I went to Chennai for a wedding and arrived with no expectations and limited knowledge of the city but I soon realised there were a lot of tourist places in Chennai and that there are a lot of things to see and do in the city.
- Fort St. George
- The Theosophical Society
- Madras War Cemetery
- St. Thomas Mount National Shrine
- Raj Bhavan
- Valluvar Kottam
- Christ the King Church
- Wild Garden – The café at Amethyst
- Sri Ramakrishna Math Chennai
- Vivekananda House
- Santhome Cathedral
- Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple
- Stroll along the beach
- MGR Museum
- Senate House
- Higginbothams Private Limited
- Old Curiosity Shop
- Spencer Plaza Mall
- Government Museum Chennai
- The Armenian Church
- Georgetown market
- Art Deco buildings
- Burma Bazar
- The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology
- Mahabalipuram UNESCO site
- The Raintree
- Royal Vega
- Ciclo Cafe And Bicycle Shop
- Amadora Gourmet Ice Cream
- Irani Tea Stall
Fort St. George
British Madras started here, at Fort St. George. This is the first British Fort in India and the beginning of the East India Company and the British Raj.
Constructed in 1640 and originally the center of the White City (as opposed to the Black City which was the area in today’s Georgetown), Fort St. George was England’s answer to the need for a port that was closer to the far east and to Malacca, in modern day Malaysia.
The fort was inaugurated on St. George’s Day, Patron Saint of England, which is why it received its name, and a sort of village soon developed around it with active merchant activities.
Today, the Fort is where the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu is located and it still houses a garrison of troops on their way to various locations which is why you see plenty of military personnel around.
The Fort also contains the Fort Museum, in what was originally the Madras Bank built in 1795. The museum is filled with artefacts from the British times. In front of it there are still some of the original canons, pointing at the sea, that helped keep Fort St. George safe from the French and the Portuguese.
The museum holds lots of relics from colonial times but perhaps the most valuable item is the first ever Indian flag which was flown in 1947 just after independence and is stored in the museum.
Behind the Fort there are also a few other notable landmarks. One of them is St. Mary’s Church the oldest Anglican church in India which dates back to 1670. Inside you can find the tombs of many Madras Governors and notable figures as well as old pictures that show the evolution of Chennai’s shore in the last few centuries. These are the oldest British tombs in India too.
The church has a nice and quite unique backyard with plants and green grass as well as some tropical trees. Churches don’t usually have gardens but this one is quite a peculiar place to have some rest and shade. Despite the importance, this is a hardly visited sight and in fact in the hour I was there I did not see a single other tourist.
Contrary to most other churches in Chennai, St. Mary’s does not have any modern symbology or neon signs, it is a traditional and very old church that has been well preserved with all its wooden benches, its old stone walls and it’s tombstones.
Beside the church, there is another even more fascinating part to the Fort St. George complex. Farther away from the main road, where there are hardly any visitors other than the military personnel, you can find a series of old and abandoned buildings that have been taken over by nature, Angkor Wat style.
These buildings are located adjacent to other equally old but still in use structures. The trees and plants have grown through the broken windows and the facades have been taken over by crawling plants. It is quite a sight to behold and in complete contrast with the otherwise officialdom of the main legislative building just a few meters away.
The Theosophical Society
The Theosophical Society was started at the end of the 19th century in New York and later on moved to Chennai. Its name, deriving from the Latin for God’s Wisdom, partially defines its beliefs in brotherhood regardless of race, religion, etc.
The significant part of the society for visitors is its incredible garden which includes many varieties of trees and the star of the show, an ancient banyan tree that is thought to be 450 years old and whose roots and offshoots extend for several thousand square meters. The entire area feels like a forest even though it is all from the same tree.
What is more, the tree was uprooted by a cyclone in 1989 but it has survived thanks to the offshoots and a piece of the original trunk
In the same grounds are shrines and religious temples from all the major faiths. There is a Hindu and a Buddhist shrine, a church, a Zoroastrian temple, a mosque and a Sikh shrine. There are very few places where you can see so many of the world’s religious come together so near each other.
Madras War Cemetery
Established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to accommodate all the East and South India graves of those who died during WWII the Madras War Cemetery is very similar to other Commonwealth cemeteries like Singapore’s Kranji Cemetery also set up for the same purpose.
The cemetery is located by the side of a very busy road but from the moment you walk in and see the well maintained grass, you feel as if there was a wall separating it from the loud noise of the traffic and the constant honking that is ever present in India.
The cemetery serves as such and as a WWI memorial called The Madras 1914–1918 War Memorial, which is located at the back and has the names of those who died carved on marvel at the back. Their bodies are not buried here but across India’s cemeteries and cantonments but this serves as a memorial to remember them.
Entrance is free and open to anyone and there is a small shaded cupola entrance where you can sit and wait for your taxi.
