Chennai, St Mary’s Church
Tucked into a corner of the fort property in which cement has replaced any blade of natural life, the church surrounds itself within a cocoon of greenery. Initial construction began in 1678, ending two years later. But it wasn’t until 1701 when the tower was added, and another 9 years (1710) that the steeple was completed. Come 1795, the spire was finally affixed. Close eyes can catch the multiple architectural styles that somehow blend together in a rather understated manner. Tourists relying on their trusty travel guide will miss out on this destination located within the historic Fort George of Chennai, Tamil Nadu. And while Marina Beach is nearby and captures most of the foreign visitor’s attention, St Mary’s Church has a fascinating story to tell. Locals, taxi drivers, and car services can easily get you to the proper location past the imposing security gates at the fort entrance.
A weekday visit to the property at first glance appeared to be a futile exercise in sightseeing. Large brown iron gates were pulled shut until a simple push allowed access into the courtyard. Thick, full, bushy trees line the foundation providing ample shade for those that venture out in the well known sticky heat of Chennai. Pots brimming with colorful plants and flowers are placed throughout the courtyard making an oasis of sorts among the bland, monotone colored buildings of Fort George. An Army officer was as surprised to see me as I was him, sitting on a stone ledge facing toward the property gates. With shoes off and headphones on, he was taking a break from duty.
St Mary’s Church is the first, thus the oldest, Anglican Church in South Asia, named St. Mary because its origin was laid down on the Annunciation day of the Virgin Mary. Curiously, the church walls are 4 feet thick made of brick and plastered with lime. At the time of construction, the church was deemed the only bomb-proof structure of Fort George, a telling sign of the times. Those keen on an inside view need only go around back to find a female volunteer at the church. She may even find you first, beckoning you to come inside for a look. Scam’s concerns should be left at the gate for her offer is out of loyalty to the church. No need to think about tipping or baksheesh, she’s not interested.
Inside the lights are off but the trademark stained glass windows allow plenty of sunshine to brighten the sanctuary. A narrow main aisle leads your eye to the altar, donated in 1877 by the princess of Tanjore. Exposed electrical wires, ratty carpet, and hand mark blackened walls do nothing to detract from the experience. History is well documented by the numerous plaques which seem to cover every open surface as well as a small library of historical books just off the sanctuary. And the real masterpiece…The altarpiece, a depiction of the Last Supper, unsigned yet is said to betray obvious signs of the Raphaelite school, and it is supposed that Raphael himself painted the central figures.
Visitors should plan at least an hour to properly photograph the building while leisurely roaming the grounds. Cameras are allowed inside. There is no fee to enter or photography.