Why India's Oldest Mall is Still a Shopper's Paradise

A view of the Spencer Plaza mall in Chennai from Mount Road (Anna Salai)
A view of the Spencer Plaza mall in Chennai from Mount Road (Anna Salai) | © Surya Prakash / Wiki Commons
Arun Venkatraman

It might come as a surprise to many that India’s first modern mall didn’t begin in Mumbai or Delhi or even Bangalore for that matter. In fact, while people in these cities were yet to experience mall-culture, it was Chennai that trumped them and became home to not only the first mall in India but also one of the biggest in South Asia when it opened in 1985. Spencer Plaza, the bright and imposing structure on Chennai’s arterial Mount Road (Anna Salai), is still one of the city’s most popular landmarks.

Although it had its days of great success and monopoly, Spencer Plaza, like all things that were ahead of their time, has failed to catch up to its newer competitors today. And going by modern standards, Spencer Plaza might not even be much of a mall anymore considering that it doesn’t have a multiplex and neither does it have the biggest brands in terms of fashion or electronics—two primary identifiers for any high street mall.

However, what it lacks in terms of facilities and high-end comforts, this age-old complex more than makes up for that through its unique character. From authentic Pashmina shawls to exquisite Rajasthani handiworks and antiques of all shapes and sizes, Spencer Plaza has today carved a special niche for itself and is home to shops and merchandise that you won’t find in any other malls in the city.

And even today, Spencer Plaza attracts a large number of foreigners and travelers from far and away who are looking for more than just the latest fashions at a Zara or Marks & Spencers.

The atrium at Spencer Plaza, Chennai

The story of Spencer Plaza

While the mall itself opened up only in 1985, the history of this venue predates it by more a century. Before being the first mall in the country, this complex built in 1865 housed what was then the first departmental store in India. Constructed by English entrepreneur Eugene Oakshott, the store was then known as the Spencer & Co. Departmental Store and had over 80 departments. In a few years, thanks to a booming business, the store was shifted to a new building.

Constructed in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture and designed by architect WN Pogson, the imposing structure stood tall till 1983, when a mysterious fire nearly brought it down and left it in ruins. The vacant land, which was located centrally in the city, was soon bought by a Malaysian business who, along with a few other partners, constructed a new building designed to pay tribute to the old one and gave birth to Spencer Plaza as we know it today.

What you need to know before visiting

It might’ve been one of South Asia’s biggest malls when it opened, but over the years many other malls have overtaken this complex in terms of size. And if you’re used to visiting modern malls in other cities, you won’t find Spencer too massive or confusing to navigate. The complex is split into three sections, however, unlike other malls, all three phases have all kinds of shops.

The primary question you need to ask before you head to this age-old mall is what exactly are you looking for. While you won’t find a Zara or an H&M in here, Spencer does have a few big shops such as Landmark, which has a good collection of books, DVDs, and stationery, and Pantaloons, which sells budget fashion. But the primary pull of Spencer Plaza lies in its small shops, of which you will find hundreds, dealing in a variety of merchandise.

What makes Spencer Plaza special is that it is a microcosm of the Indian shopping culture. It gives visitors the same experience of walking through any of India’s roadside markets while giving you the comforts of a mall.

A painted glass roof at the third phase of Spencer Plaza

A visitor’s guide to Spencer Plaza

From leather goods to electronics, many shops in Spencer Plaza also deal in the grey market and most shops have vendors who, unlike in other big malls, will try and coerce you into entering their shops. It is advisable to take a local along if you aren’t familiar with shopping on the streets in India.

Spencer Plaza has some of the biggest handicrafts shops in the city and is one of the best places to shop for off-beat and antique décor. In particular, shops in Spencer are famous for their collection of Rajasthani and Kashmiri handicrafts, and this mall is also considered one of the best places to shop if you’re looking to get a hand-crafted rug or a carpet.

As anyone who’s shopped on the streets in India would know, a key skill to learn before going shopping at a place like Spencer Plaza is bargaining. This holds particularly true if you are a foreigner since vendors will try and fleece you. A good way to prepare is to find out the usual asking price of items one is looking for, be it shawls, carpets, or antiques. But while bargaining might be a bit of a hassle, it is a quintessential part of the Indian shopping experience.

An exquisitely decorated Pashmina shawl

While most modern malls resemble each other, Spencer Plaza stands out in ways both good and bad. It’s important to know a little about the mall before visiting it, but on the whole, a trip to this glorious and historic complex is bound to leave you surprised. Take a walk through its alleys and winding walkways in the afternoon and you will never know what you might just find!

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