St. Thomas Mount National Shrine
This is one of the most interesting and unique places to visit in Chennai. St. Thomas Mount is a small hill located near the airport in the middle of a primarily rural community not far from Chennai city center and which is home to a chapel devoted to St. Thomas.
The mount is surrounded by the simple homes of the local residents and on your way up you will drive through unpaved roads usually busy with cows, dogs and chickens. There is not even mobile signal when you reach the shrine, despite it being so close to the city’s premium Guindy neighbourhood and the airport. Apart from road access, there are also 137 marble steps one can climb through and which go through the Steps of the Cross.
The shrine is important to Catholics because it is believed to be a holy place where one of the Apostles, St. Thomas, died in 72 AD and where many miracles have taken place. In the spot where he was killed, a shrine to the Lady of Expectation was built in 1523 with its altar right on top.
In the 16th century when the Portuguese dug out the foundations they found a unique Cross chiselled on a stone by St. Thomas which he used to pray on the day he was martyred. It is believed that the cross sweated blood on several occasions but last in 1704 and that it performed miracles to those who came in touch with it.
There is also a picture of the Madonna inside the chapel which is believed to have been painted by St. Luke for St. Thomas who was not there when the Virgin Mary died and wanted an image to carry with him and pray to.
Behind the altar one can see a picture depicting St. Thomas’ death from behind by a lance, and there is a piece of his toe bone enshrined as a relic.
The Mount has been important through the years and was named St. Thomas Mount by the British in the 17th century and, as a result, the road connecting it to the city, Mount Road, is still one of the main arteries of Chennai.
The shrine is open from 7am to 7pm daily and you should make sure to ask your taxi to wait for you because there is no signal to order another one. More information here.
Raj Bhavan is the Hindi word used to refer to the Governor’s House and, in the case of Chennai, it is the summer residence of the Governor of Tamil Nadu.
Located in Guindy Forest, Raj Bhavan was built in the 1670s by the then British Governor William Langhorne who sold it to the brother of the city’s founder when he left India. Eventually, the house returned to the Madras Government.
As the country residence of the Governor, the house was surrounded by Guindy Forest, known for its deer, blackbuck and many bird species. Despite the residence now being part of the city, the forest has been preserved as it remains a restricted area off limits to the population for safety reasons. Except for the guided visits allowed daily since mid 2018.
Raj Bhavan is open daily for visits. You can book a spot online and can then enjoy a 1h guided visit on an electric buggy around the property. Visits happen in the evening from 4,30pm to 6,30pm and there are two slots of 5 people each. While booking is essential and those who do not show up will be penalised, payment is not made online but at the gate upon arrival. Outside of these hours don’t bother to turn up, you will be turned away as I discovered.
The tour takes you through the entire property, from the gardens and lawns to the forest as well as the buildings and halls. This is a unique opportunity to see one of the largest Governor Houses in India.
This has to be one of the most peculiar of all the places to visit in Chennai partly because it is one of the few of such size devoted to individuals (rather than Gods) and partly because it is a pretty unique structure.
Valluvar Kottam is a hall, garden and monument dedicated to Thiruvalluvar, a classical poet, intellectual, philosopher and saint that is credited with developing the Tamil language through his poems, the Thirukkuṛaḷ, one of the most important Tamil literary and ethical works.
Valluvar is the name of the Hindu caste from Tamil Nadu known for their astrology and medicine, they were the priests and the Brahmins of the Pallava Dynasty before these were introduced.
Because his works are considered so important, and they influenced everyone that came after him, he is revered in Tamil Nadu as a saint, even though he didn’t perform any miracle. However, there is little known about him, his life or even the time he lived in. It could as well have been 3rd century BC or the 5th century AD.
Valluvar Kottam is a huge monument opened in 1976 with a grand dragon staircased entrance followed by an empty auditorium that appears to be abandoned. Valluvar’s work has been carved on the columns of the auditorium.
His shrine is located on the roof, at the farthest end of the monument from the entrance. He is sitting in a throne on a temple chariot in front of a bright baby blue pond that was empty.
Christ the King Church
This towering Baroque church is located in the middle of Loyola College and it stands tall at 157 feet. The church was built in 1931 at the request of French clergymen and it is quite an impressive example of the architectural style.
At night, the church is lit with bright neon lights and it is quite impressive to look at. If you are coming from outside, you will have to walk through a path that is flanked by tall trees and the church is at the end, this already sets the scene for the stunning church.
While outside the facade is grand and ornate with the typical elaborate designs of Gothic churches and cathedrals, the inside is quite sober with simple arches and an altar.
Wild Garden – The café at Amethyst
Started as a cafe in a restored haveli, Amethyst is today located in a leafy and green renovated warehouse next to one of the city’s clubs. The ground floor consists of an expansive garden and verandah, coupled with a smaller dining room where a combination of Indian as well as Asian dishes are offered.
There is also a nice list of drinks with classics like chai masala and many unique juices. The atmosphere is a relaxed and laid back mix of colonial chic and artsy taste. There is also a great selection of cakes.
