Standing tall through the vagaries of time
To be imposing symbolically was important for religious structures of all denominations. To expel smoke was important for a chimney.
CHENNAI: At some point in history, when heights were revered and the technology to sustain tall buildings was inaccessible, these tall structures of Madras were a wonder to behold. The purpose of building them was varied. To shine a beacon for the sailors was important for a town that depended on nautical trade. To be imposing symbolically was important for religious structures of all denominations. To expel smoke was important for a chimney. Several flagposts and TV towers were very tall too. With the advent of concrete and glass, however, skyscrapers began overshadowing the gloriousness of these structures, each one trying to out-do the other in height
Minarets of Triplicane
When the Nawab of Arcot decided to move to a new palace in Chepauk, a huge contingent of his citizens followed him and settled down in neighbouring Triplicane. To cater to their spiritual needs, the Wallajah Mosque in Triplicane High Road was constructed in Mughal architectural style in 1795 by the Nawab’s family. The mosque was renovated during the regime of Azam Jah, who modified its minarets and added golden finials to the spires. The two minarets at either end of the mosque are 131 feet high. While the mosque is made of exposed grey granite, the slender minarets are lime-washed in contrast.
Flag Staff at the Fort
It must have been a mighty ship that sank off the coast of Madras, for its teak sail mast was 148 feet high. Not knowing what to do with it, the beam was taken in and stored within the Fort. In 1687, the King of England had noticed the growth of the town and allowed the Fort to sport his flag (calling it his colours) in a grand ceremony where armed soldiers, a musical band, officials of the East India Company, and the principal citizens of the black town had gathered. The post was installed on the southeast corner of the Fort and the flag of England raised on it. The post seems to have been moved within the Fort before coming to the sea-face again. The French flag flew over it in the 3 years after the British lost the Fort. What is now present is a steel pipe of the same dimensions, though its political significance has not lowered its historical background.
With the expansion of the railways in southern India, Royapuram station to the north of black town was deemed too far out of action. George Harding designed the second station in Madras in the Gothic-revival style. On the banks of the north river (by then renamed Buckingham canal), the station had its humble beginning. It was during its first major modification that it attained its present structure. Robert Fellowes Chisholm added the central clock. The clock tower with the flagstaff, the tallest of the towers of the main building, has four faces and reaches a height of 136 feet. The photo of the station shining with lights and an Indian flag fluttering above on Independence Day 1947 is as iconic as the structure itself.
St Mary’s Church within the fort and its tall spire was identified as the first Light House by a company wishing to save money on a separate exclusive structure. There was opposition and a 99-foot wooden tower on the top of the Fort exchange (now the Fort museum) was assembled with 12 coconut lamps. The first exclusive Light House was a Doric column 125 feet tall. It had spiral steps inside. It functioned effectively till the High Court (built next to it) turned out to be an architectural mistake blocking the southern sweep of the light. The present Light House is 187 feet tall. With a lift and 11 storeys, it was finished in 1977 on the southern end of the Marina beach. It’s interesting to note that the original site requested was the location opposite the Madras University where a series of tombs of political leaders now exist. The Light House uses a 3,000-watt electric light, Madras being one of the last ports to adopt electric lights for the beacon.
The LIC building was an edifice – the culmination of a magnificent dream. A Chettiar industrialist and banker MCTM Chidambaram dreamt of the tallest building in India modelled on the most famous in the world at that time – UN Secretariat in New York City. Chidambaram had even chosen a name – United India Building. But he died half way through its construction and his company was taken over by the government when it nationalised the insurance sector. Its height was reduced to 14 floors and 2 basements from Chidambaram’s more extravagant plan but still, when completed the 177-foot building on the city’s main thoroughfare was the cynosure of all eyes. LIC Building was the tallest building in India when it was inaugurated in 1959 for 2 years before being surpassed by the Usha Kiran building in Bombay. In Madras, it held the record for 35 years. On 11 July 1975, a major fire occurred in the building and the Fire service personnel realised how ill-equipped it was to put it out. The Fire service got its high-rise snorkels post this incident.
