...Soumya Sitaraman.Photos byUsha Kris
Originally Published in Discover India.
A citizens list of the architectural legacy of the British Raj in the Madras Presidency would include Fort St. George, The Victoria terminus railway station, and the Connemara Library, the Hall to name a few. It seldom includes St. Andrews, a Kirk built in the early 1800’s. Yet, in the teeming chaos of Egmore, a tall spire overlooks a sizable part of Chennai, as it has over the century.
The Kirk has remained untouched by the ravages of development, unlike its environs. Where once the Chidadripettai village stood, a commercial area sprouted. The spire is visible over a thicket of rain trees as you cross the bridge of the so- called river that continues as of old: dry, and squalid. A breathless fight through noontime traffic and through the gates of the Kirk. All of a sudden, the world changes. The unpaved driveway is long. Birdsong is heard from the undisturbed shrubbery. There is green everywhere and plenty of cool shade. It is the place for rest and reflection, ideally suited for a book to tune out the sultry afternoon. The single point of focus is a rather simple edifice as appearances go. Inset on a pillared rectangular base is a three tiered steeple that tapers to a bronze bud shaped point. The engraving on the marble front proclaims the building to be "St. Andrew AD MDCCCXX"
I entered through the small office on the side. A girl in a pretty, shiny dress clacked away at an archaic typewriter, a world away from my ergonomic keyboard. Behind Mr. Martin, the gentleman who greeted me, a chalk board displayed a schedule of weddings. Among the proud list of Chaplains, one name stood out, David Singh. Like this mixed name, the women in second and third generation Muslim and Christian homes in South India continue to wear exquisite Kanchipuram silks for weddings, births and special occasions. I smiled to myself. This was the typical India: the wonderful and unique ability to merge entrenched culture, religion and identity with the new ways.
The ceiling to the office has a curious dome shape, reminding me of the roofs seen in the early temples in Tanjavur. A small balcony hangs over the door leading to the main prayer hall. There is no way up or out of there. A Scottish loft perhaps?
St. Andrew’s Kirk was built to serve members of the Scottish Church serving in the East India Company. It is reputedly one of the examples of Georgian Church architecture in Asia. Having borne the expense of constructing St. George’s Church of England, the Company was obliged by the same measure, to facilitate the construction of the Church of the sister kingdom, Scotland. The existing structure is the result of a lot of issue based and physical compromise on the original plans and proposal. Initially, a hurried plan was drawn up and submitted by Lieutenant Grant a temporary Presidency Superintending Engineer. Grant based the original drawings on St. Martins- in- the- fields, London, respecting the request of the Church’s elders for a circular structure. The grand drawings were found severely lacking by Colonel Cadwell, the Chief Engineer on several accounts: the apertures were too small, inadequate for a hot and humid climate, the attachment of the vestry, organ and other rooms were lacking in aesthetic and practical appeal, the design of the proposed roof was a challenge to implement and a financial concern and then, there was the matter of the dome.
Colonel Cadwell recommended the use of lead or copper on the dome. Such an idea, if implemented in Madras, would have been as disastrous as wearing a heat conductive helmet. Wooden beams were ruled out on account of aggressive tropical termites. The British had a close shave at St. George’s thwarting the pests determined to turn the organ to dust. The dome had to be built with a new technique that suited the local climatic conditions. Masonry was the most practical method, it was decided. In the meantime, a Bishop of the Church objected to the construction of steeples outside of Scotland deeming such a practice "unusual and unconstitutional in measure." He further questioned the competency of the Scottish ministers in these new Kirks - to - be to marry and baptize in the appropriate fashion. Referred to the Mother - Church in Scotland, the matter was resolved in favour of the Ministers in 1817.