On the upper floor there is a designer space filled with curated pieces of jewelry from traditional jewelry makers Amrapali and apparel and accessories chosen by the owner, Kiran Rao. All the pieces in the store are incredibly beautiful and of high quality. Some of the jewelry pieces are similar to those worn at Indian weddings and the clothes are the perfect statement pieces for India’s weather.
Wild Garden is a rarity in Chennai. The peaceful yet buzzing surroundings and the vintage yet modern look is a really nice find in a city that is a mix of grand colonial structures and true Southern Indian heritage. The boutique is a fantastic place to buy some affordable yet stunning pieces that are Indian inspired. I bought a clutch and wanted to buy a couple of pairs of shoes too.
More information here.
Sri Ramakrishna Math Chennai
This monastery cum temple cum learning institution is a peaceful place to take a walk through and is especially interesting when combined with the next place to visit in Chennai on this list, the Vivekananda House and the Cultural Center located by Marina Beach.
The Math was founded by Swami Ramakrishnananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, responsible for spreading the philosophy of the Ramakrishna Order to the south of India.
The Ramakrishna Order was founded in the 19th century and defines itself as a “worldwide, non-political, non-sectarian spiritual organization” devoted to humanitarian and social activities. The order does not believe in conversion although the majority of its followers are Hindu, and grew thanks to of its focus on the spoken word and the easy to remember stories.
The Math is open to anyone and has daily services and chanting. You can walk through the grounds which host a school, a monastery and a temple right in the busy streets of Chennai. In order to maintain a universal look, the main temple combines a multitude of styles from Hindu to Buddhist or Jain elements. The building is pink and located atop a set of stairs, like an altar. Inside the structure is similar to that of a cathedral with a cross shape and a nave and aisles.
The entire complex is filled with other important elements from across India. For example, the temple’s forecourt is similar to the one at the Taj Mahal. Look at the roof of the temple and you will see the cupola Vimana aver the main shrine which resembles the Dravidian style of South Indian Hindu temples (and those in Singapore’s Little India and Chinatown).
The temple is open from early morning (sunrise to about noon) and late afternoon evening (from 3pm to 9pm). More information here.
Vivekananda’s house is where the Swami used to live when he returned from Chicago in 1907 and has remained a museum which talks about his life and a cultural center where a variety of skills are being taught to anyone. The house should be visited in conjunction with the Math.
More information here.
Santhome Cathedral also known as St. Thomas Cathedral, is one of only three churches in the world which have been built over the remains of an apostle the other two being the Vatican and Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
St. Thomas is believed to have died in Chennai, as mentioned earlier when talking about St. Thomas Mount, and here is where a piece of bone and the head of the lance that killed him are kept. His tomb is located inside the basement of the chapel and is open to anyone. You need to take your shoes off.
The cathedral was first built in 1522 by the Portuguese and attained the status of cathedral in 1606. It was then expanded and rebuilt several times and today’s structure dates from 1896.
Santhome is a white tall church with daily services. A wedding was taking place when I visited and the cathedral is always busy with devotees and visitors because of his holy status.
More information here.
Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple
This colorful temple with the typical Dravidian Gopuram spire at the entrance to the temple and some neon signs for extra emphasis, is one of the most important in Chennai. It is located among busy streets but next to a sacred tank and the current structure dates from the 7th century during the Pallavas Dynasty but the gopuram is from the 19th century.
Kapaleeswarar Temple is devoted to Shiva and his consort Parvati and is filled with many deities and shrines.
Stroll along the beach
The road that follows Marina Beach is lined with many monuments, statues and landmarks buildings best explored on foot. It takes about 40min to walk from the Anna Memorial Arch to the Marina Lighthouse and cover all the main spots.
Located across from the Senate House, The Anna Memorial Arch is where the remains of the former Tamil Nadu politician Ana Samadhi were buried in 1969 after he was cremated.
The memorial in a small garden which also contains the MGR Museum and the MGR Memorial. Dr Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran, amicably known as MGR, is a famous and well respected local figure in Chennai.
Built as an ode to the actor turned loved Chief Politician from 1977 to 1987, the memorial here was inaugurated in 1988 and has been renovated, expanded and improved several times including the addition of the two leaf insignia of the political party and a pegasus.
If you continue along the beach leaving the sand to your left you will next find the Triumph of Labour Statue Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury which is the center of celebrations during May Day.
The cross to the other side of the road to continue the exploration. Here is where a lot of the main grand buildings of Chennai are located.
The first one you will find on your right is the Public Works Department office. This Indo-saracenic red building similar in style to the Senate House is a beautiful building used by the public works organisation and one of the oldest constructions in the city.
If you continue walking the next building is equally impressive. The Presidency College of Chennai has to be housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
Surrounded by lawns and gardens and with plenty of trees, this is a working educational institute established in 1940 by the British, before the University of Madras. You can walk in but the guard might stop to ask you why and advise you that to take photos you must seek permission. I did not bother. Beware Indian students are very curious and I soon had a queue of mobile touting youths looking for a selfie.
