Chennai Experience

The capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, located on the eastern coast of India, Chennai is a business hub as well as a cultural centre. Established by the East India Company, the British had christened it as Madras. As children, most of us with a rudimentary geographical knowledge of India believed that anyone whom we met from southern India was a Madrasi with a distinct Tamilian accent and mannerisms.

Childhood Impressions

Another stereotypical assumption was that they were very brainy, intelligent with excellent mathematical skills. The girls were proficient in either classical music or Bharat Natyam, the classical Indian dance form. In terms of cuisine idli sambar, masala dosa and filter café is what most of us proudly ordered in Udupi restaurants when Chinese and Italian cuisine wasn’t as popular. This is the childhood impression of erstwhile Madras for my generation.

For my children rechristened Chennai is synonymous with Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone starrer Bollywood movie ‘Chennai Express’ which continues projecting this stereotypical impression. A lot had changed for this coastal town in its journey from Madras to Chennai as we got to know when we decided to visit this city for the customary summer vacation.

The travel plan

The plan was to visit not just Chennai but also the nearby attractions. Pondicherry, which has been described as the French Riviera of the East. Auroville township with the enigmatic Matrimandir. Mahabalipuram a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its temples and caves.   

Our visit was planned for June, which is when most of western India is welcoming the monsoon, but Chennai is sweltering in the peak of summer since it receives rain around October. After landing at Chennai airport in the afternoon, we were hungry and so dashed to a mall to grab a bite. We had heard so much about the Murugan Idli, which serves some of the softest and spongiest idlis, that we were hoping to find an outlet at the food court of the mall but unfortunately couldn’t and so settled to eat whatever was available.

Around Chennai

Post lunch, we visited the Santhome Cathedral Basilica a white neo-gothic structure with a 183 feet high spire. It was built by the Portuguese in 16th century over the tomb of Saint Thomas one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ.

Santhome Cathedral Basilica, Chennai
Santhome Cathedral Basilica, Chennai @Rafiq Somani

Kapaaleshwar Temple

Chennai is also known for its temples, and the Kapaaleshwar Temple in Mylapore is one of the oldest. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it was built in the 7th century by the Pallavas in Dravidian architectural style. A magnificent gopuram or gateway tower had intricate carvings of numerous deities in multi colours. As we entered the courtyard, there were shrines of various gods and goddesses. The faithful circumambulated the main temple, some prostrating in front of the deity and offering pooja items. Since it was the peak of summer, the water tank at the rear was completely dry.

Kapaaleshwar Temple, Chennai @Rafiq Somani

The Fragrance of Jasmine

As we exited the temple, a waft of fragrant jasmine pulled me to one of the flower sellers. I asked for some loose jasmine flowers, not a string of them. She was upset that I was offering a ten-rupee coin and shoved me away. She muttered something that I deciphered as “I don’t accept ten-rupee coins. If you want to buy jasmine, I sell two arm lengths of jasmine strings for twenty bucks, how dare you want it for half the price.” I decided to leave hastily, guilty at not being able to articulate myself well and for offending the flower seller.  

Museum and National Art Gallery

The Government Museum houses artefacts from 6th century that provide a glimpse of Chalukya, Cholas and Vijaynagar empires. The National Art Gallery is on the same campus and is home to numerous paintings from Tanjavur and Rajasthan as well as sandalwood sculptures. Made in red sandstone, it is a fusion of Indo, Islamic and Gothic architecture styles. It is now closed to the public due to structural instability. Since it was already five in the evening, the museum was shut, and we couldn’t go inside.

Government Museum, Chennai
Government Museum, Chennai @Rafiq Somani

Ripon Building

It was close to sunset, so we decided to head to the Marina beach. En route, we passed the Ripon Building which houses the Greater Chennai Corporation and is an iconic landmark of Chennai. This long, all-white three-story building has a clocktower which has a mechanical system that is wound each day.

Ripon Building, Chennai
Ripon Building, Chennai @Rafiq Somani

Marina Beach

It is the longest urban natural beach in India. With a length of 13 km, it comes second after the longest beach in the world that is Miami. Since Chennai is on the eastern coast of India, one doesn’t see the sunrise at the beach, something most of us living on the western coast of India are familiar. So, there wasn’t a sunset that we could see. But I am pretty much confident that the sunrise here would have been spectacular.

Marina Beach, Chennai
Marina Beach, Chennai @Rafiq Somani

Vivekananda House

Families had assembled for picnics; fishermen’s boats lay on the shores and youngsters were having a whale of a time drenching in the sea. We clicked some pictures, and to beat the heat grabbed some ice-cream as we walked back to our hired vehicle. The Vivekananda House is located opposite the beach and has a photo gallery and a meditation room where Swami Vivekananda had stayed for ten days. Visitors who have visited and meditated in this room have vouched for the serenity and peace experienced here.

Vivekananda House, Chennai
Vivekananda House, Chennai @Rafiq Somani

The Crocodile Park- Reptiles Paradise

The next day we set off for Pondicherry and stopped for an hour at the Crocodile Park on the way. Located on the outskirts of Chennai the Crocodile Park was established in 1976 by, Romulus Whitaker, a herpetologist. This park houses a variety of reptiles like alligators, crocodiles, iguanas. More than 60 types of birds have been spotted here.

