St Andrew’s Kirk, Chennai

(This is from one my columns in ‘The Pioneer’. It turns 200 today)
On distant ridges, anthill spires for milestones’: so wrote that great poet of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka. Whenever I happen to push my way through the crowed pedestrian bridge at the northern corner of the Egmore station, which itself is a sort of an ornate anthill, I am reminded of this line. The scurrying ants on the bridge, who push me and try to squeeze me into shape, have no time to look for milestones. They move ahead purposefully, unstumbling, eager to reach wherever they want to reach. Their eyes don’t wander. If they did, they would have sighted, instead of an anthill spire, a real, dreamy one soaring above a majestic Georgian wonder.
Chennai is not known for many architectural landmarks. Though the British landed first in Madras, they didn’t consider the city suitable for grand architectural creations. They did build a few comely structures in the Indo-Saracenic style, but none as grand as the Victoria memorial at Calcutta or the Victoria terminus in Mumbai. However, there is one house of God in Chennai that more than makes up for this deficiency.
St Andrew’s Church, – or the ‘Kirk’, which denotes its Scottish Presbyterian tradition, – is described in a book written in 1855 as ‘perhaps the noblest Christian edifice in Hindustan’. Even today there is no other Christian edifice in India that can match its nobility. It stands, serene and full of grace, between a cacophonous highway and a bustling railway junction. When it was built however the story was different. Its location was nothing to write home about. It was low-lying, marshy and on the bank of a whimsical river. Fortunately, the construction was entrusted to a hardy army major, Thomas de Havilland.
The great Fergusson says thus about Army officials dabbling in architecture: it is a misfortune… that her architecture is done by amateurs – generally military engineers – who have never thought of the subject till called upon to act and who fancy that a few hours of thought and a couple of days’ drawing is sufficient to elaborate an architectural design.
Fergusson was wrong, at least in so far as de Havilland was concerned. As that doyen of Madras history, S. Muthiah, points out, de Havilland innovated and used traditional Indian building techniques to lay its foundations. About 300 wells of 26 feet high were sunk. Mud was manually scooped out of them and they were filled with broken stone and sand. That the edifice still stands today after 187 years, that its 16 fluted Corinthian pillars support a masonry dome of a staggering 52 feet in diameter and that a four-stage steeple raises to about 170 feet above the ground level are greatly due to these indestructible well foundations. Muthiah says that the steeple was tested by nature almost immediately after its completion: It was early in May 1820 that the steeple was completed; three days later it was buffeted by a storm that raged for 30 hours, giving Madras 16 inches of rain! That the steeple, newly built, suffered no damage attested to the quality of its construction.
The view of the Kirk from the passenger bridge at Egmore is spectacular and uplifting. The steeple defines the skyline for you. More than that, the building and its environs are a sublime statement on unclogging of space, which assumes a special poignancy as one eyes the ensemble, struggling for foothold on the bridge amidst jostling humanity. As one walks towards the Kirk, space and solitude become deliciously palpable. It is this feeling – more than anything else – that makes this church unique. The Kirk’s progenitor, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London is, in striking contrast, gives one a sense of being crowded in, as that church is itself hemmed in by other public buildings of distinction.
When I entered the Kirk, a choir rehearsal was going on. The grand dome, painted blue to represent the vault of heaven, was magnificent. The pews in the nave were empty. Nonetheless, I found the pews and the Church’s famous mahogany woodwork, and even the music, strangely intruding. I wanted the church to be emptied of everything. I thought, this church is a transcendent celebration of space and any adornment, however beauteous it may be, will only clutter it and diminish its glory. St Andrew and St Peter, the fishers of men, blessed me from the stained glass widow at the Chancel end of the church and they appeared to agree with me.
There is a reference to the consecration of this church in a magazine called Asiatic Journal published in 1821. It says: An excellent discourse was delivered from the 16th and 17th verses of the 3rd chapter of St Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians to the congregation which filled this spacious and handsome structure.
The 16th verse, I checked up, is in the form of a question. St Paul asks:
Know you not that you are the temple of God and the spirit of God dwelleth in you?
I am not sure. Neither, I think, are the believers.

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