Liz and I went to Chennai for a weekend and it was amazing how much we were able to fit in just two days! We arrived on Friday night and checked into our hotel (a very budget hotel, might I add – there was no toilet paper and I actually bargained with the owner over how much I could give him as a down payment). The location was great though, because we were staying about ten minutes from the beach and along a major road. We started walking around and found a great book sale that we spent probably two hours at because it had EVERYTHING. I had really felt like bookstores and book sales had been missing from India (or at least, my India experience). We also found some great South Indian cuisine where I got 50-cent puri!
I noticed right away that the environment in Chennai is MUCH different than in Hyderabad (and even Bangalore, where I was last year). First of all, it’s much more ”traditionally” Hindu and less religiously diverse. Not only are the vast majority of people Hindu, but they all seem to be more focused on Shiva whereas in other cities there seems to be more of a mix of “denominations.” However, something good has also come from this lack of cultural and religious diversity. There is no shortage of OLD Hindu architecture (stuff that used to exist in Hyderabad but that was later destroyed) and Southern pride (most people only speak Tamil and can converse in other South Indian languages, but very few speak in English or even Hindi). But the vintage British influence is still quite strong and it’s not disturbing at all, it’s actually charming. There are tons of those old white cars, narrow cobblestone streets and subtle architectural influences. The elevator in our hotel had doors that you had to manually slide open and closed, and we felt like we were in a 1950s sitcom.
The AMAZING Western breakfast that Liz found for us (including nutella pancakes)
On the first full day, we saw Mahabalipuram, which is a collection of ancient temples and structures a couple hours south of Chennai. We ended up getting a cab for the whole day and even a guide (living comfortably!) because we had read that the sights were much more meaningful if you knew the history behind them. We saw Arjuna’s Penance, Krishna’s Butterball, Pancha Rathas, Varaha Cave Temple, and Shore Temple.
This is Krishna’s Butterball – a rock that has been in this spot for 1500 years, despite British efforts to try to move it for safety reasons, its balance is so perfect that it has stayed!
This is Arjuna’s Penance – you can see Arjuna (a character from the epic poem Mahabharata) meditating near the top left, and he’s very thin because he hasn’t eaten in weeks. Near the tusk of the largest elephant is a cat, who’s also meditating. This is supposed to show that Arjuna is meditating the correct way because he’s hungry, and the cat demonstrates the wrong way to meditate because he’s full (so full he doesn’t even want the mouse next to him).
This is an unfinished demonstration of how people would cut the rock formations to make the shapes they needed. They would make a line of holes where they wanted it cut, and fill them with hot water. This would make the rock expand from the inside and when the pressure built up enough, it would split.
Shore Temple – Was halfway covered in sand until the British excavated it
After Mahabalipuram, we went to the crocodile park, where there were various species of reptiles from all over the world.
After that we saw the Cholamandal Artists’ Village. This was a place where artists live and exchange ideas, and modern art is displayed in the indoor museum and outdoor courtyard. It was formed as a reaction to the rise of modernism in Western art, at a time when Indian artists did not know how best to respond to this trend – to emphasize their own artistic traditions, or to adopt the Western styles? In much of the artwork, you could easily see signs of both.
That night, we were lucky enough to find a performance at Kalakshetra, which is the flagship Bharatanatyam school. We just walked in and didn’t even get questioned! To see the campus had been one of my lifelong dreams, so it was magical for me, and even though it’s in the middle of a huge city, it’s incredibly peaceful and green. It has one major road that looks newly paved. After the program, we even got to see the famous banyan tree under which Rukmini Devi Arundale taught her classes!
The famous banyan tree!
On the second day, we had a tour of the Mylapore region with a guide. It quickly became clear that this agency was meant for people who were just beginning to get accustomed to India, so there were a lot of things that Liz and I rolled our eyes at, but there were still several new background stories that were interesting to hear. We visited Kapaleeswar, one of Chennai’s most famous Hindu temples, wheret here was a tree where people who want to get married or get pregnant hang threads or bassinets for good luck – and if their wish comes true, they remove it. We also went to St. Thomas Basilica, a Catholic church, both of which are in the same part of town. It was really interesting to be a group of white people (usually assumed to be Christian), among Indians who were probably aware that they were more Christian than the majority of our group.
There was an unassuming little window on a quiet street that was apparently one of the best-known “restaurants” (although the owner refuses to call it that) in Chennai – it’s just one man who cooks out of his personal kitchen and hands food to people through his window! We also got the opportunity to visit a priest’s house. It was an old-style house, meaning that it had a large outdoor porch area for socializing, and an open courtyard. There were clothes hanging in the courtyard to dry, and we learned that the priest’s clothes hang separately from his family’s, because no one is allowed to touch them but him (and even he can’t touch them until the last possible minute, when he’s about to put them on, so he carries them above his head with a long metal stick).
The priest’s courtyard
The next day, we went to Elliot’s Beach in the morning to appreciate the waves and lack of crowds. The night before when we’d gone to check out the beach, a drunk guy had tumbled over Liz’s feet and into the waves while his friend nonchalantly watched. It was a nice beach, but unfortunately didn’t have any shells.
Adorable miniature ferris wheel on the beach
All in all a successful trip!