The other side of the road has a lot of statues every few meters but on this side you can observe the buildings better without the road partition and the traffic. If you want to cross, there are a few underground passages where it is easier than trying to brave Indian traffic.
Continuing on, you will eventually reach the roundabout where the small and blue New Year Clock is. A few meters down you will find the Marina Lighthouse which is well worth a ticket. You can go up and have expansive views over the sea and the famous Marina Beach.
The museum is housed in Dr Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran’s former residence and is filled with lots of memorabilia and artefacts from his life in the film industry. His Ambassador car with its small TV fitted for him to watch cricket matches and his stuffed pet lion are the most fun items on display.
The lion was not his personal pet but lived in the zoo and starred in one of his movies. When the animal died, he had him stuffed.
Entry is free and there is also complimentary water.
This is perhaps the most beautiful building in Chennai and the first one to ever be built by the British in the city.
The building is today part of the Madras University campus and was the second designed in the new Indo-Saracenic style which blends a mix of Mughal, Byzantine and Hindu elements between 1874 and 1879. The first one is right next door and is the Chepauk Palace by Paul Benfield.
Chennai is one of the cities with the highest amount of Indo-Saracenic buildings which can be found across the city. Some of the most notable ones are the High Court (which cannot be visited unless you work there), the PWD Building or the State Bank of India, all of which have the same red and white exterior.
The architect, Robert Chisholm won a call out for the building launched by the Madras Government in 1864. His proposal gave him the nickname “the madman” for the unusual combination of both styles which went against the traditional Gothic and Renaissance styles favored at that time.
When you look at the building it is impossible not to be mesmerised by the beautiful onion domes typical of the style and the tall arches that resemble Islamic structures found in Lahore or in other arts of India of Mughal influence such as Hyderabad. Look out for the intricate facade and the decorated windows.
You can walk into the building and look around, there are often exhibitions and other events going on. Read more about Indo-Saracenic architecture in Chennai here.
Higginbothams Private Limited
Higginbothams is the oldest bookstore in India and a notable publishing house. Its store on Mount Road is a historical building from 1844 and the dusted white facade is testimony to as many decades.
The British founder gave his name to a bookstore started by missionaries who had to sell it in 1844 when it became financially not viable. He had arrived in India as a stowaway and started to work in the bookstore after.
In the beginning, the store sold books and stationary and it became the official booksellers to His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales after printing the Queen’s proclamation when the British Crown took over Madras.
The store is not only the oldest in the country but it used to be the largest bookstore too, until 1990. Inside are high ceilings designed to allow more air in without air conditioning, and sealed doors and windows that would not let any dust in. People still come in to browse books and experience the store.
The second of the historical bookstores of the same company is in Bengaluru and is also over 100 years old.
Old Curiosity Shop
This treasure trove of a shop is an incredible place to get lost in the stories of an infinite number of objects stacked neatly in shelves that go from floor to ceiling.
Old Curiosity Shop opened as the Kashmir Art Palace in the 1930s and is one of the oldest shops in Chennai, if not the oldest. The father of the current owner hailed from the Kashmir region of India at a time when it was a country on its own, separate from British India.
Old Curiosity Shop was given by the British expats who used to frequent the place and thought it resembled the one in London which was made famous by the Charles Dickens novel. The font on the shop’s facade is even inspired by the original one but the kashmir reference remains next to the door.
Through the years, him and his son have collected an incredible collection of antiques from all over the world with special emphasis on India, that range from Venetian masks to old photographic cameras from the time of the British Raj.
You can find pretty much anything there, even some Elvis Presley postcards and paintings that the owner adores. “I am from that period” he shyly tells me as if apologising.
Elvis smiles in his charming way next to a shelf filled with elephants in all colors, sizes and postures. I spent more than an hour, and left because I had to attend to another meeting or else I would still be there, chatting away at the stories that each object was hiding or at the childhood memories shared, from a time when the hotel across the road where I was staying, now the Taj Connemara, was a gentleman’s club reserved for the British white, but he was allowed into the swimming pool because his father knew them.
I didn’t leave without buying a delicate painting of a Mughal king riding an elephant hand painted on silk, and a calendar that could tell the day of the week for 400 years, 200 before today and 22 from now. I still wonder if it was indeed 200 years ago when it was made.
Spencer Plaza Mall
This dated and half empty mall was once one of the most beautiful buildings in Chennai. Today, Spencer Plaza Mall is filled with handicrafts and textile shops with a heavy focus on souvenirs but a replica of what the mall used to look like is still in the main lobby.
The owner of The Old Curiosity Shop, which is located right in front of it, remembered when he was a child and the mall was his playground. He even showed me a photo that has the replica on the facade.
While not much is left of that grand building, this is still a good place to shop for souvenirs.
