Chennai is home to Fort St. George, built in 1653 and now a museum showcasing the city’s roots as a British military garrison and East India Company trading outpost, when it was called Madras.
In fact, this was the site of the very first permanent East India Company trading outpost, making it the place where the 300-year British presence in India began, just a few yards from the beach where their ships landed.
Today we had a private tour with a wonderful guide we call Bernard of India, for personal reasons. He is a retired very senior accountant for the state of Chennai, and a history buff par excellence. His knowledge is not limited to India, but encompasses Europe and America – along with most of Asia, probably. (How many of you know the date of the Battle of Yorktown?)
He began our tour at a building familiarly called the “Ice House.” In the 1830’s, a young Massachusetts business man named Frederick Tudor realized his dream of shipping ice to the hot climates where people were just dying for a cold lemonade or gin and tonic. It became a wildly successful venture when he built ice houses on the receiving end to store the precious commodity, which could keep for months, properly packed. The ice he eventually sent off to hot climates all over the globe was cut primarily from the frozen waters of Walden Pond.
“The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well,” Thoreau wrote in Walden.
Of course, the beverage sippers didn’t know they were imbibing from Walden Pond, also Thoreau’s bathtub, but they likely wouldn’t have cared anyway. Until the middle of the 1800’s, ice had been a luxury enjoyed only by the rich, but that had all changed thanks to Tudor, known as the “Ice King.”
The Ice House and the King went out of business with the advent of electricity, and this building has been renamed in honor of Indian saint Swami Vivekananda, who stayed in the building when he visited Chennai in 1897. Our guide says only older people will know what you are referring to if you ask about the Ice House. Its memory has melted away….
We next went to the University of Madras to admire the architecture of its original building. Constructed by famed architect Robert Chisholm between 1874 and 1879, the Senate building we saw is considered to be one of the best and oldest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture in India. Never heard of Indo-Saracenic architecture? Well, you see it in action in this building, where Hindu, Moghal and Gothic Revival flourishes combine in a way that succeeded in convincing the Indian population that the British were respecting their culture. (If it were built today, we would just call it “fusion.”) It was lovely and quirky and somehow it works.
We next drove around major municipal buildings, such as the Corporation building, from which the state is managed, the law courts, and the original – and still in use – rail station, as well as the original YMCA. They have everything here.
And then it was on to Fort St. George. Chennai, like Pondicherry, was divided into a White Town and a Black Town, keeping the races strictly segregated. In Pondicherry, this segregation was defined by a canal that kept people in their racially defined areas. In Madras this was achieved by a fully honored invisible wall. (You can see similar population divisions in Derry — or Londonderry — in Northern Ireland, which are still pretty much intact today.) It wasn’t until George V came to India in 1911 (the only British monarch to do so) in order to be crowned Emperor of India, that Black Town was renamed Georgetown. But that didn’t really change very much until India got independence and the British abandoned Fort St. George to new Indian government. The complex is still used as a government and military center today.
The main building of the Fort is interesting because it is in its original 1653 condition. It is a bit shabby and in need of restoration. It houses a museum. However, some of the other original buildings have not fared as well. Some have been demolished and replaced by newer buildings and others are abandoned today and are basically falling down. Who in India is going to foot the expensive bill to maintain heritage buildings to remember the good old days of British rule?
Interestingly, the architecture of the original buildings in the complex followed an adherence to the established British model. Since no natives would have ever been allowed into this complex, there was no need to appease sensibilities with the quasi-Indian pretense of Indo-Saracenic architecture. This enclave was a miniaturized construction of home for the British.
Yet, we admired what was left of the original buildings, including one in which Sir Robert Clive lived. The large windows belong to the ballroom, in which many overdressed men and women must have danced the night away, praying that someone would invent air-conditioning.
The most decrepit building still left standing on the grounds was originally Lord Wellington’s house – before he was Lord Wellington. There is surely never going to be sufficient funding to restore that one.
Also on the grounds is St. Mary’s Church, built in 1680. It is India’s oldest surviving British church, and Robert Clive was married here. And the very questionable Elihu Yale, entrepreneurial British merchant, slave trader, all the while President of the East India Company, is remembered here by sentimental Yale alumni. It was built by a military engineer and has the durability of a fort, so it easily withstood French attack in the mid 1700’s. This building seemed to be in perfect condition, but that could be because it is maintained by the church and not dependent on government money.
That was the end of the tour, but there were some other moments to share, including a game of cricket, which our guide said is the official religion of India.
Don’s Food Corner
We held back at breakfast today so that we could have room for a proper meal later in the day.
After our four-hour tour through the crammed and hot streets of Chennai — although despite heat of about 85 degrees we were assured that this was winter and the real heat was still to come — we came back to the hotel and ate in one of its restaurants. This is the same restaurant that offered cheeseburgers and Philly Cheese steak that we tried the other day. The menu is fully international. Just name the country and they promise your favorites: pizza, risotto, pasta of all forms, Thai, Chinese and even southern fried chicken (but no sausage gravy and biscuits!).
The Indian selections had the greatest number of choices, of course, and we concentrated on that part of the menu. Apparently, Chennai is noted for chicken specialties. Maybe that’s why the chicken cream soup Jo had the other day was so outstanding; she ordered it again today and it was superb.
In some guidebook I had read that another specialty was the Chennai chicken wings. So, why not? They turned out to be a variation on Buffalo chicken wings, complete with a blue cheese dip. They were fun, but the difference was that they were seasoned with Indian spices instead of that in-your-face hot red sauce we would expect from Buffalo wings. (I dug in before the picture was taken.)
Then, I ordered from the “kebabs” section a dish called Shahjahani Murgh Tikka. This was boneless chicken pieces marinated with green chili, coriander, yogurt and cooked in a clay oven. It came with little bowls of coriander sauce and red pepper sauce. I thought it was delicious. Tender and nicely seasoned. However, Jo refused to touch it because of its color. Since I’m color blind these things don’t bother me, but she claims that the color of the chicken was an off-putting green.
Later, I looked up this dish on the internet and what was shown looked nothing like what I was served. Well, they fooled me. But I enjoyed it anyway.