4 Chennai: the Freemasons' Hall
At the end of a cul-de-sac in the Egmore district of Chennai, there's an imposing century-old building which still serves the purpose for which it was constructed. It's Chennai's Freemasons' Hall.
The masons are, of course, a secret society. But when I sent an email asking if I could have a look around their Chennai HQ, I got a prompt call back saying: sure, come along. I'm not a mason and didn't pretend to be - but I was made very welcome,
The hall is on the banks of the river Cooum - but happily sufficiently far back to be protected from its stench - and is surrounded by trees which prevent a full vista of what is an elegant colonnaded building.
The Freemasons' Hall was opened in 1925. The governor of Madras, Lord Willingdon, had laid the foundation stone a couple of years earlier. But the history of masonic lodges in this part of India stretches back to the 1750s.
An earlier masonic temple in the San Thome district is now - according to S. Muthiah's authoritative and encyclopedic Madras Rediscovered - the office of the Director-General of Police. Some masonic insignia is apparently still visible there.
The Egmore hall is well kept and was being renovated when I visited. I was shown round the three masonic temples on the site - the biggest seats 250 people - and the three dining halls. All the masonic paraphernalia - sashes, aprons, set square, dividers - was on display, but I was asked not to take any photos.
These images of the main hall and temple are taken from a masonic website:
I was told that the Chennai district remains home to about fifty lodges - six following the English constitution, one each in the Scottish and Irish tradition, and the rest falling under the masons' Indian constitution. What's the difference? I don't know.
There are a couple of small masonic halls on the outskirts of Chennai, but this is the main masonic meeting place in the city. There was no sign of women's involvement in freemasonry - all the photos on the website feature men (though remarkably the redoubtable Annie Besant was an active freemason more than a century ago).
When many other institutions dating from the colonial era are struggling to survive, the freemasons seem to be in robust health.
I sometimes get the impression that one of the few factors working to promote urban conservation in India is the glacial functioning of the country's courts. Property disputes can sometimes take a generation to get sorted once there's formal recourse to the law. I don't know the ins-and-outs of the dispute hinted at on the signboard above - but I get the impression that a row over property has had the effect of preserving the property that's being fought over.
This is not Chennai but Bangalore - the other principal city of South India, where I spent the weekend. It's perhaps the most happening city in South Asia - and Richmond Road is about as good an address as you can get in Bangalore. Yet no. 86 is an old, now slightly dilapidated, bungalow which seems strikingly out of place amid the swish high-rise blocks all around.
The style harks back to another era - the 1930s perhaps but it could be earlier. It's not particularly grand or pretty - but very few city centre examples of this humble style of vernacular architecture survive.
I am by no means the first to be attracted to this curious remnant of Bangalore's past. As long ago as 1978 a study of Baungalore's surviving bungalows selected this building as among those deserving of attention and record.
The survey was done by Dr Harimohan Pillai and I have taken the images below from the site of Archi-eStudio:
More than forty years later, what even then was an unlikely survival is still standing - and from the exterior at least, remarkably unchanged.
Syed Iqbal, whose name features above the door of the property, stood for election a couple of years ago - and in the assets declaration he was obliged to submit, the value of 86 Richmond Road was put at (wait for it!) a little more than 460 million rupees (that's about £5 million). That same declaration lists Mr Iqbal's principal occupation as real estate - and he's also an actor. He doesn't live here, however - or at least it wasn't his residential address at the time he was an election candidate.
And S.M. Muneer - the man who put up the 'no trespassers' board? Well, a certain Syed Mohammed Muneer was listed a couple of years ago as a full-time director of Alpine Housing Development Corporation Ltd, based in Bangalore.
Oh. and 86 Richmond Road was listed in 2018 as the HQ of Air Pushpak, which charters private jets on behalf of its clients. 'Air Pushpak charter guarantees your privacy, and we will work closely with your security provider on all aspects of your charter'.