Government Museum Chennai
The Government Museum is one of the oldest in the city. It opened in 1951 in the College of Fort St. George as Madras Museum and mostly focused on literary specimens. The museum moved to various different locations and was renovated, expanded and improved until today. This is one of the best history and culture museums in India.
The many buildings and spaces that make the various collections explore the many aspects of Tamil Nadu’s history. Inside you will find folk art items, archeological finds, religious sculptures pertaining to various faiths, paintings and art (some from the British times), sections devoted to animals and plants and even a children’s museum.
More information here.
The Armenian Church
The Armenian Church is a heritage site rather than a working church with service. The Armenian community used to be quite large in Chennai but has dwindled practically down to zero. A modern and buzzing Orthodox church is located near the old building, and that one is frequented by a large community every evening for services.
Don’t be fooled by the humble facade from the outside which makes the building look like it is crumbling down and abandoned, if you walk in, the church and its bell tower will greet you.
The Armenian Church was built in 1712 and again in 1772 and remains one of the oldest churches in India.
While the building is not currently used as a religious site, there is a caretaker and the grounds are kept clean and tidy. Entrance is free and possible in the mornings until 2,30pm.
One of the most fascinating tourist activities when I travel is exploring local markets and in this case, I did so with a guide who was able to point out at the many unique items on sale at Georgetown market.
Not really a market per se or defined by clear boundaries, the area near Parry’s Corner and the High Court is usually referred to as Georgetown Market and was once called Whites Market in reference to the British, to differentiate it from the Blacks Market which used to sell the products used by the locals.
In this sprawling maze of streets and narrow lanes you can find pretty much any staple cupboard item as well as all fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers. Start at the hotel Saravana Bhavan and then walk towards the lanes behind, take the first turn left into Audiappa Naicken Street and this is where all the magic happens.
Living in Asia, and in Singapore for that matter, where the South Indian community is so strong, I am quite used to seeing a lot of the same foods available in supermarkets, wet markets and menus.
But, as the guide pointed out, the fun part is to think about all the names of fruits and vegetables that were given by the British when they arrived and had no clue how to call certain things that didn’t exist back home. And they took a rather uninventive approach calling things the way they looked.
I was already familiar with the bitter ladies fingers vegetable, also referred to as okra which is commonly used in Indian cuisine and features in Southern curries, but, what about gentleman’s toes? This is a short, chubby vegetable as would be expected that you can find in the market, kind of hard to miss when you think of its name.
Another great vegetable to look out for is the ash gourd. This watermelon looking kind of pumpkin is called that because it has a layer of white dust on top. This is a vegetable many locals believed attracts bad spirits so it is common to buy it, keep it at home and then once it has absorbed all the bad spirits, take it out and smash it on the floor by the door. But be careful, you should not step on someone else’s ash gourd, you might take their bad luck with you.
Another stall to look out for is V.P. Ramulu Naidu & Sons. Here you can find the most eco friendly and sustainable of all the crockery you have ever seen: leaf plates. These plates are commonly used in temples, especially Sikh ones, for prasad, the holy free meal given every day. I got them in the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
These plates are incredibly cheap despite the very intricate and time consuming hand weaving of the leaves together to create them. The leaves used are usually from sal or banyan trees and they are eco-friendly and disintegrate within just a few days. They are also just one use items so they do not require washing and can’t be reused.
Carry on and look out for Balaji Rice Center, one of the rice wholesalers in the market. This shop is incredible. There are dozens and dozens of rice samples on display in small plastic containers each with their name. You can touch, smell and look at each of the types. I never knew India grew so many types of rice. In fact, I never knew there were so many types.
Apparently, there are over 90,000 species of rice varieties and India is the king, growing, eating and selling many of these. So it while may seem like an incredible range of rice for sale, this is only a tiny fraction of what exists. The majority of the rice is Asian rice and this one can be subdivided into two kinds, the Indian and the Japanese.
Indian rice is long and not sticky while Japanese is short and sticky. You can see where the cuisine of both countries displays the traditional rice types being grown and eaten. Despite a lot of Indian meals being eaten with your hands, I never figured out how to do that given the local rice served is usually non glutinous.
The next place to look out for is Giri & Co which sells all sorts of fats, ghee and olives. This is fascinating to watch. If you have never used ghee in its pure form, this is a sort of mushy white butter that is used in Indian cuisines.
This shop sells it by the scoop, measuring it with an old fashioned scale. It is very interesting to watch and this is a praised and awarded store which is respected as offering the highest quality of ghee and oils.
The turn left on Godown street and follow this lane towards the flower market. After the street bends, look out for Marimuthu banana shop, which has the widest range of bananas on sale, from the small ones to the large green ones and anything in between, either on display on the table or hanging from the door of a heritage villa.
Lastly, end at the flower market. Flowers are the epitome of any Indian market. The bright yellow marigolds, the fragrant yasmin and the beautiful roses, in all colors, displayed along the length of this narrow lane that rarely sees any sun. Here you will find anything that is in season.
