The ruins of Chennai and their stories

We narrate the stories of some ruins that lie in the shadows of the city’s historic past

December 20, 2016 03:38 pm | Updated 09:01 pm IST

Wellesley House

Wellesley House

Wooden post

The wooden post on the seashore behind the Santhome Basilica stands forlorn, surrounded by garbage. It is fixed on a pyramid-shaped concrete platform, and on the church-side, the base bears an inscription — St. Thomas Pole: In gratitude to God for saving Santhome from Tsunami 2004”.

Historian Vakula Varadarajan says that in 1635, Santhome was encircled by a large fort with three bulwarks on the seaside and four gates equipped with guns. Its Western gate extended up to the present-day Appu Mudali street. In time, most of its Eastern walls were washed away by waves. In 1672, the fort was captured by the French, but two years later, Santhome was besieged and occupied by the Golkonda Sultanate and the Dutch with support from the British. The fort was demolished, but the old flag-staff (the pole) survived.

The pole at Fort St. George

The pole at Fort St. George

The church believes St. Thomas, soon after his arrival in India in 52 CE, used his girdle to remove a large wooden log blocking the mouth of a local river, fashioned a post out of the log and planted it, stating “the sea would never cross the pole”. Following the Tsunami, parish priest Fr. Lawrence Raj claimed the pole or “St. Thomas Tree” miraculously saved the Basilica and Santhome from the waters.

However, Michael Prabhu, 65, who calls himself a Catholic apologist, questions this claim. He lived with his grandparents in a bungalow 200 metres from the gates of the Cathedral “for the first 19 years of my life”, and remembers seeing this 20 ft-high weather-worn wooden pole. “To the best of my knowledge… it holds no known historic significance… and was never associated with St. Thomas,” he says.

North Gate

Laterite stone and black granite went into the construction of the semi-octogonal fort St. George.

During Frenchman De Lally’s attack on the Fort in December 1758, his army looted the black town outside. People rushed to enter the fort for safety, but Col. William Draper refused to let them in. Lally attacked the Northern gate, failed, and returned to Pondicherry in February 1759.

North Wall at Fort St. George

North Wall at Fort St. George


This battle-scarred gate has a couple of cultural associations.

Baluswamy Dikshithar, who introduced the violin to Carnatic music, visited the fort many times with dubasish/businessman Manali Muthukrishna Mudali, who was close to Pigot the then governor.

Francis Whyle Ellis (1778-1819), who translated the Arathuppaal of Thirukkural to English, minted “Thiruvalluvar” coins, inscribed Thirukkural on the walls of Royapettah Periapalayathamman temple and dug 27 wells in Madras, received goddess Ekavalli Amman at the northern gate every Aadi with a pottu-thali and a yellow silk sari.

Wellesley House

You’ll find Wellesley House, a ghost of a bungalow, in the quiet Church/Charles Street at Fort St. George. A large portion of the House collapsed on November 18, 1980, and a banyan tree has taken over its walls.

The structure holds its dignity in its large windows, king-size rooms, wide staircases and spacious landings. A barely-readable plaque, embedded on the front wall, is a measure of the mansion’s neglect. The mansion, built in 1796, gets its name from brothers Arthur Wellesley and Governor-General of India Richard Wellesley.

Wellesley House

Wellesley House


According to Varadarajan, Richard came to Madras en route to Mysore and stayed in the house. In February 1799, both Wellesleys marched to Mysore.

In May, Tipu was killed and while Richard returned to Calcutta, Arthur went to Maharashtra to wage war against the Marathas and returned to Madras on his way to England.

In 1808, with public subscription, a portrait of Arthur was painted by John Hoppner of the Royal Academy. It was displayed at the Banquetting Hall (Rajaji Hall). Now, it is in the Madras Museum. Arthur Wellesley returned to England with a large fortune. In 1815, he defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, was made Duke of Wellington, and became Prime Minister of England twice.

Cornwallis Cenotaph at Rajaji Salai

When news of the Treaty of Seringapatam and Tipu Sultan’s defeat reached Madras, the European residents organised a fund-raising campaign to erect a statue for Cornwallis. Thomas Banks, a famous sculptor, was entrusted with the job; the statue arrived in Madras, and was erected on May 15, 1800, under a cupola on the Eastern side of parade ground inside the fort. The ground was named Cornwallis Square. In 1805, Cornwallis visited Madras on his way to Calcutta to take charge of Governor-Generalship for the second time on May 6. A cenotaph was erected in Teynampet, and this road was named Cenotaph Road. Later, the cenotaph was moved to the compound of Bentinck’s Building, then the Supreme Court of Madras, on First Line Beach Road. Bentinck’s Building was demolished in 1980.

In 1925, the statue was moved out of Cornwallis Square to the cenotaph. It stood there for three years. In 1928, dust from the harbour and the salt breeze forced it to be moved to Connemara Library.

Till 1950, Cornwallis stood at library and then moved to Fort Museum. The cupola at the parade ground was shifted there too. The cenotaph at First Line Beach is now a public toilet!

Maadi Thottam

It is difficult to trace a park front that has plaques from many eras. Maadi Poonga, aka Hanging Gardens of Chennai, lying above Ibrahim Sahib Street near the Royapuram railway station, is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India. The park was renovated in 2009 by the Chennai Corporation at a cost of Rs. 7.5 lakh. Despite that, the park is in a state of neglect.

The small park is the only surviving piece of the original Madras Fort wall built in 1772-1773 by the British soon after Hyder Ali plundered the Fort area twice in 1767 and 1769. Built by Paul Benfield, the 30 ft-wide wall had enough room for fortification and ran for a length of six km (3.5 miles) from Wall Tax Road and had 17 bastions. The park was developed adjacent to the fortification wall.

It is an interesting exercise to walk on the road below the thottam to trace the wall visible in several places.

Alas, the wall-top has been built over, leaving you wondering if visitors to the park realise its historical significance.

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