But what was the Church to be built on? All these grand plans and revisions were made without taking the ground into account. The desire of the congregation to have a Scottish Church was so great it seems that the matter progressed from top down rather than foundation up! The land was purchased on the basis of two important considerations: its proximity to Fort St. George and its cost. The eight acres purchased for a song were however on marshy low land subject to sinking and flooding. Somehow, they would have to construct on it.
The new plans had to serve several masters; it had to account for the unstable soil, the structure had to be light and airy, and the entire construction, enduring. There is a famous Tamizh saying for such a request, "koozhukkum aasai, meesaikkum aasai," meaning that the individual desires both to drink the broth and keep a clean mustache! Yet, the standing Kirk is testimony to determination and ingenuity.
The fourteen foot foundation of the Kirk sits on a bed of pottery and brick wells nine feet deep! Major de Havilland who supervised the erection of the Kirk, gives and interesting account of its construction. The entire manner of excavation and sinking of the wells is fascinating. The ground consisted of several rather unappealing layers of soil. The well diggers, a separate and distinct community of people who by all accounts married into their own kind, not even affiliating themselves with the community of tank diggers, unearthed the layers by the basketfull. After going through layers of compost, alluvium, and " black, soapy salt mud" the diggers finally hit sand. The wells were sunk into this sand in a unique fashion. First a wicker ring was woven to sit under the brick or pottery ring. Over this, the walls of the well were built with specially made curved bricks or pottery rings cemented with watery mortar. The entire tube was then bound completely with coir rope. The well digger gets into this tube and proceeds to excavate the hole beneath, taking care to maintain it evenly so as not to upset the perpendicularity of the constructed cylinder. These wells, one hundred and fifty in all, set as close to each other as possible, were filled with material whose volume did not alter in water. The foundation above was then created as a strong series of connected low vaults that could at a future date serve as catacombs if necessary. While the soil was still a tricky matter, the engineer reasoned that since all the wells were placed on the same type of surface, they would all be affected uniformly, keeping the building in equilibrium. This was a substantial risk to take.
The foundation stone was laid ceremoniously by Rev. Doctor John Allen D.D and MD on the 6th of April, 1818. A brass plate inscribed in English and Latin and a parchment version in Tamizh and "Gentoo" were sealed with English and Madras coins and sealed with mortar using a silver trowel made specially for the occasion. The building still stands proud, stable, and airy. The circular central congregation hall is cool and airy. Sixteen solid, creamy white pillars rise in an inner circle on the chequered marble floor. Beautiful concentric mahogany pews built to compliment the curve of the structure, part to form the central aisle. The individual seats woven within the wooden framework sport a shaped back and arm rests for each sitter. Velvet upholstered knee stools rest awaiting the faithful in prayer. Above, resting on the pillars, rises the magnificent dome that would have contented the Elders’ hearts. Fifty one feet in diameter, this beautiful dome is painted with lapis lazuli blue. Gold stars glisten in that ethereal space and a full moon shines down. One long time churchgoer recalled the stars fondly. His favorite pastime as a child was to count them and fall asleep.
The simple beauty is carried through with lovely stucco work. Madras Chunnambu or lime stucco was renowned for its superiority. The caressably smooth pillars and walls are decorated with a relief of grapes nestled in leaves. The grooves, blackened over time are now being painstakingly cleaned and restored to its original resplendence. Looking down the aisle, one is struck by two enormous stained glass panels that glow on the back wall from the midday glare outside. "W&J Jkier, artists in Stained Glass, Glasgow, Scotland" a little corner reads. One has to stand back and admire the work of these artists. The scenes, one of St. Andrew from "Matthew chapter 4 verse 18-20" and another of St. Peter "Acts, Chapter 12, 9th verse" are beautifully executed and detailed.
Suddenly you notice the pipes to your left. Fifteen enormous olive green and gold pipes arranged in a beautiful vertical and lateral pattern. This is the astounding organ. Squeezing past scaffolding, I went behind the pipes. There occupying a whole room was a connected mass of levers, hinges, pipes, chords and beams that made this complex instrument work. I could well imagine how a single note from this truly awesome instrument would reverberate through the room and penetrate every soul.
