Chennai’s iconic church, the ‘Kirk’ turns 200

On arterial Poonamallee High Road, flanked by Egmore Railway Station and the Police Commissioner’s office stands the imposing St Andrew’s church like a weightless dream in pale white.

Fondly known as the Kirk (Scottish for church), the church’s steeple, the tallest in the city, soars above a sea of shivering green. The bell cocooned in its innards tolls the end of a service, sending great flocks of pigeons into flight.

Chennai’s iconic church, the ‘Kirk’ turns 200

Inside Kirk’s tree shaded campus it is as if the world is elsewhere — which is how it has been since February 25, 1821 when Kirk was consecrated as a Presbyterian place of worship for the many Scotsmen who made up the rank and file of the East India Company.

Presbyter Isaac Johnson who has led the congregation in worship over the past decade says, “To mark the bicentennial we have a service this evening in adherence to Government regulations for Covid. A commemorative coffee table book and a documentary on the Kirk’s outreach programmes will also be released.”

The church gleams in readiness for the occasion but the Kirk, listed a heritage building by INTACH, has always been known for its unusual beauty.

Chennai’s iconic church, the ‘Kirk’ turns 200

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the return of peace in the Carnatic in the early 1800s, an increasing number of British left the relative safety of Fort St George to reside in the great garden houses that were built across the Plain. While the Anglicans worshipped at St Mary’s in the fort and at St George’s Cathedral, Scotsmen who were largely Presbyterian in faith needed a church. The foundation stone for the Kirk was laid in 1818 and its first service was held three years later.

The building and its interiors have been a subject of study for generations of architecture students. Maj Thomas de Havilland and Col Caldwell who built it replicated London architect James Gibb’s design of the neo-classical St Martin-in-the-Fields, the parish church of the British royal family.

Chennai’s iconic church, the ‘Kirk’ turns 200

Past the squat stone pillars where horses once used to be tethered, past rows of colourful bougainvillea and frangipani tree shedding flowers, are the church steps leading to a neo-classical entrance. The fluted Corinthian columns with their moss-tinged volutes that line it, give way to the massive wooden main door.

Chennai’s iconic church, the ‘Kirk’ turns 200

Beyond it lies the foundation stone set into the earth with British and Presidency coins laid during the presbytership of John Allan. The church was built on marshland and was raised on a bed of 150 sunken brick and pottery wells to prevent both sinking and flooding.

A starlit canopy

The blue dome coloured by crushed lapis lazuli and peppered with gold stars gives both worshipper and visitor the feel of a starlit sky in a Scottish fell. The congregation sits on semi-circular rattan and mahogany pews under these stars, surrounded by 16 Corinthian columns that rise to hold the roof.

Carved wooden frames hold lamps now, but once candles guttered in the breeze of the punkahs that swung to keep the sweating worshippers cool. Behind the pulpit stands the 27-feet high stained glass painted by Scotland-based artists from W&JJ Kier. The colours depict the patron saint of Scotland, St Andrew, holding the saltire, the X-shaped cross on which he was crucified, and St Peter, the first pope.

Chennai’s iconic church, the ‘Kirk’ turns 200

Sunlight streams in throwing coloured slats of light on the grand pipe organ, a 1883 treasure from Yorkshire’s Peter Conacher & Company whose deep notes rise to the dome and settle on the tree-shaded parsonage outside.

Atul Jacob Isaac, one of the organists at the Kirk, says, “I love the choice of stops the pipe organ offers — be it the reed, the wind or the stringed instruments with their striking reverberation and resonance. Thanks to choir director and principal organist Dr Arul Siromoney this magnificent instrument has been well maintained.”

Long before Atul, in his 20s, took to playing it, legends such as Handel Manuel played it for nearly 50 years. Handel also led the Madras Philharmonic and Choral Society that used to practise in the 100-year old parish hall, now in dramatic ruins. He also finds his name on a plaque, one of many that line the church remembering the men, women and clergy who administered, fought and died for the Empire.

Chennai’s iconic church, the ‘Kirk’ turns 200

Wooden stairs lead to the three-storeyed steeple built like a square with Venetian doors, an octagonal second floor and a circular third with Corinthian columns. The spire is fluted and tapers to a pyramid. On its three faces are clocks from London clockmakers Peter Orr.

Dulip Thangasamy, secretary, Kirk, says, “The church is Presbyterian in function, Anglican in the rite of worship and invites anyone to be a member. It raises funds and donations in kind for the needy through sales and has seen the composition of its congregation change from largely British to Anglo-Indian to worshippers from across India.”

Rev Johnson adds that the service that has always been in English now draws a worldwide audience ever since it went online due to the pandemic.

As I leave its nine-acre grounds, a train rattles past tooting its horn. In answer, the bell cast at the Gun Carriage Factory tolls the hour from the city’s highest steeple lancing a clear blue sky.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 12:48:25 PM |

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