Anyone know any more?
The Great Bombay Circus took down its Big Top in Chennai this week - perhaps for the last time. The circus troupe was established in 1920 - and it seems likely to mark its centenary year by closing altogether.
Circuses around the world are finding it difficult to keep going. India's no exception to that. The ban on the use of many animals has aggravated their difficulties - though two camels still appear in the ring, along with performing dogs (that would cause a riot in some countries!), macaws and cockatoos.
The clowns, jugglers, acrobats and trapeze acts which are now the mainstay of the circus find it difficult to compete with the increasingly VR-aided digital landscape.
I enjoyed my afternoon at the circus. But even the 4pm show on a Saturday - the one you would expect to be the busiest of the week - was well short of full, Many of those attending came bearing cut-out coupons from the newspapers giving them a hefty discount on the entrance price ... though they clearly appreciated the show.
Some of the Great Bombay Circus clowns have been in that role for decades. Alongside them were acrobats from Ethiopia, Nepal and Manipur in north-east India.
The only photography tolerated during performances is on phones - which aren't really up to the difficult lighting conditions. But let me at least share a few images:
Happily there is a much more enticing visual record of the Great Bombay Circus's final rendezvous in Chennai ... the excellent Chennai Photowalk arranged for their members to take photographs inside the arena, and have very generously gifted the circus high quality prints of more than sixty of their best images.
With the permission of Chennai Photowalk - here's a selection of their handiwork ... and you can see the full circus album by clicking on this link:
I was out and about this morning and popped in to a vegetarian cafe in Egmore for breakfast. I opted for the 'morning breakfast combo. What a treat!
So we have - going clockwise from the bottom left - spicy tomato chutney, coconut chutney, pongal, vadai, idly and sambar. All freshly cooked. And that was just for starters ...
That was followed by poori aloo (I could have opted for a dosa instead) and sweet, strong south Indian filter coffee. Piping hot and quite delicious.
The bill came to 68 rupees - that's about 75 pence. Wonderful value!
And no, I wouldn't dream of wasting the chutney or sambar.
'No CAA'. That's the demand of the women of Washermanpet - a crowded, mainly Muslim locality in north Chennai. And for the past couple of days, hundreds of women have blocked roads staging a protest to demand the revocation of the Modi's government's Citizenship Amendment Act.
The provisions of the act are complicated - but in essence it for the first time (in particular circumstances) links religion with eligibility for Indian citizenship, and in such a way that it disadvantages Muslims.
For many Indians, it's a repudiation of the explicitly secular basis of India's constitution; for many Indian Muslims, the act - and what they see as the linked National Register of Citizens and National Population Register - makes them feel second-class citizens.
The Indian flag was prominently on display at the protest as Muslims demonstrated their patriotism - but how sad that a community feels the need to wave the flag so ardently to show that they are loyal Indians too.
Hindus outnumber Muslims in India by more than five-to-one - but that still means there's approaching 200 million Indian Muslims. And on the issue of the CAA, many Muslims - and students and others deeply unhappy at the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) policies of the government - have taken to the streets to protest.
Remarkably, it's Muslim women - unattached to political party or pressure group - who have taken the lead.
The street protests started at Shaheen Bagh, an otherwise little noticed and run down Muslim neighbourhood in south Delhi. The entirely peaceful sit-in there has been going on continuously for a couple of months. Protests spread to campuses and other localities across the country. The police have on occasions responded brutally, ransacking colleges and lashing out with their lathis (outsize truncheons) at protesters whom the authorities seem to regard as anti-nationals.
Campaigners against the CAA estimate that as many as twenty people may have died - mainly in north India - as a result of the police attempts in recent weeks to quell and disperse protests.
The women's protest in Washermanpet - the area got its name because this was where dhobis, laundry men, congregated and where for generations Madras's clothes got washed - started on Friday. That evening there were scuffles between police and some of the protesters. At least three members of the police ended up in hospital; more than a hundred people were reportedly detained.
