January 3, 2011

Chenna Keshava Perumal Temple

Site Name: Chenna Keshava temple 
Site Type: Hindu Temple
Location: Sowcarpet, Chennai city, Tamil Nadu state, India 
Highlights: One of the twin temples of Chennai; The original temple was demolished by the British and the current temple was constructed with the funds provided by the British
Nearest Railway Station: Chennai - well connected from the cities/towns all over India
Nearest Airport: Chennai has both national and international airports
How to reach: Easily reachable by road, train, and flight
Hotel: Many star hotels, luxury hotels/resorts, and budget hotels are available in Chennai
Restaurants: All options - vegetarian, non-vegetarian, Chinese, South Indian, Gujarati, North Indian, Punjabi,....- you can find everything in Chennai city

Chennai city, which was also called as Madras, has been expanding fast. The boundaries of the city keeps changing. The migrated population, industrial development and various other developments have changed the landscape of the city to a great extent. If the citizens of the current Chennai are quizzed to name few important temples located in the city, they might list down the temples that are located in Mylapore and Triplicane. Hardly few of them would know about Chenna Malleeswarar and Chenna Keshava Temples, the twin temples of the original Chennai or Black Town. There is a theory that the city was named after these temples. These temples were originally demolished by the British and were later rebuilt in the current site with the aid of the British. There are many interesting historical incidents related to this temple that are connected with the prominent people who founded the city or helped the tiny hamlet to develop into a bigger city in the initial days. Let me talk about all those details along with the temple layout in this article.

This article focuses only about Keshava temple. The other temple, Chenna Malleeswarar temple is covered in another article in this blog.


Formation of Madras

Armagon, which was located at a distance of around 57 kms north of Pulicat, was one of the earliest settlements of East India Company. In February 1626 CE, the factory was set up here.

As per the instructions from Thomas Ivie of BantamFrancis Day, the Chief of the Armagon Factory, undertook a voyage of exploration of new site for setting up factory. He traveled till Pondichery in his ship. Then, he reached a small village named Madrasapattinam, which was located at about 5 kms north of Santhome. In Madrasapattinam, Day met Damarla Venkatappa Nayak, who was ruling that region.

Venkatappa was the representative of Vijaya Nagara Kings of Chandragiri, who ruled the coastal region between Pulicat and Santhome. His capital was Vandavasi. His father was Chennappa Nayak a.k.a. Damarla Kumara Chinnappa Naidu. His dynasty was called as Kalahasthi Rajas. They were originally from Damal village, located north of Kanchipuram. (There is a theory that the city was named as Chennai after a hamlet called Chennapattinam, which was again named after Chennappa Nayak.)

On 22nd August 1639 CE, an agreement was signed between Day and Venkatappa, in which the Madrasapattinam village was offered to the British for a period of two years. It enabled the British to build a fort in this village and conduct their trade related activities. Day translated the agreement, which was drafted in Telugu, to English, and sent the same to his higher officials for their approval.

The higher official in Surat did not know about the exploration conducted by Day. They had assigned a group under the leadership of Andrew Cogan to find out a suitable site for setting up the factory. Cogan became the company agent of Masulipattinam on 3rd September 1639 CE

At the same time, Day had reached Masulipattinum along with the copy of his agreement with Venkatappa. After getting the approval from Surat higher officials, Day and Cogan reached Madrasapattinam on 20th February 1640 CE by two ships called "Eagle" and "Unity". Along with them, an Indian too traveled to Madrasapattinam. His name was Nagappan. He used to produce gun powder for the British. Day and Cogan started constructing the Fort (which was named as St. George Fort later) on 1st March 1640 CE

Beri Thimanna served as the Dubashi for Day and Cogan. It is said that he was instrumental in the purchase of Madrasapattinam village by the British from Nayak.

Francis Day, Beri Thimanna and Andrew Cogan can be considered as the founders of Madras/Chennai city.

The Original Temple

There was a temple for Vishnu called as Chenna Keshava Perumal, located in the site where the High Court is located now. It is believed that this temple was referred by Dr. Fryer, who mentioned that he had visited a Pagoda in 1673 CE. In 1710 CE, the Thomas Pitt map also indicates the existence of a great Pagoda in this region. 

In addition, in a document dated 26th April 1648, it is mentioned that Beri Thimanna presented the Chenna Keshava Perumal temple, which was built by him to a Brahmin named Narayanappa Iyer. There is another document dated 13th August 1646 CE, which talks about the temple and the adjoining land given as the gift to the same Narayanappa Iyer by Nagappan.

