Chennai

High Court of Madras – a heritage walk

High Court of Madras is one of the famous and well-kept colonial buildings in the city. Madras Bar Association had organised for today, a heritage walk of the High Court, conducted by Mr N.L.Rajah, Senior Advocate. From last year, Madras High Court had come under the security of Central Police (CRPF) and access to it is highly regulated, so I immediately registered myself for the walk. The walk started around 7:30 AM and went for nearly three hours. Rajah had a trove of information to share with us about the history of the legal system in British India and stories around the cases that came up in the High Court – his reverence for the institution was infectious. Time available for him for the walk was a constraint.

The walk started with a visit to the newly constructed Museum, you reach it via the Esplanade Gate of The High Court. The museum is a must visit for all interested, it has a treasure trove of items on display and is being well-maintained by Madras Bar Association – kudos to them.

Auditorium and Museum of The High Court of Madras
Auditorium and Museum of The High Court of Madras

On 10th July 1686, an Admiralty Court was established in Madras. A year later, the East India Company sent from England, Sir John Biggs, to act as a Judge-Advocate of the Admiralty Court. Later a Mayor’s court was established through the same charter that allowed the company to constitute the town of St.George. The Madras High Court was inaugurated on the 15th August 1862. The first Chief Justice of Madras High Court (earlier the Supreme Court, Madras) was Sir Colley Harman Scotland (1860-62). During his tenure, the first Indian Advocate (Vakil) Sri Raja T. Rama Rao was enrolled.

History of The High Court of Madras
History of The High Court of Madras

The High Court building was designed on Indo-Saracenic architecture by Henry Irwin, who has many other buildings to his credit in India; the court building construction was executed by T Namberumal Chetty. It is said they followed a bottom-up approach in the design, allowing each mason who worked on the project to suggest their individual inputs.

A replica of The High Court of Madras building
A replica of The High Court of Madras building on display
Photographs of The High Court of Madras building and its surroundings
Photographs of The High Court of Madras building and its surroundings – more than a century old

Mr N.L.Rajah explained on why he feels the city should still be called Madras – even before the British landed near the port and bought the first parcel of land which will eventually become St.George Fort, the area was called as Madrasapatinam – and that’s how it is referred in the first company document (equivalent of today’s Government Order/GO).

Mr N.L.Rajah and the attentive audience on a Sunday morning
Mr N.L.Rajah and the attentive audience on a Sunday morning
One of the old court halls has been preserved as it is in the Museum
One of the old court halls has been preserved and kept for display
Antique furniture found in one of the judges room
Antique furniture found in one of the judges room
Photograph showing the spiral staircase through which under-trials were being taken to and from the session court hall (the present day Court Hall 4)
Replica of the machine, used for embossing the seal on all orders issued by the High Court
Replica of the machine, used for embossing the seal on all orders issued by the High Court
the guardianship case against Annie Besant related to philosopher J.Krishnamurthy
Many original documents are on display – this one is of the guardianship case against Annie Besant related to philiosopher J.Krishnamurthy
Proclamation announcing the Inauguration of the Constitution of India in Fort St.George - January 26, 1950
Proclamation announcing the Inauguration of the Constitution of India in Fort St.George – January 26, 1950
Akshai Ramesh (my nephew) and me
Akshai Ramesh (my nephew) and me

After seeing the museum, we went inside the High Court premises, to reach one of the two light-houses (the other one is on top of the main dome) established by British in the campus. The lighthouse has been tastefully restored and renovated, with information displays kept in the two rooms adjacent to the main structure. Surprised to find the two visitor rooms and the pathways to the top of the lighthouse to be lit with LED lights and air-conditioned.

The lighthouse was constructed from 1838 to 44. Even before you go into the lighthouse if you look on the right-hand side bottom you will see a block of stone – Standard Bench Mark for Madras used in the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The top surface of the stone is 15.07 Feet above the mean level of the sea.

Light House outside the main building of The High Court, Madras
Light House outside the main building of The High Court, Madras
Standard Bench Mark for Madras
Standard Bench Mark for Madras
Pathways to reach the top are lit with LED lights and airconditioned
Pathways to reach the top are lit with LED lights and airconditioned
Display on Indian Leaders and about the first institutions that were setup in Madras
Display on Indian Leaders and about the first institutions that were setup in Madras
A view from the spiral staircase that's nearly 20 levels up
A view from the spiral staircase that’s nearly 20 levels up. PC: Akshai, I stayed down as I am not comfortable with dizzying heights
The leader to the top - final few steps to reach the top of the Light-House
The leader to the top – final few steps to reach the top of the lighthouse
View of Reserve Bank of India, Chennai - from the top of the High Court light house
View of Reserve Bank of India, Chennai – from the top of the High Court lighthouse
View of the Madras High Court building - from the top of the lighthouse
View of the Madras High Court building – from the top of the lighthouse
View of Chennai Port Trust - from the top of the High Court light house
View of Chennai Port Trust – from the top of the High Court lighthouse

Next stop was the main building of The High Court of Madras. You are welcomed by a beautiful statue of Manu Needhi Cholan, the Chola King who executed his own son to provide justice to a cow.

Manu Needhi Cholan, who executed his own son to provide justice to a cow
Manu Needhi Cholan, who executed his own son to provide justice to a cow
Ground Floor pathway
Ground Floor pathway
Staircase leading to the main court halls
Staircase leading to the main court halls
First floor corridor
First floor corridor
The library of Madras Bar Association
The library of Madras Bar Association

After seeing the court halls, we climbed up the main tower of The High Court building. At each level, we were greeted with majestic views of this building and to the breath-taking view of the city around it.

One of the many domes around the main building
One of the many domes around the main building
In the right top between the two domes, you can see the first light-house we went earlier
In the right top between the two domes, you can see the first light-house we went earlier
Aeriel view of the High Court of Madras
Aeriel view of the High Court of Madras
Near the spiral staircase taking you to the lighthouse on the main building
Near the spiral staircase taking you to the lighthouse on the main building
Spiral staircase taking you to the top of the lighthouse on the main building
Spiral staircase taking you to the top of the lighthouse on the main building
At every level, the domes looked more beautiful
At every level, the domes looked more beautiful
Restoration seems to be happening in some areas
Restoration seems to be happening in some areas
Even the grills have intricate designs on them
Even the grills have intricate designs on them

Overall, the walk was informative and enjoyable. Don’t miss it the next time it happens, watch out for announcements here.