Anusha Parthasarathy goes on a Portuguese trail visiting churches and monuments that represent their culture and architecture

Madras’ history can be broadly categorised into two parts; the era of the Cholas and Pallavas and that of the British. But what about the other influences that are still a part of Chennai’s skyline? While communities like the Armenians, Dutch and Scottish may no longer be around, many of their monuments and relics, in some of the city’s most central locations, continue to tell their stories to those who wish to listen. This series attempts to chronicle these monuments and the history they represent.

Tere is so much left of the Portuguese history in Madras that it is possible to spend a whole day or two trying to visit them all. From the ancient fortified town of San Thomé to the Church of Our Lady of Glory in Pulicat, their cultural signatures and Baroque-styled churches are spread across the city. In fact, Madras gets its name from a prominent Portuguese family that lived in the 1600s.

On an almost-faded tombstone with an escutcheon on top, in the new St. Lazarus church in Mandaveli, are inscribed the words “This is the grave of Manuel Madra and of his mother… They built this church at their own expense in the year 637 (1637).” The Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume mentions Mgr. Teixeira’s comments in the Madras Mail on July 23, 1927 that their name is the ‘most probable origin of the word Madras’. The St. Lazarus church, on the other hand, is said to have been in existence since 1582 (built by Fr. Ribeiro) and was rebuilt by the Madra family. However, the church today bears little resemblance to its past.

The Portuguese were the first to establish a colony in Madras. And, not surprisingly, in the fishing town of San Thomé. There is no record of the year in which the settlement was established but H.D. Love predicts that it couldn’t have been before 1522. But Gasper Correa, who was in India between 1512 and 1561 and wrote Colleccao de Monumentos ineditos: Lendas da India first mentions the town around 1534.

In Madras Rediscovered, S. Muthiah writes that between 1567 and 1592, San Thomé became a Portuguese settlement and an important port. According to The Vestiges of Old Madras by Henry Davidson Love, by 1635, San Thomé extended from the present north entrance to the bend of the road south of St. Peter’s Seminary. Later additions took its western boundary back nearly as far as Arundel Street. And within this boundary, they built seven churches.

But the Portuguese settlement didn’t thrive for very long, according to An Outline Of The History Of The Archdiocese Of Madras and Mylapore by former archbishop, R. Arulappa. Between the 1640s and 1660s, the town was threatened by the Dutch and besieged by the Golconda forces. In the 1670s, the French attacked San Thomé twice. The Portuguese returned in 1688. In 1769, 1780 and 1782, Hyder Ali ravaged San Thomé and the churches were occupied. In the 1800s, the Portuguese handed over the settlement to the British.

To be continued…