Picture Mount Road on a Sunday morning over 150 years ago. There is a flurry of activity as horse-drawn carriages take the British to and from Fort St. George across the city.
Some of the structures that dotted their paths then still stand in Chennai.
Unfortunately, many historic buildings and landmarks in the city suffer from neglect and lack of maintenance. Low levels of interest and awareness among the general public about these structures also lead to little to no demands for action to protect them.
But the increasing number of heritage walks that showcase the city’s long and storied past offers a glimmer of hope that the historical buildings and other landmarks in the city will find a legion of defenders in Chennaiites who realise their importance.
What heritage walks teach us about Chennai
“According to me, a heritage walk is a way of reconnecting with the stories and history of Chennai,” says Ashmitha Athreya, the Head of Operations of Madras Inherited, an initiative aimed at improving heritage awareness and conservation. “We need to understand how the city evolved to look at how the city will shape up in the future. The past, present and future are interconnected.”
Walking on foot and taking in the sights of the historic locations in Chennai can help people appreciate history more “It will help you stop, think and process the importance of a place, giving you time to reflect,” notes Ashmitha.
Heritage walks are not just about the physical structures that dot the city but also what they stand for.
“These are not just heritage buildings and monuments in Chennai. There is the story of our legacy behind it- from the colonial to the pre-colonial era. The walks give us a chance to appreciate first-hand the strides made by the city,” says Sudha Umashanker, a Chennai-based journalist and history aficionado who has led many heritage walks
“The purpose of a heritage walk is for people to become aware of heritage in a very engaging manner. Reading a book on heritage is something that is a very individual activity in an isolated environment. But in a heritage walk, you are taking the people to that space and explaining,” says historian V Sriram, adding that heritage walks are a multisensory experience which can sensitise people towards Chennai’s history. “They might be passing that space every day. But when they know about its history, they may look at the space with new eyes.”*
Madhan, a 34-year-old heritage enthusiast from West Mambalam, has gone on heritage walks across the world, and he feels that Chennai joined in on the trend belatedly. He has gone on walks organised by Madras Inherited.
“These walks are done through a lens of architecture since most of those who lead the walks are architects,” says Madhan.
Recalling his experience on another heritage walk led by V Sriram, Madhan says, “I learnt that when the British entered Chennai, they would have seen three towering structures or gopurams of the temples of Parthasarathi, Marundeeswarar and Kapaleeshwarar. The British then built Fort St. George, which would be the fourth towering structure, altering the then-landscape of Chennai.”
Srinivasan Subramanian, a resident of Aminjikarai, has also gone on heritage walks with V Sriram.
On a walk in Fort St. George, Srinivasan came to know that the first ever statue of a human being in Chennai was that of a British general, Lord Cornwallis. The statue was erected in Parade Square in the early 1800s to appreciate his role in the victory in the war against Tipu Sultan.
“In five years, he passed. Then the British decided to shift his statue to a place where it is visible to the public. So, they built a cenotaph at the Teynampet-Mount Road junction. This cenotaph is the reason Cenotaph Road in Teynampet is named so. It was an interesting takeaway from this walk,” says Srinivasan.
Recalling another walk titled ‘The Motor Car comes to Mount Road’, he says, “It was fascinating to look at the Gove building on Mount Road [which is more than a century old] with a Mercedes-Benz on display. The dichotomy of two times- the old and the new co-existing is something to revel at,” says Srinivasan.
The Gove Building on Mount Road was built in 1916. The building housed Cuddon Motors named after George Cuddon. He constructed the building as a luxury car showroom. Even today, it is still used for the same purpose, thanks to the maintenance of the heritage building, note heritage experts.
Who offers heritage walks in Chennai?
A variety of heritage walks are on offer for Chennaiites who wish to learn more about the city.
Sudha offers heritage walks in Chennai that cover Mylapore, George Town, Harrington Road, the Marina Beach stretch, Fort St. George and Marshalls Road among other roads.
She announces her heritage walks on social media platforms. “There are many Facebook groups like Heritage Walks in Chennai, where we can post the walks. If the walk is during Madras Week, we can announce it on the Madras Day website,” she says.
