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What did they see in Chennai?

‘Chennai is a grand city where tradition and modernity co-exist. Well, that’s what everyone says, the guides… the books… the articles… generally every Chennai-vaasi. And that probably is also the impression that most visitors carry back with them today. But what about those who visited many eons ago? Many have come to these shores across centuries, some to visit, some to stay on. How might this city or have looked to them? And what images did they carry back of this place? Let us stretch our imagination a bit and find out in their own words… shall we?

My Lord, You have sent me to this strange land so far away from my own. I can see a skyline dotted with beautiful conical towers which seem to be the local places of worship. There is no dearth of Gods here – there seem to be millions of them, and each also seems to go by a million different names…The people are friendly and are willing to listen when I talk of a different faith. Naturally there is also some resistance to my  presence here, but at least the local king is willing to lend me a ear.  I doubted your word once, but will not do that again. I know you will give me the strength and wisdom, to preach your message here…’

And so it happened. St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ arrived in India in the year 52 AD. He walked through the Southern Peninsula after landing on the coast of Kerala, and reached the place that is called Chennai today.  His message appealed to the local king. But some of his ministers did not take to this very well, and in 72 AD, he was martyred at a place that is now known as the St Thomas Mount. But by then, he had sowed the seeds of Christianity here in India – centuries before it was even accepted as a religion in the western world. In fact, Syrian Christians in Kerala are considered to be among the oldest followers of Christianity in the world.

The common phrase ‘Doubting Thomas’ owes its origins to the story of St Thomas doubting the resurrection of Jesus Christ and refusing to believe till he actually touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hands.

Let’s cut to another age, to another vistor…

‘I have been walking around this strange land and observing its people for some days now. I am most surprised by the fact that people do not lock their doors at all. It seems it is an insult to the king if people need to lock doors. And what a way they have to drink water! I tried it too and it went right through my nose. And can you believe it, there are times in the day when people refuse to take up anything important because the hour is considered inauspicious? They won’t even accept money! But the strangest thing about these people is that they make their Gods dark and their demons fair. So many things here that I do not understand!…’

Marco Polo the Venetian traveler visited the shores of Mylapore in the 13th century, and left a detailed account of the land, the people and their customs. Many of the customs he observed are living traditions, that we still see in practice. It was the time before the arrival of Western settlers and before the Muslim religion reached here. Hindu rituals and ceremonies had reached a peak, and the concepts of purity, casteism and untouchability were presumably fairly prevalent. As for the Gods, yes, they were dark initially, because we are a dark people, and we made our gods in our likeness. But things changed as colour consciousness set in and slowly, our gods became fairer. Of course, today, they have a peaches and cream complexion, perfect teeth and are no way like us!

Miguel Pedro Gonzales— that’s my name. I own a ship and came here because I can buy spices from here. I visited a pepper farm the other day. Dios, I could hardly believe my eyes. Pepper grew thick on the creepers. Black Gold they are called in Europe, and they sell like hot cakes. Only these pesky English men are a problem. We raised the price of pepper a teeny little bit, and they are refusing to buy. Stingy buggers. They say they will find their own route to India and buy their own pepper from here. I really don’t think they can. We are the Masters of the Sea, and they don’t have a chance of reaching here. We will still control pepper trade. As for the locals – what about them really?…’

 The Portuguese arrived here in 1523, but this arrival was more like an inquisition than a peaceful settlement. Their superior Naval capabilities put them in control of the spice trade with the west, and they came here to consolidate that position further. They built their Fort at Santhome and built the Luz Church here, which today is the oldest surviving church in the city. There is an interesting though unconfirmed story that one of the key catalysts for the English East India company to set sail for India was a nominal but an arbitrary increase in the price of pepper in the western markets effected by the Portuguese!

The English did come here eventually, and were masters of half the world in times to come. But what might have been their thoughts about this city in those early days?

‘God deliver me from this land. It’s blazing hot, and my top hats and long sleeved coats are no help to me. Here I am, William T. Smithers, working for the East India Company, posted in Fort St. George. We have collected all the goods from the Black Town, just outside of the fort, and I am waiting for our ships to come and load it in. It is the best Calico cloth I have ever seen and bought at an excellent price too! The mosquitoes are a menace here, and worse still are the peacocks and their raucous cries. We have about fifty of them in here, awaiting the ship. They are going to England, to grace the lawns of the large estates there. Poor creatures—they will surely die in the cold there. As for me, what I want is a large glass of lager, cold lager, with condensation beading the outside of the glass, and the bubbles bursting lazily on the top. Will this land ever get the benefits of ice?…’

 Though this hero is imaginary, we can safely presume his thoughts are all true. Peacocks were taken to England for the purpose mentioned, but they lived and adapted to the cold there. They are still to be found in England. As for ice, yes, it too came to India, all the way form New England in the U.S.A.. Henry Tudor had the brainwave of supplying ice to Europeans in hot countries, and made a fair success of exporting blocks of ice. Remember, we are talking pre-refrigeration era, and the enterprise made sense. The outcome of this enterprise was a new landmark in Chennai where this imported Ice was stored  –  the Ice House, now called the Vivekanandar Illam.

And that friends, is one account of Chennai as it was seen by those who ventured here from lands far far away – some liked it, some did not, some prophesied its future, others were totally off the mark – but they all left a legacy behind. So let’s raise a toast to them, and say “Hats off, gentlemen, we owe you”.

 

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