The Eclectic Secrets of a Charming City, Madras

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What's common between Armenian diaspora, Thomas the Apostle and Nawab of Arcot?

Well, Madras and the landmarks they left behind.

I’ve lived in Chennai before and have visited it several times since but I never found it interesting enough to uncover its secrets. However, last month, Storytrails showed me around and told me its stories. Needless to say, I’m impressed. Well done, Madras. What a charming city you are!

I went on two city walks and of all the super interesting things I learnt, I’m going to tell you three most fascinating stories. For the rest, you’ll have to go on the walks yourself. ☺

1. The Armenian Connection

Armenian church in Georgetown, Chennai
Armenian Church in Georgetown, Chennai.

Hidden between the markets of Georgetown in Chennai is a 300-year-old Armenian Church. Predictably, the lane itself is called Armenian Street! So when and why did the Armenians come and settle in Madras? Turns out Armenians have settled in several locations across the world for various reasons ranging from trade to escaping invasions and holocaust. But the Armenians settled in India seem to be traders who had come through the overland route over the Hindu Kush mountain range. Since they were excellent traders, the society prospered wherever they settled. The British who were trading in cotton exports didn’t see the silk and gem trading Armenians as a competition and offered them patronage in Madras. They thrived and built a church in 1712 within the Fort George premises that was destroyed during the French occupation in 1746. 3 years later British recaptured Madras. In 1772, the present church was constructed in the Armenian cemetery where the graves of 350 Armenians are laid to rest.

One of the graves is of Reverend Haroutiun Shmavonian, who is considered to be the father of Armenian Journalism. Out of Madras, the first Armenian periodical in the world was printed. The Armenian community of Madras was responsible for the first draft of Constitution for an independent Armenia in 18th century. The community played an important part in upholding the Armenian culture and laid groundwork for an independent Armenia as early visionaries. However, Armenia was able to gain freedom only in 1991 after the dissolution of Soviet Union.

Starting 1600s the presence of Armenians in Madras was prominently recorded and felt. The noted merchant Shahamir Shahamirian financed the construction of this church. Another merchant Coja Petrus Uscan gave Madras its bridge over River Adyar and the 160 steps to reach Thomas Mount. The bridge has been rebuilt since but Uscan’s contribution is remembered in the form a plaque at the new bridge. Today there are no Armenians in this city but they left behind an Armenian Street and the church as stark reminders of a thriving community. A last group of Armenian community in Kolkata funds the church’s upkeep today. It’s a significant church in many ways.

2. The heartwarming story from Mylapore

Kapaleeswara Temple, Mylapore, Chennai
Kapaleeswara Temple, Mylapore

Mylapore’s history can be traced back to being much older than Madras itself, almost to 2000 years where as Madras recently celebrated its 400th year of existence. In this cultural hub of the city is the Kapaleeswara temple, a buzzing landmark of this locality. The original temple built closes to the coast, was destroyed by the Portuguese and rebuilt again in the current location. The story of temple goes like this. In a fit of rage, Shiva once cursed Parvathi to be born as a peacock on earth. She quickly reminded Shiva of how he would live without her. Lord Shiva then tells her to pray for his love and he will come rescue her soon enough. All the praying happened here in Mylapore under a tree, which is now within the temple. The tree is a now turned into a wish-fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha where women who want to get married or bear a child come to pray for fulfilment of their wishes. This explains the abundance of peacock motif in Mylapore, even in the Santhome church next to the crucifix. Also, "mayil" means peacock, hence Mylapore. You see? 

But that’s not the heartwarming story as you might have clearly guessed. Now according to the traditional Hindu architecture, every temple will have its own temple pond that is used for all cleansing rituals of the Gods and the devotees. When the Kapaleeswara temple was built, they couldn’t find suitable land for constructing the pond next to the temple. There was one open ground, which was not considered because it belonged to the Nawab of Arcot, a Muslim. Left with no choice, the temple authorities asked him if he would lease the land. The Nawab, instead of leasing the land straight away donated the land to the temple. However, he donated on the condition that the Muslim brethren are welcome to use the temple pond only on the 10th day of Muharram. The deed was done, signed and documented!

Like the Armenian Church with no flock, the temple pond hasn’t seen Muslims since. But if they do arrive, what a heartwarming sight that would be, the Armenians or the Muslims.

