Posted in Great Places

What do you make of Chennai?


Many years ago, on this day, a city was born. A city called by various names, that grew voraciously and, we believe, well. A city that houses the intelligentsia of the country and one that drives the race for many an invention and innovation. A city that has its roots in strong classical tradition, and yet pushes full steam ahead towards a new tomorrow. A city that delights in contemporary fashion, but is just as comfortable in nine yards of silk. A city where the ancient is revered, yet the modern is welcomed. Strange contradictions indeed. And that is Chennai.

She is but an image of the people who make her. And these people come in all garbs, influencing the character of the areas they lived in.

Look at Georgetown. It started as a market supplying goods to the British, and went by the name of black town. Goods were both produced here, and brought from places near Madras. Cotton, gems and precious stones, silks, tea, sugar, pepper and other spices… even peacocks! The British thought that they looked good on the lawns of their estates.

And this place attracted traders from far and wide. One such person was Coja Petrus.

He came from a far away land called Armenia and became very rich trading here. It is said that at one time, the French who were fighting the British confiscated his considerable property. They promised to return it if he left Madras and came to the French territory of Pondicherry. Coja Petrus refused, deciding to remain loyal to the British, because he had made his money in British territory. A benevolent and God fearing man, he donated generously to Churches here, and also built the bridge over Saidapet, earlier called the Marmalong Bridge.

As before, Georgetown continues to be a traders hub. Crowded, chaotic, colourful and crumbling in parts, but still home to many who call this home and feel Chennai’s pulse is to be found here.

A different place, a different time. An age when dance was confined to temples. When famed musicians sang for hours on end, egged on by a discerning audience; and dance performances were meant for the Gods alone. These dancers, called the Devadasis, were wedded to the Gods, and dedicated their lives to the perfection of their art.

But then, slowly things changed, and the temple dancers became chattels of the rich. This resulted in the dance form itself being looked down upon. It took someone with the grit and determination of Rukmini Devi Arundale, to wipe away the blemish and re-invent this art form, that to many is the face of Chennai today.

Coming from a traditional Brahmin family, 16 year old Rukmini shocked the world by marrying 40 year old Arundale, an Australian at the Theosophical Society. Her association with a Russian ballerina woke her to the world of rhythm and movement. She soon discovered Bharatanatyam, only to learn that it was out of bounds for the elite.

Undaunted, she bullied some renowned teachers into teaching her the art in secre,t and danced for the first time in front of an audience in 1935, changing the image of Bharatanatyam for ever. The tinkling of anklets accompanied by the beat of the Mridungam, continues to be the face of Chennai for many.

The temples continue to flourish, albeit without the presence of Devadasis, and if anything they have only grown in the eyes of many. From Gopurams steeped in antiquity, to roadside shrines, both inspire the same faith in the common man. For many, these temples personify the spirit of Chennai.

But if you thought Chennai was all about Hinduism, think again. As early as 52 AD, a man from a far away land, walked the sands of a beautiful beach in the port town of Mylapore. He spoke of a new God in a new land and left his footprints on the sands of time.

From the humble arrival of St.Thomas, to the British who left behind a cathedral of neo-gothic splendor, Chennai to many is the cradle of Christianity in this part of the world.

Every major religion has left its mark on Chennai. And majestic monuments testify to the diversity of religious belief here. To many, this is the face of Chennai – a haven of spirituality and a stronghold of tradition.

Vibrant, pulsating, frenzied, turbulent and a city on the move, yet haphazard, pot-holed, noisy and polluted – Chennai goes by many faces. From potti kadais to supermarkets, from gypsies hawking beads, to multi-storied gold marts, from seedy cinema halls to the best of multiplexes, Chennai is home to all.

She constantly reinvents herself, she changes her persona to suit you and she is never the same for any two people. Chennai is what you want to make of her.


Posted in Great Places, Personalities

What did they see in Chennai?

‘Chennai is a grand city where tradition and modernity co-exist. Well, that’s what everyone says, the guides… the books… the articles… generally every Chennai-vaasi. And that probably is also the impression that most visitors carry back with them today. But what about those who visited many eons ago? Many have come to these shores across centuries, some to visit, some to stay on. How might this city or have looked to them? And what images did they carry back of this place? Let us stretch our imagination a bit and find out in their own words… shall we?

