Chapter 4, Part 14
A string of light emerged on the horizon – scattered yellow speckles suggestive of an incoherent network of offices, houses, temples and roads – forming a boundary against the darkness beyond. The plane made a turn, and more were presented to my curious eyes. We just left the darkness of Indian Ocean, and were about to land in Chennai, a city once called Madras. Among the jumbled urban sprawl, Madhu was down there, somewhere.
A year prior to embarking on a journey with a scale neither James nor I had ever attempted before, we contacted one of our favorite bloggers, Madhu, who happened to reside in the southern Indian city of Chennai. We intended to spend several days in the city before exploring the states of Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Plans were made and flights booked. However, after perusing our itinerary, she advised us against visiting Chennai at the very beginning of the Indian leg of our trip as it would coincide with the peak of northeast monsoon season. She suggested us to push it toward the end of our month-long journey in India as there might be a good chance to get a few sunny days in the city. We took her heed and adjusted our itinerary accordingly.
As we were moving from one city to another, and crossing checkpoints at state borders, we learned from the news that multiple places in the state of Tamil Nadu – where Chennai is its capital – suffered from severe flooding. Madurai was the first city in the state that we visited, and the weather was rather unpredictable with the clouds seemingly having a propensity for blocking the sun during our stay. The next city was Thanjavur, and throughout our three-night stay we played it by ear with the weather. When the sun came out, we quickly grabbed our cameras and rushed toward the magnificent 11th-century Brihadeeswarar temple which was fortunately located within walking distance from where we stayed.
Brihadeeswarar is one of three ancient temples that make up the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Living Chola Temples, with the other two situated in Gangaikondacholapuram and Kumbakonam. It was in fact images of Kumbakonam’s Airavatesvara temple that piqued my interest in Tamil Nadu for its intricately beautiful carvings. However, as we left Thanjavur and continued our journey to the small town, we discovered that the temple was partially inundated following heavy rains days earlier.
Rather disappointed with the fact that we couldn’t explore the centuries-old temple, we continued northward. Finally, after making a short stop at Mahabalipuram, we reached Chennai with a surprisingly warm and sunny welcome.
As an Indonesian, I’m used to hearing places across the country making international headlines when a volcano erupts, or an earthquake hits, boats sink, terrorists attack, and a long list of other events that make people think Indonesia really is a dangerous country. When I was following the news about the flooding across Tamil Nadu and discovered that Chennai was sunny, warm and pleasant, unlike how it was depicted for days on TV, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with my home country.
Undoubtedly, having Madhu to take us around her adopted city helped us enjoy Chennai better. The city’s true charm lay in its plethora of British colonial buildings – many flaunting Indo-Saracenic architectural style which a century ago was the preferred contemporary design – although Madhu lamented many heritage buildings which had, unfortunately, been razed to the ground. Today, the stately and well-preserved structures that remain are a testament to the city’s importance during the British colonial era.
At a time when the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) began to develop its presence in South and Southeast Asia in earnest to control the lucrative spice trade, the English through the East India Company (EIC) started scrambling for lands to acquire in the region. In 1639 they bought a strip of land on the Coromandel Coast of the Indian subcontinent from a local ruler. The area then known as Madarasapatinam soon witnessed rapid developments as the English started building their first factory and warehouse to support the EIC trading activities. A year later, Fort St. George was constructed, becoming the first English fortress in India as well as the impetus for a growing and expanding settlement which would later be known as Madras, after the land’s original name.
As the EIC’s profit grew, Madras flourished. By the 19th century, Madras was one of the most important cities in British India along with Bombay and Calcutta. Throughout the 19th to the early 20th centuries, the city experienced a construction boom forever changing its face. Madras Museum compound (today’s Government Museum) including its impressive theater, the imposing Ripon Building (currently the seat of the Chennai Corporation), Chennai Egmore railway station, and San Thome Basilica were some of the structures built during this period. The latter, however, started out as a small church built by the Portuguese in the 16th century over the tomb of St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, who is believed to have preached and died in the area in the first century AD.
As with other thriving trading ports during European colonial time in Asia, they attracted people from distant places for different reasons. Some arrived in Madras searching for business opportunities, others left their homes for the British colonial capital in South India to escape poverty. But there were also people who came to Madras to serve at churches of various denominations to keep the faiths alive among Europeans who settled in the city.
Dubbed the oldest Anglican church east of Suez, the late 17th-century St. Mary’s Church at Fort St. George was tucked amid what is today the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu. Contrary to the well-preserved Anglican church, the Armenian Church was situated in the middle of a dense commercial neighborhood filled with rundown buildings with streets laid out in grid plan. Completed in the 18th century, the tranquil church was a reminder of the dwindling Armenian communities across Asia. In Chennai’s Egmore district, St. Andrew’s Church which was built in the 19th century to serve the city’s Scottish community appeared to be in a much better state.
In 1996 the name Madras was officially changed into Chennai, after Chennapatnam – a collective name for several villages around Madarasapatinam. Despite the name alteration, nothing else had really changed. Chennai was still a bustling city as Madras had been for a long time, and old problems remained, including the snarling traffic and the struggle for heritage buildings preservation. Many of the city’s colonial gems that lined up the avenue across the promenade of Marina Beach were fortunate to be spared of the wrecking ball. One afternoon, Madhu’s husband, Ravi, took us to the beach for a leisurely stroll. The sun was setting, casting beautiful silhouettes on the statues, lamps posts, old buildings and everything else along the beach. The breeze from the Indian Ocean took away the humidity the city is usually associated with, or “hot, hotter, hell” as Ravi put it.
After three days exploring Chennai under unexpectedly blue skies with very precious companions, we bid adieu to the city and flew to Kolkata, more than 1300 km away to the northeast. Two days since leaving Tamil Nadu, however, we learned that Chennai was hit by the worst flooding in recent memory. In a poignant post, Madhu spoke of the city’s perseverance in dealing with the disaster, and as the city has now returned to its normal life, let it be known not for its troubles, but rather for its endless charm.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.