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Travel special: Gods and goodness in Chennai

Not Mumbai or Delhi. Or Jaipur even. But Chennai was recently selected by BBC as one of the hottest cities of 2015. We invited city-born Tulsi Badrinath, author of Madras, Chennai and The Self, to hand-pick quaint treasures in a city that straddles the modern and the traditional

For long considered as ‘not-happening’ when compared to Delhi or Mumbai, Chennai has stolen a march on them and made it to the Lonely Planet and BBC Travel lists of their hottest destinations for 2015. It is time, perhaps, to head to Chennai and absorb its culture and atmosphere.

Chennai turns 375: Interesting facts about the capital city of Tamil Nadu

The façade of Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore, in the heart of Chennai
The façade of Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore, in the heart of Chennai

The city came into being in 1639 as Madras, when the British were granted land on the coast and built Fort St George. What began as a commercial enterprise to source cheap cotton chintz to be sent to London, ended with the British spreading their rule from here to Calcutta, and soon over the entire Indian sub-continent. It was only three hundred years later, in 1947, that the country’s tallest flagmast hoisted the Indian tricolour at Fort St George.

The stunning interiors of San Thome Basilica
The stunning interiors of San Thome Basilica

Madras that is now Chennai, has thus had a long history of straddling the traditional and the modern. With this in mind, we plot a unique trail that will help see the city in a new light.

Colonel Olcott’s memorial in Adyar
Colonel Olcott’s memorial in Adyar

Mylapore
Centuries older than Fort St George, Mylapore is at the heart of Chennai. Roam around the Mada streets looking at huge jewellery shops on one side and glass-bangle sellers on the other, enjoy cries of vendors selling vegetables and fruit, buy yourself a yard of fresh jasmines, gaze at the distinctive stepped temple tank, visit Shiva and Karpagambal at the Kapaleeshwarar temple, and buy silk Kanjeevaram saris at Rasi. When hungry, stop at the jannal kadai or window-shop, and taste some hot idlis sold through the window of this unique food joint.

The striking white façade of the Armenian Church
 The striking white façade of the Armenian Church

San Thome
You can walk from Mylapore to San Thome, taking the same path perhaps, as that taken by the apostle of Christ, St Thomas before reaching his tomb at the San Thome Basilica. Also visit Our Lady of Light and St Thomas English Church, enter the fisherman’s colony and see traditional ways of catching fish with nets, before winding up at the world’s second longest shoreline, Marina Beach. Nearby, the Ice House is where Swami Vivekananda meditated on the topmost floor.

MAP NOT TO SCALE. ILLUSTRATION COURTESY/ Manaas Udayakumar, extracted from Madras, Chennai and The Self
MAP NOT TO SCALE. ILLUSTRATION COURTESY/ Manaas Udayakumar, extracted from Madras, Chennai and The Self

Adyar
Stroll through the wooded grounds of the international headquarters of the Theosophical Society, on the banks of the river Adyar, and see the living quarters of Annie Besant, Colonel Olcott, J Krishnamurthy, and Rukmini Devi Arundale. Head to the vibrant Bessie Beach, tuck into yum street fare including freshly caught fried fish, take a ride on the merry-go-round, before reaching the Annai Velankanni church.

A market in George Town
A market in George Town

George Town
Spend the day looking at the distinctive buildings on NSC Bose Road, High Court campus, Armenian Church, Kalikambal temple, Masjid-e-Mamoor, facades of homes in Sowcarpet, drink coconut water in one of the mazes of narrow streets branching off the main road, before visiting Fort St George and India’s oldest Anglican Church, St Mary’s.

Madras, Chennai and The Self, Pan Macmillan, Tulsi Badrinath
Madras, Chennai and The Self, Pan Macmillan, Tulsi Badrinath, Rs 299. Available at leading bookstores

Perambur
Visit the ICF factory, one of the largest in Asia, to get an idea of how trains are made in our country, and the Regional Rail Museum. A walk down some inner roads will reveal the quintessential Anglo-Indian homes and the Railway Institute — a key gathering place for the community.

Silk Kanjeevaram saris

Silk haven in Chennai
Silk Kanjeevaram saris are a must-buy at Rasi in Mylapore. Most weaves are sourced from the town of Kancheepuram. 

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