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Captivating Chennai

Today, on the ashes of the East India trading empire, much greater global empires are flourishing on its ‘barren strip of sand’. Hugh and Colleen Gantzer discover how 17th century Madras laid the foundations of forward looking 21st century Chennai

The Birth of Chennai

If the British believe that they founded Chennai, they are right and they are also wrong. Back in the 17th century Andrew Cogan and Francis Day of the East India Company, got a grant of land from the local chieftains and founded a trading post, known as a ‘factory’ in those days. Day claimed that he chose this sandy strip because it gave the John Company access to ‘excellent long Cloath’. But rumour has it that he was influenced by his girlfriend who lived in the Portuguese colony of San Thome, some distance away.

San Thome was the name that the Portuguese gave to the ancient religious and cultural centre known as Mylapore. It had been renamed by the Portuguese because of its associations with Christ’s apostle, Thomas Didymus. The saint had lived, preached and died here. Before him, however, Mylapore had been a great port, second only to the great old port of Mahabalipuram where monuments dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries still stand.

Spencers Plaza Chennai

Late in the last century, Madras was renamed ‘Chennai’, one of the many pre-colonial names of this historic city. In a way, it reflects its citizens’ urge to proclaim that their megapolis began long before Francis Day obtained his barren strip of sand.

History and tradition are more important to Chennai than they are to most other cities in India. But though these are still the bedrocks of Chennai society, their city’s burgeoning business climate, attuned to a globalised economy, has imparted new perspectives to the outlook of many of its people. Hotels, shopping plazas, cutting-edge industries and places to dine and entertain in elegant comfort have sprung up. In the 21st century Chennai, grace and glamour are perfectly matched.

Things to see...
History glows gently in old Fort St George, where the British first established their trading factory. Here is the historic St Mary’s Church associated with Robert Clive, Elihu Yale of the American university, Hobart after whom Tasmania’s capital has been named, and many others who built the late Empire On Which The Sun Never Sets. The Fort Museum is an excellent introduction to the colonial past of Chennai.

The Southern Spice serves piquant and deliciously authentic South Indian fare at Taj Coromandel, Chennai

Another fascinating complex, dating back to the British era, is the Madras Museum built in the eclectic Indo-Saracenic style. It houses the Connemara Public Library, the Victoria Memorial National Art Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art and the Natural History Museum. Do visit the Amarvati gallery in the museum: its exhibits are priceless.

Then there are the churches associated with the life and death of St Thomas. He came here in the 1st century AD and, behind the altar of the shrine of Our Lady of Health at Little Mount, a flight of steps leads down to the cave in which the saint lived and prayed. Outside the church, there is a spring said to have been made by the Apostle. He was killed in a cave in St Thomas’ Mount and, in this church, there is a curious portrait of Mary, the Mother of Christ, said to have been painted by St Luke, the Physician and Evangelist. The great Basilica Church of San Thomas has grown around the crypt in which the body of the saint was laid to rest.

Geoffreys - The Pub at Radha Park Inn, Chennai

Chennai’s premier place of worship, however, is the Temple of Kapaleeswarar, often spelt Kapaleshwar. This is a living temple rich with sculptures, customs, rituals and traditions, some of which reputedly date back to many centuries before the Christian era. According to Chennai’s historian S Muthiah, writing in his ‘Madras Discovered’, ‘the temple authorities themselves feel the present temple was built about 300 years ago’. It is more that likely, however, that the present shrine occupies the place hallowed by many of its predecessors for more than 20 centuries.

For wildlife enthusiasts, there are the Arignar Anna Zoological Park which also has a lion safari park; the Guindy National Park within the city; the Snake Park where they often demonstrate how snake venom is extracted; and, 44 kms out of Chennai, its famed Crocodile Bank which has been responsible for bringing many of these ancient and eco-sustaining creatures back from the verge of extinction.

Le Meridien, Chennai

Beyond the Crocodile Bank is the 7th century port of Mahabalipuram, now called Mamallapuram. Impressive rock-cut sculptures, shrines and an old lighthouse to guide mariners to and from Southeast Asia, stand virtually on the beach.

