Chennai's colonial marvels will take you back in time

Photos: Tibin Augustine

Chennai city flaunts several striking symbols of British colonial rule in India. Among them are the stately buildings reflecting the might of the British Empire that now attract a large number of tourists visiting the metropolis.

The Museum complex


The expansive Government Museum is located on Pantheon Road. It was built during the 1789-1890 period on a 15-acre campus and was envisaged as a place of recreation, entertainment, and knowledge. There was a library, museum, and zoo at the complex.

Though some attractions like the zoo were later shifted from Pantheon Road, a steady stream of visitors is seen at the remaining facilities like the museum.


The museum is one of the finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture, which was created by the British blending traditional Indian and western styles.

The buildings that the British built are characterised by the influence of western styles like Romanesque and Gothic as well as Indian features such as decorative work, domes, towers, and arched doors. A large number of such buildings came up during the British Raj in all colonial towns and served as government offices and official residences. Most of them still remain intact.

The museum, like many other heritage buildings in Chennai, was designed by the architect Henry Irvin. The exterior of the Museum is dominated by red colour. On the premises are six buildings and the space between them sports trees of various species. Cannons are arranged all around the premises, which are cool and quiet even at noon.


At the gate of the museum a saffron-coloured wall displays images of numerous animals. The fifty-odd galleries at the museum exhibit copper inscriptions and stone, iron, and copper sculptures. There are also historic documents. All exhibits have descriptions in English and Tamil.

For visitors keen on science rather than history there are numerous fossils and skeletons. In addition are stuffed animals, birds, and reptiles. All the galleries can be visited with a single entry ticket.

The Connemara library


This is another colonial building on the museum premises built by the then Bristish Governor of Madras Lord Connemara. The construction started in 1890 and the library was planned to lend books without fees to the public.

At present, the library lends age-old publications and books to researchers. However, entry is restricted for non-members.

Chennai Egmore station


At another part of Chennai, free from the dust from work on the Metro, is Egmore. Surrounded by date palms is a well-preserved building of the British Raj, the Chennai Egmore railway station.

The long structure is also an overwhelming red brick marvel. A white stripe goes across the building, providing a contrast. There are also towers above the two-storey building.


Other features of the building include pillars with decorations showing leaf and creeper patterns and arches along the passages. Above the main entry is a large circle-shaped Mughal-style construction. Still above it are three Dravidian-style sculptures. The front portion shows an elephant along with other decorative art.

The work on this building was completed in 1908 and the architect was again Henry Irvin.

Higginbothams bookstore


Among the heritage colonial structure in Chennai, the Higginbothams building stands apart for being the only one held by a private party. Located at Annasalai Road, it is India's oldest bookstore which still stands. The tall white-coloured building is predominantly European in style.

The Corporation building


In Park Town area, which is referred to as the heart of Chennai, is a white stately construction. It is the Ripon’s Building, which now houses the Chennai City Corporation offices. Completed in 1913, the architecture has major influences of Indo-Saracenic and neo-classical styles. Elements of Gothic and Corinthian architecture are also seen at many places.

A tall outcrop converted into a clock tower is the highlight of the building.

The building came up in honour of Lord Ripon, considered the most popular British administrator in India. The three-storeyed structure is not a tourist spot, being the seat of the City Corporation, but the stunning view from the outside satisfy many travellers.

Victoria Public Hall

Between Moore Market and Chennai Central station on the Poonamallee high road is a grand colonial building, the Victoria Public Hall (VPH).

Among the people who have addressed meetings at the hall are historic figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Swami Vivekananda, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, and Subramaniya Bharati.


Thousands reached the hall to hear as well as see such personalities. VPH has also hosted the performances by several leading artists and other cultural events.

VPH was built in 1882 to celebrate the golden jubilee of the coronation of Queen Victoria. The architect was Robert Chisholm and the contractor was Nemberumal Chetty. Predominantly European in style, the hall flaunts an architecture that is Indo-Saracenic–Romanesque.

A historic fort

The Poonamallee high road leads to Fort St George, the seat of the State Government. It is the first fort established by the British East India Company in India. Now the Tamil Nadu state legislature and secretariat function from the fort. As a result, the area is under tight security.

Entry for tourists is restricted at Fort St George, but they can take a tour of the fort museum, a colonial building right next to the main gate. It was the residence of Clive, the Governor General. Exhibits at the museum include weapons and guns used by the British army, and war documents on the ground floor. Other displays are the official uniforms of various ranks in the British armed forces and their insignia.

On the first floor are displayed huge paintings of members of the British Royal family, senior officers of East India Company, and Nawabs of Arcot. There are also paintings of Chennai landscape during the early days of colonial rule.

The second floor has coins of various eras and items related to the Indian Freedom Struggle. Some pictures have also been put up.

The High Court

Four km from Fort St George, on the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Road, is the Chennai High Court. The complex is the finest example of Indo-Saracenic architectural style. It combines Islamic, Moorish, European and Indian styles in a pleasing and aesthetic manner. There are large rooms, big windows, corridors with arches, long verandas, decorative doors, and stained glass windows.

Chepauk Palace

This is the first building on this list built in colonial style. Arcot Nawab Mohammed Ali Wallaja had it constructed as his residence. The palace, built using red bricks, has several large windows, arched doors and huge rooms. Now, the state government's public works department functions from the palace.

Central railway station


The Chennai central railway station and the Southern Railway headquarters adjacent to it are typical colonial red buildings. They are good examples of Indo-Saracenic style and are the icons of Chennai.

There are numerous other British buildings in Chennai, many of them are better examples of colonial architecture than the ones described above. Madras Law College, Senate house of Madras University, General Post Office, and South India's oldest railway station at Royapuram are some among them.

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