Based on the 1648 dated document, few historians believe that the temple was built by Thimanna in 1640s. However, based on 1646 dated document, I personally believe that the temple was not built by Thimanna. He could have probably renovated the temple but boasted as if it was built by him. If what I believe is true, then this temple is much older. This should have been built even before the British landed in Madrasapattinam. Now, this raises two different theories. The first probability is that Chennappa Nayak might have built this temple and hence it was named as Chenna Keshava. Else, Nayak was named after this deity of much older temple. In either case, the name of the temple has some connection with the name of the city (Chennai), which cannot be denied.

It appears that the Britishers gave much importance to this original temple. Some portion of toll collected in the city was spent for this temple. The temple servants wore the badge of East India Company. Even the coins called Pagoda had the stamp of Chenna Keshava imprinted. 

Demolition of the Temple

In December 1758 CE, the French army entered into the unfortified Black town where the majority of native population lived. The French army occupied Chenna Keshava Temple. The siege was lifted in 1759 CE. Now, the Britishers realized that it was not safe to have settlement near St. George Fort. Hence, they moved the settlement further north, which resulted in the formation of Esplanade in-between. The temple was also demolished as part of that move. (As per few historians, the temple was demolished in 1757 CE).

Twin Temples

Reportedly, there was a public outcry after the temple was demolished. In 1762 CE, the East India Company offered an area in Petha Naickenpet, that was equivalent to the area occupied by the original temple. A committee under the leadership of Manali Muthu Krishna Mudaliar, was formed to construct the temple. Mudaliar was the last chief merchant of the East India Company. 

In Ganga Rama Street in Petha Naickentpet, Mudaliar started constructing the temple. The Company compensated the owners of 38 houses which were removed to accommodate the space of around 24,000 sq. feet for the temple. The Company donated 1,173 pagodas. Mudaliar contributed 5,202 pagodas and collected the rest from the public. Totally, around 15,652 pagodas were spent in construction of the temple.

While constructing Chenna Keshava temple, Mudaliar constructed Chenna Malleeswarar temple also nearby.  

The four Mada Streets around these two temples were renamed later. The East Mada Street became Devraja Mudali Street, North Mada Street became Netaji Bose Road, West Mada Street became Nainiyappa Naicket Street and the South Mada Street was renamed as Rasappa Chetty Street.

The twin temples together are referred as Pattinam Temples.

Even before the original temple was demolished, due to fear of Hyder Ali's invasion, it is believed that the Utsav Murti (processional deity) of Chenna Keshava was moved to Tiruneermalai temple. After the temple was demolished and the new temple was constructed, the utsav deity of Tiruneermalai temple was brought down by mistake. Even today, the utsav deity from Tiruneermalai is reportedly found in the sanctum of this temple. 

Temple Layout


The east facing temple has a big front side mandap. This mandap has few pillars with some beautiful carvings. There are many shops, mostly photo frame shops, are located in this mandap. 

There is no tower for this temple. Instead, a lintel with the images of Vishnu and his two consrts are found at the entrance.

Chenna Keshava

The east facing sanctum enshrines the small images of Chenna Keshava in the standing posture. He is found along with his two consorts, Sri Devi and Bhoo Devi.

The flag staff, bali peetha and Garud are found in the courtyard facing towards the direction of the sanctum.

The front side mandap that is located exterior to the Maha Mandap has a lot of pillars with interesting sculptures.

Chenkamala Valli

The Goddess of the temple is Chenkamala Valli, who is found in a separate east facing shrine in the prakara.

Maha Mandap

There are few beautiful mural paintings found in Maha Mandap. There are six east facing sub-shrines located in this area. They are Alavandar, Senai Mudali, Periyalvar, Mudaliyandan, Koorathalvan and Ramanujar.

Major Shrines

A sub-shrine of big and beautiful Kodanda Ram along with Sita and Lakshman is found in the prakara. Opposite to this shrine, Hanuman with folded hands is found in a separate sub-shrine.

Andal, Venu Gopal-Rukmini-Bhama and Sudarshan with Narsimha on his back are some of the prominent deities, each located in different sub-shrines in this temple. The mandap where Andal's shrine is located is called as Kili Mandap, where the sculptures of beautiful parrots are found. 

Other Deities

Near Kodanda Ram shrine, the following sub-shrines are found:

  • Poigai Alwar, Pei Alwar and Bhootat Alwar
  • Tirumazhisai Alwar, Kulashekhara Alwar and Tondaradi Podi Alwar
  • Tiruppan Alwar and Tirumangai Alwar
  • Bhattar, Nambi and Vedanta Desikar
  • 4 pillared mandap with beautiful sculptures
  • Vaikuntha Vasal
  • Rama Padam
At the north-east corner of the temple, the following shrines are located:

  • Manavala Mamuni - Pillai Lokacharya
  • Madurakavi Alwar, Nammalvar and Nathamuni
  • Kannadi Arai (Room full of mirror)

There are many attractive and interesting carvings on the pillars all over the temple.

Happy travelling.

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