No one is quite sure why this thriving port was abandoned so suddenly, but we believe that great cyclones, boiling out of the Bay of Bengal, drove its people to seek safer places.

Also dating back to the 7th century Pallava dynasty is the old capital of Kanchipuram. Its many temples are as fascinating as its radiant silk fabrics known globally as Kanjeevaram Silks. It is about 75 kms from Chennai.

...and Do

Chennai’s renowned cultural lifestyle boasts a classical dance or musical performance virtually every evening. Its cultural season peaks in winter.

Luxury room at Welcomgroup Chola Sheraton

Discos were very popular once, till a strict police decided that they were operating under false pretenses! This is still an iffy situation, so do check it out before making plans to shake a leg. Though, the latest destination in town is ‘Flame Le Club’, the new dance club at Le Royal Meridien. Pubs, complete with draught beer, are generally more up-market than those abroad largely because the best are bars in starred hotels. Our favourite is the hi-tech, barn-like Geoffrey’s at the Radha Park Inn. Shopping can become a major obsession in Chennai with its enormous shopping plazas, silk stores, glittering jewellery shops particularly known for the purity of their gold and handicrafts for which the government emporia are the most reliable, but you could pick up good bargains elsewhere. We found that Panagal Park in T Nagar is a good place to shop for silks and jewellery. Chennai is strong on leather products and Hidesign in Ispahani Centre stocks a wide range, which are sold in Selfridges and John Lewis in London.

If you are willing to venture into the grey market, amble along the pavement in front of the shacks and shops of Burma Bazaar, but you need time to pick, haggle, examine and come back the next day.

The Business of Business

Chennai’s famous Kapaleeswarar Temple

Chennai, in the last few years, has begun to tap its potential as the commercial and industrial gateway to the south. The industries traditionally associated with the city, granite and leather, have burgeoned with new techniques and customers abroad. Pharmaceuticals and auto ancillaries are making a significant impact. A knowledgeable source estimated that they could account for as much as 50 per cent of the exports. New-industry watchers believe that Chennai is a dark horse moving up fast in the software and biotech fields. Major players like TVS, Ford and Hyundai have clearly been impressed enough by the discipline, high productivity and education of Chennai’s workforce to make long-term investments here. Andrew Cogan and Francis Day were visionaries. But even they could not have foreseen the time when, on the ashes of their East India trading empire, much greater global empires would flourish on their ‘barren strip of sand’. 17th century Madras laid the foundations of forward looking 21st century Chennai.


Don Pepe
73, Cathedral Road, Chennai 600086.
Tel: (044) 811013
Serves Mexican food like Flautas, Lam Burritos,
Tortillas and Chicken Fajitas.
They also have Italian dishes.
A meal for 2 would cost about Rs 350-Rs 500.

Stop At Sams
Mowbray Flats,
Alwarpet, Chennai 600018.
Tel: (044) 4671039
Their range of cuisines cover Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Continental, Burmese and Vietnamese.
Some items are Steamed Chicken Momos, Stuffed Chicken Legs a’la Baps and Koukswe.
Average meal for 2 would cost between Rs 200-Rs 300.

Kakani Towers,
15, Khader Nawaz Khan Road,
Chennai 600006. Tel: (044) 8253836
Some of their popular items are salads, seafood, HK Dimsum, Fish in Banana Leaf and Steamboat.
For 2 a steamboat costs Rs 500. An average meal for 2 would cost between Rs 300-Rs 400.

35, TTK Road, Chennai 600018.
Tel: (044) 4996761
Northwest Frontier food like Ran Peshwari, Chicken Cheese Kebabs and Dal Kabul Special.
A meal for 2 would cost between Rs 300-Rs 400.

84, Dr Radhakrishnan Salai, Chennai 600004.
Tel: (044) 8111893
Chettinad food with specialities like Turkey Biryani and Chest Bone Soup.
A veg thali costs Rs 52.
An average meal for 2 would cost between Rs 200-
Rs 250.

