A colourful mix of old and new makes Chennai a city worth visiting, writes Christine Karan
The Taj Mahal, New Delhi, Jaipur, Bollywood, Mumbai, Goa… these are a few of the places that come to mind when India is mentioned.
But do you know about the city that is the country’s sixth largest and home to the world’s longest beach, and is often known as the “Detroit of India”?
It’s Chennai; formerly known as Madras, and the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the eastern coast of India or historically on the Coromandel Coast of Bay of Bengal, Chennai is a bustling metropolis with a unique, multi-faceted character. Once hailed (and still is) as the epitome of Dravidian culture, Chennai has undergone a sea-change in recent years. It’s probably the only city in India in which tradition and modernity live in perfect harmony, side-by-side.
You can see centuries-old temples with intricately carved towers known for their architectural marvels or agraharams (alleys) with traditional houses. People stroll about in their signature south-Indian attire of Veshti and the saree, and the traditional schools (still) teach the Vedas (the most ancient Hindu scriptures). Bharatanatyam, the Indian classical dance, originated here and is still taught at three major dance schools in the city.
Chennai is most definitely cosmopolitan. For all you shopaholics, there is a variety of malls – from compact to massive – that host many international brands; from fashion to food and coffee outlets. It is also a major IT and industrial hub, with international companies like IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and Verizon running operations here, as well as home-bred brands such as TCS, Infosys and Wipro. With companies such as Ford, Hyundai and Toyota producing cars and trucks in plants here, Chennai is also an automobile hub, hence the moniker ‘‘Detroit of India”. And lest we forget, Chennai is also known for its film studios, with more than 50 at the last count, which churn out movies from the dream factories in the area of Kodambakkam, collectively known as Kollywood.
For those who want to experience how the locals enjoy the simpler things in life, a walk on the world’s longest beach – The Marina Beach – is the answer. Thousands gather in the evenings to enjoy the sea breeze along with some homegrown snacks like flavoured peanuts, banana fritters or chilli fritters and vadas (fried doughnuts). Tamil Nadu is also known for its beautiful and still hand-woven silk sarees. Although the home of silk is Kanchivaram, a small town three hours’ drive from the city, Chennai boasts numerous stores and multi-level shops where you can buy the sarees, materials, shirts and most other traditional garments.
Chennai definitely has its own colour, feel and aura.
My favourite place: Whenever I want to get some local souvenirs or some cheap home décor items and personal accessories, my place to go would be Pondy Bazaar; a bustling market, with stalls selling street food, clothes and artefacts.
Highlights: Chennai boasts a vibrant arts and theatre scene. In December, the city comes alive with a host of performances from local and international artists and is something that must be experienced.
Lowlights: For a traveller from Muscat, Chennai can feel a bit crowded and chaotic. This should not really come as a surprise, as India is the world’s second-most populous country. But give yourself a day and meet the locals, try the local food, get on to the auto rickshaws and… you will “get used to it” or should I say “fall in love”.
Souvenirs: The silk, sarees and other traditional garments make great souvenirs.
Getting there: Oman Air flies directly from Muscat to Chennai.
Where to stay: The city offers many accommodation choices from seven-star luxury hotels and beachfront resorts to bed and breakfasts to suit your budget.
1. A trip to the Government Museum is a must
2. A day trip to Unesco-listed historical town of Mahabalipuram
3. Visit the pedestrianised shopping streets like Pondy Bazaar or Ranganathan Street
4. Enjoy authentic, south Indian non-vegetarian food
5. Visit Mylapore, the old part of Chennai