The metropolitan capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is the largest city in South India. Located on a 17 km stretch on the Coromandel Coast, off the Bay of Bengal, the city is trisected by the waterways of Cooum, Adyar and Buckingham Canal.
The Raja of Chandragiri, the last representative of the Vijayanagar rulers of Hampi, laid the foundations of Chennai in 1639. The British East India Company established a fort and a few trading posts at a nearby fishing hamlet called Madraspatnam, triggering off a developmental phase. The region of Chennai was called Tondaimandalm in those days. It had its military headquarters at Puzhal, which is now a small and rather insignificant village on the outskirts of the city. Since then, three and a half centuries have transformed this small village into a bustling metropolis.
The city is a composite from vegetarian fare to fast food, nine-yard saris to the latest in fashion, ancient temple architecture to modern high-rise buildings, classical music and dance to head throbbing discos. The tourist is in for a pleasant surprise with all the vivid contrasts of Chennai. A striking and unexpected feature are the sanctuaries in the heart of the city. Billboards adorn the city with promotions for anything from consumer durables to Tamil film personalities.
Chennai has an obvious British touch, evident in various cathedrals, buildings with an Indo-Saracenic style of architecture and wide tree lined avenues. Marina Beach, the second largest in the world, is a popular tourist spot although not a favourite with swimmers because the sea is known to house a sizeable population of sharks. Despite the strong British influence, Chennai has retained its traditional Tamil Hindu culture, as this region was the centre of Pallavan culture long before the British came.
Where religion is concerned, history has certainly left its mark on this city. There are a number of churches in Chennai that are connected with the life and times of the apostle of St. Thomas. Several ancient temples in and around Chennai include two magnificent temples in Triplicane and Mylapore. The city boasts of efficient public services and transportation. Recent industrial expansion in Chennai includes engineering plants, car-assembly plants, educational institutions and textile manufacturing units.
The Botanical Garden maintained by the Horticulture Department of the Government of Tamil Nadu has a very wide variety of plants that include different types of roses, imported shrubs, rare flowering plants, eucalyptus trees, several old trees and even a fossilised tree trunk 20 million years old. The Summer Festival is held annually during the month of May in the Botanical Garden and is an added attraction for tourists. There is also a beautiful Italian floral garden and for those who simply want to relax, there's always the green carpet of the well-maintained lawns. The artificial Lake, yet another of Sullivan's contributions, has facilities for boating and permission to fish can be obtained from the office of the Assistant Director of Fisheries.
Popularly known as the "Gateway to the South", Chennai presents a culture rich in music, dance and other art forms, which despite its 6million population make it traditional and conventional in many ways.
Chennai's historic landmarks, clear skyline, long sandy beaches, parks, modern shopping malls, cinema halls, plush hotels and restaurants offering a range of continental to typical South Indian cuisine make it a convenient entry point to embark on a tour of Tamil Nadu and South India.
Fort St. George
Built in 1640 AD by the British East India Company, this bastion achieved its name from St. George, the patron saint of England. The flagstaff at Fort St. George is still the tallest in India. The fort currently houses the secretariat and the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu. St. Mary's Church in the Fort Complex is the oldest Anglican church in India. The marriages of Robert Clive and Governor Elinu-Yale were solemnised in its prayer house. The tombstones in its courtyard are the oldest British tombstones in India. The Fort Museum has a rare collection of the British period. The banquet hall upstairs was built in 1802 and has paintings of Fort St. George's governors and officials of the British regime. South of the Fort is the War Memorial, built in 1939 in memory of warriors who sacrificed their lives during World War I. Visitors can also see Robert Clive's House in the vicinity of the fort
San Thome Basilica
The San Thome Basilica, on the Main Beach Road at the southern end of Marina derives its name from St Thomas, the apostle of Christ who came to Chennai in 52 AD. He was martyred in 78 AD, just outside the city at a spot now referred to as the St. Thomas Mount. Built in the 16th century by the Portuguese, the church was rebuilt as a cathedral and in 1896 and made a basilica, which contains the mortal remains of the saint. The cathedral spires that soar up the city's skyline encapsulate the history of Christian faith in Chennai. The central hall with its stained glass panes has 14 wooden plaques depicting scenes from the last days of Christ. In the cathedral is a 3 ft. high statue of Virgin Mary, which was brought from Portugal in 1543.
High Court Building
Built in 1892, it is said to be the largest judicial building in the world after the Courts of London. The main landmark in George Town, its decorative domes and corridors are reminiscent of Indo/Saracenic architecture. The court and adjacent Parry's corner are always crowded and active. The building compound has the 1844 lighthouse, superseded in 1971 by the modern one on Marina.
