CITY 360 Enjoying panoramic views of the city, watching planes take off from the airport at Meenambakkam, soaking in the solitude, learning the history of an ancient church… Sudhish Kamath finds it’s worth climbing the 134 steps to reach the top of St. Thomas Mount

The plan is to climb uphill and catch the sunrise over Chennai. It turns out to be an anti-climax. Visitors are allowed up only by 6 a.m. by which time; it's already a bright Sunday at the foothill of the shrine at St. Thomas Mount.

Legend has it that this 300 foot high hill gets its name from one of the apostles of Jesus Christ who attained martyrdom in a cave atop this hill in 72 AD.

A bespectacled old security guard lets the first visitors up the flight of 134 steps (originally built in granite in 1726) with a railing in the middle as we realise that we aren't the only ones there hoping to get good photographs of the city from the top. A group of four visual communication students, armed with a tripod and camera, is trekking up for a college assignment.

The steep climb up the steps is fairly exhausting. It's a great morning workout, given how fresh the air feels at this time of the day. It takes us 15 minutes to leisurely get to the top. You do have the option of taking the road laid around 50 years ago but climbing up the steps is part of the experience.

St. Thomas Mount gives you a bird's eye view of the city. It's the perfect place if you like to watch planes take off from the nearby Meenambakkam airport. With the right kind of zoom lens, you will get fantastic photographs of the tarmac and the planes taking off from the runway. Of course, you do need permission from the security personnel for photography. The shrine staff ask us to go ahead with the pictures. They are used to such requests.

The top of the hill is clean, well-maintained and silent. It exudes the kind of calm that will make the most restless of people walk into the church and spend some time soaking in the beautiful solitude.

It's easy to see why the devout still make the effort to climb up all the way. It does not feel like Chennai at this height. You feel like you are among the angels that watch over the city.

The hill offers breathtaking panoramic views of Chennai from every side. As you reach uphill, you have life-size statues of Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa with the city as the backdrop, facing the Calvary, now a popular landmark. A couple kneels in front of the statue of Christ to say a prayer together. Right next to that statue is a stage ready with speakers and a public address system. This stage comes alive during the special events of worship at the shrine. But today, it's just a regular Sunday with barely a dozen people walking around.

At the centre of the hill is a banyan tree estimated to be over 175 years old. It's a tree I remember seeing two decades ago, when I first visited St. Thomas Mount as part of a school field trip. Nuns from the convent next to the tree walk up to the church for their morning prayer at the Eucharistic Adoration Chapel that opens at 7 a.m.

Next door, the Church of our Lady of the Mount, dedicated to Mother Mary, is one of the oldest churches, dating back to 1523 (though the foundation stone was laid by the Portuguese in 1547). It is believed that the church used to be a lighthouse for Portuguese and Armenian ships in the 16th Century.

It houses 100 relics of the twelve apostles, including a piece of toe-bone of St. Thomas and an arch that reads: Senhora Da Expectacao (Portuguese for Our Lady of Expectation). As you take a seat on the quaint old wooden benches drenched in varnish, you are transported back in time and space. Pin drop silence, despite the presence of around 14 people in there. Clearly not the place for conversation with anyone other than God.

We step out to read bits of trivia on the relics and the historical significance of the shrine. The church itself has been renovated a few times and there's more sign of renovation right outside it as a huge excavation is being carried out.

A bunch of musicians arrives at about 7.30 a.m. Starting the day with a brief prayer, they are to perform during the Sunday mass later in the day.

The climb downhill is faster and there's sign of more life now. Maybe it's a good thing that it takes some effort to go uphill. More effort means fewer people. More quiet. Unaffected by the mad rush of the city around.

A slice of history tucked away in a special place a few floors above Chennai.

FACT FILE

72 AD: St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, responsible for spreading Christianity in India, is believed to have attained martyrdom atop the hill. The hill has since been a place of pilgrimage.

1523: Diego Fernandes, a Portuguese missionary, built an oratory on top of the hill over the foundation of an ancient church

1547: Gaspar Coelho, Vicar of the Church of Mylapore, laid the foundation for a bigger church given the growing influx of pilgrims.

1707: According to a Portuguese stone inscription, the wooden doors were ordered to be done by Zacharias.

1726: Petrus Uscan, an Armenian merchant, built the 134 granite steps leading uphill.

1962: Archbishop Louis Mathias, the last of the European Bishops, had the military lay an asphalt road for vehicular traffic uphill and a Calvary atop the hill overlooking the city was installed in 1963.

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Sudhish KamathMay 11, 2012