What a lustrous name for any place of worship: Thousand Lights. This is a Shia mosque - indeed the main Shia centre in the state of Tamil Nadu - which shares the name with a locality of central Chennai.
This was the part of Madras where the Nawabs and other Muslim princes and people of influence had their mansions a couple of centuries ago. According to S. Muttiah's excellent Madras Rediscovered, it was a relative of the Nawab of Arcot who took to using a thousand oil lights to illuminate an assembly ground near here for Shia Muslims gathering during Muharram.
The mosque dates back to about 1820, but has been rebuilt in 1900, and modernised twice since then. While the glass and some other features look as if they are antique, in a city bursting with ancient places of worship this is not one of the oldest.
It was my own snooping that allowed me to chance upon the most surprising aspect of the mosque - a large, really well kept and exceptionally tranquil mukbara, a Muslim cemetery, in the grounds of the complex.
And amid the graves there was a solitary woman, lost in her own thoughts or memories - I wondered about her story, I'm wondering still ...
S. Ganesan is a blacksmith. His smithy is a tiny space by the side of the road in downtown Chennai. When I came across him, it was mid-morning and already getting hot. The heat from his forge was almost overpowering.
Those artisan crafts that have survived in the west are usually practised indoors, away from prying eyes. In India, much more of life is on the street - because, for most of the year, the weather permits that and because poverty obliges people to work in the open. It is a public activity.
S. Ganesan forges iron used in construction sites, the sort that provides the supporting framework for concrete - and given all the building work happening at every side, you can see why his skill is in demand.
He was pleased that I was taking photos. And it transpired that the group looking on were his family: his wife; his son, who works in IT; and his daughter-in-law, who married into the family six months ago. They were happy to be photographed too.
If your car or motorbike should ever need a bit of tinkering, Chennai is the place to come. Tinkering here has been raised to a service industry.
I'd always taken tinkering to mean fiddle-faddling about to little effect - with the basic requirement being that the 'tinkerer' has no expertise at all in the task they are trying to fulfil.
The online dictionary back me up in this: tinkering, it declares, is an 'attempt to repair or improve something in a casual or desultory way'. It offers as synonyms: 'try to mend/improve, work amateurishly on, fiddle with, play (about/around) with, toy with, trifle with, dally with, dabble with, potter about with, fool about/around with'.
This is Maria and Anbu at their wedding at the St Thomas Basilica in Mylapore, just off Chennai's Marina Beach. By chance, I happened to be there as the couple emerged from the church - and they were happy for me to take a few photos. The bride is wearing a stunning ensemble of sari and fine lace bridal train. It was obviously quite some wedding.
And quite some venue too ...
The Basilica boasts of being one of only three churches built over the tomb of an apostle - the others being St Peter's in Rome and the tomb of St James in north-west Spain. Yes, St Thomas, "Doubting" Thomas - the one who wouldn't believe the resurrection until he put his fingers in Christ's crucifixion wounds - lies buried in Chennai (or more accurately it's where his tomb is said to be).
An old Portuguese church used to mark the spot - but it was pulled down in the 1890s and this grander, gaudier, building put up in its place.
The entrance to the tomb is not through the church but an adjoining, non-descript, modern building. The crypt is downstairs - no photography is allowed. And on top of the tomb is a lifelike modern effigy, none too impressive, of an apparently naked man under a blanket. A touch disappointing, as tombs of the apostles go -
How did St Thomas end up in southern India? Well, there seems to be a host of accounts suggesting that he headed east after Christ's death. St Thomas Christians believe that he landed in a port in Kerala in 52 CE, almost twenty years after the crucifixion. He eventually moved over to the east coast, where he died a violent death - speared to death indeed - in 72 CE,
The story of Thomas bringing the Christian gospel to India is an ancient one and deeply embedded in Indian Christianity. Scholars generally accept that Christianity reached southern India by the third century of the Christian era, but they tend to regard the Thomas story as legend. It's not at all impossible - there were trade links between the Roman Empire and the Kerala coast in Christ's time - but might be best be described as unproven,
The belief in St Thomas coming to India is particularly associated with the Syrian Christian tradition, which remains strong in Kerala with millions of adherents. It's also a deeply fractured movement, with Syrian Christians variously in the Catholic tradition (both Roman and Syrian), within Orthodoxy (57 varieties as far as I can make out) and in Protestantism too.
In Chennai, however, the St Thomas tradition has been monopolised by the Roman Catholic church. It's their show. But the tomb may be empty. It's believed that the Saint's remains, or much of them, were taken to the Middle East many centuries ago, and from there ended up at a church in Italy. Not to be outdone, one of the leaflets handed out at the Basilica offers for sale what looks like a credit card containing grains of sand from the tomb, relics which are said to bear miraculous properties.
And then there is the story about Thomas and the Virgin Mary's girdle ... the Holy Girdle ... bits of which are scattered at sites across the south of India. But you know what - let's not go there!
