Chennai – The City I Call Home

On the East coast of India facing the Bay of Bengal, directly across the peninsula from the place where I was born, sits Chennaiformerly Madras of the ‘checks‘ and ‘curry‘ fame.

Where St Thomas the Apostle was martyred in 70 AD, and the British East India Company built their first major settlement (in India) in 1639.

Marina Beach, Chennai
Marina Beach

Where cricket is a religion. And a movie star (and later chief minister) was GOD!!

The home of the DosaIdli and filter Kapi. And exquisite silk saris woven in nearby Kanchipuram.

A place that incredibly holds onto its culture and traditions against the onslaught of centuries of foreign influence, including the current influx of North Indians.

Population: just under 8.6 million. Big, bustling, dirty and HOT.

Remember R’s hot, hotter and hell analogy? We are currently well out of hell thanks to some borrowed showers from the south west monsoons.

Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore
Kapaleeswarar Temple

Language spoken: Tamil.  Dravidian Tamil chauvinism led to protests against the imposition of Hindi as the national language based on “numerical superiority” in the sixties. Their rebuttal: “If we had to accept the principle of numerical superiority while selecting our national bird, the choice would have fallen not on the peacock, but on the common crow!”

There were ambitious plans for ‘Singara (beautiful) Chennai” a few years ago. The putrid river Cooum, was supposed to have been cleaned up, the roads beautified, the garbage removal privatised, more trees planted, etc etc.

Everyone was filled with the ‘India Shining’ fervour. But these plans fell by the wayside like all other development plans attempted by rival state governments too busy playing politics.

The biggest bone that I have to pick with the local authorities is the absolute lack of respect for heritage architecture. Oh they love their temples, although they have a strange way of showing it by painting their spires in the ghastliest colours imaginable. The beach promenade was once lined with the most remarkable colonial and Indo Saracenic landmarks. Few remain, and these, thanks to loud protests from vigilant citizens.

Government College Of Fine Arts - Egmore, Chennai
Government College Of Fine Arts

Still, it isn’t all bad.

We are finally getting a metro, even if it involves a few years (??) wait before it becomes functional*.

Chennai has developed into a quality industrial and manufacturing hub with every known car maker having a  presence here. A Detroit of the East if you please. The resultant power shortage is another story, but it does make for a thriving, vibrant, cosmopolitan economy.

There are annual Carnatic music festivals that have people pouring in from around the world, (I shall commit sacrilege here and confess to preferring Hindustani and Sufi music!).

We have prestigious art galleries and beautiful beach resorts close by, and a more laid back life style. The food scene is improving by leaps although there never was a dearth of amazing local eateries, predominantly vegetarian (strange, considering this is a coastal city), but also the fiery cuisine from Chettinad that we love. And the Kapi of course.

And some very dear friends.

Below are a few vignettes of this metropolis I call home…….Singara or not.

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  • One short stretch of the Metro was inaugurated on 29 June 2015.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

107 thoughts on “Chennai – The City I Call Home

  1. What a nice love letter to Chennai. I have very good friends there but I always hesitate to visit. Frankly, I start to feel comfortable in my skin as soon as the thermometer falls below 0 C. My experience with the heat and humidity in Calcutta and later in Kerala still lingers, and kept me from visiting. But my friends, the dosas and the silk weavers will make the sweat worthwhile πŸ™‚

    1. Hi Fida, try and visit in Dec/Jan. Can’t promise you 0 C weather, but it might just be bearable. (By our standards at least;-) )

      1. It was my first visit to India so I was a little bewildered. I had never eaten curry or even drank tea and it was oh so long ago. I’m thinking seriously of returning early next year.

        1. I’m definitely going to fly to Kolkuta after Vietnam. From there I’ll decide if I go north to Assam or south in your direction.

  2. If my memory serves me correctly the Indus River civilization of the dim past was Dravidian. I guess successive Aryan invasions pushed the major Dravidian peoples south? I also read that Dravidian culture spread beyond Ceylon down into SE Asia in early history. Do I have my facts straight on that?

    1. You do! Your knowledge of the history and culture of the subcontinent is very impressive Ian! πŸ™‚

  3. lovely pics and very interesting info:) Thank you Madhu ji for sharing. I wish to visit someday πŸ™‚ blessings and peace to you

    1. Thank you, and you are most welcome. This isn’t part of my memories series though πŸ™‚

  4. I know I’m late getting to this post, but better late than —
    I’ve never seen dosas like this one, here they’re long and narrow, not so elegant! Many years ago some friends of our went to a big meeting of an ecumenical Christian community (TaizΓ©, in France) which was held in Chennai, then called Madras. It was an unforgettable experience for them.

  5. Every Chennaite would be very proud of you, seeing one of their own people showcased their city and its culture in such an excellent way. Beautiful post. Your love for Chennai is shining with every word you have written here. And not to forget I just loved these pictures. I am sure must had taken that Chennai central picture during morning time. Because during my stay of more than a year, I have never seen so much empty places during working hours. πŸ™‚ And I love that Mylapur Siva Temple. On this year’s Sivaratri, the only day in the calender I fast, I went inside it with my friends. It was a wonderful experience. And the evening view is breathtaking. I love walking on the streets of Mylapur. It feels like that place is not part of Chennai, it has some kind of different feeling. You brought back so many memories of this beautiful city. But I hope you missed to capture Ramakrishna Mission. It was also really beautiful.

