Chennai: An Enduring Charm

53 comments
Asia, India, South
The Hindu Trimurti (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma) near Kapaleeswarar Temple

The Hindu Trimurti (Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma) near Kapaleeswarar Temple

Chapter 4, Part 14

A string of light emerged on the horizon – scattered yellow speckles suggestive of an incoherent network of offices, houses, temples and roads – forming a boundary against the darkness beyond. The plane made a turn, and more were presented to my curious eyes. We just left the darkness of Indian Ocean, and were about to land in Chennai, a city once called Madras. Among the jumbled urban sprawl, Madhu was down there, somewhere.

A year prior to embarking on a journey with a scale neither James nor I had ever attempted before, we contacted one of our favorite bloggers, Madhu, who happened to reside in the southern Indian city of Chennai. We intended to spend several days in the city before exploring the states of Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Plans were made and flights booked. However, after perusing our itinerary, she advised us against visiting Chennai at the very beginning of the Indian leg of our trip as it would coincide with the peak of northeast monsoon season. She suggested us to push it toward the end of our month-long journey in India as there might be a good chance to get a few sunny days in the city. We took her heed and adjusted our itinerary accordingly.

As we were moving from one city to another, and crossing checkpoints at state borders, we learned from the news that multiple places in the state of Tamil Nadu – where Chennai is its capital – suffered from severe flooding. Madurai was the first city in the state that we visited, and the weather was rather unpredictable with the clouds seemingly having a propensity for blocking the sun during our stay. The next city was Thanjavur, and throughout our three-night stay we played it by ear with the weather. When the sun came out, we quickly grabbed our cameras and rushed toward the magnificent 11th-century Brihadeeswarar temple which was fortunately located within walking distance from where we stayed.

Brihadeeswarar is one of three ancient temples that make up the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Living Chola Temples, with the other two situated in Gangaikondacholapuram and Kumbakonam. It was in fact images of Kumbakonam’s Airavatesvara temple that piqued my interest in Tamil Nadu for its intricately beautiful carvings. However, as we left Thanjavur and continued our journey to the small town, we discovered that the temple was partially inundated following heavy rains days earlier.

Rather disappointed with the fact that we couldn’t explore the centuries-old temple, we continued northward. Finally, after making a short stop at Mahabalipuram, we reached Chennai with a surprisingly warm and sunny welcome.

Relief Carvings at Kapaleeswarar Temple

Relief Carvings at Kapaleeswarar Temple

Typical Tamilian Affinity for Bright Colors

A Display of Tamilians’ Affinity for Bright Colors

Floor Decoration of the Temple

The Temple’s Open-Air Floor Decoration

Women Lighting up Candles

Devotees Lighting up Oil Lamps

The Small Reservoir behind the Temple

A Small Reservoir behind the Temple

As an Indonesian, I’m used to hearing places across the country making international headlines when a volcano erupts, or an earthquake hits, boats sink, terrorists attack, and a long list of other events that make people think Indonesia really is a dangerous country. When I was following the news about the flooding across Tamil Nadu and discovered that Chennai was sunny, warm and pleasant, unlike how it was depicted for days on TV, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with my home country.

Undoubtedly, having Madhu to take us around her adopted city helped us enjoy Chennai better. The city’s true charm lay in its plethora of British colonial buildings – many flaunting Indo-Saracenic architectural style which a century ago was the preferred contemporary design – although Madhu lamented many heritage buildings which had, unfortunately, been razed to the ground. Today, the stately and well-preserved structures that remain are a testament to the city’s importance during the British colonial era.

At a time when the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) began to develop its presence in South and Southeast Asia in earnest to control the lucrative spice trade, the English through the East India Company (EIC) started scrambling for lands to acquire in the region. In 1639 they bought a strip of land on the Coromandel Coast of the Indian subcontinent from a local ruler. The area then known as Madarasapatinam soon witnessed rapid developments as the English started building their first factory and warehouse to support the EIC trading activities. A year later, Fort St. George was constructed, becoming the first English fortress in India as well as the impetus for a growing and expanding settlement which would later be known as Madras, after the land’s original name.

As the EIC’s profit grew, Madras flourished. By the 19th century, Madras was one of the most important cities in British India along with Bombay and Calcutta. Throughout the 19th to the early 20th centuries, the city experienced a construction boom forever changing its face. Madras Museum compound (today’s Government Museum) including its impressive theater, the imposing Ripon Building (currently the seat of the Chennai Corporation), Chennai Egmore railway station, and San Thome Basilica were some of the structures built during this period. The latter, however, started out as a small church built by the Portuguese in the 16th century over the tomb of St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, who is believed to have preached and died in the area in the first century AD.