My Lord, You have sent me to this strange land so far away from my own. I can see a skyline dotted with beautiful conical towers which seem to be the local places of worship. There is no dearth of Gods here – there seem to be millions of them, and each also seems to go by a million different names…The people are friendly and are willing to listen when I talk of a different faith. Naturally there is also some resistance to my  presence here, but at least the local king is willing to lend me a ear.  I doubted your word once, but will not do that again. I know you will give me the strength and wisdom, to preach your message here…’

And so it happened. St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ arrived in India in the year 52 AD. He walked through the Southern Peninsula after landing on the coast of Kerala, and reached the place that is called Chennai today.  His message appealed to the local king. But some of his ministers did not take to this very well, and in 72 AD, he was martyred at a place that is now known as the St Thomas Mount. But by then, he had sowed the seeds of Christianity here in India – centuries before it was even accepted as a religion in the western world. In fact, Syrian Christians in Kerala are considered to be among the oldest followers of Christianity in the world.

The common phrase ‘Doubting Thomas’ owes its origins to the story of St Thomas doubting the resurrection of Jesus Christ and refusing to believe till he actually touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hands.

Let’s cut to another age, to another vistor…

‘I have been walking around this strange land and observing its people for some days now. I am most surprised by the fact that people do not lock their doors at all. It seems it is an insult to the king if people need to lock doors. And what a way they have to drink water! I tried it too and it went right through my nose. And can you believe it, there are times in the day when people refuse to take up anything important because the hour is considered inauspicious? They won’t even accept money! But the strangest thing about these people is that they make their Gods dark and their demons fair. So many things here that I do not understand!…’

Marco Polo the Venetian traveler visited the shores of Mylapore in the 13th century, and left a detailed account of the land, the people and their customs. Many of the customs he observed are living traditions, that we still see in practice. It was the time before the arrival of Western settlers and before the Muslim religion reached here. Hindu rituals and ceremonies had reached a peak, and the concepts of purity, casteism and untouchability were presumably fairly prevalent. As for the Gods, yes, they were dark initially, because we are a dark people, and we made our gods in our likeness. But things changed as colour consciousness set in and slowly, our gods became fairer. Of course, today, they have a peaches and cream complexion, perfect teeth and are no way like us!

Miguel Pedro Gonzales— that’s my name. I own a ship and came here because I can buy spices from here. I visited a pepper farm the other day. Dios, I could hardly believe my eyes. Pepper grew thick on the creepers. Black Gold they are called in Europe, and they sell like hot cakes. Only these pesky English men are a problem. We raised the price of pepper a teeny little bit, and they are refusing to buy. Stingy buggers. They say they will find their own route to India and buy their own pepper from here. I really don’t think they can. We are the Masters of the Sea, and they don’t have a chance of reaching here. We will still control pepper trade. As for the locals – what about them really?…’

 The Portuguese arrived here in 1523, but this arrival was more like an inquisition than a peaceful settlement. Their superior Naval capabilities put them in control of the spice trade with the west, and they came here to consolidate that position further. They built their Fort at Santhome and built the Luz Church here, which today is the oldest surviving church in the city. There is an interesting though unconfirmed story that one of the key catalysts for the English East India company to set sail for India was a nominal but an arbitrary increase in the price of pepper in the western markets effected by the Portuguese!

The English did come here eventually, and were masters of half the world in times to come. But what might have been their thoughts about this city in those early days?

‘God deliver me from this land. It’s blazing hot, and my top hats and long sleeved coats are no help to me. Here I am, William T. Smithers, working for the East India Company, posted in Fort St. George. We have collected all the goods from the Black Town, just outside of the fort, and I am waiting for our ships to come and load it in. It is the best Calico cloth I have ever seen and bought at an excellent price too! The mosquitoes are a menace here, and worse still are the peacocks and their raucous cries. We have about fifty of them in here, awaiting the ship. They are going to England, to grace the lawns of the large estates there. Poor creatures—they will surely die in the cold there. As for me, what I want is a large glass of lager, cold lager, with condensation beading the outside of the glass, and the bubbles bursting lazily on the top. Will this land ever get the benefits of ice?…’

 Though this hero is imaginary, we can safely presume his thoughts are all true. Peacocks were taken to England for the purpose mentioned, but they lived and adapted to the cold there. They are still to be found in England. As for ice, yes, it too came to India, all the way form New England in the U.S.A.. Henry Tudor had the brainwave of supplying ice to Europeans in hot countries, and made a fair success of exporting blocks of ice. Remember, we are talking pre-refrigeration era, and the enterprise made sense. The outcome of this enterprise was a new landmark in Chennai where this imported Ice was stored  –  the Ice House, now called the Vivekanandar Illam.

