Unexpected surprises in India’s southern megatropoli*: Chennai

Unexpected is the perfect word to describe our reasonably quick jaunts through India’s southern urban powerhouses: Chennai and Hyderabad. Our first time on the subcontinent, we’d spent a single night transferring through Chennai, on our way to Kolkata; Hyderabad we could only wave at from a great distance, as the train took us north. So both were new, and both great baptisms by fire for our much anticipated return to India.

They both contained versions of India we weren’t quite expecting to see, although in retrospect both were exactly what we should have anticipated: remnants of Empires in Chennai, and the dual (possibly contradictory forces) of IT and Islam’s great historical imprint in Hyderabad.

We noticed it our first night walking around Egmore: old churches; a few of them. I guess it shouldn’t have been too surprising. Madras, as it was known, was the key British port of colonial India’s southwest coast, and its close proximity to the French-occupied territory made it strategically important to keep bolstered and strong in appearance. Our proximity to the centre of colonial Madras made it obvious that this was once the home of a great many colonists.

I contemplated this – the long, long tail of European colonialism – as we sat in a church, watching Christian Indians worship in a way we are more used to seeing in temples. Their worship, although still reverentially silent, is much more physical, though, touching shrines and idols as prayers are offered.

The next day we continued our history tour, taking in the Government Museum, the old city and the fort. The museum is in Egmore, housed in the sprawling British-built Pantheon complex. The architecture of its collection of buildings alone makes it a worthy meander, but the oddball collections also make it appealing (the Brits did lurve their taxidermy, and it’s on full display here, that’s all I’m saying).

The fort, by contrast, was not entirely worth the effort: it was hard to find, hard to get into, and, given that it houses much of Tamil Nadu’s state government offices – hence the security – didn’t offer a whole lot of exploration. There was no walking on fort walls here.

However, it does hold St. Mary’s church. Completed in 1680, it’s the oldest surviving British church in India. It was stunning inside, reeking of its history, and replete with plaques noting the colonial elites who served mother Britain. Similarly, the gravestone-plaques outside on the ground, offer a more immediately accessible record of people who passed even earlier than 1680!

The centre of old Madras still contains some stunning examples of colonial-era architecture: grand symbols of former power. They still sit relatively unobscured, even as bustling street-level Chennai is being transformed by its subway system, making them appear almost monumental. Sadly, the Madras High Court, reputedly the biggest justice building in the world – it stretches for blocks – is hidden behind walls and trees, with only its minaret-like, deep-red spires poking up into the sky.

George Town is the pulsating tangle of bazaars that, like all old colonial centres here, rubs right up against its former power centre. And like all bazaars, it’s a pleasantly chaotic experience wandering aimlessly through its electronics lane, its produce lane, its wedding card street. So long as you stay out people’s way, no one seems to really mind the strange people ambling about their neighbourhood.

But amongst this freneticism, we found an unexpected place of temporary reprieve. In 2013, we’d found a similar place, in the tangle of old bazaars in Kolkata, so we at least knew that there was a history of Armenians who came to colonial-era India. But there, in the middle of a marketplace, a ramshackle gate announed an Armenian church; we decided to investigate.

The gate was obscured almost invisible behind the volume and movement of the street; we could have easily missed it. But nonetheless we found ourselves in the middle of a perfectly preserved Armenian church, courtyard, and the same gravestone-plaques we’d seen at St. Mary’s; evidence of those who made the crazily brave voyage.

There was a maintenance man there to show us around – there always is – and he said it is still used, but there are only a few Armenian families left now, so what exactly it’s used for, I have no idea. But it was a fascinating and unexpected find, and, since they are all but gone now, an honest glimpse into something truly past.

On our second day we went south to Mylapore, which is the actual old city, and existed for hundreds of years before the Portuguese arrived. There, we finally had a Hindu temple experience. Kapaleeshwarar, dedicated to Shiva, was built after the Portuguese destroyed the original seaside temple in 1566. In contrast to other Hindu temple experiences, which can be overly bewildering and chaotic, this was a relatively calming wander about.

