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Published: February 14th 2017
The "gopuram" (gateway tower) of Chennai's busiest temple.
I've always found that I've preferred the old colonial names for most Indian cities. Bombay
. Bangalore. Pondicherry. Mysore
. The same goes with Chennai's old moniker of Madras. Although there are many who probably don't think the same, the old names evoke a certain romance, of how exciting it must've been in colonial times to have gone to places so exotic; the beautiful architecture and the cute traditions left behind by the British Empire. This is of course from a Westerner's perspective and of course there was the oppression of the local people that was carried out by the British and the associated arrogance and racism that went along with it. But growing up in a Western country, you're not really taught about those things. Which I guess is a longwinded explanation of why I have such positive associations with the old colonial names.
Indeed there is even a dish named after Chennai's old name; beef madras
. But you won't find it anywhere on the menu here rather ironically; unlike Kerala, Tamil Nadu is definitively Hindu country. Like chicken tikka masala
, beef madras was in fact named and invented in Britain rather than in India.
And speaking of food - as
Chennai's old quarter which is bustling with shops and business.
it is almost impossible not to here in India - my first meal in Chennai was amazing. I had what was effectively a South Indian thali
and one of the curries served was a sweet one that was delicious. It was f*cking spicy though. I also tried pani puri
here for the first time too - puffed up balls of bread filled with spiced vegetables and spiced water. Make sure you get the whole thing in your mouth before chewing!
Rather ironically, the neighbourhood of Mylapore, where I was staying, is rather affluent with many a modern bungalow and plush apartment block. This is because Mylapore existed before the rest of the city, even as far back as Roman times. The "old" part of the city now is George Town, which is where German Christoph, along with Aussies David and Ollie, joined me for my first exploration of the city. There isn't too much to see; just a tangle of narrow streets teeming with shops, markets and traffic; lots of traffic, whether it be manually pulled carts, scooters, pedestrians or cars. Some streets sell only one thing - for example Anderson Street only sells paper and stationery.
There is a massive distance between the road and the sea here which makes it look more like a desert than a beach. There are also loads of stalls though like this one, more than half of them weren't open.
bit of a walk away is the Fort St George, the old British Fort that still acts as a defence administration quarter and where every person going in and out is vetted. There really isn't much to see in here either; the colonial museum didn't sound like it'd be worth the ₹200 entry fee and apart from St Mary's Church and an army parade ground, it really is just a city within a city, full of government buildings and employees.
The Kapaleeshwarar Temple however, with it's amazingly tall and colourful tower, is impressive. There is a huge bath next door too. Inside, we got to see Hindus praying and the various rituals that go along with it; there is also a cow shed and lots of German tourists.
The Sri Ramakrishna Math is a universal temple where people of all religions can enter to pray or meditate. The building looks grand and more like a mansion than a temple.
However, the Parthasarathy Temple was perhaps the most spiritual and authentic that I have visited in all of India - it's beautiful too, dating from the 8th century. A fairly big temple, we were the only tourists inside which added
San Thome Cathedral
Named after one of the twelve apostles who was martyred on a hill not far from the city.
to the authenticity. It was a shame you couldn't take photos inside though, as there were some ornate carvings, fascinating rituals and lots of colour within the temple walls.
Christianity has also left a temple in Chennai - San Thome Cathedral. This white, neo-gothic church is named after one of the original apostles who came to spread the word of God in India. He was killed near to Chennai on St Thomas Mount; a bone fragment from his skeleton is displayed in his tomb here and the lance head that killed him is on show in the museum above.
Being on the east coast, Chennai also has a beach. Just a shame that Marina Beach is also probably the one of dirtiest beaches I've ever seen. Nevertheless there are plenty of stalls on the beach ready to serve anyone who might be wondering along its littered sands. The beach is incredibly wide - it feels like you've crossed a desert when you arrive at the water from the road. The water is a rather unpleasant green-brown colour. Only the fishermen were going out for a swim.
The popular Madras Lighthouse towards the south end of the beach is rather
This temple dates from the 8th century and definitely felt like the most authentic and spiritual of all the temples I have visited in India.
average-looking - more like a council apartment block in London - but the view was great from the top.
If I wanted to escape the mosquitoes that plagued me in Pondicherry
, I was out of luck; they're everywhere here too. Also everywhere in Chennai are supermarkets! This is after having seen just a couple in two months in India. Chennai is progressing however; like Bangalore
, Chennai is growing as an IT hub and the supermarkets perhaps reflect this.
Chennai however has probably been my least favourite of the four big cities I've visited so far. Like other Indian cities, it is rather frenetic, and it doesn't really have a character that marks it out as unique. Lonely Planet had said that the people don't hassle you but I didn't find that at all. For example, Christoph and I had a very persistent tuk-tuk driver who nagged us incessantly before we went up the lighthouse. And guess who was waiting for us when we came back down? We thought we might as well save ourselves a walk for ₹100 but he then proceeded to take us to a handicraft store. He explains that if we look around the store
Apparently Chennai's Indo-Saracenic high court building is the second biggest judicial building after the Courts of London.
for five minutes, he would get a free shirt from the shop and we would get ₹50 off our fare. None of us were in a hurry so we thought why not. He then took us - without our permission - to another shop, where if we did the same, we would get our ride for free. We didn't wanna be there so were out of the shop in two minutes - which apparently wasn't long enough for him to score his free gift. He was therefore pissed off at us and demanded we give him ₹50 for his troubles. It's not much, so it was fine - but he really didn't have the right to complain given he had taken us to the shops without our permission.
Otherwise there is little to see and do in Chennai and I can see why people merely pass through. It is a popular entry point into India as well as an exit point - which was what I was doing. After an amazing two and a half months India I was looking forward to a two week break from the country; with a trip to nearby Sri Lanka!
View From The Lighthouse
View from the top of the Madras Lighthouse along Marina Beach.
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