Mylapore, Madras, and the arrival of the British

Entrance to one of thousands of Tamil Nadu temples -- the Temple of Thiruvalluvar, an early Tamil saint and poet

A short distance from the temple of the village Goddess of Mylapore is the temple, also very small, of the boundary Goddess of Mylapore.

The village Goddess lives in a more central location, but the boundary Goddess lives right on the boundary.  While the village Goddess gives blessings to babies and young married couples, the boundary Goddess has quite a different function.  People come to visit her when they have a fear or a problem.

This is not Ellai Amman, but another south Indian Goddess.

Because she is a fierce protective Goddess, she sends away people’s fears and problems.  She casts them over the boundary and far away.

In the temple is the stone form of the boundary Goddess, Ellai Amman. Ellai means boundary.

Beyond her, against the wall, is a large, looming, ferocious form, a statue dressed in red, with glaring red eyes.  She looks ready to pounce.  Clearly this is a warrior Goddess, who will not hesitate to combat any challenges. One can appeal to her for protection.

The stone statue in front is being washed; over her head are poured coconut milk, curd, and great globs of honey.  Then, rinsed in water, she is ready to meet the day, to guard her boundaries and her people.

There were Christians also in early Madras.  And according to legend, Jesus’s apostle Thomas, who first brought Christianity to India, arrived in Madras in 52 AD.

The Cathedral, called San Thome (St. Thomas), has been built over the site where it is believed that St. Thomas was buried.  Below the main sanctuary of St. Thomas’s Cathedral, one can descend to another chapel below the street level. By the altar is a statue, lying stretched out, of the apostle Thomas.  Underneath the floor where the statue rests, one can see the red earth, where it is said that St. Thomas was buried.

For those who believe this is his burial site, it is one of only three churches in the world built on the site of the tomb of an apostle of Jesus Christ.  There is, however considerable doubt that St. Thomas really did come to Tamil Nadu since he is not mentioned in early records.

The entrance to St Mary's Church

St. Mary’s Church is even earlier and was built in the 1600’s, around 1640.  It is a very peaceful site, in the midst of tall trees.  Inside the church are many graves, with memorial stones, with rather sad stories; one stone marks the grave of a woman whose child passed away from an illness, and she died not long after at the age of 41.  They are British people who had come to the shores of India, and there they died.

In the museum at Fort St. George where St. Thomas’ Cathedral stands are paintings of British ladies and gentlemen, some looking aloof and rather condescending.

In another room of the museum are displayed many weapons and canons.  My guide Vasan explains to me that the British did not let Indians manufacture rifles and pistols.  All these firearms are imported, brought by ship to India.  Also on display, however, are many cutlasses, knives, daggers, and swords, manufactured by Indians, using a knowledge of metallurgy unmatched anywhere in the world.

One of the museum’s descriptive accounts tells the story of wars on Indian soil, between the British and the French.  While Britain and France were fighting in Europe – and also fighting in the French and Indian War in the New World – apparently they also deployed forces made up of Indian soldiers to battle each other in southern India. Perhaps they felt — why not extend wars as far across the world as possible, and if it’s on other people’s land, well so much the better?

The land on which Fort St. George stands was bought by the British from its Indian owner, the Raja of Chandragiri.  The British ownership of Indian lands expanded when they gave loans to maharajas and nawabs who led pretty dissolute lives, waged wars and could not repay the loans. The British ended up taking over the lands. The rest the acquired by purchase and / or war.

In this way, the British gained power, and the Indians lost the power that they had.  And before they knew it, India was a colony of Britain and part of the British Empire.  It happened one little step at a time.  The British never had much military force in India, but, being masters of wielding the appearance of power, they always gave the impression that their armed forces were much greater than they really were.

First there was the East India Company, who arrived in India to engage in trade.  Then it was necessary to provide armed forces for the protection for the British who were carrying out the trading.  Then, bit by bit, the whole of India fell into the hands of the British – who did not leave until 1947, around four long centuries after they arrived.

Top photo: Sharon St Joan

Second photo: Wikimedia Commons / This photo is in the public domain.

Third photo: Sharon St Joan

3 thoughts on “Mylapore, Madras, and the arrival of the British

Leave a Reply