The couple of times that I have visited Chennai in the last few years my impression of the city is that it is not in the same league as the other large cities and notable cities of India. Chennai is seemingly chaotic, noisy, dusty, crowded and mostly lacking the charm that other cities in India have. Admittedly I had visited Chennai only in the context of a transportation hub (for example to and from the paradise of the Andaman Islands or a tour around Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh like Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Tirupati, and Auroville) and tried to avoid staying there for an extended period. A lot of the tourists that are coming to the area also agree and leave Chennai quickly after arriving. Although there is so much to see in this area of south India, Chennai is always left behind.
Modern Chennai is the fourth most populous metropolitan area. As part of the Indian economic boom of the last years, it is developing at a fast pace. Today the city is a home for massive industries like the automobile, IT and computer sector. It is also one of India’s business outsourcing centers and an important port. The city offers some great shopping malls, modern coffee shops and a good variety of restaurants. It’s a great place to stock up before hitting the road into the Tamil countryside.
Following some recommendations from a friend that did his fair share of traveling around India he advised me to give Chennai another chance and that I would not regret it so this is what I did. So what was the outcome…?
He was right. Chennai is not a love at first sight place but it is a place that grows on you if you are open-minded enough to let it do so. Chennai has a quiet elegance. It is a city of culture, dance, and music. It has a highly developed movie industry and various festivals held in the city – art exhibitions, dance festivals, music recitals, a huge book fair and more. As the capital of the Tamils, the city reflects the traditional heritage of the Tamil culture and Dravidian identity, mixed with foreign influence (mostly British, who gave to the city the name Madras, which changed to Chennai in 1996 and left behind a lot of monuments) and Indian culture. This is the place to first meet the unique Tamil traditional clothing, the Tamil Nadu cuisine, Tamil language, dance and music which makes traveling in Chennai distinctly different from any other city in India and an interesting place to visit. I will offer my top experiences and places to visit in Chennai:
RELIGIOUS AND HISTORICAL CHENNAI
In a visit to Mylapore in the southern part of Chennai, you can catch two of the main attractions of the city that offer a glimpse to both the Hindu -Tamil religious heritage and also to the foreign religious influence on the city:
Located close to the beach, this is the oldest and still surviving legacy of Chennai and one of the most impressive temples in the city. The temple is a great example of a classic Dravidian style architecture that is common among the temples in the south India region. It contains two entrance gates that rise high above and are covered with colorful characters (called Gopuram) and a large pool for purifications of the devotees. The main deities of the Temple are Shiva and his consort Parvati. Here they appear in their local manifestations and are connected to local mythological legends. It is worthwhile to arrive here especially at sunset to soak up the atmospheric evening’s bustling puja (ceremony) and the elaborate rituals. Non-Hindus can enter only to the beautiful courtyard, as the entrance to the holy room of the temple is allowed only to Hindus. The lunch break in the temple is from 13:00 to 16:00.
Basilica of St. Thomas
Not far from the Kapaleeshwar Temple is the Basilica of St. Thomas. This Roman-Catholic style cathedral dedicated to Thomas, who brought Christianity to India, who spread Christianity in India in the first century and is considered to be the father of Indian Christianity. The basilica built by the Portuguese in the 16th century is over the tomb of this apostle. Recently it was renovated, and this is an interesting example of a Catholic Church in South India.
The visit to these two sites can be done in just a few hours. It is a nice and relatively quiet part of the city and is easy to reach by taxi or a rickshaw.
Sri Lanka Maha Bodhi Centre
If you interested in Buddhism, check out Sri Lanka Maha Bodhi Centre, located in Egmore opposite the main train station. It is run by the Sri Lanka Maha Bodhi Society and serves as a symbol of friendship between Sri Lanka and India. The center is venerated as a popular temple of Theravada Buddhism (the Buddhist way of Sri Lanka) and is the only Buddhist temple in Chennai. It has a small Buddhist chapel, a full-size idol of the Buddha and the place also offers some cultural programs and Buddhist prayers and festivals.
CULTURAL, SPIRITUAL AND ARTISTIC CHENNAI
The Huddleston Gardens of the Theosophical Society
If you are interested in some serenity and a short escape from the bustling craziness and the noise of the city for a couple of hours, this is a great place to go to. Located near the Adyar River, these gardens are a magnificent 260 acres or so of lush greenery, leafy trees and a home for many birds and animals. The huge gardens are dotted by various places of worship: a Hindu temple, Buddhist temple, a church, and a mosque. It is nice to see all the many religions in the same place, following the Theosophical principle of belonging to any religion in the world or to none. The gardens are also a home for a 450 years old massive and famous Banyan tree that is worth visiting. In the complex, there is also a nice library, a bookshop and a display of ancient documents.
More information about the complex and the Theosophical Society can be found on their site: http://www.ts-adyar.org/
Please note the visiting hours are short – Morning: 8.30 – 12 noon; Afternoon: 2.00 – 4.00 pm
For a great cultural experience in Chennai, try to catch one of the art festivals:
Natyanjali Dance Festival
The famous occasion of Natyanjali Festival held in Chidambaram, near the city of Chennai. The five-day-long festival is a celebration of dance, beautifully set in the impressive temple dedicated to Shiva in his form as Nataraj – the cosmic dancer.
When? 10th March 2013
Where? Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu
Dance and Music Festival
The South Indian classical form of music, known as the Carnatic Music and the classical dance of Chennai are celebrated in this festival. This is the event for music lovers who want to be inspired by one of India’s classical music forms.
When? Mid-December to mid-January
Where? At various places around the city of Chennai
FUN AND ACTIVITIES IN CHENNAI
It is well known that Indians love to watch movies at the cinema. In Chennai, there is a highly developed movie industry. It is not as big as Mumbai’s Bollywood, but Tamils have their brand of films in the Tamil language that goes by the nickname Kollywood. If you are in town and you are a movie buff, it is a great experience to visit one of Chennai’s studios to see where things are happening. Try AVM studios in Chennai, the oldest surviving studio in India. For a great movie night out, go to the magnificent Escape Cinemas (Express Avenue, Whites Road, Royapettah, Chennai) – the city’s first luxury multiplex. You can watch a local Tamil flick (or an American one) in a world-class theatre with all the treats you can imagine. Visit their site for more information, running shows and ticket booking: http://escape.spicinemas.in/
Another fun activity which is also a healthy one is an Ayurvedic treatment in one of the multiple clinics around town. This old Indian health practice offering many methods for health and a better lifestyle and also a very calming and relaxing experience – a definite must on any trip to India. Check out these two centers:
Sanjeevanam (97 Nungambakkam High Road, Nungambakkam, Chennai +91 44 4549 0324) – http://www.sanjeevanam.com/
Prakriti (Fifth Street, 9th Main Rd, Annanagar East, Chennai +91 44 2621 5695) – http://www.prakritiayurveda.com/
To end an enjoyable day in Chennai an evening stroll on the beach is always a relaxing way to finish the day. Chennai has a few nice (but not great) beaches. In some of the beaches, you will find locals enjoying small Ferris wheels, balloon shooting and eating corn, spicy mango and other Indian snacks prepared freshly in the food stalls. Try Elliot beach, Covelong Beach, and Marina Beach.
Tip: If you are in town for the first time try to avoid public transportation. You can use Rickshaws to go around that are quite cheap and usually go at 10-20 Rs. per km. Don’t forget to bargain!