  6. Hello Madhu…This is a great post. I have been to the city once and just fell in love with it. Reading this post, I am surely left wanting for more details. Fascinating! Have you written about Chennai in other posts as well??

    1. No, I have written more on Mangalore. You will find those under the memories category on the menu at the top. The ‘memories’ post is a bit of a cathartic revisiting of my past.

      1. Will surely see those. A small request…please write some more posts on Chennai if possible! I love the cinema, the politics and the unique coming together of tradition and modernity that the city of Chennai both symbolises and thrives on!

        Thanks.

  7. Missed this originally, Madhu. Must’ve been on my Polish travels. Not a city I plan to visit anytime soon so we’ll have to meet elsewhere, but interesting. You weren’t born there? (I should know this but can’t remember)

  8. Beautiful to have a taste of your life and location… thank you for your creative spirit and for sharing… Jason

  9. I just returned from Chennai. Catching up on all the unread posts, what a coincidence… A reminder of my trip is the first one I read!

    1. Glad to have brought back fond memories! (Hope they were indeed fond :-)) Do you live in Mumbai Kasturika?

  10. Always love the historical tidbits and informations. Really shows how much reflection and understanding you take in with all your travels.

  11. I would love to visit Chennai… It looks beautiful. Yes, hot but beautiful anyway. πŸ˜‰

    1. I showcased beautiful buildings in isolation Eliz.. The city is far grittier than these images suggest. Thanks for dropping by πŸ™‚

  12. another great post. Chennai is such a lovely city and the food is great. My husband is a tamilian and the place holds a special place in my heart!

    1. Don’t know about the lovely Jaajaabor! These pictures in isolation are a bit deceiving I think, my mistake. But yes atmospheric for sure. Can see why you would have a soft corner warts and all πŸ™‚ Thanks for the comment.

  13. Your city is very lovely. I understand the frustration and the love you have for your city – that reminds me of Manila living. πŸ™‚ Lovely post as always, Madhu.

  14. It looks “singara” to me :), but I can’t experience the dirt from the pics… I am glad to hear you are way out of hell now… A beautifully written post Madhu, and the photos are worthy of a nice tourist brochure πŸ™‚

    1. Oh no it is far from Singara! I need to post some grittier images to balance the post a bit πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the nice words Paula!

  15. Madhu, quite an interesting piece on Chennai, and the pictures are the perfect accompaniment! If we’d had more time in India, we would’ve loved to have explored the east coast. Is that scrumptious-looking delicacy a dosa?

    1. The city is far grittier than my photos suggest though. These were taken early on a Sunday. Most other days would be as chaotic as any big Indian city you have been to. Perhaps i should post some of those as well to balance the picture a bit πŸ™‚ And yes that is a Dosa.

  16. That was fun, Madhu. I enjoyed whizzing around Chennai with you, passing some of the old buildings (looking remarkably spruced up, might I say since I last saw them. probably 1996-7) and the temple, the brilliance of the flamboyants outshining all, and sitting down to the dandiest dosa and kapi. Great post.

    1. I am partial to the west coast temples that are less flamboyant (garish?) πŸ™‚ Thank you TWLG and glad you enjoyed the tour of Chennai!

      1. Well … you’re a west coast girl, Madhu, that’s to be expected! I find them startling too, especially after becoming accustomed to the breathtaking simplicity of whitewashed dagabas here in Sri Lanka πŸ™‚

  17. Dear Madhu, you and Chronicles of Illusion have disappeared from my reader. It’s so annoying because you are both blogs that I really don’t want to miss out on and i wonder what else is missing. Have you heard of anyone else with this problem?

    1. Hope the problem with your reader is sorted Gilly. Apparently the solution is to unfollow and click follow again!

  18. I love the art gallery and temple, less keen on the colonial influence. Oh I so want to go back to India!

    1. You should Gilly πŸ™‚ Shall post more temple photos sometime soon. Am swamped at the moment!

  19. What an exotic and beautiful city you live! Chennai sounds so lovely with so much variety! And I have tried the Dosa in Singapore! LOVED it! I remember how BIG it was (I could wear it like a hat!) – is it usually made THAT big? The Idlii and kapi look delish!

    1. Depends on the variety, this one was made a little bigger when they spotted my camera i think πŸ™‚ Thanks Zoe.

  20. Great, I love that kind of stories – and real good shots too… πŸ˜‰

    Some things were good others bad – some later changes are good others are not – such is life – feel the same way when visiting my childhood memories… πŸ˜‰

    The former (and mow gone) chief minister walked around with a bullet in his neck for 18-20 years…???

