Chennai – India

With the opening of the Chennai Metro Rail, the first integrated mass transit system in India, Chennai plans to raise its profile on the international stage.

Essential information:

Population: 4,4 million

Foreign visitors per year: 3.5 million

Language: Tamil

Major industries: automobiles, IT, finance

Unit of currency: rupee (Rs)

Cost index: cup of chai Rs8 (US$0.13), masala dosa Rs15-50 (US$0.25-0.83), double hotel room per night Rs500- 2000 (US$8.30-33.30)

Why go ASAP?

Chennai has always been the most overlooked of India’s megacities. While travellers rave about Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, the capital of India’s steamy south has long been seen as a stepping-stone to other parts of India, rather than somewhere to visit on its own merits. Ask the average person to name the most famous sight in Chennai and many would struggle to reply.

With the opening of the Chennai Metro Rail, the first integrated mass transit system in India, Chennai plans to raise its profile on the international stage and earn a reputation as more than just a jumping-off point for `more interesting’ places nearby. If nothing else, the fast and frequent air-conditioned trains will certainly transform the experience of exploring this hot and humid metropolis.

Kapaleeshwarar Temple – Chennai, India

And there’s plenty to see: statue-covered Dravidian temples, institutes for Indian classical dance, fascinating museums, British-era fortifications and churches, a 3km-long beach that throngs with locals night and day, and India’s second-largest movie industry, centred on `Kollywood’ in the western suburb of Kodambakkam.

Kodambakkam Bridge – Chennai, India

Festivals & Events:

Cows at Pongal festival

Cows are in seventh heaven for Pongal, when treats made from rice and cane sugar are offered to all and sundry, including any sacred bovines in the vicinity.

Mylapore’s Kapaleeshwarar Temple – Chennai, India

In March or April, locals flock to Mylapore’s Kapaleeshwarar Temple to witness the annual parade of Lord Shiva and family during the energetic Arubathu Moovar festival.

Psychedelically coloured statues of Ganesh are ritually immersed in wells, tanks, ponds, rivers and the ocean for the Vinayaka Chaturthi festival.

Life-changing experience:

Marina Beach – Chennai

Strolling on Marina Beach is the quintessential Chennai experience. This broad strip of sand is where Chennai comes to unwind, and early evening is prime time to promenade, go jogging, play beach cricket, fly a kite, catch a fish, buy a giant balloon, munch on street food, swim (fully clothed, of course), or just sit on the sand looking out at the Bay of Bengal. OK, it’s not Waikiki, but the frenetic beachside activity offers a mesmerising window onto the rhythms of the Indian south.

Current craze:

Breaking records – Chennaites have got the bug for record-breaking stunts, and the city has garnered many laurels in recent years, including the awards for the longest continuous drumming session (50 hours) and the largest group of people playing keyboards together at one time (229).

Trending topic:

The lives, loves and larger-than-life screen personas of Tamil film stars. Enjoyed by an estimated 77 million Tamils across the globe, the films produced in Kodambakkam take the social mediasphere by storm, as locals debate the latest hits, flops, dance routines, romances, love triangles, marriages and separations of the big Kollywood stars.

Random facts:

  • The city changed its name from Madras to Chennai in 1996 as part of a national process of de-Anglicisation, but both terms were British abbreviations for the names of local villages.

  • Chennai is known as the Detroit of India thanks to its prolific automobile industry, producing 40% of India’s cars.

  • Chennai sits on the thermal equator, meaning the climate is as hot, hot, hot as the city’s famously spicy south Indian curries

Classic restaurant experience:

Tamil canteen – Chennai, India

No starched white tablecloths here – Chennai’s finest food is served on a banana leaf in a humble Tamil canteen. The first branch of Hotel Saravana Bhavan was out in the Chennai suburbs, but the cooking was so spectacular that branches sprang up across the city, then across the country, then across the world. At any branch, locals queue round the block at lunchtime for stunningly spiced thalis (plate meals), dosas (rice-flour pancakes) and south Indian snacks, all served with the secret-recipe house sambar (tamarind sauce).

Most bizarre sight:

The tomb of St Thomas the Apostle – India

Probably the tomb of St Thomas the Apostle, reputedly killed on St Thomas Mount in Chennai in AD 72 while spreading the Christian message in southern India, just 14 centuries earlier than the `official’ arrival of Christianity with the Portuguese in 1498. Whether Thomas the Apostle really died in India has never been verified, but locals have venerated the site since at least Roman times, according to the writings of ancient scribes.

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