Anusha Parthasarathy visits churches that are reminiscent of the history and architecture of the Portuguese era

If you’re trying to retrace San Thome through cartographer François Valentijn’s map of the old fortified town, you might end up going around in circles. There is almost nothing left of the four gates or the fort that once surrounded this town. In its place is a stretch of buildings by the sea and little bylanes like D’Monte street that serve as reminders of its early inhabitants. Gasparo Balbi, a Venetian dealer of gems, reached the Coromandel Coast in 1582. In his travels, he writes, “The Citie of Saint Thomas is so called of the Reliques of the Saint, which are kept here with great veneration...” In this concluding part of the Portuguese trail it is heartening to note that several of these Portuguese churches exist and continue to be important landmarks in the city.

Luz Church

In a corner of Kennedy Lane in Luz, is the Luz Church, with its ancient entrance arch and baroque top. It bears the date 1516 and a stone inscription on its southern wall confirms the date as the year it was built. Legend has it that a few missionaries who were lost at sea were guided to Mylapore by a light. Once on land, they reached the spot where the light shone and built the church of Our Lady of the Light. However, the Vestiges of Old Madras say the Gasper Correa does not mention the chapel or its founder Friar Pedro d’Atouguia till 1544, even though the church is only a mile west of the Cathedral of St. Thomas. H.D. Love concludes that the Luz Church did not exist in 1516 and that the foundation stone is not authentic. However, it is possible that it existed as a small shrine.

Our Lady of Glory

The Luz Church is still not the oldest in the Madras-Mylapore Diocese. Pulicat was a halting point for Portuguese merchants travelling to Malacca. An Outline of the History of the Archdiocese of Madras and Mylapore says that the Portuguese seem to have built a settlement here and erected a small church, called ‘Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres’ or ‘Our Lady of Joys’ in 1515 A.D. The church grew into a pilgrimage spot for wealthy Portuguese who lived in Madras. This was later renamed Our Lady of Glory.

Senhora da Expectacao

Atop St. Thomas mount is an ancient church that once functioned as a lighthouse for Armenian and Portuguese ships. This was repaired by the Portuguese in 1523 and a new one was built in 1547. It was around this time that they discovered the bleeding cross, chiselled by St. Thomas himself. It now occupies a place in the main altar. There are many Portuguese remnants at the church; the facade has the Portuguese coat-of-arms engraved in granite, a stone inscription on the outer wall says, in Portuguese, that the chapel’s front extension and the wooden doors were ‘ordered to be done by Zacharias in the year 1707’. The painting of the apostles on the walls inside also seem like relics from their time.

Our Lady of the Health

A short distance away, in Chinna Malai or Little Mount, is a small Portuguese church built in 1551 A.D. The left of the altar leads to the cave where St. Thomas is believed to have lived. The church has been preserved and renovated and one can find a stone inscription in Portuguese on its side wall. This church is now called Our Lady of the Health.

Descano Church

Hidden in the by lanes of present St. Mary’s Road is a church that is easily overlooked in the realms of Portuguese history. Built in 1650, the Descano church’s history traces as far back as St. Thomas himself. On his way to St. Thomas Mount and Little Mount, St. Thomas often rested at the very spot the church now stands on. The Portuguese who would later travel the same path, decided to build a church in honour of the Saint. According to R. Arulappa’s book, Descano, in Portuguese, means ‘rest’ and the church came to be called Yellapatha Mada Covil or Our Lady who gives rest to the weary.

Portuguese Church Street

In the 1600s, many Portuguese began to shift base to the new settlement on the other side of town and settled around a growing Fort. According to H.D. Love, they came expecting employment and immunity for thirty years from imports on articles used for food or clothing. The Fort St. George council later stated that ‘several portuguezes and mestizas came down with the British from Armagon and others were invited to settle at Madraspatnam’. A Portuguese Church Street still acts as a reminder of their stay, even if the Assumption Church (which was built in 1640 with a Tamil inscription, ‘Maduranayaki’, atop the altar) that the Portuguese priests in the area took care of has now been replaced with another one.

House of memories

Just across the road from Rosary Church is Nimmo Road, where a row of Portuguese-styled houses once stood. But now, barely two or three remain. One of them, bought in 1934 by the Lobo family, is the most prominent among the lot.

Lloyd George Lobo, an advocate of the Madras High Court, was born and has grown up in this home. A limestone-painted façade, with grooves in the walls, moulded railings below the windows, steel beams on the ceiling and arched window shades, the house flaunts its colonial and Portuguese influences.

“We are of Goan-Mangalorean descent and moved into the house when my grandfather bought it. The builder of this house, a Manickam Pillai, had made similar looking houses throughout this street as many Englishmen and Portuguese would live in the area,” he says, “These steel beams are very English and the steel itself is from England. The fans are also from that time. Barring a few alternations, the house largely remains as it was when we bought it.”

With red-oxide floors, arches over doors and an ornate wooden door with a story of its own, Lloyd is redolent with stories about the house, called ‘Lawdale’. “My grandfather named it so because we’re from a family of lawyers,” he explains, “The entrance door has a rather some Christian references as well. On the three engraved partitions are symbols referring to the sacred heart, bible and the holy trinity.”

The family also served as honorary Spanish consuls for 60 years (over three generations) and the walls are adorned with knighthoods from the Spanish monarchy. “My grandfather was chosen way back in 1950 after which my father and then, my mother, took over. My mother was the consul till her expiry in 2008.”

Photos: Nandha Siva Balan Thiyagarajan and S.R. Raghunathan