While the eastern seaboard of India is dotted with temples erected by ruling dynasty after dynasty in propitiation of, or gratitude for, celestial favours rendered, Chennai has some very fine churches of antiquity. Two Christmases ago, Lakshmi Sharath wrote for us of St Mary's Church, the oldest Anglican church in the city, dating back to 1680. While we gave St Mary's a skip for reasons logistical, we spent some time this morning exploring some other churches.
Our first stop this morning, after sunrise at Marina Beach (which revealed all the cringeworthy sights that yesternight had hidden under the benign cloak of darkness), was St Andrews Kirk. It is considered one of the ten most beautiful Georgian buildings in the world, according to a brochure I was handed by a gentleman at the administrative desk. The church, with its robust foundation, stands on marshy land in the vicinity of Fort St George and has a striking circular structure, with a steeple rising 166 feet (yes, all those mornings of backward-bending suryanamaskars actually helped as I arched my back to accommodate it in the frame). Consecrated in 1821, it has exquisite stained glass windows and panels shipped from Scotland. One of the hallmarks of the church is the pipe organ, dating back to 1883 and recently restored. Too bad there wasn't a service going on, or we would have heard it and recorded it for you.
Next, we moved to St Thomas Basilica at Santhome, Mylapore, where St Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ, was buried after his martyrdom in AD 72. St Thomas had arrived from Judea on the Kerala coast in AD 52 and evangelised the faith to the earliest Indian Christians, the Syrian Christians of Kerala as we know them. He continued his work for the next two decades hence, and his mission took him the the eastern coast. It is held that St Thomas was murdered by members of the Brahmin community of Mylapore, who opposed his work.
The traveller Marco Polo visited the site of the tomb in 1292. The church itself was built by Portuguese mariners over the apostle's tomb in the 16th century and rebuilt in 1893 with the status of a cathedral. Pope Pius XII raised its status to a minor basilica in 1956. Its Neo-Gothic architectural style harks back to the style preferred by British architects of the time. Various relics of the apostle, including the lance that he was martyred with and a piece of his bone, are treasured here though much of his remains were taken back to Europe.
St Thomas is believed to have worn around his waist the Girdle of the Virgin Mary, and it was this relic that played a role in the miracle of the log. Legend holds that an enormous log washed up into the narrow mouth of the river and flooded the shores, causing much grief to the villagers. The local king's strongmen were unable to move it. St Thomas is believed to have touched the log with the Girdle of the Virgin Mary, after which it yielded without effort. The king, in gratitude, offered patronage for a church to be erected on the land where the log was found. A mural on the back wall of the museum stands testimony to this miracle. The museum at the back of the church has many such interesting relics and is a must-visit.
From Santhome we crossed the Adyar estuary and followed the winding road that ascended to St Thomas Mount, a hillock that offers a generous panorama of the flat countryside including the airport at Meenambakkam. The hillock is believed to be the site of the martyrdom of St Thomas. At the top of the hillock is a shrine to Our Lady of Expectation, built in 1523. Vehicles go up almost to the summit but the faithful take the flight of 160 steps to the top, praying at 14 stations of the cross along the way.
More updates will continue through the day on our special page as we explore southern Chennai and discover where the ECR begins. Stay updated and interact live with us. On Twitter, the hashtag to get our attention is #greatecrdrive. Send in your questions, travel tips and encouragement!
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