The modern city of Chennai, capital of India's Tamil Nadu, was once known as Madras. Ruled at different times by the Portuguese, the French and the British, it is now very much its own place. It is also one of the most popular destinations in India for foreign tourists. Many are attracted by its food -- reputed to be some of the best in the world -- others for its beaches, its wildlife, its temples or its shopping.
Visitors who arrive in search of the city's spiritual offerings will not be disappointed. In particular, it has many vividly decorated Hindu temples and visitors may be lucky enough to visit one while a festival, such as the Brahmotsavam Mela at Kapaleeshwar Temple, is underway.
Music and dance, particularly the Carnatic tradition, has long been important to Chennai. Its annual Margazhi Festival of Dance and Music is an opportunity for locals and visitors alike to revel in the sights and sounds of this ancient art form. However, Chennai is also making a name for itself in the movie industry. It is the home of Kollywood, Tamil Nadu's own producer of Indian films.
Although Chennai is increasingly cosmopolitan and urbanised, it is a city that also still makes room for nature. As well as its many beaches and the increasingly endangered turtles that use some of them to nest, it is known for its crocodile park, the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology. With a focus on conservation and captive breeding, its visitors can admire the centre's reptiles, witness snake venom extraction and even get some hands-on volunteer experience.
Things to Do
In Chennai, there are plenty of opportunities to soak up history, relax on the beach, interact with wildlife and get your fill of shopping done -- in short, there is no shortage of things to do for everyone.
On the trail of temples and churches
Chennai is overwhelmingly a Hindu city. This is reflected in its temples, which are an unmissable highlight of any visit. Kapaleeshwar Temple is an ancient shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. Its city centre location and brightly coloured façade draw in the crowds. Even so, there is a surprising amount of peace to be found inside, particularly in the courtyard. Here, visitors can see a Punnai tree: a type of laurel that is sometimes known as a holy, wish-yielding tree. This particular specimen is thought to be one of the city's oldest trees.
The white stone San Thome Basilica is a reminder of Tamil Nadu's colonial past. Reputedly the resting place of St Thomas, one of the twelve apostles, it is built in a grand, neo-Gothic style and is a place of pilgrimage for visitors from around the world.
Have a beach day
Its location on the Bay of Bengal means that Chennai is blessed with many beautiful, sandy beaches. Many are lively places, offering water sports, beachside bars and evening entertainment. Elliot's Beach, in the suburb of Besant Nagar, is one such place that is particularly popular with young people. However, visitors of all ages are attracted to the nearby Ashtalakshmi temple, dedicated to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi.
Elliot's Beach forms one end of the 13-kilometre-long Marina Beach. The sunset views over the Bay of Bengal from anywhere along Marina Beach are not to be missed.
Take a turtle walk
Chennai's beaches are one of the nesting grounds for the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle. The nests are easily disturbed and the hatchlings all too frequently disorientated by the bright lights of bars, restaurants and cars. Consequently, during nesting season, an organisation called the Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network arranges turtle walks along strategic stretches of beach to collect freshly laid eggs and relocate them to safer, specially guarded hatcheries. When the hatchlings emerge, the volunteers ferry them to the sea. A number of these turtle walks are open to the public. Each walk begins with a short discussion about turtle conservation.
Shop 'til you drop
Home to a number of super malls, Chennai is rated as one of India's best shopping destinations. Named after a department store of the same name, Spencer Plaza lays claim to being India's oldest mall. Once, it was also Chennai's largest mall but this accolade is now thought to belong to Express mall. Shoppers looking to buy gold, or other jewellery, might want to visit the Gold Souk Grande Mall. Aside from the large malls, Chennai also has plenty of local bazaars, including one in the little streets around Kapaleeshwar Temple. Meanwhile, many locals consider the market of Thyagaraya Nagar in Ranganathan Street to offer quintessential Chennai shopping.
Chennai has an abundance of restaurants. What's more, it has an abundance of really excellent places to eat. Whether it is a classic Southern Indian thali, a dish from elsewhere in India or something more international, this city has it on offer. One of the best places to sample particularly good thalis or breakfast idlis is the Hotel Saravana Bhavan. This vegetarian restaurant is part of a chain but it specialises in South India's cuisine. Street food is also popular and provided common sense is used (for example, choosing busy vendors that are well-frequented by locals), they can be a great way to sample local delicacies.
Calendar of Events
This is a lively city, which celebrates the new as enthusiastically as it does the old. Moreover, as well as more widespread festivals, such as the Holi, Chennai also has several of its own, more unique, celebrations.
Pongal. This is South India's harvest festival or thanksgiving. Held every January, when cereals are harvested, this four-day festival gives particular thanks for the sun, the earth and the cow. It is also a traditional time for weddings. On the first day, bonfires are lit, girls dance and songs are sung. The second day is given over to puja, when rice is boiled in milk to be offered to the sun god. The third day is for cattle worship. The cows wear garlands of flowers, sheaves of corn and bells around their necks. Men organise cattle races and everyone has a great deal of fun. On the fourth day, women perform a ritual intended to ensure that their house continues to prosper.
Margazhi Festival of Dance and Music. This annual festival, held in mid-December to mid-January, celebrates Chennai's long association with Carnatic music and dance. In this balmy mid-winter period, the city comes alive with instrumentalists, dancers and singers in what has become known as December season. The people of the city wear their best traditional clothes to enjoy some of more 1,000 separate concerts and performances.
Brahmotsavam festival. Celebrated at the Kapaleeswarar temple, this nine-day spring festival attracts pilgrims from far beyond Chennai. Held somewhere between mid-March and mid-April, it includes a procession during which devotees follow the decorated statutes of Kapaleeswarar and his wife Karpagambal.
Kaarthigai Deepam. This festival of lights is celebrated between November and December, when the full moon is out. People decorate their doorsteps, windows and balconies with lamps, lighting up the city. The festival has ancient origins but is now more about enabling people to gather together as families and eat traditional delicacies made from coconut, jaggery and cardomon.