And that friends, is one account of Chennai as it was seen by those who ventured here from lands far far away – some liked it, some did not, some prophesied its future, others were totally off the mark – but they all left a legacy behind. So let’s raise a toast to them, and say “Hats off, gentlemen, we owe you”.


Posted in Great Places, Religion

A Story to die for …

By Vaishna Roy

I was in Tranquebar a few weeks ago. Incidentally, Tranquebar, the site of an old Danish fort, is a story in itself. And deserves its own post. But let me first tell you this quaint story.

A few kilometres from Tranquebar, I noticed great big hotels in the middle of what seemed like nothing more than a village. Curious, I checked with the cab driver, who told me that the place was called Tirukkadaiyur and that it had a temple where couples celebrated their shashtiapthapoorthi (a spouse’s 60th birthday) or sadabhishekam (80th birthday). That’s all he seemed to know.

So, I poked around a bit and found the sweetest story ever.

Once upon a time, many many eons ago, when the gods roamed between heaven and earth freely, making occasional forays into hell as well, there was a holy sage who did not have any children. He prayed to Shiva long and hard, and Shiva obligingly appeared before him. (As he markedly does not these days). He agreed to grant the sage an offspring but, as was the wont of gods those days, he made things a tad difficult. He asked the sage to choose between a son who would live a long and healthy life but would be a bit of an ass. Or a smart, intelligent boy who would live only till the age of 16.

The sage, having little patience for fools, chose the latter and accordingly Markandeya was born to him. The boy was perfect in all ways. He grew up an ardent devotee of Shiva, and worshipped the lingam devotedly.

The day Markandaya turned 16, Yama, the god of death, duly came calling but the boy ran away. He ran hard and fast to the Shiva lingam and threw himself around it. Hugging it hard, he refused to go away quietly with Yama. The disgusted Yama threw his noose around the boy, but it obviously landed around the lingam as well. Now, it was Shiva’s turn to be furious. He emerged out of the lingam and kicked Yama with his left foot, trapping him under and refused to let go.

The defeat of death itself caused utter chaos in the cosmos. There cannot be life without death! Ultimately, after much worship and placation, Shiva agreed to let Yama go, provided he allowed Markandeya eternal life. The deal was duly signed.

The temple at Tirukkadaiyur celebrates this myth, and has a lingam that reportedly has the marks of a noose around it. And because it is the place where Death was temporarily defeated, it is the temple where people go to celebrate their 60th and 80th birthdays. As a thanksgiving for their longevity.

If I had known the story then, I would have made the detour to visit the temple. Unfortunately, I drove past in a hurry. Well, no matter. Tranquebar is always worth another visit, especially now that Neemrana has this gorgeous heritage resort there. And next time, I have the added attraction of this 11th century Chola temple at Tirukkadaiyur to draw me there.

Note: Tranquebar is 279 km south of Chennai, about a six-hour drive down a very pleasant NH45A. You reach this temple town just about 10 minutes short of Tranquebar.

Posted in Great Places


By Vaishna Roy

Once upon a time, a few kilometers away from modern Chennai, was a prosperous weavers’ settlement called Rajanarayanan Pattinam, named after a Sambuvarayar chieftain who ruled the area. The Vijayanagara empire called it Sadiravasagan Pattinam (a reference to the local deity). People began to refer to it as Sadurangapattinam, and then Sadirai. And then the English came, with their penchant and need for anglicizing Indian names and lives, called it Sadras. For the past 200 years the name has remained unchanged, but few Indians know of Sadras or it’s fort.

The Sadras fort is not a tourist attraction. It is not mentioned in the ‘Must-See-in-Tamil Nadu’ lists. Families don’t go there to picnic. College students don’t go there to discuss the meaning of life. Lovers don’t go there to be alone. Poets don’t go there for inspiration. And I can’t imagine why. In my experience, it’s an excellent place to spend a vacant afternoon. I shall elucidate why.

