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Fort St. George: behind the structures, stories of the past unfold

Vincent D’ Souza, who led a group of people on a heritage walk around the fort, traces its growth from a humble trading spot to the State’s administrative nerve centre

August 27, 2022 11:40 pm | Updated August 28, 2022 07:39 pm IST - CHENNAI

Exploring history: People taking part in a heritage walk at the Fort St. George.

Exploring history: People taking part in a heritage walk at the Fort St. George. | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

Every day, hundreds of people whiz past the Rajaji Salai, catching a glimpse of Fort St. George, a part of the city’s living heritage. Behind that towering flag mast and past those imposing gates, the buildings inside are a testimony to the history of how Madras came to be. To know the stories behind the buildings and tales of their past, a group of college students, children and working professionals took part in a two-hour-long walk at the Fort St. George at 7 a.m. on a bright Sunday morning.

Pointing to the tall flag mast, journalist Vincent D’ Souza, who led the heritage walk at the fort said, “On 15th August, we see Chief Ministers of this State unfurling the Indian flag here. But did you know that once, the Union Jack was flying here until [freedom fighter] Arya Bhashyam climbed up this pole and hoisted our flag?” he asked.

The fort, constructed by the East India Company, was initially meant to be a trading centre. Starting with small beginnings in 1639, this massive English fortress has withstood the test of time. The group took a quick look at the now unused moat. They were led past the parade ground, St. Thomas Street and Clive’s House, and were provided interesting anecdotes. An important stop they made was at the St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican church, east of the Suez. “The best part about this church is that it is bomb-proof. It is important to know that the numerous grave stones here were actually located near the Madras Law College and were shifted here later,” he added.

This is the place where Madras got its first formal light house, a wooden one that didn’t last too long, Mr. D’ Souza said, adding: “The light house then moved to another spot inside the Madras High Court, a fantastic example of Doric architecture. After that, the light house moved on to one of the domes within the court campus before coming to its existing locationnear the Marina beach.”

Mr. D’ Souza said once a year, around the time of Madras Day, he makes it a point to take people on a walk to the fort because many people think it is a secure zone and that they can’t access many of the areas. This is wrong. “Only some parts such as the Chief Minister’s office and the Army offices are secured. In a contemporary metro city, it is important to know that this is the place where a lot of the seeds were sown for western education, medicine and other practises in many ways,” he said.

Time to reinvent

As times are changing, there is a need to reinvent this entire place, he said. “There can be a sound and light show in the parade ground early evening and some exciting activities can be planned in the museum. We can rent out the Clive’s House which has been conserved; we have to think and re-imagine how to use these spaces,” he added.

This gracious and important building was where many important things from banking to trade, had happened. “Gradually, with time, newer areas were added. At that time, much of it was north Madras and then when British started moving down and built their bungalows on and off the Mount Road, the city started developing southwards and we have the Madras as it is today.”

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