A trip to India is often overshadowed by other tourist hubs in touristy India, while Chennai is lesser-known. However, Chennai—or Madras, as it was originally named—is a buzzing hotspot for art, culture, commerce, and food, and offers a completely different experience when compared to other parts of the country.
And with the newly inaugurated metro rail, it’s even easier to move around the giant metro, one of India’s biggest. For architects, Chennai has a stunning exhibit of Indo-Saracenic architecture alongside ancient Indian architecture, modernist buildings, and commercial centers.
Here are 15 ancient buildings from Chennai that are packed with historical and architectural significance.
1. Government Museum
Chennai’s Government Museum building, established in the year 1851, is spread out over the 16-acre Pantheon Complex, which houses the Museum Theatre, Bronze Gallery, and the Contemporary Art Gallery. While the Museum Theatre is built in Italianate-style, the façade of the National Gallery of Art displays Indo-Saracenic architecture.
This is India’s second-oldest museum and boasts the largest collection of Roman antiquities outside the European continent, from the period when seafaring Romans reached the Indian subcontinent during the reign of Emperor Augustus.
Higginbotham’s, the oldest book chain in India is located in Chennai. The store was established in 1844 by Englishman Abel Joshua Higginbotham, who, incidentally, reached India as a stowaway on a British ship. The bookstore moved to its current location Anna Salai road in 1904.
Although the building has aged, the Palladian architecture—with its endearing old-fashioned sign announcing its name—still stands out. The building’s interiors have geometric black-and-white patterned floors, lofty ceilings, stained-glass windows, and a curved wooden staircase. Today, Higginbotham’s has several stores across India.
A perfect destination for the curious traveler, DakshinaChitra in Chennai lets you immerse in different cultures, learn about the different communities of Tamil Nadu and other parts of South India. The open-air museum showcases each style of architecture through a reconstructed town, as well as handiwork, pottery, and other fun traditions.
The houses displayed here have been carefully recreated keeping in mind every detail of the original structures—The houses have an exhibit of traditional articles that have been brought from the original sites!
4. Chennai Central Railway Station
If you are an architect heading to Chennai to soak in some cultural history, then the railway is probably the best route for you’ll arrive at Chennai’s iconic ancient brick-red station, one of Tamil Nadu’s best architectural destinations, teeming with passengers, vendors, and red-shirted porters hauling suitcases.
The Indian Railways comprises the world’s fourth-largest rail network, and Chennai Central happens to be the busiest railway station in all of South India. It was originally constructed in 1873 as the ‘gateway to the south’ during colonial rule. The architecture of the building blends Romanesque and Gothic styles, and its central tower complements that of the neighboring Ripon Building.
5. Valluvar Kottam
Valluvar Kottam was erected in 1976 to commemorate Thiruvalluvar, widely regarded as the greatest Tamil poet and philosopher. While not much is known about his life, it is believed that he was born sometime between the 4th and 1st century BC and his legacy continues to be celebrated to this day. His magnum opus, the Tirukkural, which translates to Sacred Verses—is an epic of 1,330 couplets focusing on leading a life of virtue.
The main hall of Chennai’s Valluvar Kottam has each of these couplets inscribed, and the monument’s most striking feature is the ornate 128-foot replica of a temple chariot containing a life-size statue of the bard himself.
6. Senate House
The Senate House building in Chennai showcases exquisite architectural domes with stained-glass windows, elegant porticos, and a rich myriad of details. This British period structure is a classic example of Indo-Saracenic colonial architecture pioneered by British architect Robert Chisholm.
The design of the Senate House amalgamates Hindu, Mughal, and Gothic architectural forms. The Senate House building has incorporated several Byzantium architectural elements in its design. The construction of the Senate House was completed in the year 1879 and is presently located inside the University of Madras campus.
7. Madras High Court
The High Court of Madras is yet another Indo-Saracenic building that sprawls out over 107 acres. It was designed by JW Brassington and completed in 1892 by celebrated British architect Henry Irwin who is said to have been influenced by architect Robert Chisholm.
