It is a city that always tugs at my heartstrings even though I do not live there anymore. And yet Chennai or Madras where I was born and bred is the city I call home. The lure of the city is so strong that even though I live 360 kms away in the neighbouring state, I visit my home town every month and bask in its warmth. My life is a tale of many cities, but it is Chennai that I proudly wear on my sleeve. For the first 21 years of my life, I barely left its shores, but eventually I did, only to come back again and again. Chennai to me has never been a “tourist” destination. It is home and yet as I return every month, I discover a new facet to it and explore it with a “tourist’s” eye.
Why do people visit and in my case revisit Chennai ? Its famous summer lasts for nine months in a year and it rains only to pour and how. But there is more to Chennai than peak summers and nasty auto drivers. For those wondering why Chennai features in New York Times’ list of 52 destinations in 2014, I can list out some of the well known and lesser known reasons .On the occasion of Madras Day today, lets celebrate the city .
It is a city that is both young and old with a potpourri of cultures
Chennai has that ageless feel to it. The settlement Madras which was founded by the British is barely 400 years old and yet as the city grew, it has in its fold, villages that are more than 1000 years old. Each area has its own history. Areas like Triplicane or Thiruvallikeni, Mylapore or Thiruvanmiyur and Thiruvotriyur have found mentions in the devotional poems and hymns of the saints, Nayanmars and Alwars, composed around the 7th -9th centuries. It was the home of Thiruvalluvar, the famous Tamil poet. St Thomas , one of the apostles of Jesus Christ had preached Christianity here and it is believed that he died here. The region has been ruled by various chieftains of dynasties like Cholas, Pallavas, Pandyas , the Nayaks and the Vijaynagar kings. The Bahmini Sultans under Khilji Dynasty laid siege to the city, the Nawab of Arcot held sway here for a while, Hyder Ali invaded the town and Aurangazeb’s general attacked it, all across different timelines. It is a potpourri of cultures. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British landed on its shores. Santhome was a Portuguese colony even as the British built Fort St George and established it as the centre of East India company while the French ruled both the colonies for a while. Chennai or Madras as it was known then has bore the brunt of the First World War when the German ship Emden bombed it . All this melange of cultures can be seen in the many monuments that lie scattered in Chennai.
Temples , Museums and more..
An area named after peacocks, Thirumayilai or Mylapore is home to one of the oldest temples in the city . As a child, I have visited the 1400 year old Kapaleeshwar temple during the Theppam or the float festival that takes place in the famous tank around the temple. Dedicated to Shiva and his consort, Karpagambal it is one of the 200 temples that have been built in the city. Giving it company in antiquity is the Parthasarthy temple in Triplicane, one of the oldest temples in Chennai built by the Pallavas in the 8th century and dedicated to Krishna in the form of Parthasarthy, the charioteer of Arjuna in the Mahabharat . The Cholas and the Vijaynagar kings had left their touches on the temple. There are several temples in the city that are more than 500 years old and they include the Marudeeshwar temple in Thiruvanmiyur, the Tyagarajar temple in Tiruvotriyur, the Nandeeshwar temple in Adambakkam, the Vadapalani Murugan temple among others. Other include temples dedicated to Kaligamba, Ashtalakshmi, Anjanayaswami , Murugan among other deities.
Churches, clock towers and more..
