When it comes to historic structures, Chennai is better-known for its exquisite temples and Tamil architecture. However, what is often missed is the fact that the city is also home to some of the most historically important churches, which form an integral part of its heritage and multi-cultural ethos. From the world-famous San Thome Cathedral Basilica to lesser-known gems like St. Andrew’s Church (The Kirk), here is a list of some of the best historical churches in the city.
This minor Basilica in Chennai’s Santhome neighbourhood is one of the most important Christian religious sites, not only in the city but in the world. Constructed in the 16th century by Portuguese explorers, the cathedral is best-known for being constructed over the tomb of St. Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus. The Basilica has been renovated multiple times over the last few centuries, with the last major effort being undertaken in 1896 by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Madras and Mylapore. The exquisite structure is an important reminder of Chennai’s historic links to Christianity and continues to house one of the largest congregations in South India.
The Armenian Church in Chennai’s Parry’s Corner is a true testament to the multi-cultural fabric of the city. At one point, it was an important religious centre for the city’s once thriving community of Armenian traders and merchants. A great example of Armenian church architecture, the structure was built in the early 18th century, making it one of the oldest churches in the country. Due to the decline of the Armenian community of Madras, the structure now only functions as a heritage building. However, it still houses nearly 350 graves of Armenians who once called Madras home. This small structure located on the busy Armenian Street is easy to miss, but it is undoubtedly one of Chennai’s most important historic churches.
Located inside the walls of the historic Fort St. George, St. Mary’s Church has the unique distinction of being not only India’s oldest Anglican church, but also the oldest British building in the country. Completed in the year 1680, the church has been central to several historic events in the city. In fact, the old prayer hall of the church was where the marriages of several prominent personalities, like Robert Clive and Elihu Yale, were consecrated. The church’s structure incorporates a four-feet-thick bomb-proof roof and features immensely thick walls so as to help withstand enemy attacks and storms. The altar features an exquisite rendition of The Last Supper, which was brought to Madras as spoils of war from Pondicherry.
Chennai’s St. George’s Cathedral occupies a unique place in the city’s history and its relationship to Christianity. Constructed in 1815, it attracted the patronage of successive Governor Generals of Madras and was one of the most important sites of worship for the British community in Madras. However, what makes the St. George’s Cathedral historically unique is the fact that it was here that the Church of South India (CSI), the second largest Christian denomination in India after Roman Catholics, was inaugurated in 1947. The cathedral features several unique architectural elements, such as stained glass windows.
One of the most expensive constructions undertaken during the Raj, St. Andrew’s Church in Egmore was constructed and consecrated in the year 1821, making it one of Chennai’s oldest heritage buildings. The church was constructed with features of Neo-Classical and Palladian styles of architecture and has a circular main complex. One of the primary architectural highlights is the shallow dome that sits upon the circular hall. The exquisitely decorated dome features pottery cones and is painted with a gold colour scheme. The deep-blue shade of the dome is derived from a mixture of crushed seashells and the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, which fills its interior. The church continues to be one of the most popular places of worship in the city and boasts a large congregation.
Built at the behest of British soldiers stationed at St. Thomas Mount in 1830, the St. Thomas English Garrison Church is one of the best examples of British architecture in Chennai. The design of the church is said to be an exact replica of the famous St. Clement Danes in London’s Westminster, but with added elements such as a bomb-proof roof and rust-proof railings to prevent damage from enemy attacks. The church continues to function and conducts daily worship services, drawing a large number of devotees.