Chennai Museum

Chennai Museum, One of the Oldest in the Country

Chennai Metro Construction in front of the Ripon Building

Chennai Metro Construction in front of the Ripon Building

Chennai Eggmore Train Station

Chennai Egmore Train Station, Built in the Early 20th Century

Another British Colonial Building in the City

Victoria Public Hall, Located Next to the Ripon Building

St. Thomas the Apostle

San Thome Basilica, Built over the Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle

Whitewashed St. Thomas the Apostle

Southern Facade of the Basilica

Inside the Church (?)

The Nave of San Thome Basilica

A Sanctuary for Chennai's Catholics

A Sanctuary for the City’s Catholics

As with other thriving trading ports during European colonial time in Asia, they attracted people from distant places for different reasons. Some arrived in Madras searching for business opportunities, others left their homes for the British colonial capital in South India to escape poverty. But there were also people who came to Madras to serve at churches of various denominations to keep the faiths alive among Europeans who settled in the city.

Dubbed the oldest Anglican church east of Suez, the late 17th-century St. Mary’s Church at Fort St. George was tucked amid what is today the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu. Contrary to the well-preserved Anglican church, the Armenian Church was situated in the middle of a dense commercial neighborhood filled with rundown buildings with streets laid out in grid plan. Completed in the 18th century, the tranquil church was a reminder of the dwindling Armenian communities across Asia. In Chennai’s Egmore district, St. Andrew’s Church which was built in the 19th century to serve the city’s Scottish community appeared to be in a much better state.

In 1996 the name Madras was officially changed into Chennai, after Chennapatnam – a collective name for several villages around Madarasapatinam. Despite the name alteration, nothing else had really changed. Chennai was still a bustling city as Madras had been for a long time, and old problems remained, including the snarling traffic and the struggle for heritage buildings preservation. Many of the city’s colonial gems that lined up the avenue across the promenade of Marina Beach were fortunate to be spared of the wrecking ball. One afternoon, Madhu’s husband, Ravi, took us to the beach for a leisurely stroll. The sun was setting, casting beautiful silhouettes on the statues, lamps posts, old buildings and everything else along the beach. The breeze from the Indian Ocean took away the humidity the city is usually associated with, or “hot, hotter, hell” as Ravi put it.

After three days exploring Chennai under unexpectedly blue skies with very precious companions, we bid adieu to the city and flew to Kolkata, more than 1300 km away to the northeast. Two days since leaving Tamil Nadu, however, we learned that Chennai was hit by the worst flooding in recent memory. In a poignant post, Madhu spoke of the city’s perseverance in dealing with the disaster, and as the city has now returned to its normal life, let it be known not for its troubles, but rather for its endless charm.

A Church inside A Government Office Compound

St. Mary’s Church at Fort St. George

Stained Glass inside the Church

Stained Glass inside the Church

Inside the Church

Tranquility in the Nave

Chennai's Sole Armenian Church

Chennai’s Sole Armenian Church

At the Courtyard

The Church’s Iconic Belfry of Six

Madhu in Action

Madhu in Action

Memories Written in English and Armenian

Memories Written in English and Armenian

Inside the Church

Inside the Church

Scottish Church

St. Andrew’s Church in Egmore District

Inside the Church

Inside the Circular Sanctuary

Gandhi Statue at the Beach Promenade

A Gandhi Statue at the Beach Promenade

Hot, Hotter, Hell

Hot, Hotter, Hell

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

53 thoughts on “Chennai: An Enduring Charm”

    • Resilience is a recurring theme in places that are recovering from disasters or wars. I’m really glad it didn’t take long for Chennai to get back on its feet. But a lot of things need to be done to prevent such flooding from happening again in the future. I just looked at your photo of the station and it looks just like how I remember it — such a beautiful and elegant building it really is.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Lovely narrative and great pictures. Although Chennai is not a popular tourist destination but your heritage trail is a great find. Great post

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    • Without Madhu’s help we couldn’t have explored as many gems as we wanted. It’s true that compared to cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and New Delhi, Chennai is less popular. But that doesn’t mean the city deserves less attention. Thanks for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

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      • I have been visiting Chennai ever since I was a kid. Though Chennai doesn’t boast of long list of sites to check out, but its a great place to explore the heritage and culture!

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      • It’s a tough balancing act which at times work against heritage as the price of land is quite high and one tends to look at materialistic aspects!

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      • Sad, but true. However, several cities in Southeast Asia have demonstrated how heritage building preservation can actually bring bigger benefits for the cities themselves.

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  2. How wonderful that your blogging friendship with Madhu formed. We have found these connections have been true gifts in helping us experience a destination in a very different way. Your photos and details captured are marvelous as always. Wishing you many wonderful adventures ahead in 2017!

