Wednesday, January 20, 2010

An old chapel

In the early days of its occupation of Madras, the British East India Company was nervous about admitting British missionaries into their possessions. This was because they were worried about having to deal with maverick British traders entering the region pretending to be missionaries, but with the goal of breaking the Company's monopoly over the India-Britain trades. Believing they would have a free hand to punish imposters of other nationalities, they allowed French (Roman Catholic) and German (Protestant) missionaries to go about preaching to the natives.

That's how Benjamin Schultze, a German Lutheran, became the first Protestant missionary in Madras. Though he had come to Tranquebar (Tharangambady) in 1719, it was only in July 1726 that he arrived at Madras and began work in the 'Black Town' area outside Fort St George. Needing more space, he requested his employer, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) to buy up a garden house, where the Chennai Central Station stands today. That garden house was, in 1719, the subject of a petition by Antonio de Carvalho da Silva who claimed that it was bequeathed to her by her grandfather, Joao Pereira de Faria (John Pereira). The whole area around it was called John Pereira's Gardens, so there seemed to be some merit to her claim. Fort St George however, took a stand that their agent, Mr. Foxcroft, had in 1671 let the area to John Pereira to farm for 31 years and it belonged to them, even if they hadn't repossessed the place. Finally, the Council directed that John Pereira's Gardens be leased out for 11 years. Though the gardens had within them a tiled house and a sort of chapel near it, the property did not find too many takers, as it had fallen into disuse and had become a refuge for gamblers, who used the space for cock-fighting.

Probably the SPCK got it cheap at the end of that 11-year lease period. But they too did not take any interest in developing the property, most likely because it was outside the walls of the Fort and directly in the line of Hyder Ali's maurading armies. Even the building of a wall did not make the Garden any more desirable; the SPCK too seemed to have forgotten that they owned this property. It was only in 1826 that Rev. J.Ridsdale began to take an interest in this space and began work to construct a chapel - the older "...small Tyl'd house with a sort of Chappell..." having been destroyed during one of the many skirmishes of the previous century. The Trinity Chapel opened its doors to the public in 1831 - Rev. Ridsdale seems to have died soon after. Somewhere in all the furore, it is said, the chapel was never formally consecrated. No matter; for after all these years, it doesn't really need to be consecrated, does it?!


Leif Hagen said...

It's a beautiful little chapel! I wonder what it looks like inside . . .

Shantaram said...

@ Leif: I'm sure it is quiet - and quaint!