The complex exhibits a superb combination of domes, minarets, stained-glass windows, and two lighthouses. The domes overlook the beautiful campus—which also houses a full-fledged museum. Located in the GeorgeTown neighborhood—a settlement from where the city of Madras grew, the High Court complex is a site from the earliest times of Chennai.
8. Ripon Building
Not too far from the Chennai Central railway station stands the Ripon Building with its looming facade—a salient example of neoclassical architecture. The building was named after Lord Ripon, the then Viceroy of British India. The building’s inauguration which happened back in 1913 was a pompous affair that drew the who’s who of Madras.
Today, the Ripon Building is home to administrative offices of the Corporation of Chennai, and tourists are not usually let inside its premises. Yet, it’s worth a visit just for the architectural inspiration as you drive past it on Chennai’s busy Poonamallee High Road.
9. St. George’s Fort
Today the Fort St. George is home to the Legislative Council Chambers, the fort was originally built during the Colonial era and was an important trading post for the East India Company.
The building has been designed to overlook the Bay of Bengal and is the seat of The Government of Tamil Nadu. It is located on Chennai’s Rajaji Salai Road. The St. George Fort complex is a stunning example of military architecture and history, dating back as far as 1644.
10. Kapaleeshwar Temple
The Kapaleeshwar Temple in Chennai is a shrine built to honor Shiva Kapaleshwar, Lord of the Skulls. Built sometime in the 7th century CE by the mighty Pallavas, the original Kapaleshwar Temple complex was destroyed during the Portuguese invasion and the Santhome Church was built in its place.
Tamil Nadu’s present-day and much-celebrated Kapaleeshwar Temple was later rebuilt by Tamil Nadu’s glorious Vijayanagar dynasty. The temple, dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, still stands in the heart of Chennai city, in all its spectacular beauty.
11. Armenian Church
Built on the bones of Chennai’s Armenian cemetery in the year 1772, the Armenian Church, located in Armenian Street, once an active parish is now a well-protected heritage site. While the architecture and history of the church building are awe striking, what stands out about this church is its magnificent belfry with its six humongous church bells each weighing in at around 150 kilograms and at sizes ranging between 21 to 26 inches that ring every Sunday morning.
12. Thousand Lights Mosque
The magnificent Thousand Lights Mosque in Chennai is one of India’s largest Mosques. The building spreads over three acres and is a national treasure in terms of heritage and tourism. Built in 1810, in medieval architectural style, it is said that a thousand lights needed to be lit to light the assembly hall, thus the name.
The mosque complex features giant domes and minarets that reach heights of about 64 meters. Apart from being an important pilgrimage site, the Thousand Lights Mosque is a must-visit for the history it preserves, architecture, and unparalleled beauty.
13. Prakasam Salai
This popular tourist spot, Prakasam Salai or Broadway is amongst Chennai’s flourishing architectural landmarks. Built in 1795, it is an easily distinguishable red-brick beauty. Apart from being celebrated for its archeological points of importance, the Prakasam Salai is a treat for both history and architecture enthusiasts.
Within the building complex, you will find a rich collection of shrines including the famous Kandaswamy Koil, Wesleyan Chapel, and the Tucker’s Church. Being adjacent to the railway station, the Prakasam Salai is best accessible by rail.
14. Annai Velankanni Church
The Annai Velankanni Church is one of Chennai’s most popular landmarks and tourist destinations, often flocked with hundreds of visitors from around the globe. This gigantic church building was erected in the year 1972, the church is worth a visit simply for the glorious architecture it portrays and splendid exhibition of art, culture, and history, if not for a quiet prayer for healing. The Annai Velankanni Church is located in Sriperumbudur, Chennai, near the bus stand and is best accessible by road.
15. Freemasons Hall
The Freemasons Hall, built in the year 1923, is unique in the cultural legacy it preserves. This Chennai hall is a striking example of Greek architectural style, with building material sourced from around the world—for example, the Sholingur stones that build the impressive stairway and Italian tiles that elegantly floor the verandahs.
Considered one of India’s finest ancient buildings with easy access by road and rail, this building provides visitors with an interesting immersion into the exclusive world of freemasons.