Bay Leaf
342, Ambujammal Street,
Alwarpet, Chennai 600018.
Tel: (044) 4996635.
Lots of Bengali food like Doi Maachh and other items like Lucknowi Chicken Biryani.
A meal for 2 would cost between Rs 250-Rs 300.

30 Cathedral Road
This redoubtable city institution is perfect for those determined to eat as the locals do.
Here you can gorge to bursting on good, cheap vegetarian food in perfectly clean, hygienic surroundings.

Getting Around
Yellow top taxis are available only from the airport and from select starred hotels cab ranks. They levy a fixed charge. A convenient option is to hire a car by the day from the many car hire companies offering this facility. A well-known one is Europcar at No 10, Greenways Road, Raja Annamalai Puram, Chennai 600028. Telefax: 044-4953239. Auto-rickshaws are available in numbers and though they have metres, these are not used. Fix a price before you get in. The city is well connected by buses. There is also the Metro Rail or MRT.


ITC Park Sheraton Hotel & Towers
TTK Road, Chennai 600018
Tel: (044) 4994101
Fax: (044) 4997101/ 4997201

With its underground parking for 200-250 cars, this 283-room hotel is modern in the grand hotel style. Rooms in its towers block come with airport transfers, breakfast and complimentary use of its business centre. Its Dakshin restaurant offers superb South Indian fare.

Rates: Corporate floor-Rs 5,000; Executive Club-Rs 6,000; Rs 500 extra for double occupancy.

Taj Coromandel
37, Mahatma Gandhi Road,
Chennai 600034
Tel: (044) 8272827
Fax: (044) 8257104
This 205 room hotel has the ambience of a southern palace with its 6th and 7th floors housing the exclusive Taj Club. It has three speciality restaurants. Two serve South Indian and Continental. The third, the Golden Dragon, presided over by Chef Hardy from Hong Kong, serves delectable Cantonese food. The 24-hour coffee shop, Matchpoint, overlooking the pool, specialises in pastas and salads, and there’s also a bar.
Rate: Superior Rooms-Rs 7,300 (double); Taj Club-Rs 9,200 (double)

Welcomgroup Chola Sheraton
10, Cathedral Road, Chennai 600086
Tel: (044) 8110101
Fax: (044) 8110202
Of the 92 rooms in this hotel, the 44 Duplex Rooms offer the best value for money. It is also conveniently located in the city centre. With the tariff comes transfers, breakfast and a l 1/2 hour happy hour in the Residents Lounge. Its speciality restaurant, the Peshwari offers excellent tandoori food.
Rates: Luxury-Rs 5,000; Duplex-Rs 6,000; Rs 500 extra charge for double occupancy.

Taj Connemara Hotel
Binny Road, Chennai 600002
Tel: (044) 8520123
Fax: (044) 8523361
Located on a quiet street, this 150-room hotel is one of the old landmarks of Chennai. Its heritage rooms overlook an atrium garden or the pool. It has a multicuisine 24-hours coffee shop, bar and its outdoor Raintree Restaurant prepares an excellent South Indian thali apart from its other Chettinad specialities. An added attraction are its dance and classical music performances.
Rates: Superior Room-Rs 5,400 (double); Executive (B)-Rs 6,300

Le Royal Meridien Chennai
No 1, GST Road, Saint Thomas Mount
Chennai - 600016
Tel: (044) 231 4343
Fax: (044) 231 4344
Ideally set within 3.5 acres of exquisitely landscaped gardens and within easy reach of the international airport and the city’s business districts, Le Royal Meridien Chennai is the perfect destination for a business traveller who demands unparalleled luxury and convenience. Facilities include extensive conference and banquet rooms for up to 1,000 guests, interactive satellite TV with high speed internet access in all rooms and a dedicated Royal Club floor.

The Trident
1/24 GST Road, Chennai 600027
Tel: (044) 2344747
Fax: (044) 2346699
This low-spreading, 167 room hotel on the airport road is targeting the business traveller with its 52 Executive club rooms offering fax and DVD connections, airport transfers, complimentary breakfast, happy hour and valet service. Rates: Superior Room-Rs 4,500 (double); Executive Club-Rs 5,500 (double)