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6 Places to See Colonial-Era Buildings in Chennai

I am a marketing professional holding a postgraduate degree in management. I live in Chennai and have traveled extensively in Tamil Nadu.

The cosmopolitan city of Chennai was just a group of villages in the 16th century when Portuguese explorers first entered the region. The Portuguese lost the city to the Britishers in the 17th century. The Britishers called it Madras—which originated from Madre de Dios, meaning "Mother of God" in Portuguese. It was renamed Chennai in 1996.

The Britishers had a firm grip on the city until India attained freedom in 1947. Most colonial-era buildings follow a distinct architectural style known as the Indo-Saracenic style. It is a blend of Indian, Islamic and Gothic revival styles. The Art déco style found its way into the city by the early 20th century.

Top 6 Places With Heritage Buildings in Chennai

  1. The Road From Fort St. George to Marina Beach
  2. College of Engineering, Guindy
  3. Central Railway Station and Its Surroundings
  4. Saint Thomas Cathedral Basilica
  5. Parry's Corner
  6. Pantheon Complex

It takes one full day to cover these six places. The city has old temples that have survived for centuries built based on ancient South Indian architectural style, adding to its rich diversity.

1. The Road From Fort St. George to Marina Beach

Fort St. George

The very mention of its name connotes power. This was the seat of power when Britishers ruled India. The fort continues to be the seat of power for the state of Tamil Nadu as the legislative assembly is housed inside Fort St. George campus. So the phrase "capturing the fort" is used in Tamil Nadu political circles to mean "winning elections". The Victory War Memorial and St. Mary Church are other important heritage structures one should not miss while visiting St. Fort George.

Marina Beach Road

A drive from Fort St. George towards Marina Beach will be a memorable one, as we would get transported back in time. One cannot miss the Napier Bridge with its characteristic bowstrings on the way.

The Madras University building in the Marina Beach stretch is another notable landmark from the colonial era. The Southern end of Marina Beach Road has colonial structures such as the Icehouse known now as Swami Vivekananda Illam and the present IG Office.

Frederic Tudor, an American merchant, transported ice blocks by ship to Chennai and stored it in Icehouse to market the same in the 19th century. How is that for a business model?

2. College of Engineering, Guindy

The main building in the College of Engineering, Guindy, is a splendid example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The college was founded in the 18th century, but the main building as shown in the picture above came up in the early 20th century.

This building has a special place in my heart as an alumnus of this institution. The other colleges in the city with colonial era buildings are Loyola College and Dr. Ambedkar Law College.

3. Central Railway Station and Its Surroundings

The railway stations in the city built during the British era had a colonial touch. The more famous ones are the Chennai Central Railway Station and the Egmore Railway Station. Among the suburban stations, Royapuram has a classic colonial touch.

The Central Railway Station is the visual icon of Chennai. The brick-red color of the building and the clock tower gives the station its heritage charm. Ripon Building, Southern Railway Headquarters and Victoria Public Hall are other prominent colonial structures near the Central Railway Station.

4. Santhome Church

Saint Thomas Cathedral Basilica is the most famous colonial era church near Marina Beach. Though the Portuguese created the church in the 16th century, the Britishers built the Cathedral as it exists today during the 19th century. Most locals call this the Santhome Church.

There is one more heritage shrine on top of St. Thomas Mount, a small hillock near the airport. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this shrine is dedicated to Mother Mary. We get a panoramic view of the city from the top of this hill.

5. Parry's Corner

The colonial era buildings created in the early 20th century followed a more modern style known as Art Deco. The EID Parry building of Murugappa Group, a prominent business house in South India, followed the Art déco style. This locality is called Parry's Corner, a reflection of how iconic this building has been.

The Chennai High Court is another important building in Parry's Corner that is an example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The southern headquarters of the State Bank of India and the General Post Office building in First Line Beach are other notable heritage buildings in the vicinity.

6. Pantheon Complex

The Government Museum, the National Art Gallery and the Connemara Library are part of the Pantheon complex. All three buildings are heritage structures from the colonial era. The Government Museum in Egmore displays many objects of artistic, cultural and historic importance.

The art gallery features rare paintings from Moghul era, original works of the legendary Raja Ravi Verma and Tanjore paintings popular in Tamil Nadu. Connemara is one of the four national depository libraries in India and serves as a depository library for the UN.

Talking of Connemara Library, book lovers would instantly connect with Higginbotham's in Anna Salai, the oldest bookstore in Chennai and another heritage structure.

The Modern Chennai

Chennai, formerly Madras, has grown into an industrial hub known for its information technology and automobile industries. People call Chennai the Detroit of India since it is a major automobile manufacturing hub. It has the largest expatriate population in the country.

The new city is expanding rapidly on the southern side along the Old Mahabalipuram Road. The city's current skyline and the new development bears no resemblance to its colonial heritage. No matter how much Chennai has changed, we still love the old Madras feeling.

© 2019 Mohan Babu