If every street in Chennai has a temple, then there are as many churches in the city, each one narrating a tale. Asia’s first Anglican Church , the only reminder of British Fort St George, The West Minister Abbey of the East, St Mary’s Church was built here in the 17th century. I went there one quiet afternoon to see a register where the marriage of Robert Clive was registered. In the bylanes of Parry’s Corner is an Armenian Street where a lone Armenian church stands, dedicated to the merchants who added to Chennai’s history. But the oldest churches go back to the Portuguese era. The legend says that eight Franciscan Friars sailed to India from Lisbon in the early 16th century. On the way the sea turned rough but they were guided by a bright light which led them towards the shores of Mylapore, where the old house of St Thomas was in ruins. The light then directed them towards a clearing in the forest where it finally disappeared. It is believed that this led the friars to build a small oratory on the spot. The church was referred to as Kaatu Koil or the temple in the forest by the locals but it is referred to as the Church of Lady of Light. And there are churches that pay homage to St Thomas who brought Christianity to Chennai. Besides the Santhome Church which is built over the tomb of St Peters. However it is believed that the altar of Mother Mary was built in the 16th century church at Saint Thomas Mount where the apostle had died. Chennai at sunset looks beautiful from here
On a cloudy monsoon morning, I took a heritage walk around Marina Beach, Chepauk and Triplicane tracing the Wallajah legacy around Wallajah Road. This was once the turf of the Nawabs of Arcot. Besides the old mosques built during the period, the Chepauk palace stands here today, which was once the official residence of the Nawabs in the 18th-19th centuries. Built in the Indo Sarcenic style, the palace has two blocks – the Khalsa Mahal and the Humayan Mahal.
The Beach A microcosm of the city, The Marina Beach is Chennai’s pride and joy, immortalised by several movies. But it is Elliots Beach which has taken over from Marina as the city’s preferred beach. Sunrise, sunsets, moonrise – you cannot ask for a better view. I have been foolhardy and even attempted to take pictures of the sea going rough just before a cyclonic storm. But if there is one drive that you can do in the city, then it has to be the East Coast Road leading all the way up to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. Temptation comes in the form of resorts and coffee shops , amusement parks and cultural spaces, but then my favourite would be those little patches of blue peeping out from the groves of casuarina . These private beaches are my favourites.
Nature parks, birds
Every child growing up in Chennai could not have not known Guindy Park and Snake Park, wildlife parks located right in the heart of the city which was on every school’s agenda for excursions. I went there every year from kindergarden to third grade. This was once a game reserve and a part of tropical dry evergreen forest and is today considered a national park. Even though it has been walled off from the neighbouring Raj Bhavan and IIT campus, one can spot deer and black bucks in this habitat. For wild life and birding enthusiasts, Chennai does not disappoint. Migratory birds throng the Pallikarnai swamps, the last of the natural marshlands in the city and around Broken Bridge near Elliots Beach. I have seen flamingos and pelicans in the city besides several other birds. For reptile lovers, there is the Crocodile Bank near Mahabalipuram.
Culture and heritage
Come December and the city lives up to its tag as the cultural tag of the year. All the sabhas in the city come alive with classical music and dance as concerts and performances fill the air. However it is not just in December. The classical season is throughout the year. After all this is the home of Kalakshetra and the Music Academy. But it is not just about Carnatic music and dance. There are theatre fests around the year, contemporary dance festivals and international film festivals galore . And of course, there are the movies. Take a peek at the Madras Museum for some dose of heritage and Chola bronzes where art historians take you down the ages. And visit the Vivekanda House on the beach road which was once the Ice House where ice from North America was once stored by the British. Culture is Chennai’s middle name.
Idli, dosai and filter kaapi is not the only reason why people flock here. Although there are many Sangeethas and Saravana Bhavans in the city, this is also the non vegetarian’s delight with spicy Chettinadu food and sea food joints leading the fray. Try Ponnusamys or Karaikudi for their spread of fish, fowl and meat. There are several restaurants selling Italian, Greek, Mexican, Korean, Japanese and Chinese cuisine in the city besides Indian. Every five to seven star hotels have multi speciality restaurants and lounge bars and coffee shops.
For those who insist that Chennai is a conservative city, you have not seen the night life. Here there are clubs and lounge bars that are alive well past the Cindrella hour. Lose yourself at Illusions, the Madras pub, Zara tapas bar, Chipstead at The Taj coromandal, the Q bar, Hilton, The flying elephant, at the Park Hyatt, Leather bar, at The Park among others.
No trip is complete without shopping but in Chennai, souvenir shopping is all about sarees. One has to just visit T Nagar to get lost in reams of silk and golden zari . From Nallis to Pothys, RMKV to Chennai silks, to Rasi to Sundari, every shop competes to give you the brightest and the boldest Kanchipuram silk sarees.
This article was published in Rediff.com
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