Tucked into a corner of the fort property in which cement has replaced any blade of natural life, the church surrounds itself with a cocoon of greenery. Initial construction began in 1678, and 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 carpets, 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, is 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 photograph.
Chennai, formerly known as Madras, has a rich history that dates back over 2,000 years. The city was originally a small fishing village, but grew in importance during the reign of the Chola dynasty in the 9th century AD. The Cholas made Chennai a major port city and built several important temples and other structures in the area.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese established a settlement in Chennai, followed by the Dutch in the 17th century. However, it was the British who established a significant presence in the city in the 17th century. In 1640, the British East India Company established a trading post in Chennai, and by the late 17th century, they had built a fort, which became the nucleus of the city.
During the British colonial period, Chennai grew in importance as a center of trade and commerce. The city became the capital of the Madras Presidency, which included much of southern India. Chennai was also an important center of education and culture, with several prominent educational institutions, museums, and cultural organizations established in the city.
Chennai played an important role in India’s struggle for independence from British rule. Many of the leaders of the independence movement, including Mahatma Gandhi, visited the city and gave speeches to large crowds.
After India gained independence in 1947, Chennai continued to grow and develop. Today, it is one of the largest and most important cities in India, with a thriving economy, a rich cultural heritage, and a vibrant population.
There are many things to see and do in Chennai, India. Here are some popular activities and attractions:
- Visit Marina Beach: Marina Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Chennai, and a great place to relax and take a stroll.
- Explore Fort St. George: Fort St. George is a historic fort and former British colonial stronghold, which is now home to a museum and other historical exhibits.
- Visit Kapaleeswarar Temple: This ancient temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and is one of the most famous landmarks in Chennai.
- Take a trip to Mahabalipuram: Mahabalipuram is a nearby town that is famous for its ancient temples, sculptures, and rock-cut caves.
- Enjoy traditional South Indian cuisine: Chennai is known for its delicious South Indian food, which includes dishes like dosas, idlis, and vadas.
- Visit the Government Museum: The Government Museum in Chennai is one of the oldest and largest museums in India, with exhibits on art, archaeology, and natural history.
- Attend a classical music or dance performance: Chennai is known for its rich cultural heritage, and is home to many talented musicians anddancers. Attending a classical music or dance performance is a great way to experience the local culture.
- Shop at the markets: Chennai has several popular markets, including the George Town Market and the T. Nagar shopping district, where you can find a wide range of goods, from spices and textiles to jewelry and electronics.
- Take a trip to the Chennai Rail Museum: The Chennai Rail Museum is a fun and educational attraction for railway enthusiasts of all ages, with exhibits on the history of the Indian Railways.
- Explore the Theosophical Society: The Theosophical Society in Chennai is a spiritual organization that promotes the unity of all religions and the development of human potential. The Society’s headquarters are located on a beautiful estate with gardens and a library.