By the 16th century, hundreds of Portuguese families had settled in Santhome and influenced the architectural style of many of the city’s buildings. DR S SURESH writes about the vestiges of the culture

Son after Vasco da Gama’s unique sea voyage from Europe to Kerala in 1498, the Portuguese began to establish colonies in many places almost throughout India. In the early 16th century, they began to rule the Santhome-Mylapore region, long before the British founded the modern city of Madras in 1639. Indeed, Santhome was the first place, in the entire Coromandel Coast, to be colonised by a European power.

By the year 1582, hundreds of Portuguese families had settled in Santhome. Around the year 1660, the Portuguese built a fort around the settlement. It is said that this fortified town was almost twice the size of the English settlement within Fort St George.


The Portuguese exercised profound influence on the history and architecture of our city. According to some scholars, the very name Madras was derived from Madera, the surname of a well-known affluent Portuguese family that once lived in Santhome. The family had friendly contacts with the British officers in Fort St George. The Portuguese fort at Santhome was one of the earliest forts built by the Europeans in the whole of India.

The Portuguese built scores of palatial houses throughout Santhome. Many of these houses, especially those closer to the sea, were surrounded by large gardens. Some of these houses are still in existence. They also constructed several churches in Mylapore-Santhome. These are among the earliest churches built by the Europeans in the whole of South Asia. Among them, the oldest and the most important is the Luz Church located on Kennedy Street in Mylapore. The church is dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Light’, Luz meaning ‘light’ in Portuguese. It was built in the early 16th century by a Franciscan monk named Fryer Pedro de Atongia. This vaultroofed church is designed in the shape of a cross. The front façade displays decorative pilasters and carvings and is topped by conical finials and a cross. The structure is mainly built of brick and lime. The ceiling above the altar exhibits gorgeous paintings. The floor tiles are believed to have been imported from Italy.

Yet another Portuguese church is the Rosary Church or the Church of the Holy Rosary on Rosary Church Road. Built in 1635, the church is particularly known for its ornate front façade exhibiting Ionic and Composite columns surmounted by a pediment. The square-shaped altar is approached through a large semi-circular opening. The altar is lit from above through the clearstorey windows below the massive octagonal dome.

Many people living in Chennai are unaware that the Portuguese had a special attachment to the famous Santhome Church on Santhome High Road. This church was originally built in the 1st century AD. The Portuguese extensively renovated and expanded this church. A major renovation took place around the year 1606. This Portuguese edifice was replaced by the present Neo-Gothic style structure, erected by the British in the year 1896.

The writer is Tamil Nadu state convener, INTACH

Source: Times of India  |  January 11, 2014

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