surrounded by the green foliage interspersed with shades of orange was  really a delightful experience.

The Fort museum, a three storeyed building has a great collection of various artifacts belonging to the by-gone era. A giant statue of Lord Cornwallis, stands near the entry of the ground floor. At the bottom of the statue are beautiful carvings depicting the historic scene where two of the great Indian Mysore King Tippu Sultan's sons are taken as hostages by the British after  losing the Third Anglo-Mysore War against  them.


Another blog post of mine describes the  famous Savandurga fort, believed to be almost impregnable but was captured by the British forces lead by Lord Cornwallis during the Third-Anglo Mysore war. Srirangapatnam , where the Fourth and final Anglo-Mysore war was fought leading to the death of the brave Mysore king Tippu Sultan also has a seperate blog post.

As we enter inside through one of the doors on the ground floor, we pass through numerous glass shelves preserving the well maintained collections of the Colonal rulers and the Nawab of Arcot. Robes of the British , porcelain of the Nawab of Arcots and the British, the medals released by the British to commemorate the various events and campaigns in Burma, North West Frontier etc  housed the walls of the museum on the ground floor.

As we move further on to the opposite entrance on the ground floor, very valuable information on the history of  Madras were displayed on the information placards that had been put up .One of them gave a representation of Madras and the various settlements in and around during the 17th century, when the city of Madras came into existence.Observe the key cities of Masulipatnam, Armagon , Pulicat (once a Dutch settlement) depicted in the maps.

I went upstairs through the wooden staircase to enter the first floor of the museum which housed the paintings and coins.  The huge room appeared much like a banquet hall with huge magnificent potrait paintings of the British generals, the royal Queen and the Nawabs affixed to the walls. The artistic strokes of the highly skilled painters with a pursuit for perfection had resulted in the "live potraits" of various famous personalities of those times. Most notable of them were the portrait paintings of Lord Clive, Governer of Bengal by Thomas Day and that of Sir Arthur Havelock, Governer of the fort St.George by the famous Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma . Other portraits of  the Indian kings such as the Nawab of Carnatic, were also to be seen.  Below is the portrait of Lord Clive by Thomas Day.

Just adjacent to the paintings section is the coins section containing a huge collection of coins belonging to the era of Tippu Sultan and Hyder Ali, the British, the Portugese (who ruled the area around the present day Santhome in Chennai before the British took over), the Dutch, the French etc.  They provided a valuable insight into the glorious history of our land.

In an engineering and technology era where subjects such as history take a backseat among the student community, it was heartening to see a bunch of school girls religiously taking down notes from the information placards put up on the history of the coins issued by the various dynasities that ruled the Madras region.

The third floor of the museum contains various artifacts belonging to the French who ruled Madras and occupied the St. George's fort between 1746-1749 before Madras was handed over to the British in 1749 along the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle of 1748. The third floor however, had been closed down for renovation when I visited the museum.

I proceeded further down the road to visit the historic "Clive House" where Robert Clive(who along with Warren Hastings is regarded as one of the key personalities in the establishment of British rule in India) once lived. The building is now an office of the Archaelogical Society of India (ASI).

Right across the building is the historic St. Mary's Church also known as the "Westminister Abbey of the East". It was built by the British and is one of the oldest British monuments in India. It was  here that famous  personalties such as Robert Clive and Elihu Yale (of the Yale University fame and who served as a governer of the East India Company)  got married. The architecture of the church is simple, elegant yet captivating.
Surrounded by greenery, the location of the church exudes a unique charm and tranquility and my thoughts go back to the days of the British era. Admist the foliage, a clock (which no longer ticks) is visible. Shown below are the pictures.

Further down, I see a "Fort House" which seems to be undergoing renovation. Notice the Roman Numerals "XXXIII" visible on the arches (on the second picture below).

In the recent years, there has been a push to have the St. George's Fort Chennai to be declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site owing to its historical status. As S. Muthiah , a chronicler of Madras summarizes, the Fort was the seat of power between 1640 and 1770s from which the British empire expanded its arms throughout India and beyond in Asia. It was the primary British settlement during those times and hence carries significant importance in Indian history. 

By now, my stomach craved for an authentic Indian lunch and I proceed to the Sowcarpet area to have  Gujarathi Thali meals. Madras has a significant population of Marwaris (hailing from the land of Marwar in Rajasthan) and Gujarathis who migrated southwards to seek new pastures for their businesses.The Marwaris are colourful, vibrant people with excellent business acumen. Many of the businesses in Madras particularly in the Parry's area are run by them. Our neighbours in Madras are also Marwaris. My search for a good Gujarathi restuarant takes me to the narrow and very crowded lanes of Prakasam salai,Broadway and I finally find a good restuarant serving Gujarathi Thali meals even at  3 PM in the evening. Being totally famished after the long walk, I gobble up my Gujarathi thali meals consisting of phulkas, a very tasty aaloo subzi (potato curry), a green-peas vegetable gravy, dal , rice , curd , pudina chutney and a mango drink. Simple but very filling.

I proceed further to explore the area around and to do some purchases. Parry's Corner is a huge commercial center in Madras and there is nothing on earth that you cannot find here. Vegetables,dry fruits,hardware,rubber etc. are sold at rock bottom prices and its not uncommon to find stuff sold at wholesale rates. Hence the area is very crowded and always teeming with scores of businessmen (women) and purchasers. I was delighted to see hand driven rickshaws operating in this part of the city. In narrow streets where the motor powered autorickshaws cannot pass through, the hand driven rickshaws are a cheap and a great way to travel short distances and experience the place.

I get down at Armenian street which was once a settlement of Armenians (from the land of Armenia) in Madras. 

There are many interesting history accounts of the Armenians who came to India. A few of them entered by joining the forces of Alexander the great. Later, the Mughal king Akbar invited Armenians to Agra.The Armenian Church constructed in 1772 on the Armenian street holds testimony to the long years of  relationship with Madras. As per an interesting BBC article, currently there are only 2 Armenians left in the Armenian street, one of whom is the guardian of the church.  Despite the dwindling populating of Armenians, the traditional rituals of the Armenians practised ages ago are still followed in the church.

I pass through an interesting building belonging to the 1930s and decided to capture a shot with my camera. 

Notice the pretty carvings on top of the windows. 

I proceed further to complete my purchases and finally head back home. On the way, I pass through the magnificent Madras High Court Buildings. Built in Indo-Saracenic architecture style, the building's architecture captivates the eye of any passer-by. Standing tall, witnessing the various events that changed the course of the history of Madras, the magnificent High Court buildings never fail to impress. The amazing architecture of the buildings is a great topic of interest for the students of art, history and architecture. 

As I board my bus back home, I felt a sense of fulfillment to have begun a lifelong journey of exploration and study of the rich history and culture of my native city. A Saturday well spent!


  1. Nice one Padma !! It was refreshing to go through the lanes of Chennai which has made Chennai as it is today..Every place has a nook and corner which remains silent thinking that a passerby would look and reminisce of it's silent song of history..Keep travelling & keep blogging

  2. hey Padma.
    it was really refreshing to read it out and seriously u made me able to visit Chennai nevertheless it is through world of words.
    i must appreciate your keen eye over even minute things while travelling.
    keep writing about your travelling experiences..
    good luck.

  3. The blog is quite interesting.It give brief overview of chennai.Thanks for sharing with site visitors.
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