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    • That is one of the best things about blogging — Madhu and James are some of the greatest people I met through it. And as I repeatedly said, I would love to go to Canada and explore Calgary (and beyond) with you. It’s just your home is so far away from where I live, but that is not to say I don’t have any plan to visit that part of the world sometime in the future. Have a great year ahead too, Sue!

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  3. Adam Morris says:

    Wow, I return to Chennai most every year to visit my wife’s family… outside of the train station and the shopping centers I haven’t seen much, unless Mahabalipuram counts. I’ll have to explore a little deeper on my next trip. Beautiful photos!

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    • The Armenian Church, Fort St. George and Marina Beach were some of the most interesting places to explore in the city — for your inspiration on your next visit! I loved Mahabalipuram, especially the Pancha Rathas. The entire complex was so stunning yet still relatively unknown to many foreigners. Thanks for reading!

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  4. Forgive me if I am using such a banal expression to describe how I am fascinated by your historical perspective and the outstanding photos in your illustrations. But I have been blown away. Eagerly awaiting your next post. Happy New Year!

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    • First of all, Happy New Year to you too, Peter! You’re too kind, but thanks for the time you spent reading this post and for your encouraging words. Next post will be about a place, still in southern India, which was colonized by the French.

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    • In Tamil Nadu most temples are painted with bright, neon colors — I prefer the unpainted ones, though, like the one in Thanjavur. However, I still remember how fascinated I was when I saw my first Tamil temple in Malaysia, with all those colors.

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  5. Begitulah traveler, needs a good luck or “rahmat Ilahi” so the trip would finished as expected. It’s good that you had that sunny day and bright blue sky during your stay in Chennai. But I always believe that everything happens for a reason. So, even if we had a bad weather during our trip, there’s something to be learnt.
    I love the St. Thome Basilica. The white facade is sooo clean and… perfect. Keagungannya bahkan bisa aku rasakan hanya dengan melihat fotomu, mas.

    Hope every traveler will never over-reacted to a city or country just because the bad news they heard. Happy New Year!

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    • Setuju banget. Yang harusnya cuaca cerah bisa tiba-tiba hujan, begitu pula sebaliknya. Pengalaman saya kalo pas lagi mendung banget atau bahkan hujan, saya jadi lebih memperhatikan hal-hal kecil di sekitar saya yang dalam kondisi normal luput dari perhatian saya. Actually James was really moved when we were at the underground chapel located beneath a building next to the basilica. My eyes were a bit teary as well listening to the devotees solemnly singing in such a confined space.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thought, Nug. Happy New Year to you too!

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      • Yes. Apalagi di tengah musim yang nggak jelas kayak gini.

        Wah, aku bisa membayangkan rasa itu, mas. Memang lantunan doa atau lagu pujian itu — apapun agama dan keyakinannya — membuat kita merasa begitu kecil di hadapan Sang Khalik yang agung.

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  6. The Roving Couple says:

    Beautiful photos! We have friends that live in Chennai that we’d love to visit. Your photos have convinced us that we should go soon. 🙂

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    • Much appreciated! When you do plan to visit Chennai, try to avoid the wettest month of the year (which is exactly the time we went).

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  7. Lovely account of Chennai. I wish I could do the same. Unfortunately my visit to Chennai was a disaster. My husband’s passport got stolen and although the british high commission were very helpful, the Chennai police put us through a nightmare. We were the victims of a crime but instead of helping us they decided to shout at us, we were treated so badly, they threatened to arrest us and were so rude it was very distressing for two old age pensioners. Too traumatic to ever consider visiting Chennai again.

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    • I’m so sorry to hear about the ordeal you had to go through in Chennai. However, I’m not surprised at all with the way the police treated you and your husband. I can understand your frustration and your reluctance to visit the city again. But I do hope things will get better sooner than later, so Chennai can be a really pleasant city to explore. Thanks for reading and sharing your experience!

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  8. How wonderful that you were able to see Madhu and to slip into Chennai in the few days the sun shone and the rain desisted. Chennai is one of the cities I have wanted to visit in India, and your history and photos reaffirm that!

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    • We can’t thank Madhu enough for taking us around Chennai. Thanks to her and Ravi we could see the best places in the city in just three days. Speaking of Chennai itself, the first time I knew about the city was when I was a kid, back in the time when it was still called Madras. There was an instant noodle ad on TV where they had a new flavor which was called “Madras Curry”. Then in 2010 I went to Kuala Lumpur and saw my first Tamil temple. Since then my interest in India grew. Hopefully you’ll visit Chennai pretty soon, Lex!

