CHENNAI: The narrow, forgotten streets of Georgetown hold many secrets behind their crumbling building’s facades, which even the several layers of new paint can’t mask. Many of us know that Georgetown was previously known as Black Town, the settlement outside the fortifications of ‘White Town’, namely the Fort St George.
Black town was where our ancestors lived, traded, built, had cultural concerts. Today, all these valuable markers of heritage and culture are fading fast under the weight of politics, population and ignorance. This Sunday, led by a young group of final year architecture students from Davinci School of Design and Architecture, we unravel a few bits and pieces of forgotten history. Georgetown was the origin for a myriad of religions into Chennai, with churches, temples and was the site for the first synagogue as well, which no longer exists.
First stop was the 18th century Armenian Church. Our entrance was marked by the ringing of the six heavy bells from the bell tower, the first structure we saw when we entered the gates. Each bell weighed over 150 kg, and was rung every morning and evening to signify opening and closing times, ever since the church was built in 1719.
History does wait for those who wish to listen, except if you’re in a hurry to forget. The Binnys building, once a landmark for textile business, now lay in ruins, demolished and broken two weeks ago. It served as the administrative building of the Binny textiles business. The old plaque, ‘Armenian Street’ stays attached to its’ exterior wall.
Built by Annie Besant and named as the Young Men’s Indian Association (YMIA), this structure housed indoor sports to encourage more men in sports. It later became the location for many freedom struggle discussions. Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru were some of the speakers at this place
One of the oldest Krishna temples in the city, the distinct feature of this is the 15 feet tall granite stone stambha. The stambha is usually in metal in most temples. In temple architecture, the stambha is the first point of construction, used as the point of measurements for the rest of the Temple’s proportions
South India house
A noticeable feature among all buildings was the chamfered or the corner, a characteristic meant to avoid sharp street edges. The South India house was initially a residence, and is now a centre for trade and commerce.
Most of the temples in Georgetown are built by the Dubach, derived from the word ‘Dobash’, meaning people who know two languages, Tamil and English. The Dubach were considered prominent people, above the rest. The Kachaleswarar temple was built by Kalavai Chetty.
Sudharshan Building, built as a hospital, and still is one, is run by the third generation of doctors. The ground floor is rented out for commercial shops, while the first floor is a clinic and the second, the residences.
Located on Lingi Chetti Street, the temple has a mandapam in the front for cultural congregation, and was built by Berry Chettiar, another Dubach.
Kamadeeswarar and Kalikambal the main deities. Built in 1678, the temple has been visited by dignitaries across time periods —such as Mathura King Shivaji, who came in disguise during a period
of hiding, as shown in a portrait within the temple. The fierce image of the idol have been torn down over the years.
St Mary’s co cathedral
A few blocks away from this church is the St Mary’s co cathedral, which greeted us with Sunday morning prayer. Built over 400 years ago, the church also houses the St Mary’s Anglo Indian school, the oldest school in India. The church was the site of cultural performances by eminent musicians like MS Subbulakshmi, KP Kaligambhal, making us realise how, most events today are held in the south of the city.
Coral Merchant Street was occupied by merchants of the Jewish community, who traded in gems and diamonds. This street housed several ‘sathirams’ or ‘madams’, three of which stand today. The Rangoon madam is being used for institutional purposes. The other two, ‘Chettiyar madam’ and ‘Chinna madam’ still function as places for stay by visitors.
Houses the famous Thiruvottiyur theru which is taken in a huge procession once every year, from here to Thiruvottiyur.