As my next destination is the Andaman Islands I need to do a stopover in Chennai (also known as Madras) in India and I thought it could be a good idea to find some more facts on this Indian city before I arrive. When I was digging up facts I could clearly see there is loads of interesting stuff for a visitor like me to pass time with, the main problem would be to get enough time to see it all. Please feel free to use the tips in this post if you should visit Chennai yourself.
Old-fashioned, orthodox, slow, insular… there are just some of the words that people throw at Chennai. Granted, it is the most low-profile of India’s metropolises, but dig a little deeper, and you will find that this southern city oozes with a charm of its own. It has tons of art and culture that go back thousands of years, an even pace of life, a size that’s small enough to make friends of strangers, and an easy lack of glamour that is at once amusing and reassuring. If this is your first visit to the city, let me give you 10 reasons why you’re about to fall in love.
1. Kapaleeswarar Temple
Chennai has many old and beautiful temples, but you must begin with a visit to the Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore. This 1,500-year-old temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, has beautiful carvings and lots of history. Soak in the atmosphere, watch devotees light dozens of oil lamps as they go about their ancient rituals of worship, or feed the colorful fish in the tank at the back of the temple.
When you are done, wander down the narrow lanes to pick up quaint souvenirs ranging from elegant brass lamps and bells to techni-colored gods in glitzy frames. or buy sweet-smelling jasmine, basil or roses from the flower sellers. The temple has a dozen quaint legends attached to it, so ask some Chennaite to tell you the tales.
2. IT Hub
Did you know that Chennai is India’s number two provider of software and other IT-related services? It is also India’s top stop for auto and auto component companies, commanding over 30% of both industries, and home to companies like Hyundai, Ford, BMW, Mitsubishi and Caterpillar.
Another industry that Chennai is homing in on is electronics manufacturing – Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, Samsung, Cisco and Sony-Ericsson are just a few companies that has set up base here. The city assures good business process continuity – an educated work force, no labor problems, reliable power supply, adequate terabit bandwidth, a cooperative administration, and a good quality of urban life.
The influx of so many multinational and BPO companies has seen a sudden increase in the number of “outsiders” settlers, making Chennai a far more cosmopolitan city than it was five to seven years ago. Now, there are high-rises, fancy pubs, coffee bars, nightclubs, and the swankiest of shopping centers to cater to the rising population of young consumers with high spending power.
3. Movie-Mad Town
If you know anything about Chennai at all, you will know that the inhabitants are a little nutty about their movie stars. They admire them, worship them, emulate them – and when their “gods” die, they immolate themselves.
You can’t miss the fact that movies reign rampant over the public imagination – the Chennai skyline is dotted with colossal movie hoardings, often with special 3-D effects and a work of art in themselves. Although there’s never been a film festival here, movies and movie starts are always in your face in Chennai.
4. Crossroads of Two Eras
This is a city that easily spans two eras – one is the hi-tech world of modern business, and the second is a tradition-bound world that goes back thousands of years. The same man who heads an aggressive multinational bank will faithfully appear at the temple in his white dhoti every dawn, making flower offerings to the gods.
You will hear temple bells and the chants of slokas at every turn. Every house will have a son or daughter learning classical music or dance while quite happily swaying to Shakira or Beyonce with friends at school.
On the fastest motorbikes, you will find not a punk but a Brahmin priest with a bald head. Take a walk down Mylapore lanes and discover old Tamil tiled houses, with women in nine-yards saris drawing rice flour kolams on the steps outside, while inside, their sons discuss the merits of JavaFX Script on Skype with business partners in New Jersey.
5. Chettinad Cuisine
Did you know that Chettinad is actually a district tucked away in the deep interiors of Tamil Nadu? It is a hot, dry place that is home to the powerful and rich trading community of Chettiars, who at one time were the financial kingpins of the British Empire.
The cuisine of the hardy merchants of this region reflects both their history and geography – it’s rich, hot and most interesting. It has only recently become part of the public domain. Be warned, though – if you don’t order wisely, the food can set your mouth on fire.
6. The Finest Saris
Channai is famous for the gorgeous Kanjeevaram silk, named after Kanchipuram, a temple town that is about 70 kilometer from Chennai where the silk was born. Go shopping in one of the many sari shops in the city, and be bowled over by the sheer color and richness.
Kanjeevaram silk is fine and strong, and comes in rich colors. The saris are embellished with fine zari work or gold thread, which is interwoven with the silk to create intricate patterns. Some saris have fine silk thread embroidery. One sari can take 10 to 30 days of labor, depending on the complexity of the design. The price could range from INR 2,000 to 50,000.depending on workmanship and the amount of gold thread used. Many Westerners often buy the saris to use as drapes, wall hanging or simply as dress material.
7. Chennai Museum
Possibly the world’s finest bronze collection is housed in the Chennai Museum on Pantheon Road. Built in 1857, the building itself is beautifully built in the imposing IndoGothic style and the fabulous bronze sculptures are worth lingering over for hours.
The museum is especially proud of its fantastic collection of Buddhist statues dating back to the second century, which were excavated at Amravathi, an important Buddhist centre. The exquisite Chola bronzes (9th to 12th centuries) show clearly how far the art of metal casting had advanced in ancient India. The statue of the “Cosmic Nataraja” alone is worth a hundred visits. The museum is especially attractive after a recent makeover.
8. The Marina
The 4.5 kilometer long Marina is Chennai’s long and beautiful urban beach, but if you’re expecting Copa, think again. This is a different story all together. Take an evening walk to the beach, and you’ll find that it’s a daily carnival, with food stalls, flower sellers, ice-cream wagons and merry-go-rounds. Sit on the sand, paddle in the sea or just stroll endlessly and get aquatinted with the friendly Chennaites.
People here are not interested in the Western worship of sun-bathing, and neither will they get into swimsuits for a dip in the sea; they come in the evenings to enjoy the breeze and the waves, and sample the beach food. Don’t miss the local salad, called sundal, with peanuts, cucumber, raw mango, carrots and cilantro all diced up – you can customize it to your taste if you wish.
The delicious corn on the cob is roasted on an open brazier as you wait, and dressed with chili powder, salt and lime. Don’t miss the hot fried fish and vegetable fritters. A trip to the beach is actually just an excuse to pig out on street food.
9. St. Thomas Basilica
On a narrow street, crowded by buildings on both sides, look up and there, reaching straight up, white and pure towards the sky is the steeple of St. Thomas Basilica. There are only three churches in the world which are built on the remains of an apostle and this, first erected by the Portuguese in the 16th century, is one of them. St. Thomas or Doubting Thomas is credited with having brought Christianity to India in 53 AD, and he died in Chennai, lanced by a hostile chieftain.
Although the remains of the apostle has since been moved to Spain, the beautiful cathedral still hosts the lance and a piece f bone from his hand.
A short and pleasant drive south of Chennai along the Bay of Bengal will take you to what was once a thriving port city more than 2,000 years ago. This place is Mamallapuram, a place famous for both its rich architectural heritage and its luxurious beach resorts. This town saw the ancient Tamil dynasty of the Pallavas take monolithic stone work to its pinnacle.
There are imposed stone chariots, intricately carved stone temples and pavilions, and an exquisite bas relief that is said to be the largest in the world. Entire hillsides have been carved into wondrous shapes, and historians suspect that this could once have been a sprawling school of sculpture. Right at the water’s edge is the magnificent Shore Temple, whose elegant silhouette defines the town unmistakably.
An invaluable reference with writing this post was an article written by Vaishna Roy