Journal -- Day 3

December 21st

Return to Journal Home Page

Return to South India Home Page

We arrived in Chennai a day early, as we will be leaving a day early and didn't want to miss anything. Therefore we are on our own, ready to explore. We start in the southern end of the city at St. Thomas' Cathedral. Local legend has it that Thomas, one of Jesus' apostles, came to India to teach the gospel and died here in Mylapore. The church is situated over his tomb. You can visit the crypt, newly renovated in beautiful marble and including a museum diorama of Thomas' death by a stray hunting arrow. Several schoolgirls from the catholic academy next door are decorating the shrine and fountain with flowers, which seems to involve a lot of giggling and running around. As with almost everyone in India, they are very polite and graceful. They also speak English. Given that we speak exactly no Tamil and are no doubt getting some local customs wrong, I as usual feel humbled by the generosity of others (and the arrogance of America, well-meaning though it can be).

Institutions seem to retain the old names, while roads just use both for maximum navigational difficulty.

There is some dispute over whether the Thomas here in Mylapore was in fact the apostle and famous doubter, or in fact a whole different Thomas from about 800 AD. Christianity arrived with an Armenian community at about that time, and it may be that the Portugese got confused when they showed up in the mid-16th century. Either way, some Thomas is here, and the local legend gives San Thome the unique claim of being one of only 2 churches over the burial site of an apostle, the other being St. Peter's Basilica. So there, Rome.

Moving north from San Thome, we follow the Marina beach to Fort St. George, the original British settlement. Halfway along is a bizarre, roundish, yellow building called the Ice House. Starting in 1820 or so, enterprising Bostonians learned that pine sawdust would insulate ice through even tropical heat. They cut up entire ponds outside the city, covered the blocks in sawdust, and shipped them to Madras. This somewhat Georgian-style building that would not be out of place in New England is the result, a local home for ice. It is now a school, but as we drive by we couldn't help wondering if Farm Pond in Sherborn ever made its way to India. A little homey feel for us so far away.

Fort St. George is very much a fort, even today. The old British administration buildings are still used by the government, as we learned when we pointed the camera in an inappropriate direction. The museum wasn't much - lots of old woolen uniforms and portraits of former governors - but the church is worthwhile. St Mary's is the oldest Anglican church east of Cairo, built in the late 1670s and still largely intact. Memorials to fallen British troops cover the walls, including one to Elihu Yale. Yale was an early governor of Madras who became quite rich. He later gave a substantial donation to a little college in Connecticut which was so grateful it changed its name in his honor. Several of the plaques and some restoration seem to have been due to the reciprocal generosity of Yale alums. I wonder if the Madras connection is well-known at Yale?

Throughout Chennai, names have been changed in the last 20 years to better represent Tamil culture and de-emphasize the British influence. The same is true of Mumbai and Kolkata, though in this case there was no large settlement prior to the British arrival. The result is a bit confusing, as many roads and town are referred to by both names somewhat interchangeably. Institutions seem to retain the old names, while roads just use both for maximum navigational difficulty.

For dinner we adjourn to the Chennai equivalent of the W and indulge in the most stylish Aloo Palak yet served. An excellent start.

Previous Installment

Next Installment