In our unrelenting coverage of events and locations connected to Tamil Nadu elections, this week we take a historic look at that place where all the elected MLAs get down to work: the stately campus of Fort St George, which, needless to say, houses the all-important the defence canteen where you can get liquor at the cheapest rate possible in Chennai.
Fort St George, as can be easily deduced, is named after George, who was till last year the Police Commissioner of Chennai. Oops sorry, we got the wrong George. Fort St George is actually a tribute to the mythological patron saint of England, who went by the name Fort. Built by the East India Company in 1664, it is a typical Victorian edifice, elegant and imposing, and to this day it retains the quintessence of British empire in the form of surly and insolent security personnel at the entrance.
When the British wanted to expand their empire in these parts, for building their headquarters they wanted a place that was close to the sea and naturally their first choice was OMR. But as they were stuck at the Tidel-Park signal –– for the record, that particular traffic snarl is still to clear –– they changed their original idea and instead opted for the present location as it was also pretty close to Anna and MGR samadhis.
After Fort St George came up, the area around it began to grow in no time. It came to be called George Town based on the eponymous fact what was developing was a town.
The Fort St George complex, which these days is home to the State Legislative Assembly, the offices of the State Chief Minister, Ministers and Secretaries and the apex administrative apparatus, was for centuries the supreme seat of English power in these parts, except for a brief period between 1746 and 1749 when the French managed to capture it smartly taking advantage of the security chink that the all-important CCTV cameras were still to be invented.
The bloody battle between the British and the French in fact has stood the structure in good stead when, centuries later, it was witness to far bloodier and violent conflict between two of the most implacable forces in history, the DMK and the AIADMK.
The main Fort St George building is a wood-and-stone three-storey structure, and on the ground floor is the famed Assembly hall, which is where the elected representatives of the State carry out the legislative function of reading out speeches written by somebody else, thumping the desks, raising slogans and calling their political opponents nasty names.
On the first floor of the building is the State Chief Minister’s chamber, and the best and possibly the easiest way to have a look of it is to get elected as the Chief Minister. Otherwise, losers like us can’t even dream of getting anywhere near that floor itself. On the other wings and floors of the building are the Ministers’ and top government secretaries’ offices, who are of the high gazetted rank of having their own bathrooms.
Aside from this main structure, the complex also has the Namakkal Kavingar Maaligai, a 10-floor monument of absolute hideousness that houses all important State departments and outside it are the canteens and tea shops that house all the employees of these departments at all working times.
The Britishers, with their keen sense for history and heritage, also made good space for a beautiful museum inside the complex, which to this day has on display some rare artifacts that date back to their rule while the artifacts dating even further back and of real value have, of course, been slipped away to London. Also, local legend has it that the nearby Namakkal Kavingar Maligai has officers still dealing with files and reports far older than any museum has ever seen.
Among the items to look out for in the museum is the first-ever flown flag of India after Independence, a time when flying the flag and saluting it wasn’t mocked at. For safety reasons, the flag is kept inside a closed almirah in the museum, but if you are a history buff, you will be happy to note that you can view the closed almirah on all days.
The flag staff at the fort is the 2nd highest in the country. Made of teakwood, it is 150-feet high, and it was installed by the well-known forest brigand Veerappan, when he was hiding here (the security guys mistook him for a legislator) when the SIT officials were looking for him Sathyamangalam forests.
History and politics aside, the Fort St George complex is a fab place to visit and take in all the sights and sounds. We should also add here that all the officers are nice and reasonable as long as you don’t wake them up.