A firm foundation


A firm foundation

ACROSS THE Gandhi-Irwin Road over bridge and to the west of the College of Arts and Crafts which, I am told, is now called rather inappropriately the College of Fine Arts, is what was described in the 19th Century press and tourist guides as "the noblest edifice in Hindustan". A splendid specimen of Georgian architecture, it has one remarkable feature that is visible and another that's not only invisible but which few are even aware of. The building, St. Andrew's Church, better known as The Kirk, was raised on the site of a 1780s Freemasons' Lodge and consecrated in 1821, five years after St. George's which became the Anglican Cathedral of Madras in 1835. The builder of both was Major Thomas de Havilland, who, for St. Andrew's, adapted a plan of a Lt. Grant.

It was in 1813 that the members of the Scottish Church in India decided to build their own churches in the three Presidencies. In Madras, as de Havilland narrates in his evocative An Account of Saint Andrew's Church, Madras, "Government, having lately built St. George's Church on the Choultry Plain at the Company's expense, for the Church of England service, could not, with consistency, do less for that of the sister kingdom". And so orders were passed to purchase the necessary land, but what was bought was singularly unsuitable space, the soil low-lying and marshy and next to a stagnant river that often flooded and hard by an overcrowded village of weavers (Chintadripet). But the approximately � 4000 price - about Rs.1,00,000 today - for about seven acres was a bargain and, no doubt, the deciding factor.

Lt. Grant, in 1816 the acting Presidency Superintending Engineer, based his plans, as was the practice of the times, on those of an existing church in Britain. The church he chose to adapt was St. Martin's in London, its special feature its circular nave. And that - and the dome above it resting on 16 fluted Ionic pillars - is the remarkable feature that strikes every visitor to St. Andrew's. De Havilland, when he was appointed to take charge of the Superintending Engineer's Department, re-worked the plan, retaining the circular form and the general dimensions, "but in other respects (conceived a building) entirely new in design and construction."

The foundation stone was laid on April 6, 1818 by the ageing Rev. Dr. John Allan, a doctor and the Kirk's first Minister. The stone covered a brass plaque recording the event in English on one side and Latin on the other. The plaque itself sealed a cavity in which had been placed a hermetically sealed bottle containing numerous British and Madras Presidency coins, and several parchments in English, Latin, Tamil and Gentoo (Telugu) repeating the inscription on the plaque and detailing the coins. Work then got underway on the building.

De Havilland's plans did away with timber for the roof and suggested a dome totally of masonry. The dome, 51 � feet in diameter and 24 feet in height, today surmounts the circular nave that is 83 feet in diameter. Each of the pillars on which the dome rests is about 2 � feet in diameter and 26 feet in height, including base and capital. The interior of the balustraded dome was "coloured with lapis lazuli" by de Havilland to give the impression of the azure sky (that is) the canopy of heaven". The blue still remains the colour of the interior of the dome, but golden stars are another feature of it. And those stars, popular legend has it, are positioned, as the stars would be when seen in Scottish skies. De Havilland, however, makes no mention of any stars - so they must be a later addition. At the time the dome was raised, the view was expressed that it was "the only building extant... in the world wherein a dome of masonry is supported on a colonnade of that height".

Two rectangular blocks extend east and west from the circular central space. Over the eastern rectangle, just before the 57-foot wide colonnaded and pedimented entrance portico, rises the four-stage steeple towering 166 � feet from ground level with its weather vane adding another 3 � feet. It was early in May 1820 that the steeple was completed; three days later it was buffeted by a storm that raged for 30 hours, giving Madras 16 inches of rain! That the steeple, newly built, suffered no damage attested to the quality of its construction, it was agreed by all, particularly by the Rev. Allan who was stranded in his quarters in the church during the entire storm.

A firm foundation

The more important special feature of the Kirk is its unseen foundation. And that foundation, and much of the interior work, reflects how traditional Indian building techniques were used by British engineers, no matter whether their designs derived from Europe or were Indian adaptations of the European. Of the Foundation he sank, de Havilland was to say, "The practice which has obtained from time immemorial in this part of India to secure edifices in (marshy soil) is a simple and most efficacious one, worthy the notice of architects in general: It is that of substituting wells for the pile-work used in Europe". And to do this work were what might be described as a distinct community, the well-sinkers, who travelled in teams about the country and were much in demand for their skills in working in mud and under water. About 140 small diameter wells and about 160 of bigger diameter, each 26 feet high, were sunk to raise St. Andrew's on what might be described as hollow underground brick cylinders from which the mud had been baled out by hand and filled with jalli and sand. Attesting to the excellence of this Indian technique, de Havilland repeats again, "It is surprising that the expedient of welling for foundations has not been generally adopted in England, where especially along with banks of the Thames, and other oozy rivers, their use would be so expeditious, economical and effectual". My sketch today shows the plan followed for the brick and pottery wells foundation on which St. Andrew's was built.

De Havilland's crowning touch was a bell, four feet in diameter, the largest cast in Madras, and two smaller ones, all ordered from the Gunpowder Manufactory. Much controversy followed the order, before and after the supply. The first time the bells were tolled were at the funeral of the Rev. Allan, not the most auspicious of omens it would appear from the events that followed. Not long after the Minister's death, the big bell was condemned - the only mark chalked up against de Havilland's name in executing the � 20,000 project.

That de Havilland considered it a black mark is obvious from the fact that he felt "called upon to make a justification of his character, which, although only impeached in so trifling a matter as the bell, and under circumstances which he could not control", he would not allow to pass unnoticed. It was a matter of honour for him, as he had undertaken the project on oath, a practice then prevalent. Under this practice, instead of following the tender system, the officer executing a project was on oath to determine on his own the fairest rates and make disbursements accordingly. This was a system that had worked successfully in Madras from the 1780s, where officers put their military commission at stake undertaking pioneering projects on such terms in order to improve on their building experience during times of peace.

The controversy over the bell never quite blew over, but that in no way detracted from the general consensus that a new landmark had been created in the city. The Kirk was also to help create a more vibrant mark when the Rev. John Anderson sowed the seeds here for the Madras Christian College School in 1835 when he began providing instruction in the premises for an intake of 56 boys. Today, a church for the Scots has a cosmopolitan congregation and a school for Indian Protestants is an educational institution for children of all faiths. Both remain landmark institutions.

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