3. Santhome Basilica, one of the only four of its kind in the world and the Dhwaja Stambha

Santhome Basilica, Mylapore, Chennai
The beautiful Gothic Style Santhome Church

I don’t know why I never knew about this, maybe I was living under a rock but St. Thomas is said to have reached India preaching gospel in 52AD and martyred in Mylapore in 72AD. The famous Thomas Mount of Chennai is where it is believed St. Thomas was speared, upon the orders by the local king furious of his growing influence. His remains were buried in Mylapore, later most of which was transferred to Ortona, Italy. However, a bone from his hand and the lance that killed him are still at Mylapore, in Santhome Basilica. The interesting thing is there are only 4 basilicas in the world built over Apostle’s tombs and one of them is this church. This makes it pretty special.

The British rebuilt the present day Gothic style Santhome church in 19th century after the Portuguese style church built in 15th century perished in a fire. Inside the church on the stained glass panel, is etched the story of Doubting Thomas. So I wasn’t aware of this phrase’s origin either. It was like finally being able to connect the dots, I knew all these things but never knew the common thread that connected them. But one more thing that took me by surprise was the presence of a Dhwaja Stambha at this church. These traditional Hindu flagpoles can be found in most of the South Indian Temples, which are used to signal the festival celebrations when the flag is hoisted. However, in a weird twist of cultural assimilation, most of the churches in Tamilnadu now carry a Dhwaja Stambha!

Santhome Dhwajastambha, Mylapore, Chennai
The panchaloha Dhwaja Stambha at the Santhome Church

So there, don’t you think Madras’s history is awesome? I, for one, can’t wait to get back to exploring more of its landmarks and the stories behind them.

About Storytrails:
Storytrails is a company that believes India exists in her stories and every sight has a story to tell. Of course every sight has a story but Storytrails' specialty lies in combing through the mundane and telling you the most interesting things. They organize citywalks with an expert storyteller at the helm to help you navigate the bylanes of a city and get under its skin. The team is as eclectic as the stories they tell which is clearly visible in the quality of the research done and the overall presentation. Currently they operate only in Chennai and Madurai.

I went on two city walks of 3 hours each, the Bazaar Trail and the Peacock Trail. Peacock Trail comes highly recommended. I personally loved this trail for every thing except the general temple architecture explanation, which I was already familiar with. The Bazaar Trail is about the local produce and the markets, which I’m not very fond of. But the Armenian Church, which I absolutely loved, was part of this trail. I was very doubtful about how much I would enjoy exploring a city, and that too by visiting temples and churches but clearly my fears were unfounded. Nobody can resist a good story.

After the two walks and talking to the founder and the storytellers, I felt every city should have these trails. History never seemed so much fun and this is the best way to explore to a city. And I can’t wait to try the Steeple Chase and British Blueprints trails someday, I’m sure there are some fantastic stories waiting to be told!

Trail prices start from Rs. 900/person and upwards.

Further Reading:
The Armenian link with Chennai on The Hindu - Return to the Roots
An excellent and detailed account of the Peacock Trail by fellow blogger Sudha - On the peacock trail from Mayilapuram to Mylapore

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  1. Today in TOI in Hyderabad there is an article about an Armenian cemetery in Hyderabad, and then I read about the Armenian church in Chennai.... Very interesting post,, I have been to Chennai a few times but always was too busy to see much. We have heritage walks here in Hyderabad, starting from try them when you are here..

    1. The Armenian Legacy is both sad and super interesting considering how they thrived all over the world! I am a new fan of these city walks, will try to take one whenever I visit a new place from now on.

  2. Interesting post. I have lived in Madras for most of my life and have only heard tales of the above, with an occasional visit here and there. Thank you educating me about my city through this post. Walks are a great way of learning about a city whether you are visiting it for the first time or if you live there. I went on a walk in Ahmedabad earlier this year. Here is my account of it:

    1. I have lived in Chennai for a few years and haven't even heard of these tales. :) This city walk was a great experience and an eye opener. I wanted to go on one of these walks in Ahmedabad too but skipped it last time due to lack of time, I now know what a great mistake it was. I'll go through your post, Chaitali. Thanks.


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