In a world of its own

A quiet street in Santhome. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan  

At quarter past ten in the morning, the busy Santhome High Road is overflowing with vehicles that sound the horn every five minutes. It’s obvious that the motorists are late for work and are wary of the overcast sky, which looks like it could spell trouble any minute.

In contrast, the quiet bylanes of Santhome are a welcome relief from the crowded, noisy main road; they are a leafy refuge and in a world of their own. But the lines between Santhome and Mylapore are blurred; the former is nestled inside the latter and both the areas are steeped in history and heritage. There are old, classical buildings, some in white, some in faded green, grey, and yellow but all of them resonate with charm and warmth. The area has a Portuguese hangover; the houses and the names of streets are proof enough.

It’s a cool afternoon (a rarity in the city) and the San Thome Basilica, an imposing pristine white structure, is buzzing with activity. The main altar has a group of visitors from the U.S.; one of them is busy clicking pictures of everything she sees while the other three are intently listening to the tour guide. Church-regulars, who are in between their prayers, shoot curious glances at the guests. The tour guide Ajith (name changed), an elderly man, says that Santhome’s history is woven around the cathedral. “The San Thome church has contributed to the growth of the area. Legend has it that St. Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus, visited Mylapore in the 2 Century.”

The tomb of St. Thomas is situated underground inside a prayer hall that is teeming with people and above the hall is the museum that has on display the lance head that pierced St. Thomas, small pillars, ancient texts and artefacts. Behind the church is the Pole of St. Thomas — a log of wood that is believed to have been washed ashore and erected by St. Thomas. The log however, is weather-beaten and the grills surrounding it are being used to hang wet clothes by the locals. Nevertheless, the view of the Marina from the Pole is calming and comforting.

Inside the church complex is a small tea and coffee shop run by 32-year-old Isaimani (name changed), a long-time resident of Santhome. She remembers the time when she studied in one of the many church schools in the area; she now has a 13-year-old daughter who attends St. Raphael’s Girls’ Higher Secondary School. “We’re a Santhome family, you can say. We’ve been living here since the time of my father’s father,” she recollects. In the 32 years that Isaimani has lived here, a lot has changed she says. “Since the tomb was built in 2002, more people have been visiting the church, which has led to an increase in traffic. But they are all here to pray, so that is alright,” she laughs.

The area of Santhome is fairly rectangular, with a portion of it extending towards Kutchery Road. The Santhome High Road stretches from the Lighthouse on Marina Beach in the north to South Leith Castle Street, encompassing the Nochikuppam and Doomingkuppam fishing hamlets.

There are three streets and a house in Santhome that have Leith Castle in their names. It is said that the Egmore Redoubt, built in 1751 as a small fort by the shore, was sold in 1794 to a Col. John Braithwaite, who later built a garden house on the ruins of the Redoubt.

Two years later, the Colonel sold the property to a merchant, Thomas Parry who rebuilt the house as Parry’s Castle. When Parry died in 1824, Major General James Leith bought Parry’s Castle and made it a garden house again. After his death in 1829, the house passed through several hands, and sometime after 1837, it became known as Leith Castle.

Ernest Justin was born in Santhome and has lived there all his life. “That’s 36 years. My parents had been living in the area for 10 years before that,” says the software delivery manager, who lives with his family in the same place now.

He remembers a time when the busy Santhome Post Office was located opposite the basilica. “There used to be a number of Anglo-Indian families living in European-style houses on that road. My cousins and friends would meet there regularly. With the Portuguese influence and the church and beach in close proximity, it was almost like Goa. The iconic post office is now a parking lot and the houses have given way to apartments,” says Ernest.

“There are a lot more commercial establishments now. One of the old houses here collapsed recently because it wasn’t maintained properly and now everyone is bent on demolishing their beautiful old properties,” he rues.  

 While the changes he sees are vast, Ernest says that they are merely cosmetic. “The area still retains its old-world charm for residents like me.”

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 2:15:37 PM |

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