In Chennai, majestic heritage buildings that were once testament to the influence of the British East India Company and then, the might of the British empire, are today government offices, museums, libraries, educational institutions and embassies.
The first among these equals is the Government Museum, Chennai or Madras Museum as it is popularly known. The Museum sprawls across the 16-acre Pantheon Complex and has six buildings and 46 galleries.
The most remarkable building in this cultural complex is perhaps the Museum Theatre. Designed in the Italianate style, it is intriguing as it reflects an architectural pattern not prevalent in England at that time. The edifice is imposing in its bones and charming in its details – with walls and pillars carved with intricate floral and geometrical motifs.
The second-oldest museum in India and one of the oldest in the world, the Madras Museum proudly displays valuable artefacts. Exhibits range from South Indian bronzes, Amravati figures, Thanjavur armoury, Chola King Raja Raja I’s hoard of gold coins to prehistoric stone equipment.
The Pantheon Complex also houses the National Art Gallery and the Connemara Public Library– both stunning buildings. The 113-year-old National Art Gallery building is a beautiful pink sandstone structure, designed by architect Henry Irwin and said to be inspired by Akbar’s Buland Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri. While the gallery is closed to visitors, the visual delight the building offers is more than enough to merit a visit.
The Connemara Public Library is another fabulous example of the Indo-Saracenic style. Also designed by Henry Irwin, the building’s huge halls, high wooden archways and painted ceilings are populated by carvings of animals. The library houses centuries-old rare books that are a bibliophile’s delight.
Another stately building that probably was the first to be built (1798 AD) is Doveton House – named after John Doveton, a Lieutenant General with the Madras Cavalry of East India Company. It was initially used as a guesthouse for visiting English officers. The pillared façade and the arched half-moon-shaped staircase are elements of style at the time and make it very similar to a famous contemporaneous building –the White House. Through its history, the building has been used to jail prisoners, and to be the official residence of Sir Ralph Benson, a Judge of the High Court, before finally becoming home to the Women’s Christian College.
A mason’s delight
Yet another elegant edifice is the Freemason’s Hall which will complete a century in 2023. The pillared, two-storey structure is embellished with Italian marble and tiles and can accommodate 200 people. The building still serves the purpose for which it was built - the walls are decorated with masonic emblems. This is a must-visit because of its aesthetics.
Another beautiful heritage building with a chequered history is Rajaji Hall. Etched in public memory as the building where people pay their last respects to departed leaders and public figures, pre-Independence the building played host to grand state celebrations.
Chennai’s colonial architectural treasures are a mix of well-known monuments and well-kept secrets, both fascinating and fabulous that can satisfy the visitors’ aesthetic sensibilities, their love of history and heritage as well as providing an island of peace in the hustle and bustle of modern-day life.
And once you have had your fill of the buildings in the city, you can head to Elliot’s Beach, one of the cleanest beaches in the country. Named after Edward Francis Elliot, a chief magistrate and superintendent of police from British times, where you can enjoy nature’s serenity, streetside snacks and relish memories of your tour through the lingering remnants of British times.
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