Narrow alleyways, crumbling building facades, fading wall paint, and downtrodden heritage of Chennai’s Georgetown narrate interesting stories that unravel parts of the forgotten history, culture, and architecture of Chennai. Georgetown was originally called Black Town and was a settlement outside the fortifications of White Town, the Fort St George. It was here in Black Town that our great grandfathers grew up, worked, traded, and built. A large portion of Chennai’s and India’s architectural heritage and culture originated in Georgetown, with huge halls, magnificent churches, beautiful temple architecture, and the first synagogue, which unfortunately fell apart and no longer exists, owing to building degradation.

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The Architecture of Georgetown, Chennai - Sheet1
Photograph of Black Town taken in the year 1851 © commons.wikimedia.org

Listed below are some of the architectural masterpieces of the touristy, Georgetown.

Gokhale Hall

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Gokhale Hall ©sriramv.wordpress.com

This building was amongst the main locations where many freedom struggle discussions were held. It was built by the well-known Annie Besant and was named as the Young Men’s Indian Association (YMIA). It housed a wide range of indoor sports facilities to encourage men’s sports, before becoming a meeting spot for freedom fighters. Freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were frequent visitors of Gokhale Hall. 

Binny Building

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Binny Building being razed ©timesofindia.indiatimes.com

The Binny building was once an important and busy textile hub. Sadly, this structure has now been reduced to rubble, with a major portion of the landmark 200-year-old building, completely razed. Binny Building served as the administrative office of the Binny textiles business. 

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Armenian Church

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Bells of the Armenian Church in Georgetown ©commons.wikimedia.org

This church is an 18th-century construction. Entry into this building is marked by the ringing of six big bells from its bell tower. The church bells are used to signify the time for worshippers to gather for a church service. It is said that these bells have been operational since 1719 and that each bell weighs over a hundred and fifty kilograms.

Sudarshan Building

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Sudarshan Building ©sriramv.wordpress.com

This building currently functions as a multi-purpose building with its ground floor being used for commercial purposes including retail, the first floor for healthcare, and the second floor for residential purposes. Sudarshan Building was originally a hospital building and is still run by the third generation of doctors.

Mary’s Co-Cathedral

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Mary’s Co – Cathedral ©commons.wikimedia.org

This church is a 400-year-old construction and was a prominent destination for cultural events, including performances by eminent musicians like MS Subbulakshmi and KP Kaligambal. The St Mary’s Anglo Indian School, the oldest school in the country, is located within Mary’s Co-Cathedral complex. 

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Rangoon Madam

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Rangoon Madam ©www.booking.com

Merchants of the Jewish community, who traded gems and diamonds occupied Coral Merchant Street. Many ‘Sathirams’ or ‘Madams’ were located in this street, three of which stand intact even today. One is the Rangoon Madam, which is being used for institutional purposes. The other two, ‘Chettiyar Madam’ and ‘Chinna Madam’ still function as places to stay for travelers.

Theru Mandapam     

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Theru Mandapam ©www.youtube.com

Theru Mandapam encases the celebratedThiruvottiyurTheru which is taken in a huge procession once every year, from the Mandapam to Thiruvottiyur.

Temples of Georgetown

People who spoke both Tamil and English were considered superior and referred to as “Dubash”, derived from the Hindi word ‘Dobash’, meaning two languages, Most of the temple structures in Georgetown are built by Dubash.

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Mallikeswarar Temple

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Mallikeswarar Temple ©indiancolumbus.blogspot.com

This temple was built by Berry Chettiar, a “Dubach”. It stands majestically on LingaChetti Street and has a Mandapam in the front for the cultural congregation.

Kalikambal Temple

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Kalikambal Temple ©commons.wikimedia.org

A painting within this temple complex portrays Mathura King Sivaji, in disguise during a period of hiding. Constructed in 1678, this temple has been visited by several dignitaries across periods. Kamadeeswarar and Kalikambal are the main deities of this temple. However, the idols have been damaged over the years.

Krishna Temple

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Krishna Temple ©www.newindianexpress.com

This temple is one of the oldest constructions in the city of Chennai, It is marked by its 15 feet tall granite stoneStambha. This is a distinct feature of this temple as the Stambha structure is normally made out of metal in most temples. In temple architecture, the Stambha is the central and first point for construction and plays a significant role in the measurements needed for building the rest of the temple.

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Georgetown is a striking reminder of the importance to restore and conserve India’s architectural heritage. Heritage conservation is not mere preservation of a façade or freezing a structure in time. By choosing restoration over replacement, we preserve the architectural features, building materials, the essence of the building’s design, and architectural history. Most importantly, there is nothing more visually appealing in architecture than sustainability.

Author

Sowmya is an architectural journalist and writer. In this column, Sowmya takes you through stories on eco-architecture, biophilic design, and green buildings from across the globe.

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