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6 Places in Chennai With Heritage Buildings and Structures From the Colonial Era

Updated on March 7, 2019
Babu Mohan profile image

I am a marketing professional holding a post-graduate degree in management. I have traveled extensively in Tamilnadu.

Labour Statue, Near Fort St. George
Labour Statue, Near Fort St. George | Source

Chennai's Colonial Past

The cosmopolitan city of Chennai used to be just a group of villages in the sixteenth century when Portuguese explorers first entered this region. The city moved to the hands of Britishers by the seventeenth century. Britishers preferred calling the city Madras that later became Chennai in the year 1996. Madras name possibly had Portuguese roots and could have been derived from "Madre De Dios", meaning the Mother of God.

The Britishers had a firm grip on this city till India attained freedom in 1947. The colonial era buildings follow a distinct architectural style known as the Indo-Sarcenic style. It is a blend of Indian, Islamic and Gothic revival styles. While most old buildings followed this Indo-Sarcenic style, the art deco style also found its way into the city by early twentieth century.

The 6 main heritage places to visit are as given below

  1. The road from Fort St. George to Marina beach
  2. College of Engineering, Guindy
  3. Central railway station and its surroundings
  4. Saint Thomas Cathedral Basilica
  5. Parry's corner
  6. Pantheon complex housing a museum, art gallery & library

The city also has old temples surviving for centuries built based on ancient South Indian architectural style adding to its rich diversity.


Click thumbnail to view full-size
Fort St. GeorgeNapier BridgeVivekanandar Ilam or Ice HouseVictory War Memorial
Fort St. George
Fort St. George | Source
Napier Bridge
Napier Bridge | Source
Vivekanandar Ilam or Ice House
Vivekanandar Ilam or Ice House | Source
Victory War Memorial
Victory War Memorial | Source

1. Fort St. George

The very mention of this name connotes power. This was the seat of power when Britishers ruled India. The fort continues to be the seat of power for the state of Tamilnadu as the legislative assembly is located in Fort St. George campus. So the term "capturing the fort" is used in Tamilnadu political circles as a reference to "winning elections".

The victory war memorial and St. Mary Church are other important heritage structures one should not miss while visiting St. Fort George. A drive from Fort St George towards Marina Beach would be a memorable one as one would get transported back in time. One cannot miss the Napier bridge with its characteristic bowstrings on the way.

The Madras University building in the Marina beach stretch is another notable landmark from the colonial era. The Southern end of Marina beach road has colonial structures like the Ice House known presently as Swami Vivekananda Illam and the present IG Office.

In the nineteenth century, an American merchant by name "Tudor" transported ice blocks by ship to Chennai and stored it in Ice house to market the same. How was that for a business model?

College of Engineering, Guindy
College of Engineering, Guindy | Source

2. College of Engineering, Guindy

The main building in College of Engineering, Guindy is a great example of Indo-Sarcenic architecture. The college was founded in the eighteenth century but the main building as shown in the picture above was constructed in the early twentieth century.

This building has a special place in my heart as I am an alumnus of the Guindy Engineering college. Loyola college and Dr. Ambedkar Law College are other colleges with heritage structures from the colonial era.

Chennai Central Railway Station
Chennai Central Railway Station | Source

3. Central Railway Station

All the main railway stations in the city were built during the British era with a colonial touch. The more famous ones are the Chennai Central Railway station and the Egmore Railway Station. Among the suburban stations, Royapuram has a classic colonial touch.

Central station is often used as a visual icon to represent Chennai. The brick red color of the building and the clock tower give the station its heritage charm. Ripon building, Southern Railway Headquarters and Victoria public hall are other prominent colonial structures located close to Central station.

St. Thomas Basilica Cathedral
St. Thomas Basilica Cathedral | Source

4. Saint Thomas Cathedral Basilica

Saint Thomas Cathedral Basilica is the most famous colonial era Church near Marina beach. Though the Church was originally built by Portuguese in the sixteenth century, the present structure was created by the Britishers during the nineteenth century. It is more famously known as Santhome Church.

St. Thomas Mount is a small hillock located close to airport and Kathipara Junction. A shrine dedicated to Mother Mary was constructed in 1523 on top of the hillock and stands there to date. Apart from its spiritual value, one also gets a good view of the city from the top of this hill.

Source

5. Parry's Corner

The colonial buildings created in the early twentieth century followed a more modern style known as art deco style. The EID Parry building of "Murugappa group", a prominent business house in South India, was built based on this style. This building is so popular that this area is known more famously as Parry's corner.

The southern headquarters of State Bank of India and the General Post office building in First Line beach are also notable heritage buildings.

National Art Gallery, Pantheon Complex, Egmore
National Art Gallery, Pantheon Complex, Egmore | Source

6. Pantheon Complex

The Government museum located in Egmore is not just a great heritage structure to admire but also spend a lot of time looking at the various artifacts on display. The pantheon complex housing the museum also has two other attractions namely the National Art Gallery and Connemara library.

The art gallery features rare paintings from Moghul era and some original works of the legendary Raja Ravi Verma. Tanjore paintings popular in Tamilnadu are also on display. Connemara is one of the four National depository libraries in India and it also serves as a depository library for the UN.

Book lovers can visit Higginbothams store located in Anna Salai. It is the oldest book store in Chennai and is housed in a heritage building.

City's New Skyline
City's New Skyline | Source

The Modern Chennai

Chennai has grown into a busy metropolis with a growing automobile industry and information technology sector. It is also called the Detroit of India. It has the largest expatriate population in the country though it is not the largest city in the country.

The new city is expanding rapidly in the southern side. The city's current skyline and the new development bears no resemblance to its colonial past. No matter how much Chennai has changed, we still love the old Madras feeling.

Please leave your valuable comments.

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    • Babu Mohan profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Babu 

      3 weeks ago from Chennai, India

      The Madras in the curry refers most likely to the present day Chennai. There are still many who cannot forget the old name.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 weeks ago from UK

      This is an interesting and well-illustrated article. I hadn't linked Madras with Chennai before. In the UK we have a Madras curry. I wonder if there is a link or whether it is a UK manufactured curry.

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