Museums, monuments and memorials: a history tour of Chennai in 48 hours

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Travel during a pandemic can be difficult; so take a stay instead and explore the city of Chennai which wears many badges on its sleeve: seat of culture, hub of medicine – the first city of modern India

Chennai has enough nooks and crannies that tell their own stories, even for the native. Here are monuments, museums and memorials to explore.

Prepare a picnic basket and find out Madras nalla Madras.

Day 1

9 am: Depart at dawn for the Dutch fort, Sadras, near Kalpakkam. In the surreal monsoon light, the fort looks like a faded snapshot of colonial India. A gate with spikes, guarded by cannons, stands at the entrance to this ASI monument with carved tombstones of Dutch sailors buried between 1620 and 1769. Skulls and crossbones, ships with swollen sails and a man of war are set in stone.

A maze of tunnels with clean sand, and dining and dance halls lead to the moss-lined steps – you glimpse the Bay of Bengal from where the British bombed this fort and captured it in 1854.

Fort de Sadras, built by the Dutch

11:30 am: Back in Chennai, take a detour to Taramani, an education center with institutes such as the Roja Muthiah Research Library. It is a treasure trove of material on the humanities and social sciences, compiled over 200 years. The private collection of Roja Muthiah, once a sign artist who fell in love with ancient books, the library has some of the best Tamil books, the oldest published in 1804.

Noon: Stop at the Basilica of Santhome, a Gothic church with stunning stained glass panels, one of three churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Christ, and marvel at the ancient garden houses of Santhome de l ‘ Portuguese period, distinguished but frayed at the edges. Down the road is the Kapaleeswarar Temple, towering over streets filled with the aura of jasmine and filter coffee.

Kapaleeshwarar temple

12:30 p.m .: Pass the classically styled DGP office, the University Senate and the War Memorial to arrive at Fort St George. This is where modern India was founded when the fort was completed in 1644 and from where the Union Jack spread across Asia.. City historian Sriram V suggests that you spend two hours exploring 24 important points of the fort. St Mary’s, the oldest Anglican church east of Suez with its great pipe organ, hosts the Armistice Service every second Sunday in November in honor of World War veterans.

I travel faster than HG Wells’ time machine at the Fort Museum, browsing its wooden-floored galleries that store memorabilia from the Raj and newly independent India. Built in 1795, the Fort Museum once housed the Bank of Madras and is suitable for the disabled, its louvered windows open to coins, portraits and quirky stories such as the cage of Captain Philip Anstruther in which he was held captive with his knees hammered. Also stroll through King’s Barracks, Clive’s House and the Duke of Wellington’s House.

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2:30 p.m .: The Madras High Court complex was completed by Henry Irwin in 1892. The Indo-Saracen structure houses two of the city’s earliest lighthouses, one a Doric column of Pallavaram granite, the other atop the main building visible 32 miles offshore. The turrets, suspended above the city’s smog, were what many first saw from Madras when they arrived by Masula boats. He also survived two world wars.

A gallery lined with Minton tiles and portraits leads to a courtroom where the defendants appeared through a hatch recessed into the floor. Other intriguing cases and valuable legal documents can be found at the High Court Museum.

3.30 p.m .: Stroll past the Armenian Church to Mannadi, teeming with migrants for nearly 200 years. The air is thick with Telugu, Marwari and Gujarati. Road to Royapuram, once the haunt of the Anglo-Indians, which we only remember the names scratched on the worn flagstones of Bishop Corrie’s school.

Additionally, the Communicable Disease Hospital is on the site of emigration depots that housed spaces for contract workers who sailed to Fiji to fund the Raj. The steps of Maadi Poonga are shaded by bougainvillea. Here is the northern perimeter wall built in 1772 of the once walled city of Madras.

Georgetown Armenian Church

Day 2

9 am: Spin the car on Poonamallee High Road taking in the views of Madras Medical College, Central Station, Siddique Sarai, Victoria Hall and Ripon Building, Government College of Fine Arts, St Andrews Kirk and London Railway Station. ‘Egmore to the Tamil Nadu Police Museum on Pantheon Road.

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A penny farthing used by a police officer stands next to a bulletproof SUV. Inside, field bombs, pistols and modern weapons stand alongside stories of sensational crimes.

Further down the road, the colonnaded red brick government museum, Chennai has the largest collection of Roman antiques outside of Europe. Sujatha Shankar, Organizer, INTACH, Chennai Chapter, recommends seeing the Bronze Gallery and Amaravathi Sculptures. It was also here that the idea for the city’s first zoo was conceived by orientalist Edward Balfour.

2 p.m .: Full steam ahead, the Rail Museum, its parks filled with locomotives and iconic train cars such as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. One of the charming museum employees pulls the buggy closer so that I take a look at its Caledonian blue structure.

The engine of the Himalayan Darjeeling railway, painted in Caledonian blue, at the Chennai railway museum

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Engine Painted Caledonian Blue at Chennai Railway Museum | Photo credit: Deepa Alexander

The galleries are filled with miniatures that take you back to the hiss of hot steam and the high-pitched whistle of the brass whistle as the train winds around a bend. The photographs capture the long journey of the railways from the first train from Bombay to Thane in 1853. There are also photos of the Swiss engineers who loaned the first technology to the Integral Coach Factory, and luminaries such as Leonid Brezhnev and Queen Elizabeth II who visited the CIF. Don’t miss the old-world charm of the cutlery at this Indian classic – the railway waiting room.

4 p.m .: At Madras War Cemetery, where tombstones commemorate the men and women who died in both world wars, pause at the austere stone of remembrance with the words “Their name lives on forever”, chosen by Rudyard Kipling to worship the dead of the Empire.

Then, as the long eastern twilight falls over the city, ascend Mount St Thomas. On one side is the church, on the other a bird’s eye view of Chennai captured in a twilight sweep.

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