Chennai boasts of everything that makes it an attractive tourist destination. Let’s try and find what makes Chennai a cultural melting pot.
Sun gave an ember tinge over the sandy coastline as I flew over the picturesque ocean to touchdown at the Chennai airport, early in the morning. Excitement ran through my mind as this was my first visit to the home turf of Kollywood. I got a message on my mobile, “Vanakkam! Welcome to Chennai!” And every stench of anxiety went away in a dizzy moment. I always heard my friends complaining about the scorching weather of the city, but I was lucky to have gotten an experience of a very different kind.
Greeted by the subtle darkness outside, I surged ahead to reach my station for the stay, Taj Coromandel. Situated in the heart of the city, the hotel is one of the oldest in Chennai. A warm welcome and I was dating the Chennai way of life. The bespoke luxury experiences at Taj Coromandel are enough to leave any traveller spellbound. I relished a sumptuous Cantonese meal paired with a variety of exotic teas (intrinsic to the Chinese tradition of serving tea with food) at Golden Dragon restaurant, within the hotel premises. Tea pairing is the latest buzzword in the fine dining genre, and in Chennai, Golden Dragon is the certainly the pioneer.
It may not have the vibrancy of Rajasthan or the vivid imagery of Kerala, but Chennai definitely engulfs all colours and passions into its womb. A bastion of culture, cuisine, charm and character, classic Chennai beckons to captivate as you meander through its palatial mansions, ancient temples and lavish houses. I watched the character of the city come alive as I made my way to the Mylapore, the cultural hub of the city situated towards the southern face of the city.
Posters of different political parties flanked pavement walls that were decorated with mural paintings depicting life and culture of Tamil Nadu. Heritage buildings and houses that have seen better days dotted the road leading to T Nagar, the city’s shopping hub. The culture of the city distinctly differs from that of any other city of the country. In less than 15 minutes I was standing in front of the heritage house where Nalli Chinnasamy Chetti started selling his beautiful weaves way back in 1928. The building is now bustling silk emporium where thousands of sarees, especially the Kanchipuram weave, are sold every day. The T Nagar promenade is sprinkled with shops selling sarees and jewellery. Chennaiites love their jewellery and have a special fascination for gold. Every nook and cranny speaks volumes of its rich history and cultural aspects.
Old world charm
The layers of history came to life as I explore the area in and around Old Madras. The place mesmerized me with its majestic temples decked with intricate designs and sculptures. The associated Agraharam architecture, which consists of traditional row houses surrounding a temple, can still be seen in these areas. Though maximum area around the area is filled with high-rise buildings and burgeoning market places, there are only a few old houses left in the vicinity. Reminiscent of the Dravidian era, the temples and the houses in the area are worth a visit. Especially the Kapeeleshwar Temple, apparently built in the 7th century, attracts swarms of devotees who come here to pay obeisance to Shiva, the main deity of the temple.
Old houses with a grand courtyard, where head of the families still sit on the wooden swing, can be seen in Old Madras. In Tamil Nadu, the design and pattern of a house denotes the house bearer’s line of work. Almost an open museum, Chennai is home to some of the best architectural marvels in the paeans of history. I stood witness to some of the finest buildings in the country, many of them over a hundred years old. To make these houses to perfection, finest of imported materials and skilled labour were used. And the houses were embellished with marble and Burma teak, wide pillared courtyards, imposing gates with intricate woodcarvings. Remnants of a rich legacy, a Chettiar house, Agraharam Brahmin home and a weaver’s house is a showcase on how human dwellings can exist in harmony with nature.
After indulging in some retail therapy, I made my way back to the Taj Coromandel. The hotel itself is an extension of the rich cultural nuances that sprinkle the city. Along with its repertoire of handicrafts and food offerings, the hotel presents a great blend of contemporary comfort and stylish sophistication. The day was spent in no time and all I needed was a hearty South Indian meal. I made my way to Southern Spice, the newly refurbished restaurant at the hotel. Greeted by a whiff of delectable condiments, I was ushered in to the restaurant. And the overall ambiance was unlike any other restaurant I have seen in the recent past. It was as if the place is an extension of a temple, showcasing the very essence and the temple architecture South India. The walls are lined with carved timber planks, commonly seen in Kerala. Instead of regular chandelier lighting, the places uses live flames from fourteen custom-made bronze vilakku wall urns modeled on the lamps found in the Padmanabhapuram Palace. This was something unique that I had come across in life. Certainly it took me back to the time spent in one of the South Indian home. Bronze details adorn the silver leafed wall niches with peacock and lotus motifs while Chola period statues enhance the bronze shelves. The four South Indian states are each represented through wall and ceiling murals. Here, I was served a unique compilation of vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies, chosen from the interior areas like Vizag, Dindigul, Madurai, Karaikudi and Virudnagar, Calicut and Bekal, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Showcasing the very best of the culinary landscape of South India, the menu opens with exciting starters like Denji Rawa Fry and Kozhikodan Chemeen Fry. My meal ended with a serving of Elaneer Payasam, a signature dessert that was introduced in the kitchens of Southern Spice.
Setting out on a journey of a lifetime that took me in to the nooks and crannies Chennai, the magical city left me asking for more as I dig into its lip smacking delicacy.
Indo-Sarascenic style: Visit Government Museum in Egmore.
Tamil style: Tiruvallikeni and Mylapore
Dravidian style: Vadapalani temple, Kapeeleshwar Temple, Valluvar Kottam
Shopping: T Nagar, Anna Salai
Excursion: Marina Beach, East Coast Road, Dakshin Chitra
Photo courtesy: Nitika Bajpayee(copyright)