FEW PLACES IN CHENNAI offer greater serenity than the sprawling gardens of the Theosophical Society, situated in the city’s Adyar neighbourhood, on the banks of the Adyar river. Founded in New York in 1875, the Society moved here seven years later when it acquired Huddlestone Gardens. Built in 1776 by John Huddlestone, a wealthy civilian, this large mansion is today the world headquarters of the Society. Its magnificent 108-ha (270-acre) estate comprises several 19th-century buildings, one of which is the former home of its founder Colonel Henry S Olcott.
The main building houses the Great Hall, almost spartan in its simplicity, where prayer meetings are held. Bas-reliefs, representing the different faiths, and engravings of verses taken from the holy books of all world religions can be seen here. There are also marble statues of the founders, Colonel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, as well as one of Annie Besarn, who became president in 1907. The Adyar Library and Research Centre, founded by Olcott in 1886, is one of the finest libraries in India. Its collection of 165,000 books and 20,000 palm-leaf and parchment manuscripts has made it a valuable repository for Indological research. The surrounding tranquil gardens have shrines dedicated to various faiths. The greatest attraction here, however, is the 400-year-old banyan tree, whose spreading branches cover an immense area of 4,180 sq m (44,993 sq ft). Over the decades, many of the Society’s meetings and spiritual discourses were held under its canopy. Unfortunately, a terrible storm in 1989 destroyed its main trunk.
Brodie Castle, north of the Theosophical Society, is an imposing white structure on the banks of the Adyar. Now known as Thenra , it houses the prestigious College of Carnatic Music. Built in 1796 by James Brodie, an employee of the East India Company, it is said to be among the first “garden-houses” built in the city. These spacious, airy houses with broad pillared verandahs, set in sprawling wooded gardens, were characteristic of colonial Chennai. This house later became the home of the first Chief Justice of the Madras Supreme Court.Further north of Brodie Castle is the Madras Club, built by George Moubray, who came to India as an accountant in 1771. He acquired 42 ha (104 acres) of land on the banks of the Adyar, and built a house with a central cupola, surrounded by a beautiful garden. Known as Moubray’s Cupola, this was once the exclusive preserve of the city’s European population. Indians were only allowed membership in 1964, after it merged with the Adyar Club.