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  9. Dude u r just mindblowing for the part of writing about Chennai in a very soothing way and second the photographs are simply fabulous. U hv just bought Chennai in front of my eyes. Kudos (y). happy writing 🙂

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    • I really appreciate your kind comment. I think my perception of Chennai would have been a little different had I not had local companions there. Happy writing too!

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  10. It was an absolute honour showing you and James around what little there is to see in my adopted city Bama! Your beautiful account does it proud.

    And thank you for the reminder to be a bit more graceful when I shoot low! The last time I squatted like that – for the sunset shot in Zadar alongside a Chinese girl – Ravi over heard a fellow tourist mutter: “Must be all the yoga”!! 😀

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    • The honor is ours, Madhu. Thank you for suggesting us to move Chennai toward the end of our trip in India (and for helping us with the flights change!), for taking us around the city, introducing us to some local delicacies, hosting us for three days, and for everything else. We couldn’t be more grateful.

      Ha! Sorry for taking that candid photo. But when I saw you at that time, I was instantly reminded of some of my friends who, I believe, would struggle to do the same pose. So it was more like an inspiration really, and no need to be more graceful. 🙂

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  11. Santai pagi-pagi baca postingan ini dan makin lama makin mules, bukan karena rutin pagi, tapi karena ngeliat foto-fotonya dan ceritanya yang aduuuh ga bisa ditulis dalam kata. Luar biasa bagus bangeeeddd. Seperti mewujud imajinasi gitu soalnya saat terbang malam ke Mumbai, seingat saya sang pilot bilang di bawah itu Chennai, yang terang dengan cahaya, kontras dengan gelapnya lautan ya. Inget banget situasinya… duh makin mules niii mana yang harus diprioritaskan dari yang prioritas. Tapiiiii awas lho mas Bama, seandainya… seandainya aku sampe ke Madras dan tau semua foto-foto itu cuma screensaver aku akan cariii mas Bama buat dicubit!

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    • Makasih banyak mbak! 🙂 Mungkin karena itu kali pertama saya ke India, malam hari pula, jadi pas liat lampu-lampu kota Chennai jadi merasa wow banget. Mabk Riyanti nanti ke Chennai jangan di bulan November ya, karena itu puncaknya musim hujan di sana. Saya bener-bener beruntung banget selama tiga hari di Chennai pas cuacanya cerah, padahal sebelum dan sesudah saya di sana hujan lebat terus. Oiya, kalo mau nyubit kasih tau dulu ya mbak, biar bisa kabur, hihihi.. 😀

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  13. Bama, reading this post and seeing your wonderful photos brought back so many fond memories. Chennai was undoubtedly one of the high points of our India leg, thanks to Madhu and Ravi’s hospitality. I was amazed by the beauty of its colonial buildings – not least the different churches – and there was something charming about the hurly-burly we saw on the streets. As for that sunset stroll along the beach promenade, it was just perfect… we couldn’t have asked for a more fitting way to mark our final evening in Chennai.

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    • I would say we were pampered by them, which was nice especially after traveling for more than three weeks across southern India. I like the fact that we not only tried Tamil food, but also Bengali and Mangalorean dishes during our stay in Chennai. Can you imagine how much more impressive Chennai would have looked had they kept most of their colonial buildings intact? As for the sunset stroll, we went on a perfect afternoon since the breeze was very gentle and refreshing. Oh and that grilled corn on the cob we had, I remember it being so sweet, juicy, at the same time smokey. Thanks for reading, James!

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    • Madhu is the second non-Indonesian whom I knew from blogging then eventually met in person — James is the first. And both showed me around their cities during our first meet up. Maybe that’s how we’re going to meet one day, Jeff — you showing me around Bangkok, or me showing you around Jakarta.

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      • Very cool. Yeah, I am sure we will pass through Jakarta in the near future. Would love to meet up and see the city from a locals perspective. When I visited last time we spent the day just trying to stay awake from jet lag and buying tickets for the train to Yogyakarta!

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      • When I show you around, I’ll make sure to take it easy — the traffic won’t allow us to move really fast from one place to another anyway. 🙂 But we can always eat a lot of local food.

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  15. I had a wonderful read. and so happy I discovered your blog. I have heard a lot about Chennai and your pictures and writings has convinced me that Chennai awaits my arrival. I have to make this dream come true. Thank you for bringing a beautiful story of your travel.

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    • I really appreciate the time you spent reading this post. Chennai is largely overlooked by foreign visitors who travel to India, but the city has so many charming buildings and historical sites that are worth visiting. Hope that trip to Chennai happens sooner than later!

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  16. Wow….what lovely pictures! They take me back to the time I attended a friends wedding in Chennai….it was a cultural feast for the eyes. The city is charming in its own way.

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    • Chennai really is charming in its own way, thanks to its rich cultural heritage. Thanks for your kind comment!

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