Sudha does not charge for walks held during Madras week. “I consider it [free walks] as my offering to the city”.
Madras week is usually celebrated in August, usually around August 22nd, the founding day of Madras.
Madras Inherited also curates heritage walks every week in Chennai. “Sometimes people from the areas we do our walk too sign up. They come from the perspective of wanting to better understand the city. Other times, we have people who are originally from Chennai but do not live here anymore. They come to feel nostalgic and connect with their roots,” says Ashmitha. “At the end of the walk, we make sure that people learn something new.”
Past Forward also puts together heritage tours and trails, curated by historian V Sriram. The walks costs around Rs. 950. “There are stories and anecdotes that are shared in these walks. We are able to visualise how the place would have been 500 years ago,” says Madhan.
Walks pave the way to discuss heritage conservation in Chennai
For instance, if a person is walking along Fort St. George, they may notice some parts of it crumbling. “The Last House is all but gone and the Wellesley House is in a precarious condition and the walls are deteriorating rapidly,” says Sudha.
“There are trees growing out of the buildings. The walls are falling down, and the boards have been erased over time. If only we had stepped in at the right time to restore these buildings,” says Sudha of the sorry state of affairs at Fort St. George.
On the flip side, Fort St. George also has buildings that are maintained well. “Seeing Clive’s corner being maintained well just because ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) has the office there signifies how buildings can be maintained if ASI wishes to do so,” notes Srinivasan.
Sudha also talks about how restoration must go beyond just tokenistic efforts like the painting of the walls. It should involve the right experts, who are familiar with the right materials and techniques to conserve the heritage.
“On the other hand, there are also well-maintained heritage structures like the Armenian Church,” notes Sudha.
Ashmitha cites the positive example of the Public Works Department building. The department has restored its headquarters on Kamarajar Salai using traditional techniques like plastering.
Experts suggest putting heritage buildings and spaces into regular use, to make sure it is maintained well. “Opening heritage buildings for the public could prod the revival of unused structures. This will help the buildings not deteriorate,” says Ashmitha.
“Loss of heritage happens when the elements of heritage do not have a voice. Only when we have awareness, can we even talk about the conservation of built heritage. Unless a person knows the story of a heritage building, why would they care about it deteriorating? Heritage walks can bridge that,” says Ashmitha.
Making heritage more accessible
“In other cities, there are free walking tours. But heritage walks in Chennai are paid for, which does not motivate many people to participate. When movie tickets cost Rs. 200, why would people want to pay Rs.700 -Rs. 1000 for heritage walks?” asks Madhan.
“Free or subsidised heritage tours would attract more people. If someone can do free heritage walks, then it is the Chennai Corporation. The Namma Chennai app can even have audio tour walking guides in Tamil and English for people to go on heritage walks in their own time, similar to the Pinakin app,” suggests Madhan
If the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) wants to take people on heritage walks or tours, how can it go about curating such an initiative?
“It depends on which sort of audience they will be catering to. Will they be arranging walks for the general public, school children, tourists or their own staff who will be involved in heritage and conservation initiatives? They will have to research the target audience before chalking out a plan,” says Sudha.
The efforts by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in offering tours of the BMC headquarters could be a blueprint for Chennai to emulate.
A GCC official, who did not want to be named, says that the civic body could potentially curate heritage bus tours as it would not need a large budget.
“Initially, the tour can be opened to school children from different corporation schools in the city, and government schools from other districts in the state. Then, we can open up to even foreign tourists who come to visit Chennai,” he says. “Tourists can be charged depending on the interest the tours generate.”
“The civic body can rope in college students majoring in history to guide the tours,” says the official.
Preliminary conversations around kicking off such tours are underway and could materialise in 2023, according to the official.
Chennai’s heritage reflects its history. When we let parts of it disappear, we lose tangible history. Taking stories about the various buildings and landmarks in Chennai and their legacy to a vast number of Chennaiites through heritage walks can create a renewed sense of ownership and pride. This can in turn lead to people lending their collective voice to protect Chennai’s rich past.
*The story has been updated to include inputs from V Sriram.