But beware, do not bend down to smell the flowers, lest you not steal their beauty and fragrance from the Gods they are intended to. The seller will make you pay for them as they won’t have any value to a potential buyer anymore. You can take as many photos as you like, but just don’t smell the flowers.
Art Deco buildings
Aside from the famous Indo-Saracenic style that started in the city, Chennai’s architecture can also be defined by the few Art Deco buildings that dot its roads and streets. While there aren’t as many Art Deco buildings here as there are in Mumbai, you can find a couple of examples near Georgetown Market which are quite unique in India’s urban design.
Perhaps the best known Art Deco building in Chennai is Parrys Dare House, located on a major corner that gave name to the area, this is a tall building that has several of the clear Art Deco style elements. The sharp lines, curvy edges, the spire at the top.
Following up from Parrys are two other buildings, also private offices, that follow the same style. NSC Bose was in fact the first Art Deco building in Chennai designed by an Indian architect in 1938. Further up, towards Armenian Street, the Oriental Insurance Building shows a mix of Art Deco with Indian influences, a later attempt to localise the style. This is my favorite of the three buildings.
The three look quite interesting juxtaposed in front of the red Madras High Court, a fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture.
This stretch of road that must measure about a kilometer is lined with meter wide stores selling all kinds of electronics. The shop owners can barely fit in, usually sitting on a stool by the sidewalk, and the area is always packed, but you can find anything here, from second hand laptops and cameras to mobile chargers.
The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology
This is one the of most important and popular places to visit in Chennai. The Crocodile Trust is filled with these prehistoric looking creatures and you can get up and close to many of them. Well not so close that you could get bitten. And then there is the herpetology center, so you also get a good dose of snakes. So crocs and snakes, what could be a better way to spend the weekend?
More broadly the center is in charge of taking care of amphibians and reptiles not just snakes and crocs, but these are the stars of the show. Talking of which, there are night safaris and daily events where you can learn more about these animals.
Mahabalipuram UNESCO site
Less than an hour south of downtown Chennai lies the beautiful UNESCO site of Mahabalipuram. The sites are spread along an elongated island that is connected to the mainland by a series of bridges.
The beaches here are long and empty and the area is favored by Chennai locals on their weekend escape thanks to the many luxury beach resorts located here. I spent a few days at both the Sheraton, where I attended a wedding, and at the Intercontinental and they were a peaceful respite from the city’s constant honking.
Coming from the north, from Chennai, the Tiger Temple is the first of the sites you will encounter. Easy to reach by the side of the road, the cave temple is quite small when compared to the other grand structures in Mahabalipuram but it is also quite unique.
There is little known about this temple but it was one of my most favorite places to see. The area was practically empty and in the time I was there I only saw another couple dropping by. This is quite far removed, 10min drive to be precise, from the other major landmarks so it is far less visited. It is also quite a quick pit stop so people don’t linger there.
The cave’s main feature is its cave entry which is surrounded by tigers, hence the name. I sat down under a shaded tree on a rock bench placed there as if to invite contemplation, and realised that more than tigers, they looked like magical dragons to me. And it turns out, as a guide later told me, that they are believed to be magical creatures rather than tigers. I reckon if they had called it the dragon temple it would have been better marketing.
Next to the temple don’t miss the chance of staring at a massive rock that comes out jutting from the ground. Who knows how much of it is underground.
The Shore Temple is one of the two sites in the UNESCO complex that require an entry ticket for about $10 which you buy at either site and can use for both. This temple is located near the beach by the Bay of Bengal, hence its name.
Dating back to the Pallava Dynasty in the 8th century AD, and made up two dugout structures made of granite blocks and surrounded by eroded walls and other elements such as shrines, this is less well preserved than the Pancha Rathas, the other main site in the complex.
It felt to me that a lot of the erosion must have come from people sitting on it and on the day I visited, a public holiday unfortunately, it was absolutely crowded with visitors climbing and sitting everywhere.
The temple was hit by the 2004 tsunami but its partially submerged position and the fact that the foundations are made of single piece granite rather than multiple pieces, meant that it survived with limited damage. The tsunami also revealed several other elements that were underwater.
It is thought that the temple was part of the Seven Pagodas that Marco Polo and others after him talked about in the part of India but only this one has been found.
There are many legends and tales about the temples, mostly involving gods, happy or unhappy with the Kings of the time, as is usually the case.
The complex is open from 6am to 6pm daily.
One the road leading up to the Pancha rathas there are a series of shops selling granite sculptures and other temple decorative pieces. These are usually carved from one single piece, just like the Pancha Rathas, and displayed in temples and in people’s home gardens.
Stop by this particular shop whose owner speaks English and whose staff is often found carving a new piece right there on the pavement, by hand. The owner is happy to chat and tell you more about each piece, what material it is made with, and what it represents.