As has happened elsewhere, that violence - for which local people blame the police - has increased the women's determination to persist in their protest. When I went along on Sunday afternoon, they were well organised, in good spirits and in impressive numbers (I would estimate that about 500 women were assembled).
The women have mats to sit on and basic canopies to protect them from the sun. When I turned up I was asked to register at the media desk and given a media card to hang round my neck - a young man served as an escort round the protest area and was both helpful and resourceful.
Vegetable biryani and bottles of water are provided for the protesters - and these guys were boiling milk to make tea,
Many women have used henna to put slogans on their hands, which they were proud to display. Some women have painted political messages on children's arms - there are dozens of children, some babes in arms, at the sit-in site, and most seem to be enjoying themselves.
While the protesters are overwhelmingly Muslim, I came across this Hindu family sitting apart from the many body of campaigners, but enjoying the festive mood and clearly supporting the women's cause.
In a mirror image of the normal way Indian protests and outdoor rallies are organised, there's a small pen at the front of the sit-in for men.
But some things don't change ... on the podium this afternoon, it was all men, even though the sit-in is a women's initiative. When women have found their voice, it would be nice if the men listened for once.
Let me leave you with images of the women of Washermanpet - assertive and confident women who know what they want.
Memento Mori - reminders of death. For a while in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it was customary to incorporate these rather gruesome icons - a skull was the most common - into gravestones and memorials.
St Mary's church in Chennai - the oldest Anglican church in India - harbours quite an array of these ghoulish motifs. Most of the gravestones now placed around the church are from the first half of the eighteenth century, when these memento mori were in vogue.
This gravestone features skull (not too artistically rendered), crossbones and the gravedigger's pick and shovel. It's like the winning line in a memento mori slot machine. The grave dates to around 1716. It's the resting place of William Warre of the East India Company - Bradford-born according to a family history site - who died 'aged about 35'.
Another gravestone features an image even more macabre - a full skeleton, now somewhat marred by pigeon droppings -
The craftsmanship is less than stellar, but the stark reminder of the inevitability of death - dust to dust, ashes to ashes - is inescapable.
For generations until the mid-nineteenth century, English men serving in India often had a bibi - an Indian woman who was partner, lover and wife (though usually denied official recognition of that status). The bibis of colonial India were rarely memorialised - they found little mention in the official record - when their husband went back to England, they were usually left behind to bring up any children of the relationship as best they could.
These women and their European partners were the begetters of the distinct Anglo-Indian community in India, which still survives though much reduced in number and status.
I hadn't expected to find an imprint of the bibi in the oldest Anglican church in India, St Mary's - a late-seventeenth century church situated within Fort St George in Chennai. But it's surprising what you come across ...
St Mary's was consecrated in 1680 and rejoices in being the oldest Anglican church east of Suez. From the early 1800s, its status declined with the construction of much grander Anglican churches elsewhere in what was then Madras, near where the increasingly prosperous and numerous British community built their villas. St Mary's became mainly a garrison church. But it remains in use as part of the Church of South India and has a small but loyal congregation.
As you would expect, St Mary's has a wonderful array of statues, memorials and tablets commemorating the agents of Empire and its religion who served - and died - here.
One particularly tragic tablet reflects that the British in India were not settlers. After more than thirty years in India and his return 'having been deferred to too late a season', the unfortunate Colonel W.H. Atkinson died on his sea passage back to England at the age of fifty-two.
Britain always remained 'home' and the vast majority of the British in India returned there - or intended to.
There's a clear trace of the custom among the British elite in Madras of taking Indian wives. Pran Nevile, in his book on Indian women during the Raj, quotes the view of Dr John Shortt - East India Company surgeon in Madras in the mid-nineteenth century - of the Telugu women he came across.
