Chennai, or Madras as it was called until 1996, is often avoided by those who use the capital of Tamilnadu, as just a commencement point for their exploration of India. Less full of highlights than the other three major cities of the subcontinent: Mumbai, Kalkotta and Delhi, Chennai is definately worth looking at and deserves a longer stay.
Our first impressions of Chennai were those of a huge city in rapid growth with new roads and a new rapid transit system under construction. Although Chennai’s population is now over ten million its original centre at Fort Saint George still remains the city’s heart. Here are government offices, the museum conserving relics of the city’s imperial past, including those relating to the controversial but still awesome figure of Clive of India, and the oldest anglican church in the country, St Mary. We managed to see part of the museum but realised that a longer visit was needed.
The highlight of any visit to Chennai is the National Museum which is housed in a variety of buildings including a distinguished edifice built in the indo-saracenic style last century.The Chola dynasty bronzes of Shiva as Nataraja, the cosmic dancers, are of a beauty and quality that can only be truly appreciated here.
The museum also has archaelogical, sculpture and zoological sections. Because many of the exhibits’ settings haven’t been changed for years the place is truly a museum in its own right!
The adjoining art gallery has, in addition to lordly portraits of former british governors of the Madras Presidency, sone exquisite paintings by the founder of modern indian painting, Varma.
We had time left to view Marina beach and drive, a truly spectacular part of the city with a lively panorama over the sea and a universe of activities from cricket matches to candy floss sellers, before heading to Saint Tome’s church where we paid our respects to the apostle Thomas’ (who began his proselitizing in South India) tomb.
Deciding to return to our base at Samarpan via train we headed for another of Chennai’s fine heritage buildings (there are over two hundred of these dating back to the British Raj), Egmore railway station. There, in the twilight under the indo-saracenic arches, we boarded the express for Puducherry.
Surely, taking the train in India has to be one of the plethora of unmissable experiences in this unmissable country!