Anna Nagar Tower
The Indian International Trade and Industries Fair of 1968 was organised by the All India Manufacturers Organisation (AIMO) to showcase the Indian industrial development post-independence. It was planned to be the largest international trade fair in Asia. The location identified was the Naduvinkarai village on the north bank of the Cooum. It took 15,000 workers to create the fair and a resident team of 2,000 were employed until it was over. The 135-foot-tall phallic tower was named after Dr Visvesvaraya, AIMO founder, and was the undeniable embodiment of the fair. Designed by Yahya C Merchant, who was, at that time, also designing the Jinnah Tomb in Karachi. More people came to see the view of the city from its top (at the cost of Re 1) than to do real business. There were plans to remove the tower once the exhibition was over because it was standing in the middle of nowhere. But considering its popularity, the government decided to let it stay. For years, entry was restricted because of the number of people trying to kill themselves. It was recently reopened to the public.
Only three of the 12 apostles of Christ have a church above the burial place. Madras shares this pride with the Vatican, and Galicia in Spain – a typical Portuguese church with a vault roof shaped like a barrel. In 1896, it was renovated in the Madras Province, according to neo-Gothic designs, as was favoured by the British architects in the late 19th century. There are twospires in this church. The taller one acts as a bell tower on the left side. It’s 147 feet tall and can be seen from a distance. Since it’s on the seaside, ships from afar identified the city with its view. The St Georges Cathedral is 139 feet but being on Mount Road, it’s now dwarfed. The Kirk or Andrews Church in Egmore is 166 feet tall. Interestingly, such a tall structure was built on marshy land with special soil replacements using terracotta wells.
The Kapaleeswara temple of Mylapore is perhaps one of the most well-known temples in the city today. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and Parvathi. Tamil hymns speak about the time when Parvathi worshipped the lord in the form of a peafowl, which lent itself to the name Mylapore to the locality. Though of Pallava origins and sung by the sacred saints who performed miracles there, the gopuram or 120-foot high entrance tower, was relatively new. It was built by a gentleman mentioned only as Triplicane Chettiar, in the 1900s in the records of a trustee dramatist, Pammal Sambandam Mudaliar. However, the highly recognisable tower remains a symbol of the city even today, and also one of the best maintained temple towers. It’s covered with stucco statuettes of hundreds of characters – both divine, human and animals – all brightly painted and depicting stories from Hindu epics.
Tallest Chimney in Kilpauk
With the city growing in leaps and bounds, so did its water needs. With it came water-borne diseases which took a heavy toll every year. So it was planned to pump water from Kilpauk to the entire city. Kilpauk was supplied with water from the distant Red Hills. Though Kilpauk was higher in altitude than the rest of the city, and hence, it could transport water by gravity to most of its citizens, a large overhead tank was built. It could store 56 lakh litres at the height of 18 metres. Pumping so much water required heavy duty pumps, which were imported from England. There was not much electricity, and so they had to use a steam engine. Steam engines emitted excess exhaust. The planners did not want to pollute the water or harm the city. So they built a chimney which expelled the smoke onto a stream of wind they had identified at a particular height. That chimney was built at 177 feet around 1904, and still remains though not used.
St Thomas Mount
At an altitude of 300 feet, the church atop the St Thomas Mount, was the highest location in Madras for a long time. The St Thomas Mount, also known as Parangi Malai, is on the southwest of the city. The Portuguese identified it as the place of martyrdom of the apostle Thomas. Early ships to Santhome were guided by daily bonfires lit atop this hill. A shrine dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Expectation’ (Mother Mary) was built in 1523 atop the Mount. And, a flight of 160 steps leads up to the summit of the Mount. When the trigonometric survey of India was started to measure the country, it commenced on this hill. The surveyor, Lambton, was looking for hills to place his theodolite and thus chose this hillock to place it for the first time and aimed for the distance at the Perambakkam hill. This was the most successful survey with Lambton’s assistant, Everest, leading it all the way to the Tibet border.