One can’t call reaching this fort an adventure (like the forts of Sivaji that almost always demand an uphill trek) but getting inside it isn’t as simple as it could be. This ASI-protected monument has no watchman. Or rather he was missing in action the weekend my friends and I decided to visit the fort. He’d been gone for a few days now as the nearby shop-owners revealed (someone attributed his absence to an extended drinking session in near-by Pondicherry), and when the oblivious police next door to the fort was consulted, they said he must have gone home for lunch, and that it wasn’t locked anyway (it was a Saturday, and the fort is supposed to be shut on Mondays only) and that we could enter. But it was locked.

But we were young… Strong of body and agile of limb, light of heart and sharp of mind… so bravely, we went forth – to break into the fort.

We soon found out we didn’t need to be young or strong or agile or light to enter. But being ‘sharp’, one of us noticed that the barbed wire had been cut a few feet left of the first big gate. So we had now entered the restricted area of cow excreta and weeds. There was another gate now (flanked by two not-so-splendid cannons), much easier to scale (even for a 5 footer like me), but being ‘agile of limb’ (and over-zealous in our exploits) we decided to find a way to get in, the proper ‘intruder’ way.
And immediately failed miserably. Not even the tallest and most athletic amongst us could scale the lowest aberration (holes) we found in the moss-ridden fort wall. But do the young and restless ever give up?! No sir, they do not, sir! So with an “AAOOGAA” (war cry) onwards we marched.

We went round the fort, braving the warm sea breeze, resisting the incredible temptation of the inviting waves (within splashing distance), and skipping over more excreta, and we found another ‘aberration’. Nature must have been on our side in this battle because although this one was high as well, there were also sorts of wide-apart and irregular rock-steps that we managed to stretch and use as foothold. The ambush had begun and one-by-one, we trooped silently into enemy territory (albeit abandoned).

And what a territory it is. My first thought was that it would be an excellent place to throw a party! Nobody else seems to like it anyway; it would be an incredible spot for a theme party – you could have a Spook Fest at night or a Battleground Bash by day! Seriously though, it’s massive and can truly feed your imagination, but as a fort, it’s not really spectacular. But there’s something impressive about the huge empty granary and eerie chambers with shafts of light boldly gate-crashing the slightly damp atmosphere; the stables with ghosts of their former occupants mingling with the salty breeze; the corridors leading to secret underground passages where many a plot has probably been hatched; the cemetery and the stone inscriptions leaving you to imagine the valiant lives of those that died protecting the fort… Well, it’s history may not actually be that romantic. The fort was a weavers’ settlement, inherited from the Carnatic rulers by Dutch traders who manufactured and exported muslin from here around 400 years ago. In 1818, the British pooped the party and took over the fort, and razed it. What remains is in ruins, but there’s such a quality about ruins that makes them so irresistible to story-hunters. Especially since the Archaeological Survey of India has recently found some ‘treasure’ underneath the rubble.

The ASI’s excavations have uncovered some exciting stuff like some bluish-green bottles… intact! They also found smoking pipes made in Holland, Chinese porcelain, some stone tiles and coins belonging to the East India Company. Who knows what a visit to the Sadras fort can lead to? Especially for children.
There’s a lovely tamarind tree and nobody to stop you from feasting on it. There are some stone benches around the same area, near the entrance, incase you want to rest your feet while the more ‘agile of limb’ discover the many delights of the medieval elephant mount (my personal favourite part of the complex) If only the ASI could see the magic like we could!

Nevertheless, the Sadras fort and it’s varied charms give tourists, as well as locals of Tamil Nadu, a place to truly get away – into a place and time left to your imagination; where only you can see, with your mind’s eye, the lives of people that once dwelt the ground you walk on; and who are eternally bound to this foreign land, 6 feet under the tempting tamarinds.

PS: After Sadras:
Once you’re done with exploring the fort, you should hop across the road on to the beach for a quick hello in response to the ocean’s inviting waves. I insist. It’s a great way to cool off and it’s quality time with nature’s incredible power to lighten your shoulders. I highly recommend getting completely drenched; and also holding any children, that may accompany you, really tight!

