Chennai always had this strange appeal to me. Not just because it hosts my grandparents’ place or it was my summer vacation city, but also because it brought my textbooks to life. For instance, if we read about the oldest banyan tree in our school books, we got to see that in Adyar on our next visit for holidays. Or if you read about Mr. Cuddapah Rangaiah in history class, on your way to the railway station you casually see a Cuddapah Rangaiah Street to your left. The more you explore the city, the more it surprises you.
Chennai, as a city, started at the foundation stone laid by the British, near Parry’s corner, and rose to prominence engulfing the surrounding land. From being a colonial city to holding an important place in the Indian Independence movement, Chennai is a historical treasure trove. The Red & White buildings that we frequently see around have such important stories to tell. And it gives you a high in every instance you are around them.
The pre city area of Chennai, broadly speaking, the land between Nellore & Cuddalore, was ruled as one kingdom with Kanchipuram as its capital. The temples standing tall even today, last as a testament to the culture and heritage of those times. The uncovering of the spice route, in the age of discovery, changed the face of this land.
The Portuguese, who first landed in Calicut in the 15th Century, eventually found their way to Mylapore in the Coromandel coast by the next Century. They built a port here, marking it for all the future explorers. The SanThome Church & the Luz Church built in this age were one of the first colonial structures in the city, but not necessarily in the same form that we see them today.
With the SanThome as the guiding center, towards the 17th century, almost all the major European powers established their presence in the Tamil Land. The Dutch East India Company that followed the Portuguese built forts to the north of Mylapore near Pulicat, and later to the south near Sadras. Further south of Cuddalore, near Tharagambadi (Tranquebar), the Danish Company built a fort Dansborg. And the French chose a place between these two near Pondicherry to build their fort, but all of them eventually lost their colonies to the British.
In the intervening period, the English East India Company, in the 17th century, after careful exploration, chose a sandy strip at Madraspattinam, the land between Pulicat and Portuguese settlements as the most favorable place to build a fort for trade; thus laying the stone for the City of Chennai & giving us our very first White building St. George Fort of the British Chennai. All these forts put on the map form the borders to the land between Nellore and Cuddalore neatly encompassing the city.
With St. George Fort as the nucleus, the city rebuilt itself many times, each time expanding the city limits. The red hues from the Central Station or the High court and the white light from the Rippon building or the Higginbothams touch us from time to time when we are up and around the city. The colonial influences don’t just end here. It can be a street name or a school you see in the passing, that triggers something or makes you curious to know the stories behind it. The Lady Andal VenkataSubba Rao Matriculation School & the Ellen Sharma Memorial School are two names that get to me every time.
Towards the 18th century, British India formed the Madras Presidency which changed the lives of many people including my grandfather’s. In the early 20th century, as a young man when he needed to migrate from his birthplace Cocanada lands, in search of his livelihood, he chose the capital (Madras) and shifted to the city. For years, he worked at the Parry Company and made a home at the Luz Church Road-Mylapore. So I guess, it’s only natural for me to trace back the lines.