Located on Pantheon Road, between Egmore and Anna Salai, the Government Museum is a daunting storehouse of ancient historical treasures. Originally owned by the Pantheon Committee, a group of eminent British citizens in charge of improving the social life of the British in Madras, Buddhist sculptures from Amaravati, relics of the Pallava, Chola and Pandya eras, and bronze statues of the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva - Nataraja, Durga, Ganesha from the Chola empire are a pride of this museum. An Art Gallery, Department of Natural History, a Museum Theatre and the Connemara Public Library are housed within the complex.
The 8th century Pallava temple in Mylapore is characteristic of Dravidian style of architecture easily visible in its massive and intricately carved gopuram towering into the sky. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple has some beautiful sculptures with as many as 63 Saivite saints or nayanmars sculptured in bronze which adorn the outer courtyard. Under the old Punnai tree in the courtyard is a small shrine depicting Goddess Parvathi in the form of a peacock worshipping Lord Shiva. It is from this legend that Mylapore derived its name -'myil' meaning peacock and 'oor' meaning town. During the Arupathu Moovar festival held in March-April every year all the nayanmars are taken in a procession around the temple.
This temple in Triplicane is dedicated to Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. The temple was originally built by the Pallavas in the 8th century AD, though additions were later made to it by the Chola and Vijayanagar kings.
13 km long Marina Beach is the pride of Chennai and is much sought after for the cool evening breeze. On the sea front lie memorials dedicated to political leaders and freedom fighters. Impressive buildings like Chepauk Palace, Madras University, Presidency College, PWD office and Ice House add opulence to the spot. The Aquarium, Light House and Boulevard of Walks, gardens and drives make the beach one of the best attractions of the city.
The road down south from Marina leads to the charming Elliot's beach. The shore is an enjoyable stretch for relaxation and leisure. The modern Astalakshmi temple and Velankani Church are revered spots of faith on its shores.
Another ancient landmark in the city is the harbour, one of the finest in India and entirely artificial, almost a century old.
The Ice House was used to store enormous blocks of ice cut from the Great Lakes in northern USA and shipped to India for refrigeration purposes during the British rule.
Guindy National Park
The Deer Sanctuary at Guindy provides an opportunity to see some rare species of the Indian antelope (black buck) along with spotted deer, mongoose, civet cats, jackals and a variety of monkeys.
The famous Snake Park has a deadly collection of cobras, kraits and pythons.
Anna Zoological Park (Vandalur, 30 km)
Spread over 1,265 acres, the Anna Zoological Park houses an appreciable variety of colourful birds, animal life and reptiles. Its main attractions are: safari parks, a nocturnal animal house and an aquarium.
The world headquarters of the Theosophical Society, formed to facilitate and encourage the study of comparative religion, philosophy and science lies on the banks of Adyar river. The society was founded by Madame Blavatsky and Col. Olott in USA, and later moved to Adyar in 1882. Apart from shrines of all faiths and the peaceful Garden of Remembrance, there is a 95-year old library which has a very good collection of rare oriental manuscripts written on palm leaves and parchment. The big banyan tree in its compound is a major tourist attraction.
A memorial to the poet-saint Tiruvalluvar, Valluvar Kottam is shaped like a temple chariot. The immense stone structure at Nungambakkam built in 1976 has a life-like statue of the saint. The 133 chapters of his famous work Thirukkural have been depicted in the front hall corridors of the chariot. The auditorium attached to this complex is one of the largest in Asia.
The Birla Planetarium at Kotturpuram is the most modern planetarium in the country and has a seating capacity of 236. Adjoining the planetarium is the Periyar Science and Technology Museum.
V.G.P Golden Beach Resort
A popular spot for locals and tourists, its entertainment arcade for children and adults is much visited. Folk dance performances enthral. An art centre sells handicrafts and articles made out of seashells. The beach is clean and ideal for sunbathing.
Kanchipuram (75 km)
One of India's seven great mythologically famous Hindu cities, Kanchipuram has around 126 temples, each one unique in its own way. It is famous worldwide for Kanchipuram hand woven silk and cotton fabrics woven in contrasting colours, traditional motifs and gold threads. Adhi Shankaracharya, one of the famous Gurus of India had established his ashram (Kamakoti Peetam) here.