Frighteningly, though, the huge tank next door – temple tanks apparently acting as good barometers of overall storage health – laid very bare Chennai’s alarmingly dropping water table (all over the city we’d seen water trucks making deliveries; water has become a private enterprise it seems).

Coincidentally, from 1523, the Portuguese constructed a giant Roman Catholic cathedral on the seaside, where, apparently, St. Thomas the Apostle, he who brought Christanity to India, died in AD72 (there is a relic of his nose bone in a tomb below, so it is an important pilgrimage spot). It was rebuilt in neo-Gothic style in 1896 and remains a strikingly dominant feature of the south part of Marina Beach.

But the best find was our last. Inland from Mylapore sits the Luz Church, which, built in 1516, is Chennai’s oldest remaining European building. It’s a lovely wee church, stonewashed white and blue and Baroque in style. The story goes that a Portuguese ship was returning from Malacca, in 1500, and was tossed into a hurricane. Lost, disoriented, they suddenly they see a light, which they follow to land, and then onwards, through thick jungle, until it disappears in the spot the church now stands. Luz Church (luz=light) commemorates this miraculous occurrence.

Up next: Hyderabad’s glorious Islamic past-present and its IT-led future.

* I’m aware that megatropolis comes from metropolis, and metropolis in plural form is metropoles. Megatropoles doesn’t work for me and, since this my party, megatropoli it is, so don’t @ me, ‘mmmkay?!

Strange times in Coastal Lanka: the Jaffna edition

It’s funny. When we were making plans to come to Sri Lanka, the fact that parts of the country were, as recently as a decade ago, effectively civil war-ravaged no-go zones, never really crossed my mind. Perhaps no-go zones is overstating the reality a touch, but I was certainly guilty of being somewhat ignorant, of thinking that the civil war was something that happened further back in the past. Wrong.

The civil war, which officially ended in 2009, is the North’s currently untold story. Everywhere we went in Jaffna the war remains ever present, yet is a silent presence (or, for now, has been silenced). The guides warn against talking about the war, or trying to get locals to engage in a discussion about the war, lest you find yourself in trouble with authorities. And in our month in Sri Lanka, only one local talked to us about it; a guesthouse owner, who raised the topic unprovoked. His words were insightful and telling. Sri Lankans are looking forward now.

What I mean by silent presence is that, everywhere we went, and we covered some ground, there were abandoned and/or dilapidated houses and buildings. In front of some, there were signs advising that the property belonged to a certain someone, or was reserved for some department of the state. I assumed – hopefully correctly – that this relates to a process still ongoing, and not without controversy and conflict, of people dispossessed or who fled during the war, returning to claim their property. In some places, such as the fort, evidence of armed conflict was apparent (pock holes and so forth).

Inside the fort a pile of rubble sits where there used to be a church; the information board, with its colour photos, indicate that it existed until at least as late as the 1970/80s, as the conflict began. We’re left to assume its fate. Silent presence.

Pre-historic Buddhist site, or nah?!?

On our second day, we hired bikes and cycled out of town, eager to touch the northern tip of the country. We chose the road to Kankasanturai, stopping along the way to cycle through rice paddies and track down a possibly/probably pre-historic Buddhist stupa site; around 50 monuments to monks who died there. It appears to be the job of three military personnel to guard the site, which sits in amongst what is essentially a small village of lanes and was utterly deserted. But, unfortunately, it is also part of the ‘who was here first?’ debate, which caused so many problems here in the first place, so obviously the triumphant state sees the protection of these kinds of sites as very important. Silently noted.

Further north, as you enter KKS, as it’s known, you pass through a not-grand, but what still amounts to a gate; a gate with observation structures where (no doubt armed) guards keep watch. Beyond that, for a few kilometres, the only buildings and homes that line the road are state, police, and military.