Some of the pieces are made with black granite while others with white marble, usually the smaller pieces given the price. Many of the largest statues are of Ganesh, the elephant God. You will probably not be able to buy a 10kg granite statue to take home, but Ganga Arts also has smaller ones like a tiny colorful replica of the Taj Mahal in white marble or god pendants.
These 7th century five monolithic chariots each carved out of a single piece of pink granite are part of the UNESCO site of Mahabalipuram and located about 20min walk from the Shore Temple. They are located next to each other in a sunken section at the end of a road.
As opposed to the Shore Temple, these are not consecrated temples because they were never finished as the king who commissioned the entire complex died. You can see the top parts of some of the structures have not been carved yet.
The five structures are dedicated to the Pandavas, a Hindu epic, each with its own name, Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishthira (“Dharmaraja”), Nakula and Sahadeva. There are also other statues like a large elephant and a tiger that stands at the front of the complex as you walk in from the entrance.
Each of the structures is different. Some smaller some bigger, some taller, but they all display intricate Dravidian architecture. In particular the most far away temple is the most elaborate and its tall roof is an authentic work of art, even if unfinished.
The complex is open from 6am to 6pm daily and you need to buy a ticket, the same used for the Shore Temple.
The Descendent of the Ganges or Arjuna’s penance is a large rock carving on the side of two pink granite boulder walls in the Mahabalipuram monument complex measuring almost 30m wide.
The 7th century relief portrays the descendents of the Ganges coming down following Bhagiratha and was carved to celebrate the victory of Pallava King Narasimhavarman (under whom most of Mahabalipuram was built) over the Chalukya King Pulakesin.
This particular work is one of the reasons why the complex received UNESCO status in 1984. The carving is huge so much so that some parts are real life size, for example the elephants to the right end.
The shape of the mountains was used to represent the ganges flowing quite skillfully and there is a cave temple right next to it with perfectly carved statues representing typical Hindu tales. This is the largest of all the carved temples in the Mahabalipuram complex.
This incomplete temple above Arjuna’s Penance has two tall towers and an entrance. There is no clarity as to its use but it has appeared in a few Indian movies like Padayappa.
Look out for some of the carvings on the columns and other details.
Krishna’s Butter Ball
This is perhaps the most intriguing of the monuments in Mahabalipuram. This large granite boulder balances as if by magic, on the side of a wall. It is a popular place to come take selfies and fun pictures, a la Pisa, because of its strange position which looks like it may fall anytime.
The strange rock is hard to explain so only celestial, extra-terrestrial or god-like tales can justify how this rock ended up there and why it does not roll down.
Mahishamardini Rock Cut Mandapa
This cave temple is located at the base of another temple that used to be historically a lighthouse used as early as the 7th century. It is also right next to the modern day lighthouse.
The temple is not very big but is pretty intricate and has three chambers and several carvings of the Hindu mythology stories, the Puranas.
This small temple on top of a hill and above the Mahishamardini Rock Cut Mandapa is one of the best places to come to for a nice 360 degree view of the Mahabalipuram area all the way to the Shore Temple and the sea.
The temple dates back to the same time as the rest of the complex, around the 7th century during the Pallava Dynasty. Originally, the roof of the temple was used to light fires which served as a lighthouse to alert ships that sailed past the coast.
Later on, a modern lighthouse piece was added and you can still see it in the Maritime Museum nearby. There are also photos of what it used to look like.
The name of the temple is thought to be an evolution of the word “Ulaikkannisvaram” which refers to the crescent moon shape on Shiva’s forehead.
You can access the temple by climbing the rock cut steps to one side. The space around the temple is narrow and fenced out for safety. You can walk around the temple and go inside.
The Mamallapuram Lighthouse is a modern lighthouse located near some of the oldest temples in the complex. The original lighthouse at this location was built in 1887 and the present one was reopened to the public in 2011. You can buy tickets and go up to the top for great views, or you can simply climb up the Olakkannesvara Temple and have a similar view.
This completed one chamber, rock cut granite temple without a deity is located on the top of the hill range that makes up the center part of Mahabalipuram, above Arjuna’s Penance. The temple follows the chariot structure and is devoted to Ganesh today, while it was originally dedicated to Shiva.
Heritage Maritime Museum and the Lighthouse Museum
These two small and adjacent museums located at the footsteps of the modern day Mahabalipuram Lighthouse display the maritime and lighthouse history and heritage of the area.
The ticket to get in is really cheap, I think I paid less than $1, and gives you access to both. The Maritime Museum is filled with small models of famous ships including the Titanic, and has exhibits displaying the evolution of maritime tools through the centuries. It is a rather quirky air conditioned space that also talks about the maritime trade in the region.
You will also be able to see some maps of the major maritime trading routes that Chennai was part of, like the Silk Route or the East India trading routes between East and West.
