Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I felt like Robert Langdon

I am agnostic tending to atheism. I do not believe in God but I love the concept of God. Religion, history and mythology interest me.

It was a long weekend this October. Savitha and I were contemplating a visit to Horsley Hills or Bandipur. Unfortunately, all places were full.

We were dejected. That is when we thought about Story Trails. Story Trails is an organization that conducts a variety of trails in Chennai. Each trail is a concept. There are Temple, Peacock, Country Roads, Mystic (recently, added we were told) trail to choose from. When we called, we were told that Steeple Chase was being planned that Saturday. Steeple Chase is a trail that tracks the history of Christianity in Chennai.

Before I write about the Steeple Chase experience, let me tell you little about how it is organized. Each trail requires a minimum size. You will be asked to come to a designated spot at a particular time. A storyteller is assigned to conduct the trail. For Steeple Chase, our storyteller was Navarre.

So, we assembled at the Madras Race Course, Guindy. Story Trail had organized Tourist Autos for the trip.

Shortly afterwards, the auto took the new Kathipara grade separator and went on Mount Poonamallee Road. Little further, we took a turn and started the ascent to Saint Thomas Mount. It is a pity that despite having lived in Chennai for more than 15 years and I have not even once been there.

Navarre took us around the place and he explained to us how the Jesus’ disciples took different directions after the resurrection. Saint Thomas is believed to have crossed the Middle East and landed on the Malabar Coast where he set up fellowship. Then somewhere in 72 AD, he is believed to have come to Chennai. He used to pray at the mount there and spoke of Jesus and his teachings. He is believed to have carved a cross which one can see at the Church. As all disciples, Saint Thomas also met a cruel death. As per the depiction in the tablet, he is believed to have been speared to death while praying.

Standing at the Mount, listening to the story and looking at the depictions, I felt as if I was transported to 72 AD. I imagined a different Chennai. Probably, the Eastern Ghats had more hills than it has now. It probably would have been a thick green forest and not cemented monster.

Ah one controversy there. There is also a belief that it was not Saint Thomas but another Thomas from Armenia. We will keep it aside for a moment.

After spending some time, the autos took us to towards the city. We crossed Saidapet, Nandanam and finally made way to Luz Church Road. I have crossed this Church so many times while I go to Mylapore Club for my morning tennis but never gave a thought.

The story behind the Luz Church dates back to the 17th Century when the Portuguese arrived in Chennai. They are believed to have seen a light from the shore and followed it. When they landed on the shores (Santhom), they built what is now known as the Santhom Basilica. But they realized that the light was actually coming from far behind and they tracked it to the place where the Luz Church is built. And that is how the Church also got its name. Luz (pronounced a looz) in Portuguese means LIGHT! I am wondering next time, I tell an auto drive to go to ‘looz’ Church he would probably think I am a ‘loosu’.

As he showed around, he brought us to a plaque given to the Church by ARMENIAN TRADERS! Remember the other Thomas who was also Armenian from Saint Thomas!



This is also historically significant as after 72 AD, this is the next sign of Christianity in Chennai. Maybe at the time of Saint Thomas, it was not even called Christianity.

From there, we took the Luz Church Road towards the Santhom Basilica. Since we were behind schedule, we could not go there. Taking the beach road, we crossed Marina Beach (world's second longest beach, for those who did not know) and came to Fort Saint George. Today, the Fort also houses the State Assembly. After a brief security check, we went inside to visit the Anglican Church. Actually, as the name suggest, it is more a Fort than a Church. Built by Military architects, it was fashioned in such a way that it can withstand a battle. Anglican form of Christianity probably came to Chennai as soon as it was established by Henry VIII. It was also built because many Brits for lack of an Anglican place of worship went to the Portuguese Churches and were getting married to the women there. One of the interesting discoveries that we made there was that the funds for Yale University went from our own Chennai! Elihu Yale who was a Governor with British East India Company was stationed, right here. He is believed to have sent ‘gifts/funds’ towards the setting up of the varsity.

The next stop really shook us, both figurative and literally. We were to go to Parry's corner where Armenian Church is located. Now for anyone who knows Parry's Corner knows how crowded and noisy the place is. The auto went through alleys and stopped at the side of the Church. We entered the Church through a door which reminded me of the haveli in the movie Garam Masala. And believe me, it was a different world inside. You step into the Church and you find the atmosphere serene and unbelievably silent. One cannot imagine how calm it is inside. It is definitely an architectural marvel.

Now interesting thing about this Church is that there is no service. The place was gifted by Brits to Armenian traders. Armenians dealt with precious commodity unlike British who were trading in almost all communities. Also, we were told that Armenians preferred the British to others. The Pope of Armenian Churches visited this very place of 'worship', recently. The Church itself had a bit of mausoleum influence. Pity we could spend more time there as it was closed for the day.

Of course, by the time we went to the last stop of Steeple Chase, we could not even go inside the Church or should I say Kirk. It was the Scottish Presbyterian Andrew's Kirk. Situated just off the Poonamallee High Road and behind the Egmore Railway Station, this Kirk is the symbol of long-lasting enmity between British and the Scots. Despite the fact that Scots fought along with the Brits, they were given a piece of marshy land while Armenian traders got a place in the heart of the city.

As Navarre narrated the story of how the Kirk was built, I remembered a program about St. Petersburg in Discovery. Since it has marshy land, Scots first laid pillars on top of which they put a slab. The Kirk was then built on top of the slab.

With Andrew's Kirk, we came to the end of our trail of Christianity in Chennai.

Navarre said that Christianity in Chennai was always contemporary in the sense that any changes that happened elsewhere immediately was introduced here.

India, by itself, has been the land where different religions were born and flourished - Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Some have fared better in other countries than here. Buddhism, today, is practiced in large numbers in many other countries than in India. One of the important lessons we learn, in the History taught in schools, is that Indians are fine with foreigners ruling us. Many empires were established by people who were not originally from India. Mughal dynasty is probably the best example. Also, the trail makes it clear to me that God as a concept will never die. People need more of Her or Him, whether native or foreign. Christianity, a true imported stuff! Is it the fascination of Indians, in general, with 'foreign' stuff?



Oh as for me, the chase brought the Robert Langdon in me. As Savitha had observed my expression while I touched the tablets and crosses reminded her of Tom Hanks in Da Vinci Code.

History does fascinate me. These monuments are testimony of our past. They are proofs of our behavior then and now.

Oh yes, I am looking forward to do the other Story Trail. It is one amazing experience. The way it is organized and the small small things (the takeaway, I mean) are really thoughtful. So if you are in Chennai or are visiting the city, discover finer nuances with Story Trails. Let the story teller weave the magic for you, as Navarre did for us, that evening.

Call them at +91 44 4212 4214 or visit Story Trails.
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