September 12 was a Sunday of a different kind for the 200-year-old St Andrew’s Church in Chennai, fondly called The Kirk, as Heritage enthusiasts stepped into its campus for The Kirk Heritage Walk, a guided tour of the church known for its architectural splendour, rich heritage. It is a part of the Madras Day celebrations. Kirk in Scottish means church.
Vanathi Gopalakrishnan, a Chennai resident of 40 years, had always wanted to visit the landmark church. “I was awestruck” she said looking at the iconic pillars at the entrance, the dome held by 16 fluted Corinthian columns and the intricate ornamental work.
Visitors also got a rare opportunity to climb up to the church’s roof to have a closer look at the tallest steeple in the city, the unique dome, belfry and the tower clocks that tick even today.
“To climb the spiral stairs partly through the tallest 111 3/4 foot high steeple was an experience” she said. “The Kirk transported me to old Madras. Though Chennai has turned chaotic, this place has retained the old Madras feel.”
Consecrated in the year 1821, St Andrew’s Church was built by the British for worship by the Scottish community in the then Madras.
The design was largely borrowed from a London church, St Martin-in-the-Fields. Rev John Allan was the first Presbyter and Major Thomas Fiott De Havilland its architect. Raised on a marshy land on the banks of the River Cooum, the edifice stands on a foundation made of 150 wells, filled with stones and sand.
With recent excavations and carbon dating confirming the 3,200-year-old Porkai Civilization in southern Tamil Nadu, Mathew Mathew, HR professional, said, “These excavations, including the one at Keezhadi, have triggered interests towards heritage sites. It feels special to stand on a well foundation. These initiatives will raise awareness on conservation. I’d love to contribute for such causes.”
Chitra Mukunnan, a visiting professor who lives in Chennai since 1977, said she was stunned by the dome, coloured with lapis lazuli inside to reflect Scotland’s blue sky all over the ceiling.
“I was thrilled that the dome ceiling has the original lapis lazuli coat and has not been painted all these years. The 200-year-old church is well maintained. It’s interesting that all the beautiful work on the pillars were done by artisans from our districts those days.”
Radhika Rajkumar, a travel and tourism professional, said, “For a non-Christian like me the tour of the Kirk was a beautiful experience”. She loved the series of outreach activities of the church. “I am a Rotarian and I love projects. To learn about the number of service activities of the church to the differently abled, children, vocational training for woman supported by the congregation is amazing.”
The visitors were also drawn towards the pipe organ and the 27-feet high stained glass paintings. Members of the church also shared their restoration initiatives over the years.
Gabriel Sathianathan, an elder who led one of the guided tours, said “This Heritage Walk is to celebrate God’s blessings on our City of Madras/Chennai over 382 years and our Church St Andrew’s Kirk over the last 200 years.”
There was a special screening of a documentary on St Andrew’s Church.
The Presbyter, Rev Isaac Johnson, shared the message of the church.
Encouraged by the response, the Kirk would make the heritage walk a part of its calendar.
Dulip Thangasamy, Secretary of the Kirk Session, added, “St Andrew’s Church has for long been a favourite destination for heritage enthusiasts. But the Church has never directly organised the walks. In deference to the requests of the local heritage community, the Church administration decided to organise walks around the campus annually coinciding with the Madras Week.”
(Disclosure: J Sam Daniel Stalin is a member of St Andrew’s Church but his writing is a professional work)