To the side is a narrow stairway. It leads to the steeple, I am told. Do I want to go there? Unable to resist the invitation, I begin the trek upstairs. Narrow cemented stairs spiral to one level with some rooms. They continue up to the roof of the main structure. Centered there is the bald top of the dome. Two new stainless steel bands, more like rails, reinforce the dome as it was beginning to crack. The floor has been refinished with a waterproof coat which should carry it through several more monsoons. At the front end is the steeple itself. This is where the adventure begins. We enter a square room. Suspended on a large beam within is this beautiful bell. A rope hangs tantalizingly. I long to hear it toll. The bell is rung softly and its reverberation fills the tiny space. Its got a beautiful sound.
There is an interesting story associated with the bell. The original one, cast especially for this Church in a Powder foundry was four feet in diameter. Although the Powder foundry was for military use and the bell a civil department request, the British bureaucracy turned a blind eye to the project. However, as they refused to spare the founder of the establishment, an experienced bell founder from Bengal cast it. The bell was duly hung and tolled for the first time at the funeral of the aged pastor. As soon as the bell founder left Madras, a controversy was created around it. The bell was brought down and the Military Board ordered an inquiry. The accusations seem to have originated from the jealous powder- mill founder sidelined from this project. The brouhaha was over the insertion of a staple to strengthen the bell. Unfortunately ordered to be sold, the bell was broken up and replaced by the existing one.
All of a sudden, I am reminded of Longfellow’s eloquent poem about Paul Revere’s Ride. His beautiful descriptions of a belfry at night echo in my mind. I imagine the flutter of birds disturbed as the bell tolls, the silence by the light of the moon. A draft cools us from a window above. We climb further into the octagonal segment of the tower and look out of a window. The tall lights of the new stadium loom at a distance. The railway station looks clean and sharp, painted bright in a recent facelift. In the distance, I can see the ocean. The melee on the street seems a world away.
The steps narrow and become wooden. It is broken in places. The balustrade is shaky. We have to be careful. A "chick, chick, chick" sound gets louder. There is a large central aperture and two chords suspend weights in the darkness. We have to be careful. One of us accidentally holds the chords for support. The clock protested with a loud chime. We crouch and walk around the square hole carefully watching for loose boards. A large green pendulum swings back and forth silently. We follow its stem further up and there is the clock. Its large cogs turning in precise time with the regular "chick" sound. It has served Madras for over a hundred and fifty years, telling time immune to the political and social changes below. If the clock could speak it would have astounding tales to tell.
The stairs continue up and end at the third level, from there on, an open rope ladder hangs on the outside of the elegantly fluted spire, the top of which is 166 ½ feet from the ground. I content myself with looking at it. We are high enough as it is. The decent is trickier than the ascent. We climb down carefully. As we return to reality, we realize that some of the pews are filled. Worshippers sing in simple tune and the Church is filled with music. When the choir and organ orchestrate, it must be a soul filling affair.
A wind up ladder blocks the main entrance as I leave. It announces its owners to be RKS engineering Industries. I watch the workers as they handle the cumbersome thing indoors. It is like handling a little dinosaur. The winch is wound and the ladder lowered. At every stage the workers pause to ensure the safety of the marble panels embedded in the walls. This level of dedication and care is apparent everywhere. The congregation has a dedicated group overseeing the restoration. They have the best craftsmen brought in for the work, for example, the carpenters are from Dindikal and filigree experts from Nagarkoil. With a strong sense of social conscience, they employ the blind to reweave the broken cane matting in the chairs. It is an outstanding example of peoples power that could be well followed to maintain all our splendid monuments in India. It is a labor of love. Those who are remembered in the marble panels would have been proud of the continued care, affection and dedication the congregation demonstrates in the effort to ready the Kirk for its two hundredth birthday .
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