    1. Yes, that chief minister was a character! He wasn’t even a native Tamilian to begin with! Thanks Ledrake πŸ™‚

  21. Very nicely done. Cities everywhere struggle against seemingly impossible odds. Have been to Kolkata with 15 million – more if all the homelessq were counted and yet the city functions in its dysfunctional state. As travelerlnyye said, Chennai, Kerala, and southern India are on the bucket list.

    1. it is a miracle how we function despite all the odds πŸ™‚ Appreciate the visit Fotograffer!
      Just popped over to your blog…..your portfolio is fascinating!

      1. I know what you mean. I think it would be interesting to show those parts. I was just thinking, as we have been driving through western Maryland, that I should do a post on what we in the US call “trailer trash…”

  22. hello Madhu,
    you’ve written a great tribute to Chennai!
    My daughter (an architect) has been there …

  23. Hoping to visit Chennai soon. It’s only less than 6 hours away from Bangalore. My only memory of Chennai is a a transit point on the way home from J&K; Spent two hours in Chennai Central railway station.

    I visited in July and I still found it hot! Bangalore weather spoils its citizens! πŸ˜› πŸ™‚

    1. Like i said above I don’t know a Bangalorean that likes Chennai! Our son-in law will not step foot here till Dec/Jan! Central station must have been chaotic. Need to shoot some of the crazy scenes inside πŸ™‚

  24. Have been to some of these places ..Lovely So much beauty around
    Loved the shots..Oh man that dosa pic is a show stopper..yum

    1. The restaurant went to some trouble to get a perfectly rolled one when they saw me take out my camera! Thanks Soma πŸ™‚

  25. I’ve been to Chennai before and want to visit Auroville if I’m in that part of the world again. Loved the south Indian food and filter coffee in Chennai πŸ™‚

  26. Madhu, great post. I haven’t been to Chennai since 2001, and I agree with you – Big, bustling, dirty and hot. It was a real contrast to the then cool Bangalore weather. Today I’m sure both Chennai and Bangalore fit the same description because Bangalore is so hot these days. I remember shopping for a kanchipuram sari at Nalli’s on my Chennai trip. I remember the movie star GOD!

    1. Thanks Shaantz! Glad to have stirred fond memories Shaantz! I don’t know of a Bangalorean that likes Chennai though πŸ™‚ Unless they were born here!

  27. That has to be amongst the most wonderful descriptions of a city – as though you hold out for view both the polished gleaming facets and the dingy, ruined faces of the over-used gem you hold close amongst all your travels.

    1. Thanks Keira πŸ™‚ I now feel I should have posted a few more grittier, less pretty images to give a proper perspective of the city. Didn’t have too many of those. Shall try and post some along the way. Thanks again for stopping by

  28. Your photos are so beautiful and your history of the area was so special. It is difficult for those of us in the US to fathom just how far back your history stretches as we have nothing like this in our country. Just lovely!

  29. What a beautiful and eloquent way to introduce the city you call home! Thank you, Madhu!

  30. Hi Madhu, it is really interesting to get this peek into your city. The photos are great. We have an Indian restaurant not too far from us that serves both Northern and Southern cuisine. I really enjoy the dosas they serve there.

  31. Usually our failing is not to appreciate what we have until it’s gone. This loving postcard of your home makes me appreciate it along with you. Thank you for sharing.

  32. I love hearing about other countries and cultures. I have found that in so many ways we are all alike. I am very glad you have shown us your home city. Your photos are wonderful. I would love to taste some of the dishes you posted. Thank you for sharing.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

    1. Thank YOU Francine πŸ™‚ That food must be freely available in most big American cities!

  33. I have been to Chennai, but it was just an over night on my way to Bangalore. The railway station is enormous and one of the busiest I have ever seen. When my sister and I boarded the train and sat down, a man handed me a baby to hold. My sister was convinced he wouldn’t come back, but of course he did. He was just helping his wife onto the train.

    1. And one of the dirtiest stations as well! I would have panicked if someone had thrust a baby onto my arms!!! What a strange man!

    1. You are most welcome Lisa. I revisited several of those buildings after so many years! Familiarity does breed contempt πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks AD. Strangely I am still – after more than two decades here – ambivalent about the city! I would move to Bangalore in a heartbeat, just for the clement weather!

    1. Thanks Mehmudah! Am wondering whether I gave an erroneous impression of Chennai by not posting the grittier images. Didn’t have too many of those πŸ™‚

  34. Kerala and Chennai are on our near future bucket list. Thanks for the history and info and for sharing the place you call home. Change is inevitable but thankfully Chennai has held onto its traditions and culture. Is the flowering tree a poinciana (flame or flamboyant) tree?

    1. Do let me know if you need help with the planning. The tree is indeed Poinciana, very common around here and in full bloom at the moment. Thanks Lynne

  35. I flew into Chennai once but sadly didn’t get a chance to really see anything. I do hope I get to visit again some day. India is the most exciting place I have ever been to but Ive only seen a little…. so far!

    1. Look forward to your visit Kat πŸ™‚ Not much of tourist value in Chennai apart from the Shore temple in Mahabalipuram, an hour from here. But this is a good base to explore the temples of the south. Not for the faint hearted though, infrastructure is still a long way from world class!

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