India: exploring the sights and sounds of Chennai

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India: exploring the sights and sounds of Chennai

Summing up Chennai is no easy task. It’s a place of particular significance in India’s history, with all kinds of architecture reflecting this. It’s the former city of Madras (where the fiery curry gets its name), having been known by its current title since 1996. It’s viewed as the cultural capital of southern India but is also home to the world’s second longest beach.

Located on the south-east coast of the country, Chennai came to prominence back in the 1600s, when the British-built Fort St George became the empire’s first foothold, from where the rest of India was invaded. Apart from a short period in the mid-1700s when the French took control, the British continued their occupation and had conquered most of the region around Tamil Nadu by the late 18th century, along with nearby regions. Over time the city grew into a major urban centre and naval base.

After India gained its independence in 1947, the city became the capital of Madras State, renamed the state of Tamil Nadu in 1969. Modern day Chennai is regarded as one of the cleanest cities in India and draws its fair share of visitors.

BUILDING ON ITS HISTORY

Chennai’s many temples, churches, museums and forts point to not just its interesting history but also its rich cultural landscape. Parthasarathy, Kapaleeshwarar and Ashtalakshmi temples may be difficult for foreigners to pronounce but are well worth checking out. Kapaleeshwarar Temple, for example, is built in typical Dravidian architectural style, with its pyramid-shaped structure and intricate carved stone in a step design, consisting of colourful statues of deities and other figures.

A large number of Christians have lived in Chennai since the colonial period, hence the large number of churches here. Many are admired for their beauty and architectural concepts, such as the Santhome Cathedral Basilica and the Velankanni church.

There are some interesting museums to visit in Chennai too, while monuments are a feature of the streetscape and a reminder of the city’s historical importance. Also worth checking out is the aforementioned Fort St George, which was built in 1640.

A FESTIVE ATMOSPHERE

Do your pre-trip research comprehensively and you might get to take in one of Chennai’s legendary festivals. The city comes alive for a host of Hindu celebrations including the well known Deepavali (also known as Divali) — the festival of lights.

Music festivals are another highlight. Chennai is an important centre for Carnatic music — a style of Indian classical music that is closely associated with southern India. Every December to January the city hosts the Madras Music Season, where a number of large and small Carnatic music concerts are performed by musicians from across India. Chennai also has a vibrant theatre scene and is an important centre for the Bharata Natyam, a classical dance form.

The city offers some great opportunities to pick up a few souvenirs too, with items ranging from silk saris to silver jewellery and fine art. While you’re at it, stick your head into one of the many art galleries.

BEACH WITHIN REACH

In a city that’s jam-packed with attractions and activities, it’s perhaps just as well that Chennai offers visitors the ideal place to unwind — on its beaches. It actually boasts the world’s second longest beach, the Marina Beach, which spans 14 km. Covelong Beach is another popular choice.

Chennai’s parks offer a pleasant experience in themselves, while day trips are another option to consider, especially to the neighbouring town of Mahabalipuram. The excursion is well worth the effort, to see the town’s ancient temples and rock carvings from the seventh century Pallava kingdom.