Then you get to KKS, arguably the tiniest village we visited in the country. I’m not even sure it is a village, just a name on a map now and a role in the war games that belies its size. Don’t try to get close to the lighthouse. There’s a resort there, though; it’s owned and operated by the military. We grabbed packets of curry and rice and sat on the beach close to its fence, alongside locals doing the same.

Made it to the edge of another country…

The military still controls much land around these parts, and some consider it stolen. This occupation prevents you, for example, from cycling west along the coast, to the famed Keeramalai Springs. Whatever is in that area, you can’t not notice the pretty flash new buildings and roads leading in and out of there, as you cycle around it, at a distance of course. Silent barriers.

So there is much that was strange, a little eerie, about our short time in the North. But then there was so much else besides.

The North is different. I’d read that; now I appreciate it. I wasn’t paying huge amounts of attention as we made our way there from Batti, so I don’t know when exactly the change happens. But once I looked up from my reverie (i.e my phone; I was writing), taking in the gorgeous late-afternoon almost-dusk, the differences were quite stark.

The north is extremely flat and quite sparse, both in terms of geography and flora, and in terms of population. I’d read that the government are systematically removing graveyards of the war dead, which were created in obvious discord to Hindu norms, but were created as, I guess, political symbols, martyrdom memorials. They are replacing them with different types of war memorials, and we passed at least a couple of those too. So from the outset, it definitely adds a different air to the place; it feels like you are entering somewhere else, somewhere different from where you’ve been.

The other really immediate difference is the absence of Buddhism, the huge presence of Hindu temples and shrines, and, somewhat surprisingly, or at least unexpectedly, a huge presence of Jesus. Churches and Christian shrines are dotted about the place, crosses and ‘Jesus saves’ emblazoned on the odd tuk-tuk or three.

On our first full day, we explored the city on foot, taking all of this in and falling under the spell of its gorgeous architecture and easy-feeling vibe. I loved that there were lots of people cycling; multiple forms of transport all sharing the space with casual ease.

Oh the gorgeous, gorgeous architecture…
The stunning public library, burned down by rebels in the early 1980s, causing a huge upswing in the conflict, was tellingly one of the first buildings to be rebuilt, and built as a faithful replica of the one that stood previously.

Jaffna is a really fascinating place, and I am sure it will change a lot in coming years. Second to Colombo, it is the place where we have seen the most signs of change and construction. There are hotels and buildings being built, a new (modest) mall has opened right in the centre, and you get the real sense that people are both ready for this and egging it on, eager to move passed the troubled few decades of civil strife.

On the war, it is no doubt still far too raw a memory for people, and there is undoubtedly a lot of unresolved tensions to be worked through, especially to do with people claiming ownership of lands they may have fled from, or been moved off.

It will take time, but hopefully, one day, Jaffna will be able to tell its story; in writing, in oral histories, in museums, and so on. It feels like Sri Lanka really is about to boom, tourism-wise, and the North is in prime position to capitalise on this and use the cash for its own development. I am sure a lot of people would be interested in coming here to learn/see more.

Furthermore, in my humble eater’s opinion, Jaffna should also be promoting itself as Sri Lanka’s culinary tourism capital, as the food here was mesmerisingly outstanding (and I speak from having tread a path already filled with Lankan gastronomic highlights!).

In short, there is much here to celebrate and share. I could easily have spent another couple of days here (if not longer), exploring more of its countryside: Point Pedro, the west coast of the peninsula, and south-west of the city, over the causeway and into the countryside. It really is a fascinating place, and I hope the change that is coming keeps what is unique about the place, and simply enhances it. As with anywhere that courts and then comes under the intense and sometimes destructive gaze of the tourist, it risks losing its casual, easy nature and replacing it with something a little more harsh, unfriendly, jaded. And the North has had too much of this already in its recent past. It’s time for something different.

The famed Keeramalai springs, with its ancient healing waters. We got out just before the crowd arrived; what a glorious swim!