"I have seen several of these girls in my professional capacity, while they lived as mistresses with European officers, and have been greatly surprised at their ladylike manner, modesty and gentleness. Such beautiful small hands and little taper fingers, the ankles neatly turned, as to meet the admiration of the greatest connoisseur ... This is not to be wondered at that these girls are preferred to their own country women".
The historian Sriram V has chronicled just how common liaisons once were in Madras between elite British men and Indian bibis.
And that sculpture of what appears to be an Indian woman, book in hand at the top of this post? Could this be a bibi mourning her partner?
It features in just about the least accessible of the memorials in St Mary's, high up on a wall where the inscription must always have been difficult to make out and is now impossible to decipher.
Even zooming in with a good camera, and then sharpening the contrast settings, only small parts of the inscription are legible. [SEE THE UPDATE AT THE END OF THIS POST]
One word that stands out is 'Archdeacon' - and given that those in holy orders would surely have been reluctant to advertise their transgressive relationships, the woman who adorns the memorial may not be a representation of a local wife. Who knows!
But the church bears other traces of the bibi. At the back, under glass in a display case, are a few of the parish archives, These include a baptism register open - apparently more-or-less at random - to a period in 1825. Take a look ...
Many, perhaps most, of the baptisms were of illegitimate children, and their birth out of wedlock was clearly stated in the register. Where mother and father were married, the mother's first name was given. Where the birth was outside marriage, no mother's name was recorded. It is overwhelmingly likely that the mothers of these illegitimate children were Indian.
Yet the father's name is given and presumably it was he who arranged the baptism - the mother and baby had clearly not been abandoned. So it seems the parents were in an enduring relationship - one which did not have the sanction of the church, but which the chaplain was willing to countenance by baptising the offspring of such unions.
These babies were brought into St Mary's and baptised in a centuries-old font which had served that purpose for the three daughters of Job Charnock, the 'founder' of Calcutta (whose wife was a Hindu - Charnock is said to have rescued her from immolation on her first husband's funeral pyre).
Were the babies' mothers present at the baptism? Did they nominally convert to Christianity? Were they provided for when their partners eventually sailed away?
There's much more to be said about Madras's bibis.
UPDATE: A bit of sleuthing has revealed some details of the memorial featuring the seated woman reading a book. It is the memorial of Archdeacon Richard Leslie, who died on 28 June 1804. He was the garrison chaplain at Madras for twenty-one years.
The memorial is the work of the London sculptor Flaxman and cost £100. One account of the memorial states: 'Piety is exhibited by a female figure with the Holy Bible in her hand which she is attentively studying ...'. Flaxman's work, it seems, often featured such figures. So ... not a bibi! Though I remain convinced that the mothers of the illegitimate children baptised at St Mary's almost certainly were.
Of all Chennai's artisan trades, you might imagine that the temple umbrella makers are struggling to survive. Not so!
In Ayya (or Iyya) Mudali Street in the central Chintadripet neighbourhood - which is enclosed on three sides by the Cooum river - about fifteen family businesses survive. Among them is at least one with an impressive website. And both demand and prices are generally bearing up.
Don't confuse this craft with parasol making. Sure, these umbrellas are to protect from the sun not the rain. But these aren't small dainty sun shields - these are often large and ornate umbrellas, with designs and motifs specific to a particular Hindu deity or temple.
The main complaints of the temple umbrella makers are that the next generation are not interested in pursuing a livelihood passed down from father to son, and that it's difficult to find the labourers to undertake the tricky task of assembling the umbrellas' bamboo frame.
By most accounts, there's still a decent living to be made in this trade.
I came across these temple umbrella makers during a heritage walk round Chintadripet led by Padmapriya, to whom many thanks!
Plumb in the middle of Chennai's nicest beach - Elliot's beach in Besant Nagar (and so generally known as Bessie's beach) - is a sturdy ninety-year-old memorial. It's to a Danish man, Karl A.J. Schmidt. In December 1930, Schmidt - in his twenties and working in what was then Madras - went in to the sea here to try and save an English girl who had got into difficulties.
