Christianity has taken root in this part of the world with many historical events in the canon of St. Thomas transpiring on Coromandel Coast. The fishing hamlet of Kovalam, which was initially Covelong, in addition to having a rollicking surf scene, is also home to an array of Christian institutions – a Portuguese style chapel that dates back over 2—years, a recently built shrine with an ersatz bell tower, a convent, and a destitute home.
The British are reviled for their colonial antecedents in the subcontinent, whereas Portuguese traders found a favourable trading outpost owing to their affable generals who would navigate schooners from the Mediterranean to the equatorial heat of a land that had an argosy of plenty in those days.
Sir John D’Monte was perhaps one of the beneficiaries of the Indian ‘Sir’ malady of bestowing the benighted honorific to all fair complexioned gents from the West. ‘Sir’ D’Monte was a businessman and a patron of the Roman Catholic Church who owned vast tracts of land, both in Chennai and Pondicherry.
D’Monte was one of the most successful traders on the East Coast in the early 19th century. Marriage was a business proposition back then, and to consolidate the interests of rival trading outfits, he married Mary Bildebeck, a woman of German stock whose family was involved in the pearl and indigo trade. Their son, Christopher, was sent back to the old country where he was brought up by his paternal grandparents.
Christopher died in Germany in 1816 as he was preparing to return to India. The old chapel of Kovalam which John D'Monte founded and houses his memorial is also home to the remains of - and memorial to - his son.
D’Monte is remembered in the annals of time as being a virtuous man whose unflagging devotion to the Catholic faith. The account the Catholic Church gives of D'Monte and his role in the building of the chapel - devoted to Our Lady of Mount Carmel - is worth quoting at length.
When John D'Monte died in 1821, his extensive properties in Kovalam and in Mylapore ( now, one of the tony districts in town), were left largely to the church - with binding restrictions on their further disposal. The estate of the man was tampered with, but court rulings and other strictures have taken the sheen away from the opulence that was once the property of the seafaring expatriate.
The land D'Monte owned included the current locations of the Madras Club and the Boat Club. Among the area bequeathed to the church was a large block on the east side of T.T.K. Road, much of it now taken up by church buildings, and an adjoining area which is still known as D'Monte or Demandi Colony.
After the passing of D’Monte, the properties which were a part of his estate fell into disrepair. The decadence has not been stymied, and even today, the old-fashioned bungalows in the locality have peeling walls and cracked windows, rendering an eerie air to the place, especially after sundown. Legal complications have also put a spanner in the works of refurbishing the houses, in a part of town where real estate prices have been growing exponentially. The handful of streets at the heart of Demandi Colony became rather desolate and deserted, a ghost town.
Word spread that the area was haunted. The legal argy bargy has also ensured that prospective buyers will shy away from bagging the deeds to Sir D’Monte’s property even at throwaway prices.
Most of the old houses have been demolished and the land is being used as parking space for cars and coaches. An ancient car with weeds springing from its unwieldy bonnet is the only remnant of the past which can lay claim to be spectrally menacing and worthy of ‘supernatural tourism’ a la Ghostbusters.
In 2015, a Tamil horror movie was released which drew on the history of the D’Monte estate, adding a few cinematic tropes, as is typical of the film industry in the subcontinent to yield a paranormal broth that would put the teetotalling D’Monte to shame. His good deeds have been shrouded in mystery, and his legacy, lost in the churning of time.