Crocodile Park, Chennai
Crocodile Park, Chennai @Rafiq Somani

As we entered the park, we walked through numerous enclosures and water pools. We saw a variety of crocodiles lying motionless and still enjoying their afternoon siesta. In another enclosure lay a pair of iguanas one above the other. Not sure if this was some sought of a mating ritual or were, they at loggerheads and having a dual. Olive Ridley turtles were fed greens in one pit, while in another two giant tortoises were munching on grasses. A not to be missed attraction was the magnificent gharial in a giant aquarium which was being strictly observed by a student researcher.

Iguanas at Crocodile Park
Iguanas at Crocodile Park @Rafiq Somani
Tortoises at Crocodile Park
Tortoises at Crocodile Park @Rafiq Somani

Most Dangerous Animal in the World

My children then pointed to a cabinet with doors and on which was written,’To know the most dangerous animal in the world just open the door.’ They asked me to cautiously open the door. I played along knowing well what I was about to see, a mirror of course! Yes, everyone will agree that man has been the most dangerous animal on this planet. Humans are responsible for massive- scale destruction of the habitats of numerous creatures of creation! There were educational signages throughout the crocodile park which shared interesting titbits about crocodiles. The sex of a crocodile is determined by the temperature of incubation and so on. A small kiosk sold souvenirs and toys, puppets and other collectables of various reptiles at throwaway prices.

Crocodile Park
Crocodile Park @Rafiq Somani

Dakshinachitra- A multicultural living museum

On our return from Mahabalipuram, we visited Dakshinachitra, which a dear friend had recommended knowing that I was an aficionado of culture and heritage. It is a multicultural living museum that provides a window to the art, architecture, lifestyle and culture of the southern states of India. It has a collection of 18 historical houses that give a sneak peek to the architecture of four southern states of India namely Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. So, for a tourist who doesn’t have the time to travel across the southern states of India, Dakshinachitra will be an excellent place to experience these states and village life up close.

Exhibit at Dakshainachitra
Exhibit at Dakshainachitra @Rafiq Somani

Homes from South India’s States

All the houses in Dakshinachitra belonged to locals who agreed to demolish them and were later transported and reconstructed here. As we walked down the cultural and heritage hub, we were awed by the homes and the exhibits in them. Whether it was the simple coastal Andhra home with a conical shaped roof protected with dry leaves or the stately Chikmagalur house of Karnataka that gives a colonial-era feel with some Muslim elements thrown in, each of the homes was distinct and unique. The Ikkat Weavers House from Karnataka made with stone, and wooden doors had exhibits of the tribal art forms.

Coastal Andhra Home, Dakshinachitra
Coastal Andhra Home, Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani
Chikmagalur House of Karnataka at Dakshinachitra
Chikmagalur House of Karnataka at Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani
Ikkat Weavers House from Karnataka at Dakshinachitra
Ikkat Weavers House from Karnataka at Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani

Diverse Homes

The Syrian Christian Home from Kerala with woodwork, antique furniture, a verandah and wooden boat hanging outside was impressive. Not to be out down was the double story Calicut house built of laterite and timber. The Hindu House from Kerala was smaller, made with wood and had some basic furniture like a cradle, bed and other household items typical of a middle- class household.

Syrian Christian Home from Kerala at Dakshinachitra
Syrian Christian Home from Kerala at Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani
Calicut house at Dakshinachitra
Calicut house at Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani
Hindu House from Kerala at Dakshinachitra
Hindu House from Kerala at Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani

Tamil Nadu glimpse

Since Dakshinachitra is in Tamil Nadu, it is no surprise that the reconstruction of homes from this state was notable. The Merchant’s House is the cynosure of all eyes with a central courtyard and rooms all around. The verandah had wooden columns with a sloping roof over it. At another location, a street look was created with houses on either side, giving the feeling one had entered a village. An astrologer sat, in the verandah of a home, with his paraphernalia and a parrot in a cage. Sadly, he didn’t speak English, and we didn’t speak Tamil, so couldn’t have our horoscope predicted.

The Merchant’s House of Tamil Nadu, Dakshinachitra
The Merchant’s House of Tamil Nadu, Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani
Street Look of Tamil Nadu, Dakshinachitra
Street Look of Tamil Nadu, Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani

Artisan Haat

An artisan haat is also located in Dakshinachitra where artisans sell their wares like paintings, jewellery, decorative household items, woodwork, jute bags and so on. On weekends folk dance and other performing art events are organized here. Even workshops, exhibitions and music and dance festivals are held here.

Artisan Haat, Dakshinachitra
Artisan Haat, Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani

Chennai with its tranquil beaches, eclectic mix of architectural wonders like temples, churches and imposing buildings coupled with its rich tradition of art and craft not to forget its Chettinad cuisine will leave you impressed. I can still smell the lingering fragrance of jasmine long after I bid adieu to Chennai. 

Tribal Life Exhibit at Dakshinachitra
Tribal Life Exhibit at Dakshinachitra @Rafiq Somani
Nearest Airport: Chennai has an airport with connectivity to international destinations as well as major cities of India.
Distances: Chennai to Crocodile Park: 42 km or 50 mins by road.
Chennai to Dakshinachitra: 33 km or 45 mins by road.
Where to Stay: You can do a net search for an array of staying options depending on comfort and budget. 
Travel Trip: Chennai as such can be seen in a day or two but do visit other towns close to it like Pondicherry, Auroville or Mahabalipuram.  

This Travelogue was first Published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, Sept 2019