Vedanthangal (85 km)
One of the largest bird sanctuaries in India its marshy 30-hectare park is visited by over 1,00,000 migratory birds every year. The majority of these birds can be seen between November and February. Herons, darters, spoonbills, pelicans, sandpipers, white ibis, cormorants, blue winged teals and sans can be seen here between November and February.
Muttukadu (36 km)
The backwaters of Muttukadu have been developed by TTDC as a scenic picnic spot and a centre for water sports. The windsurfing regatta organised in February every year attracts enthusiasts from all over the world. Training programmes are held for beginners. Art and Entertainment
In Thiruvanmiyur, beyond Elliot's beach, is Kalakshetra or 'Temple of Art'. Founded in 1936 by the renowned exponent of Bharata Natyam, Rukmini Devi Arundale, the institution among the finest of its kind in the country, is set in sylvan surroundings and bears a resemblance to the ancient gurukulas. Classes are held in rural settings in hut type rooms under trees of the serene campus. A section of the institute is famed for its sarees and textiles woven in traditional patterns. Throughout the year Kalakshetra conducts music recital and dance performances in different parts of Chennai. The Kuchipudi Art Academy founded by Dr. Vempati Chinna Satyam offers free teaching and accommodation to serious students.
Bars & Discos
Sherry's bar at the Hotel Imperial is a popular place for the lively locals. Beer at Chold Bar in Hotel Connemara is served in glistening tankards and presented with mouth-watering snacks. Maxim's is a nightclub - cum - dance show venue at the Hotel Imperial, which closes at 11 pm. Planet 2000, a nightclub with dining and fitness facilities is visited by the health conscious posh. For discos, there's the choice of Gatsby at the Park Sheraton, Cyclone at the Hotel President or the Sindoori Hotel's Saturday Night Bash.
Chennai's 94 cinemas reflect the region's enthusiasm for the silver screen. Most cinemas host Tamil movies and a few offer foreign language films. Devi Complex and Sathyam often screen English language movies. Check the local papers for details
Libraries & Cultural Centres
The British Council Library in Anna Salai is at the end of a small by lane with a neon sign on the roof. Casual visitors are not actively encouraged but you can take a temporary membership for Rs. 60 a month. The American Centre Library attached to the US Consulate and the Alliance Francaise de Chennai at Nungambakkam, have a wide range of Indian and foreign books. In Mylopore, the Ramakrishna Matth Library specialises in philosophy, mythology and Indian classics. The Krishnamurti Foundation in the Adyar Area, is housed in the premises of the Theosophical Society and has a huge collection of books on religion, philosophy and mysticism.
Landmark Books, in the basement of Apex Plaza, Nungamabakkam High Rd, has one of the best selections in southern India. Higginbothams at Anna Salai and its kiosks at Central station and the domestic airport and The Bookshop in Spencer Plaza, have reasonable assortments of novels and coffee-table books. Fountainhead located at Laxmi Towers); Odyssey located at Ceebros Enclave Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, Xaanadu located at Ceebros Arcade Adyar contain good selections of both Indian and Western books. Bookworms should not miss Giggles Book Shop at the Connemara Hotel.
Navaratri or Dussehra (Sept/Oct), Diwali (Oct/Nov), Karthika (Nov/Dec) and Pongal (in Jan) are some of the popular festivals in the region. From mid-December to mid-January, Chennai comes alive with the annual Carnatic classical music and dance festival.
Hotel Ambassador Pallava, Hotel Connemara, Hotel Taj Coromandel, The Trident and Welcome Group Park Sheraton, all of them five star. The Grand Orient, Residency Hotel, The Dakshin and GRT Grant Days are other luxury hotels in Chennai. The YWCA International Guest House, Hotel Pandian, Nilgiri's Nest and Hotel Ranjith are some mid range places to stay. Hotel Mars near the airport is a safe place to stay for lone women travellers. Budget accommodations include The Tourist Home, Broadlands, Paradise Guest House and Hotel Masa. Reservations for dormitory beds in The Youth Hostel have to be done in advance.
Places to Eat
The Beach Castle Restaurant has a wide variety of excellent seafood. The Pakwan has a 24-hour coffee shop. Dahlia and Coconut Grove serve Japanese and Kerala cuisine respectively. Saravanna, Mathura Restaurant and Annalakshmi offer value for money meals.
How to get There
Air: The domestic Kamaraj and international Anna airports are situated at Tirusulam, about 20 km from city. Several international airlines offer regular flights around the world. Domestic traffic is handled by Indian Airlines with daily flights to all-important centres in India. Besides cars and taxis, the airport can also be reached by suburban trains form the city.