If you have some more time, do make a quick trip to nearby Mahabalipuram and it’s famous (and much better preserved) Pallavan architecture. I recommend Moonrakers or any of the other restaurants in Mahabalipuram for lunch because there isn’t much cooked food to eat near Sadras, although you can buy packaged snacks near the fort.

PPS: How to get to Sadras
Sadras is inside the town of Kalpakkam, on East Coast Road, 16 kms from Mahabalipuram, 70 kms south of Chennai.
Nearest Airport: Chennai
Nearest Rail Hub: Chennai


Posted in Great Places

What’s in a name?

What'sin a name?Shakespeare had it right when he asked, “What’s in a name?”. He could have had Chennai in mind then. As people, we are not easily perturbed by inconsistencies in our names. Chennai, Madras…what’s in a name? We use the one that comes off our tongues at that moment without a second thought. As to how the city came to get these names, there is no dearth of stories. From Chennappa Naik,  Chennakeshava Perumal, Mada Raja, Madre de dios, the Madeiros family, a madrassa… the list is endless. So which of these really contributed to the city’s name? Your guess is as good as mine. Amidst all the brouhaha about reclaiming the original pre-colonial names, we sometimes confuse which came first, or which was less colonial in origin. In this case, it does seem very plausible that it was the name Madraspatnam.

Chennai is a city that has been home to many peoples from many lands. And several roads and locality names are reminiscent of its colonial roots. Elliot’s Beach, Georgetown, Mowbray’s Road, Montieth Roa- Today many of these are called by different names, and some of them are so long that even fitting them into one signboard is a challenge. Henry Chamier came to India as a civil servant and rose to the position of a member of the Madras Council, and he had a road named in his honour. The road is now called Pasumpon Muthuramalingathevar Salai. Thevar, the leader of the Forward Bloc party in Tamil Nadu,  was a passionate follower of Subash Chandra Bose, and would be quite surprised to find his name gracing a road here.

Another interesting story is that of Cenotaph Road. With a name like that you would expect to find a cenotaph – a memorial for a dead person whose remains are elsewhere. You can walk up and down that busy road and not find a trace of any cenotaph simply because there isn’t one. However, there was one, a beautiful structure with a domed top, dedicated to Lord Cornwallis. Both cupola and statue were dismantled and shifted – the cupola to the Fort area, where it can be still found close to the entrance, and the statue to stand in solitary splendour under the staircase in the Fort Museum. Before being brought to this place, the statue was moved around from pillar to post, and one can only hope that this gentleman has finally found peace, even if it is in a stairwell.

The ‘Old names for new’ is an exercise happening everywhere, often prone to political influences. A more recent exercise was the ‘remove caste names’ fad. All long names suddenly got shortened. Kutty  Pillai street became Kutti street (no reflection on the length of the road), Linga  Street and Thambu street lost their “chetty” suffix, and so on. West Mambalam now has two Balakrishnan Streets and a lot of confusion. Earlier, it had a Balakrishna Naicken Street and a Balakrishna Mudali Street, and no confusion about both.

Ah well, you gain some and you lose some. And then there is the sonorous Thadandar Nagar in Saidapet, reminding one of a noisy thunder storm. How chagrined was I when I came to know that the original name was Tod Hunter Nagar!

Then again, not all street names revolve around names of people. There is Avadi, an acronym for Armoured Vehicles and Ammunition Depot of India. Mylapore owes its origins to the story of Goddess Parvathi being cursed by Lord Shiva to be born in these parts as a peacock (Myil in Tamil). The beautiful Poovirundhavalli (translated as: the place where flowers bloomed) mutated to Poonamallee, and remains so till date. An essentially English name which was shorn of its beauty and cut real short is Hamilton Bridge which some how became Ambattan Vaaravadhi, and got translated (literally) again as Barber’s Bridge.

Well, at least no one has started applying numerology to street names (yet). Imagine an Annnna Salai or a  Raajaajii Road ! Till then, let’s hold on to the old and use the new judiciously, and hope that too much of Chennai history will not be erased with this desire to change names.

And Shakespeare is still right for he went on to say that a rose by any name would smell as sweet, and Chennai will always be Chennai, whatever be the nomenclature.