Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is equal parts South Indian tradition and cosmopolitan sophistication. More a collection of overlapping villages than a typical city, the population is diverse and the atmosphere both frenzied and infectious. You won’t find much of a centralised tourist area and internationally recognised landmarks are few and far between, but it’s here where you’ll find some of South India’s most talented artisans and chefs – and arguably some of the world’s friendliest people. Put simply, visiting Chennai is a cultural experience like no other.
Chennai is home to many interesting museums but the Government Museum takes some beating. Situated within the stunning, British-built Pantheon Complex, its highlights include a wonderful collection of South Indian bronzes dating back to the 7th century and many other fascinating archaeological finds, from ancient Hindu and Buddhist sculpture to ornate weaponry from the colonial era. It’s also home to the National Art Gallery and Contemporary Art Gallery, as well as the Children’s Museum.
The Fort St. George also provides an fascinating slice of Chennai history. Built by the East India Company in 1653, its huge walls contain many interesting buildings now used as government offices, as well as the Fort Museum, which aids understanding of Chennai’s origins and exhibits many artworks and military artifacts from the colonial era. It’s also home to India’s oldest surviving British church, St. Mary’s. The San Thome Cathedral at the other end of Marina Beach, however, is a more impressive sight to see, with incredible stained glass windows and wood carvings.
For further insight into Chennai’s religious culture, the city has many wonderful Hindu temples to visit. The most famous is the Kapaleeshwar Temple, dedicated to the god Shiva, but no less impressive are the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple, the Sri Parthasarathy Temple and the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam.
People and Traditions
Chennai has long been a hub of multiculturalism and it’s people are consequently very accustomed to outsiders. You’ll find them to be friendly and hospitable, as well as full of love and enthusiasm for their home city. Chennaiites nevertheless take their own traditions and beliefs seriously. There’ll usually be festivities for all manner of religious holidays, but the city also boasts one of the world’s largest music festivals. The five-week long Chennai Music Season is a city-wide celebration of Classical Indian Music.
Chennai stays hot all year round, with temperatures rarely dropping far below 20ºC and capable of soaring into the high 30s for most of the year. Avoid monsoon season, however, when the city receives heavy rains and occasional cyclones from October to mid-December.
Chennai is busy and its roads jammed with traffic, so it’s nice to know that there are several places to get away from it all. There are the tranquil grounds of the Sri Ramakrishna Math and the Theosophical Society, the latter of which is a co-religious space that’s home to a Hindu temple, a Buddhist shrine, a church, a mosque and a Zoroastrian temple. The city also has nice beaches. Marina Beach is the closest to the city centre, but take a stroll south and you’ll find the cleaner and quieter Besant Nagar Beach, also known as Elliot’s Beach.
The Vivekananda House by Marina Beach looks like a mansion but was originally used by the British to store ice. It was later used as a base for renowned Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda. To this day it remains a popular pilgrimage site for the Swami’s devotees, but it’s no less interesting a place to visit for non-Hindus.
Literature fans and academics shouldn’t pass up a visit to Higginbothams. Thought to be India’s oldest surviving bookshop, it has a history as rich as its English-language section. Then there’s the Book Building. This colourful cultural space hosts free talks and workshops from various authors and artists, as well as free exhibitions. Fans of all other arts should check out the Kalakshetra Foundation – a school for classical Tamil dance and music with beautiful gardens and regular performances – and the Kalakshetra Craft Centre across the road, where visitors can watch traditional textiles being crafted.