Rail: Chennai is connected by rail with all major towns and cities in India. There are two major railway stations in Chennai. Chennai Central is the bigger one and connects the city by broad gauge to all major cities and towns of India. The Egmore station is the starting point for both metre gauge and broad gauge trains proceeding to destinations within the state as well as trains to neighbouring Kerala. The reservation office at Central station is on the 2nd floor of the building adjacent to the station. Reservations for trains originating in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi, Jaipur, Lucknow, Patna and Pune can also be made here. The 'Tourist Cell', which deals with Indrail Pass and tourist - quota bookings is in the same building and is immensely useful for foreign visitors unfamiliar with the Indian Railways system. At Egmore station, the booking office is in the station itself.
Road: Chennai is connected by a network of roads with all-important places in Tamil Nadu and other parts of India. The Tamil Nadu state bus company, Thiruvalluvar Transport Corporation (TTC) and its bus terminal (also known as the Express bus stand) are on Esplanade Road in George Town, around the back of the High Court building. Interstate buses, which are run by the affiliated Jayalalitha Jayaram Transport Corporation (JJTC), also leave from here. The state bus stand is on the other side of Prakasam Road. The main reason to use this stand is for buses to Mahabalipuram. There are also a number of private bus companies with offices in the Egmore area, which run super-deluxe video buses on a daily basis to cities such as Bangalore, Coimbatore, Madurai and Trichy. Prices are similar to the state buses, although the private buses tend to be more comfortable. You may rent a car with popular private cab owners. White plated taxis ply 5 people on contract. Pre-paid taxis and airport coaches are available at airports. Motorbike mopeds and auto rickshaws are available for hire for intra city commuting.
Water: The MV Nancowry sails every fortnight from Chennai to Port Blair in South Andaman. The trip takes about 52 hours. Once a month, the boat sails via Car Nicobar. This voyage takes an extra two days. Foreign nationals are not allowed to disembark at Car Nicobar. Services to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are prone to change, so make enquiries about the latest schedules. Tickets are issued at the Directorate of Shipping Services in George Town. Foreigners must get a permit for the islands before they buy a boat ticket.
A wide range of craft shops and various government emporia along Anna Salai specialise in conventional souvenirs and handicrafts made of rose-wood, sandal-wood, ivory, bronze and silver. Leather goods, silk and hand-woven fabrics, saris and jewellery are available at most of the upmarket shopping centres. The Victoria Technical Institute, run by nuns on behalf of development groups sells traditional crafts, handmade clothing, batik greeting cards, embroidered upholstery and finely carved wooden furniture besides other items. One can visit the Central Cottage Industries Emporium in Temple Towers, Anna Salai, and Nandanam for the choicest arts and crafts. Superbly decorated, it has an excellent range of handicrafts from all over India. For exquisite silks and cottons the government - sponsored Handloom House in George Town, or the more expensive India Silk House on Anna Salai are the right choices. Kumaran and Nalli silk stores are visited by locals and visitors. In George Town near the Parry's corner are the self-styled duty free shops, which sell electronic goods, sweets and chocolates. Footpath stalls along Anna Salai or in front of Egmore station, are excellent places to pick up cheap 'export reject' clothes.
Climate Max. Min.: Summer: 37ºC 21.10ºC; Winter: 32ºC 19.81ºC
Languages Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu and English.
Tourist Offices The Government of India Tourist Office at 154 Anna Salai is open between Monday to Friday from 9.15 AM to 5.45 PM, and Saturday and public holidays from 9 am to 2 pm. It's closed on Sunday. The staff at the tourist office is knowledgeable and friendly. There are also Government of India information counters at the domestic and international airport terminals, but they have limited information. The ITDC office is at 29 Victoria Crescent, on the corner of Commander - in - Chief (C - in - C) Road. The Tamil Nadu Government Tourist Office at 143, Anna Salai, is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm Monday to Friday. Bookings for Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) tours can be made here. Other branches are at Central station and the Thiruvalluvar Transport Corporation (TTC) bus stand.
Govt. of Tamil Nadu Tourist Office, Tel: 4321122
Govt. of India Tourist Office, Tel: 8524785/8524295
Airport Counter, Tel: 2340386
Govt. of Tamil Nadu Tourist Information Centre:
Central Railway Station, Tel: 5353351
Egmore Railway station, Tel: 8252165
Airport Counter, Tel. 2340569 and 2341260
TTDC Public Relations Office: Tel: 846843
TTDC: Tel: 8547335/8547346/8547344