This story has it all: tragedy, piety, property, mystery - and a few ghosts for good luck. Oh, and a Portuguese knight from Pondicherry who wasn't a knight at all.
An hour south of Chennai/Madras lies the fishing village of Kovalam (initially Covelong) which, as well as having a wonderful resort hotel, is also home to an array of church institutions - a Portuguese-style chapel dating back more than 200 years, a recently-built shrine and bell tower, a convent, a girls' orphanage, and a home for elderly women.
It's all the legacy of a trader of Portuguese origin, Sir John D'Monte - the 'sir' was simply a courtesy title - who owned a huge amount of land here and in Madras, and was an important benefactor of the Roman Catholic church.
John D'Monte was clearly one of the most important and successful merchants along the Coromandel coast in the early nineteenth century. He married a woman of German descent, Mary Bilderbeck. Her family were involved in both the pearl and indigo trade. They had a son, Christopher, who travelled to Europe - whether he was brought up there by his grandparents, or simply went on a visit, is unclear.
Christopher died in Germany in 1816 as he was preparing to return to India. The old chapel of Kovalam which John d'Monte founded and houses his memorial is also home to the remains of - and memorial to - his son.
The account the Catholic church gives of D'Monte and his role in the building of the chapel - devoted to Our Lady of Mount Carmel - is worth quoting at length.
Annals of history would leave us astonished by the miracles involved in the way Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church & Shrine was initiated and built. ... Apparently between 1770 AD - 1780, Rev. Fr. Carmelita a missionary from the Madras-Mylapore Archdiocese had started building a church in Kovalam. The foundation was laid and the walls were built. But Fr. Carmelita's untimely demise stalled the completion of the Church's construction for about 20 long years. During the same period, a Portuguese merchant by the name of Sir John D' Monte was merchandising in a Madras Mylapore coastal settlement called "Dumeen Kuppam” exporting silk handkerchiefs to other countries from India. He lived with his wife Mary Bilderbeck and only son Christopher D' Monte. Christopher, their son while on his way back to join his parents after pursuing higher education in Germany, fell ill and died at the young age of 22 in a place called “Rodgau”. Shattered and heartbroken by the news she went into a state of dismay and dejection. She left Madras-Mylapore and was desolately roaming along the shores of Bay of Bengal in Kovalam.
Agonized by this tragedy, D' Monte started searching for his wife frenetically. At a point, when he reached Kovalam, Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared to him and promised, “My dear son D' Monte, the church Fr. Carmelita started building is still not completed. You take it up and complete and I shall cure your wife”. Bearing Our Lady's words in his mind and soul, D' Monte built a magnificent church reflecting Portuguese architecture and his wife Mary was liberated from her illness and distress. The church was built and established as a parish church during the period 1800 – 1808 AD. Commemorating Fr. Carmelita's initation of the church and mother Mary's appearance to him, De Monte named the Church, “Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church”.
Now, even by the evidence on public display in the chapel, this account doesn't hold water. The chapel was completed in 1808 - Christopher died eight years later. What seems to be true is that John D'Monte founded the Kovalam chapel ... that this may have been linked to his wife's mental health issues ... and that their son died tragically young and his remains were brought back to India.
What is also evident is that when John d'Monte died in 1821, his extensive properties in Kovalam and in Mylapore (the latter now one of the most fashionable districts in central Chennai) were left largely to the church - with binding restrictions on their further disposal,
The land D'Monte owned included the current locations of the Madras Club (also blogged about) and the Boat Club. Among the area bequeathed to the church was a large block on the east side of T.T.K. Road, much of it now taken up by church buildings, and an adjoining area which is still known as D'Monte or Demandi Colony.
Several of the residential buildings in this area - rather smart old-style bungalows - fell into disrepair. The church perhaps had little interest in doing them up. There's also been quite a lot of legal argy-bargy. And the handful of streets at the heart of Demandi Colony became rather desolate and deserted. What you might call a ghost town.
The story spread that the area was haunted. The buildings themselves now seem to have been mainly demolished. Some of the land is in use as a park - much is tumbledown, and a few plots have been given over to car and coach parks.
Ladies and gentlemen, take a look round what was once D'Monte's Mylapore heartland:
The only element of spectral menace I could detect is this abandoned vehicle which - with a generous imagination - you could divine to be the ghostly likeness of a hearse.
OK, so it's not pretty - but is it haunted? Well, ask anyone here and they will say: yes. Why? Well, because of this ...
Two years back, a Tamil horror movie was released with the title 'Demonte Colony'. Building on all the tales about the paranormal in D'Monte's old stomping ground, they added a few new elements to the mix. The plot? Here it is! It did rather well. And old Sir John, once associated with good deeds, is now forever tagged with things that go bump in the night.
What compelling images!
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