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Yuletide at St Mary's

Lakshmi Sharath
25 December 2011
St Mary's Church in Chennai
St Mary's Church in Chennai

There is a pregnant silence that fills the air as you enter Church Street in Fort St George. Even the leaves stop rustling. The spire of the church emerges from a canopy of green, pointing upwards to the blue sky.

The silence marks a sharp contrast from the political environment around Fort St George. Almost every monument here wears a new identity. Loud posters and louder cops take over the scene, reminding you that this is the nerve centre of Chennai. There is a politician grinning at you from every wall as you walk past the parking lot, gazing at the erstwhile King’s Barracks and Parade Ground to enter a small street lost amidst the clutter.

The church stands apart in a corner, away from the montage of monuments. The door is open, letting a ray of sun linger around the dark corners. I am now in the oldest surviving monument of the Raj in Fort St George – St. Mary’s Church. And even as I take in the moment, I learn another piece of trivia - it is the most ancient Anglican Church in all of Asia.

I kneel for a moment and lose myself in the many memorials, tombs and statues gazing at me from every corner. The silence overwhelms me. It is late afternoon and I watch the play of light and shadows on the walls.  The church is a record of the life and death of past governors, soldiers, merchants, officials and locals who had made Chennai, nay Fort St George, their home. These are men, women and children who had come from distant shores and are remembered today only on slabs of stone. One man, however, made history here – Sir Robert Clive.

Ask for the marriage register at the Fort Museum and you can see the signatures of Robert Clive and his bride Margaret who were married here on February 18, 1753. Clive’s bungalow, called Admiralty House, lies around Fort St George and now houses the Archaelogical Survey of India.

The church has witnessed many a starry marriage of those times. The earliest record is of Elihu Yale, Governor of Fort St George, in 1680 with Catherine Himmers. Yale, who donated the altar plate, is better known as the founder of Yale University rather than as the Governor of Madras in the 17th century. Here stands a statue of General Conway, known as the soldier’s friend, as he was known to improve conditions in the army. But my eyes wander to the altar where you can see the painting of the Last Supper. It is a replica of the original Raphael creation, which now adorns the Vatican.

Some believe that the painting came from Pondicherry while a few historians say that it was probably commissioned by the Nawab of Arcot to artist George Wilson.

The church is a repository of several priceless valuables, donated either by a well-known British official or a member of the Indian royalty of the period. The foundation stone of the church is said to have been laid in 1678 under the orders of the then Agent, Streynsham Master, and it took over a couple of years to be built. Designed by Chief Gunner William Nixon, although some historians say it was Edward Foule, the church came to be known as The Westminster Abbey of the East. I am told that its bombproof roof was about five feet in thickness, built to withstand gunfire from sea and land.

Stories and legends pour in from every wall and stone of the church. As you put them together, it takes you back three hundred years, when the settlement grew into just another colony of the Europeans.

One of the most interesting aspects of the church is the Font, which is in black granite (called Charnokite, after Job Charnock  who founded Calcutta). It is believed that Charnock’s three daughters, born to him of an Indian wife, were baptized here. The story on the slab says that Charnock had carried by force a Hindu widow who was forced to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. She apparently lived with him for the rest of her life.

I step out of the past and walk along the tree-lined avenue, lost in my thoughts, only to be interrupted by loud horns from old Ambassador cars. The pillars, facades, arches and several other architectural features of the sprawling bungalows lend a colonial flavour. Amid the melee, you see old cannons placed strategically in the compound, and you cannot miss the bright red incongruous board - Gloucester Street. At every corner of the fort are names of streets reminiscent of the Raj. Identities clash and old merges with new to offer a mixed sense of history.

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