A few miles from the Basilica, at a place called Little Mount, is a sixteenth century Portuguese church which gives access to a cave where St Thomas lived for a while. Indeed, so we're told, his footprint, palm print and finger print can be seen in the sheer, solid rock of the cave, Then there's the cross he carved in the stone and the place where he struck a rock with his shaft and water came forth. Thomas was quite a guy!
Further out of town, near the airport, is St Thomas Mount, 'the cradle and glory of the Indian Church'. This is where the Saint is reputed to have met his death. A winding path with 135 steps which leads up to the mount, and from there you have a commanding view over Chennai.
A Portuguese church at the summit contains relics: a piece of bone of the Saint and the spearhead which killed him. The religious literature on sale here records - I'm just telling you what it says - that the church has a portrait of the Madonna painted by St Luke which Thomas brought with him to India ... and a stone cross carved by St Thomas which has on occasions sweated blood (though the most recent such haemorrhage was way back in 1704).
The St Thomas Mount shrine is dedicated to "Our Lady of Expectation" - one of the more unusual names for the Virgin Mary. And that makes still more incongruous one of the services offered to the faithful here ... a marriage bureau!
Mylapore - just down the round from where I am staying - is Chennai's Tamil Brahmin heartland. And at its core is the vibrant Kapeleeshwarar Hindu temple, a Shiva temple which while not the most historic in Tamil Nadu is among the most entrancing to visit.
In the congested streets around the temple grounds, there are dozens of small eateries set up principally to serve those coming to visit and seek blessings at the temple. This photo was taking in one of these cheap and informal restaurants, the Karpagambal Mess, where three of us had a memorable meal the other evening.
The mess's menu is entirely in Tamil but with a bit of help from other diners we had a range of dosas, stringhoppers, sambar and chutneys, finished with a filter coffee for which Mylapore is renowned.
Some of the design details were sumptuous. It feels a little like a leftover from another era - but it is still doing the business, and maintaining a tradition which is so much a part of Mylapore.
Mylapore is a lovely part of Chennai to walk round - and on Sunday its nicest park was given over to an art fair. Seventy-five local artists exhibited - the work was on sale - and the emphasis was on affordable art.
It was hugely popular, as you might expect in this very cultured and literate corner of the city, and a real delight. And yes, I did make one or two purchases.
The range of work was impressive - watercolours, oils, portraits, abstracts, devotional art, cityscapes, drawings, art on textile, sand art, paper cutting art, miniature sculpture. And the standard was high.
And among the exhibitors, there were also a couple of artists at work -
I took a particular liking to the work of two of the artists. S. Sundararajan paints mainly city scenes in watercolour, very atmospheric and with mastery of the style, and I now have one of his watercolours as a permanent reminder of Chennai.
And A. Ramu has an almost trompe d'oeil style, paintings which pretend they are something else, which made me smile as well as admire his craft. See what you think -
I spent part of the weekend snooping around this colonial-era mansion near the Chennai waterfront. It's clearly seen better days. No one lives there, I was told, and it's in use as a laundry and dry cleaning establishment. Not that the workforce I came across appeared to be at full stretch. But what caught my attention was the inscription at the crest of the building.
It made me wonder - could this be Otti Castle?
I need to explain why I am so keen to trace Otti Castle. It's where a young Jewish woman from Baghdad, Toyah Sofaer, lived for the last few weeks of her life. And where she died, in uncertain but clearly harrowing circumstances, on 6 October 1943. I came across her gravestone last year in Chennai's tiny Jewish cemetery, and so chanced upon a powerful and unsettling story of transgressive love and tragic death.
The story I broadcast about Toyah engendered quite a response. New information emerged: a confirmed likeness of her was found ... and her death certificate was uncovered. The certificate doesn't give a cause of death, but it does give Toyah's address and place of death - both are recorded as 'Ooti Castle Street, Lazarus Street, Madras'.
With a bit of help from one of Chennai's leading historians (thanks Sriram!), I was able to deconstruct this address: Otti (not Ooti) Castle was a building not a street, and it was on Lazarus Church Street. But it had been demolished some time back, I was told. So when I got out of an auto rickshaw at the junction of San Thome High Road and Lazarus Church Street yesterday, I wasn't expecting to find much. Which is why the inscription so amazed me ,,,
Could 'O.T.C.' stand for Otti Castle - or perhaps 'O.T.' became corrupted as 'Otti'? The property is now known as Marine View and the name 'Otti Castle' meant nothing to those working there - but it wasn't unusual for these inter-war mansions to be called 'Castle', and there's still a Leith Castle Street nearby.
And then there's the Star of David which features so prominently. The Sofaer family had once had a trading base in Coral Merchant Street in George Town, one of the oldest parts of the city where the first synagogue was built. Was Toyah staying here because this was the home of a Jewish family which had put this religious emblem on the building when it was built?