The Lighthouse Museum is quite interesting and is more focused on the tools and equipment used through the centuries to alert ships along the coast. It starts at the time when there was no electricity, even no oil, and explains how lighthouses worked then, all the way to today’s modern and long instance beams.
Here you can also see the old lighthouse equipment that used to be placed on top of the temple before the modern lighthouse was built and there is a photo showing how it used to look like which was a real highlight for me.
The Raintree specialises in Chettinad cuisine, the food that is typical of this region of India inland from Chennai and where many of the first migrants to Singapore came from.
The food there includes a lot of dried out fish that would be kept when the farmers spent a long time in the desert, and uses certain spices and foods that are quite unique.
The restaurant is part of the Taj Connemara, the city’s oldest hotel, but is located in a separate standalone building that has a high ceiling and a bungalow feel to it. Outside are several spread out tables under large banyan trees scattered between plants and lit with candles for extra romance. Inside, tables are organised around a lilypond with dimmed lighting, orange walls and a touch of Indian flare.
The menu is extensive and the team always at hand to explain. They can also suggest a few items that they can tailor for one, as was my case, so I could try several dishes. The chef is at hand to suggest the best combinations too. Their grilled or fried fish with the chef’s special herbs and spices is absolutely divine.
The best part is the unique wine pairing dinner option which allows you pair the meal with Indian (or international) wines. This is quite unique as Indian food is not usually made for pairing and there is limited wine drinking culture, so a great chance to experience it.
The Indian vegetarian fine dining restaurant inside the palatial ITC Chola Hotel is one of the most interesting restaurants in Chennai.
Styled like a Rajasthani palace, the restaurant serves Ayurveda-inspired meals which follow the principles of balance and come from the kitchens of Royal India.
There are three set menus with about 20-25 items, each with a different theme and an Ayurveda option. Called Arusuvai Vrindhu, this harmonious menu includes a set of small dishes presented thali style in a silver tray followed by a few different kinds of breads, a rice dish and two desserts.
The thali meal includes the six flavors that Ayurveda recommends every meal should have including sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Most of the small dishes have at least two of those flavors, several have all of them, and are incredibly complex for the small portion.
It is unlikely that you have tried any of these dishes before because the chef prides himself with coming up with each recipe for the restaurant with menus changing with the seasons.
Service here is incredibly attentive and the atmosphere is calm and regal, with generous amounts of gold, crystal and red velvet. There is a green marble elephant statue in the middle and candles on each table.
Ciclo Cafe And Bicycle Shop
This bicycle inspired cafe has been decorated entirely with bike parts and entire bikes and is quite a unique and quirky space in which to enjoy some food and drinks.
Amadora Gourmet Ice Cream
This local ice cream brand has become quite the rage in Chennai. Indian cuisine does not really have ice creams as a top item but there is kulfi which comes pretty close.
However, Amadora has been changing the scene by offering lots of different flavors in its few branches across the city and in Bangalore and making its ice cream using local produce from the nuts to the fruits.
Ice creams are creamy, gelato style, and there are a few flavors that are particularly interesting, like the local filter coffee, a very traditional drink in Tamil Nadu.
As opposed to most of the rest of India, Tamil Nadu, and Chennai in particular, have a strong affinity for filter coffee. This is because of the pot’s influence in the world trade routes which brought the beans in.
Filter coffee here is not what we usually think of in the west, in Chennai the coffee is prepared in a special metal containers, two at a time, which are stacked. The top one has holes on the bottom and a small metal plate that presses the ground coffee down as the water trickles through.
The coffee is often then boiled with milk and frothed by pouring it from one container to the other. It is then served in two small metal cups so that you can continue to froth and cool it down.
Get a scoop of filter coffee ice cream with a scoop of the very thick salted caramel ice cream for the best combination.
Irani Tea Stall
Irani is a tiny stall with no tables and only a counter serving small snacks and piping hot tea or coffee to regular patrons who come every day, especially in the evening after work.
This is one of the oldest coffee stalls in Chennai and prepares its “special tea” with vacuum utensils which allow for the tea to boil with the milk for an hour in sealed containers. The stall’s name refers to the family’s heritage, hailing from Iran, and to the preparation method which results in what is often called dum tea and can also be found in Hyderabad.
There are several Irani tea stalls across the city but this one is the original and still serves the two-bite, 2 cent samosas it became famous for, although they are now vegetarian instead of mutton based. The menu is compact with only coffee, tea, samosas, crumbling tea biscuits and bread buns eaten with butter and jam.
Food is served to eat in, the tea in ornate, small metal cups and the food on bright blue plastic plates, although there is no place to sit. You can either grab your plate and cup and stand by the door while being mesmerised by the crazy traffic of people, rickshaws and cars outside, place your plate on the counter while you gulp down the food, or rest against the wall. As soon as your plate is empty, the staff will fill it with someone else’s samosas, unless you order some more. For less than half a dollar you can savor ten spicy samosas and a milk tea with a slice of Chennai’s life.