Friday, October 01, 2010

24 BY CITY – Chennai

Acclaimed as the Detroit of India, Chennai (formerly Madras) is a perfect blend of culture and technology, as heady as the filter coffee served here.

Wherever you stay in Chennai, you are never too far from one of the two main beaches. Wake up to a glorious day with a drive along one and end the day with a walk along the other.
While the beach itself is one of the longest in the world, drive down this stretch to take in the beauty of the Indo-Saracenic, Italianate and even Byzantine style buildings. S. Muthiah's Madras Rediscovered is a handy historical guide to this fascinating city and its unique architecture. Among the chief sights are the University Buildings, the Senate House, Vivekananda House (also curiously called Ice House), the Queen Mary's college and the office of the Inspector General of Police. There are also memorials to political leaders and statues of prominent personalities dotting the revamped promenade. The Triumph of Labour bronze statue by Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhry is another prominent landmark. Swimming in the sea and sunbathing are prohibited at this beach. 
The State Legislature and Secratariat of Tamil Nadu are currently in the precincts of Fort St. George, built in 1680. There is a Fort Museum here and also the oldest Anglican Church in India, St. Mary's Church where many a wedding, including that of Lord Robert Clive, was solemnised.
Located in Egmore, this museum houses an excellent bronze figures gallery. Marble structures from the famous Buddhist sites excavated in Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh, are located here. The campus also has a childrens' museum, The Connemara Public Library and the Museum Theatre - fine buildings that complement the imposing structure of the National Art Gallery section of the museum. More details on the exhibits here:  Open between 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Fridays and national holidays.
Life in Mylapore literally revolves around the Kapaleeswarar Temple. The four main streets adjoining the temple and the temple tank are a bustle of shops, people and animals. Stores selling silk sarees and jewellery; stalls hawking fresh flower offerings, vetiver bath scrubs, even vegetables; palmists, parrot astrologers and holy men – all reinforce the ambience of an ancient temple-centric locality.
St. Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ is said to have been martyred at what is now the St. Thomas Mount, close to the Chennai airport. His remains are interred however, at the Santhome Cathedral. It is a belief among the devout that the sand from his tomb has curative properties and the Church provides a Relic Card that has a small amount of sand embedded in it. More details at
Step into the alley just adjacent to the Cathedral and you will find a smaller church that for years has weathered the roaring sea just beyond its stained glass window.
The Society, with its chief aim as Universal Brotherhood without Distinction, has its International Headquarters at Adyar, created in 1882 by the founders, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott. The campus is open to walkers between 8.30 - 10 a.m.and 2 - 5 p.m. Scholars of Theosophy may contact them at
While this beach in Besant Nagar (also lovingly called Bessie's) does not boast of the grandeur of the Marina Beach, it does have a modest stretch of sand and highlights like the Ashtalakshmi Temple, the Vailankanni Church, the Schmidt Memorial and the broken bridge. Swimming in the sea and sunbathing are prohibited here. Do avoid unlist sections of the beach in the evenings. There are many restaurants near the beach serving fine Indian and International cuisine.
TTDC has a half-day sightseeing tour of Chennai commencing in the afternoons at 1.30 p.m. To foray out towards Mamallapuram, TTDC has a Hop On-Hop Off bus service that stops at various sights along the stretch including a heritage museum called Dakshina Chitra. Details here:
Specially themed tours are organised by local groups during the Music Season (December-January), Chennai Sangamam (January) and Madras Day celebrations (August).Check local listings.
Chennai boasts some specialty restaurants serving gourmet international cuisine. However, the two types of local food one must savour are Vegetarian Tiffin (like Idlis, Vadas and Dosas at outlets like Saravana Bhavan, Ratna Cafe and Vasantha Bhavan) and non-vegetarian Chettinad cuisine(like Chettinad-style rabbit, shark, chicken, mutton etc. in outlets like Anjappar, Karaikudi, and Ponnusamy). You will find a mix of these in a more upmarket ambience in the South Indian Restaurants part of the bigger hotels.
Chamiers (Chamiers Road), Amethyst (Gopalapuram) and The Madras Terrace House (Royapettah) are traditional bungalows enterprisingly converted to retail spaces hosting art exhibitions, performances, boutiques, bookstores and cafes. 
While Chennai boasts of multiplexes and malls, the more traditional forms of entertainment are equally patronised.
Chennai is home to the Sabha culture – organisations devoted to the encouragement of the performing arts. During the December-January Music Season, every Sabha vies to host music and dance performances by noted and upcoming artistes. Music lovers are known to Sabha-hop during the season partaking of their meals in the various temporary dining halls set up at the different Sabhas.
During the festival of Pongal, around January every year, the public spaces in Chennai come alive with cultural performances for Chennai Sangamam. The event includes a food festival in addition to the scintillating music and dance performances by folk as well as contemporary artistes. Check local listings.
However, plays, music and dance performances do occur the rest of the year and are usually listed in local publications.
Besides malls like Spencer Plaza, Citi Centre, Ampa Sky Walk Mall and the spanking new Express Avenue, Chennai boasts of a fantastic array of fabric and saree stores like Nalli, Kumaran, Sundari Silks and Pothys alongside jewellery marts like G.R. Thangamaligai, Prince, VBJ, KFJ, and Lalitha Jewellery making up the retail haven of T.Nagar. On the pavements outside these stores, you will find small stalls selling anything from strings of jasmine flowers to kitschy plastics and accessories.
There are boutiques like Anokhi and FabIndia with a range of apparel for the entire family. Pick up handicrafts from Tamil Nadu at stores like the government-run Poompuhar, Kalpa Druma and Victoria Technical Institute. 

(An edited version appeared in Culturama's October 2010 Issue)

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