I had in fact forgotten how beautiful North Madras could be. It is so easy to forget that it was where the British had their headquarters during the time they ruled, before the commercial hub T.Nagar and orthodox Mylapore became the ‘cultured part’ of the city, tourists usually frequent.
But the only part of Chennai that has drawn me like no other is North Madras, with its unrefined beauty that retains the colonial charm. I find its charm alluring.
I could not help but stand there and admire those old building constructed centuries ago by the British as I passed by them on my way to an assignment. It sure was not the same from the time of British of course. Many companies have come up in the last few decades in between these monumental buildings. There are tea shops and mobile accessory stores. You will find company workers frequenting these small eateries to have hot bhajjis and ginger tea in glass tumbler, my favourite kind.
A sense of nostalgia overwhelmed me, as if I had been there before. Amidst the red buildings, I could see horse drawn carriages that added flavour to the city. The bright orange Sun illuminated the red brick building of the Madras High Court making it look as if it was on fire. It was beautiful. I was captivated.
It might be the atmosphere, but I did not want to go back to reality just yet. I wanted to stroll a bit more. I wanted to immerse myself in the colonial charm a bit more. I took the train that evening and let my mind wander to that time two years ago when I visited some of those century old buildings in North Chennai under a hot summer afternoon in May.
Fort St George, called White Town, was the first major British establishments in India, which lead to the foundation of city Madras, now Chennai. It was built in Indo-Saracenic style in 1640 in George Town and meant to be town to protect the British. It has a museum, Wellesley house, St. Mary’s Church and other official buildings like Tamil Nadu legislative assembly.
I remember wandering from one building to the next, from present to past, living through the age of British. As I walked across the corridors, it is impossible not to feel the moments etched in them, the good and bad; not to feel the residual longing these bricks possessed and will continue to possess. I never found history more arousing than that afternoon and probably never will.
When you come out the museum and Wellesley house, you could will find St. Mary’s Church, where marriage records dating back to 18th century still preserved. Yellowed and mite-eaten pages tells you how far the register has come. I was told the church premises also housed bodies of War heroes. If you are observant you will see metal slabs on ground with unrecognisable names and years written on them.
Another interesting piece of history in this part would be the deserted Armenian Church, which is still standing with barely concealed cracks on walls. The Church was built in 1772 and has a huge bell tower, for which the entry was restricted. The Church is known for its six belfry in different sizes and weighing 150 kg each. They were supposed to be the largest and heaviest bells in Chennai.
The Church is situated in the bustling shopping street Parry’s. It did occur to me as to why would Chennai have an Armenian Church. It makes one wonder if there was a thriving Armenian population in the area. Probably. Otherwise nothing explains the presence of the Church, funded by the Armenian Apostolic Church and maintained by The Armenian Church Committee in Calcutta. According to few articles I read, Armenians came to Madras as traders, to sell silk, expensive spices and gems. Few probably settled down here but now there are no traces of them left.
Other colonial traces include Ripon building, which now houses Chennai Corporation, Madras High Court and Victoria Hall, where the first cinema was screened. But North Madras has more to offer than monumental buildings. The raw beauty has beautiful fishing hamlets with wonderful people, a bit skeptical and rough but helpful all the same compared ‘cultured’ people in the city.
Most of all, the part of the city by the rough seas and lively fishing hamlets with its ruffians, might not be the developed Chennai most of us live. But with its unrefined buildings, harbour and with traces colonial past, it will always be the real Madras to me.