Chennai, or the erstwhile Madras, lies daintily in the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. The city, which has grown in size, is said to have originated as an English settlement around Fort St. George.
A theory states that the British acquired a three-mile strip in the fishing village of Madrasapatnam that led to the foundation of Madras, which is a metropolitan city today. It finds mention in Lonely Planet’s list of must-visit spots of 2015 and has also booked the second slot in National Geographic’s top 10 food cities list.
But not long ago when Madras never existed, thrived a settlement called Mylapore in the confines of the current Tamil Nadu capital. It is said that Mylapore is 2,000 years older than Madras. The area has been referred to by Greek geographer Ptolemy as Milarpha, while Marco Polo called it a “little town”. The region attracted Roman traders who arrived to buy silk, cotton and spices. Mylapore derives from Tamil word mayil and Pore means ‘abode of peacocks’.
Legend has it that one day Lord Shiva was narrating a tale to his wife Parvati at Kailash. Parvati was distracted as she saw a peacock dancing around the garden. Noticing her lack of interest, Shiva cursed her that she would be born as a peacock on Earth. Goddess Parvati prayed to Lord Shiva in the form of a peacock here, hence the name. Walk into Mylapore, the cultural nucleus of Madras, and you will notice that life revolves around the Kapaleeswarar Temple. Not more than 300 years old, the original temple is beleived to have existed closer to the shore even before the Portuguese arrived. The temple at Mylapore was rebuilt using the remnants of the original temple after it was destroyed. Women are seen in nine yards with jasmine flowers adorning their hair and men clad in traditional veshti (unstitched cloth) walking around here.
Marriage dates and sacred ceremonies are fixed in the temple. Match-making, meeting the girl and her family, cultural events and other social gatherings take place here. Built on the rational of Agama Shastra, the temple houses the dhwajastambha (flag staff), which is hoisted during the festive season. The dhwajastambha declares the godhead to the world.
A short auto-rickshaw ride from the Kapaleeswarar Temple would take you to the San Thome Church, one of the three Basilicas in the world, which was built over the tomb of Jesus’s apostle. The other two are St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and church of St. James the Great in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Of the 12 apostles to Jesus, Saint Thomas (or Doubting Thomas), was one. He sailed to the Malabar Coast of India in 52 AD to spread the word of Jesus and reached Mylapore in 68 AD.
The missionary was often found at St. Thomas Mount, preaching Christianity. In 72 AD, he was martyred and his remains were buried where San Thome Cathedral Basilica stands today.
In 1522, the Portuguese moved the Apostle and what remains today in the church. But there is more to this church than what meets the eye. Inside, you will find Jesus standing on a lotus flanked by peacocks, while Mother Mary is clad in a sari. At the church’s entrance is a 60-foot tall dhwajastambha soaring into the sky. The peacock, lotus and dhwajastambha are identities of a Hindu temple. A church is the last place that one can find these hallmarks, but it looks as if Hindu traditions had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Christianity here in the ancient locality of Madras and had left its imprints in this religious house.