The hexagram, of course, is not simply a Jewish motif: it appears in Hindu and Muslim design and architecture (on Humayun's Tomb in Delhi, for example), as well as in Theosophy and the occult. It's still the emblem of the Karnataka Bank. All the same, this is quite a coincidence.
A web search on Otti Castle throws up a couple of interesting snippets - this write-up on Flickr from a few years ago being the most substantial:
Otti Castle on Lazarus Church Road at Santhome, was owned by my uncle Mr O Radhakrishnan. This house was rented to many expatriates who lived in Madras upto early 60s. I made a reference to Otti Castle in a blog in "Chennai Metroblogging" on demolition of Hotel Oceanic which is adjacent to our home at Santhome. I received a mail some time last year from one Mr David Greenwood from England. To my surprise, he informed me that prior to coming on a holiday to India, he searched for Otti Castle in the net and he stumbled upon my blog and sent a mail asking whether I could meet him and take to the place where Otti Castle stood. Mr David Greenwood was a resident of Otti Castle when he was very young and his father used to be the Managing Director of Best & Crompton at Madras. He visited Chennai during November 2009. I met him and told him that Otti Castle is demolished and some residential apartments are there in the place where Otti Castle stood. I met him at Connemara and took him to the place where Otti Castle was once there. He gave a long stare possibly reminiscing about his younger days he spent at the place where Otti Castle once stood. He took some photos of the place and I dropped him back at Connemara. This is a photo of Otti Castle sent by Mr David Greenwood.
That suggests fairly definitvely that Otti Castle is no longer standing. Two old photos of Otti Castle were posted to accompany these comments.
This doesn't seem to be the same house as the one I came across yesterday. I didn't get a rear view, and while there are similarities in the front facade, there are several key differences in design.
So what's the story here? Was there a short row of properties which took the name Otti Castle and of which this is the last survivor? That would make more sense of the 'Ooti Castle Street' on the death certificate. What did O.T.C. stand for, and why the hexagram?
If you have any thoughts, please do share them!
UPDATED: I have had a very helpful message from Balasubramanian G. Velu, whose remarks on Flickr I quoted above. The building I came across is not Otti Castle, though it is nearby and was built by the same man. His maternal grandfather Ottilingam Thankikachalam Chettiar built both Otti Castle and Marine View. So the 'Otti' comes from his name - as do the initials OTC on Marine View. There's an article by Sriram V about the remarkable OTC here. The hexagram accompanying the initials is not, it seems, in any way Jewish.
Balasubramanian G Velu's maternal uncle inherited Otti Castle. It was rented out mainly to Europeans and in the 1950s was a bachelor 'chummery' for young English men working for Best & Co. The building was demolished some time after the 1970s and an apartment block put up on the site. Another member of the family lived in Marine View and indeed still lives on the first floor about the laundry and dry cleaning business. Balasubramanian doesn't believe that the houses built by his grandfather were ever known as Otti Castle Street.
So, where does that leave us with Toyah's story? While Toyah very probably didn't stay in the building which is still standing, it does hark back to her brief period in what was then Madras. How did she end up at Otti Castle? Quite possibly her parents rented the house for their short stay in the city.
By the way, another Chennai enthusiast got in touch to say that at the time Marine View was built there were no buildings on the foreshore, that is the beach side of San Thome High Road. So this building would have had a majestic and uninterrupted view of the Bay of Bengal.
Where I am staying in Chennai is just a five minute amble from The English Tearoom. In the two months I lived here last year, I stayed well clear. Of all the cuisines on offer, why on earth opt for 'English'?
But today, curiosity got the better of me.
The range of eating places within a few minutes walk is astonishing - from Ethiopian to Russian (I've tried the former - not bad ... I still have to sample the latter) through half a dozen different shades of South Indian. But English?
How many cities outside the UK - or even in the UK - have an 'English' restaurant? After all, are there any signature dishes of English cuisine: Sunday roasts? the more demotic fish-and-chips? There are, I suppose, the rituals of English eating: from the posh and slightly absurd - afternoon tea, with tiny cakes and cucumber sandwiches ... to the simply gut-busting - the "full Monty" English breakfast.
The English Tearoom doesn't do roasts or cod and chips. But it does do a traditional afternoon tea and - much more to my liking - a full English breakfast. And here it is! I asked for no eggs and got some additional sausages instead - and there was also a freshly squeezed orange juice and cup of tea or coffee included. The price? 400 rupees ... that's about a fiver. I was well happy!
The place opened eighteen months or so back, and it's doing well: at times today there wasn't a spare table. Chennai seems to be one place where saying you offer English cuisine is a plus.
And much to my pleasant surprise, it has quite a range of teas on offer - the coffee is good - and the cakes looked freshly baked and very tempting.
I didn't come all this way for sausage, bacon, beans and mushrooms, and I really like the dosas and idlis which are the local fare - but for that touch of comfort food when you feel far away from home, this is a real treat.
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