He drowned; the girl survived.
Some of the accounts of the incident suggest that Schmidt was Dutch and a sailor - which seems to be untrue. So it's quite possible that this detail is also invented - but let me share it all the same. It's said that the evening after the incident, New Year's Eve, the girl attended a party as if nothing amiss had happened. The governor of Madras was apparently so outraged that he decided to construct this memorial to the gallant rescuer.
Over the decades, the memorial started showing signs of subsidence and became a loitering spot covered with graffiti - as you can see ...
A few years ago, the authorities decided to restore the memorial - and they have done a good job. The signboard which recounts the incident succeeds in capturing the attention of passers-by (and there's another one in Tamil on the other flank of the structure).
The memorial of course privileges European lives, as was routine in times of Empire. I fear that quite a few people have drowned here over the years, and I'm sure some in as noble an endeavour as Karl Schmidt.
Nevertheless, it's heartening to see a monument to valour which is in such good shape.
A bishop bringing the gospel to the heathen. That seems to be the message of this ornate memorial in St George's Cathedral, the main Anglican place of worship here in Chennai.
The cathedral - built in 1815 - is stuffed full of imposing high colonial statues and memorials, as well as plaques and tablets (I've already blogged about the memorial to Ralph Horsley, who was 'cut off by the hand of an unknown assassin'). To my mind, the most remarkable are those showing - or at least visually alluding to - the engagement between the agents of Empire and its religion and their colonial subjects.
This is a memorial to Reginald Heber, who was consecrated as Bishop of Calcutta in 1823 and died three years later at the age of 42. This work by the sculptor Francis Chantrey depicts the bishop 'ministering to his flock'.
Here's another in similar style -
- a statue of the first Bishop of Madras, Daniel Corrie, who was 'a preacher of salvation by faith in Christ both to his countrymen and to the natives' intending 'to bring the heathen to the knowledge of Christ and to hasten his kingdom'. In the statue, Corrie's 'convert' is sporting both a tuft and a sacred thread - so I take it this is a brahmin who has been won to Christ..
Corrie also didn't last that long as bishop - less than two years.
Quite as striking are the depictions of women mourning, prostrate in their grief - their design classically influenced (though you also wonder whether there's a nod at 'bibis' lamenting the passing of their partner). This first one is of a medic - and perhaps is more classical than salacious, even though the sight of what seems to be a bare breasted woman in such a stiff and formal cathedral is truly astonishing.
This is a memorial to John Mack, 'assistant surgeon on the Madras establishment' who died in 1832. He was doctor to at least one local princely family. The sculpture is said to show Hygeia, the goddess of health.
And this memorial? Perhaps another classical allusion, but that's not at all clear.
Here's another sculpture which tells a story about the relationship between agents of Empire and those they regarded as their subjects:
And below is the memorial to Thomas Parry, trader and entrepreneur, who gave his name to Parry's Corner, still a Chennai landmark.
In architectural terms, St George's is undeniably imposing - perhaps not of the first order of East India Company churches but not far off. The original Anglican church in the city, St Mary's - a wonderful late seventeenth century building in St George's Fort which is happily still in use - was both too small and a touch too pedestrian for the increasing importance of Madras and of its European community.
St George's was both large and grand - and altogether more of a match for the nineteenth century idea of Empire.
In 1835, with the installation of the first Bishop of Madras, St George's became his cathedral. It has also played an important part in the reshaping of Christianity in India in the independence era.
The Church of South India was established here in the weeks after independence in 1947. It's part of the Anglican communion but has brought together the other principal Protestant denominations of the colonial era: Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational.
But not everyone joined in. And the exceptionally grand Kirk of St Andrew's in Egmore a few miles away - of similar date to St George's and a match in terms of design - continues to go its own way.
The cathedral also has a cemetery - still in use and complete with its own separate bell tower. It's worth coming here just to see that!
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