Chennai (Madras)

Chennai (Madras), South India's sprawling chief metropolis and India's fourth largest city, is dubbed 'India's Detroit' thanks to its chiefly automotive industrial revolution. The analogy is apt in more ways than one. Chennai's beautiful Indo-Saracenic buildings now stand like islands of elegance in a sea of concrete sprawl, and seen from the back of a taxi crawling along Anna Salai in the rush hour, the city can seem to be little more than a huge, sweltering traffic jam.

Nevertheless, modern Chennai remains the de facto capital of Indian high culture - complex dances such as Bharatnatyam are still widely taught and practised here - and the city retains an air of gentility that's missing from the other Indian metros. Despite attempts to carpet-bomb the southern suburbs with IT parks and malls, you'll find little here of the boom of Mumbai or the overheated dynamism of Bengaluru. Chennai's urban elite of textile magnates, artists and web entrepreneurs still maintain their networks around the bars and walking tracks of the city's raj-era clubs, where chinos and loafers rule and churidars and lungis are checked at the door.

Outside the gates of these green refuges, Chennai can be a hard city to love. It's polluted, congested, tricky to negotiate and lacks anything resembling a centre. Nevertheless, there are reasons to stick around for more than the customary pre- or post-flight overnight stay, particularly if you base yourself near the old Brahmin suburb of Mylapore, which with its beautiful temple towers, old-time silk emporia and dingy cafes, makes a worthy introduction or postscript to the Tamil temple circuit.

Ins and outsGetting there

Chennai's international and domestic air terminals are next to each other about 15 km from the city: allow 50 minutes, although it may take as little as half an hour. Airport buses run the circuit of the main hotels, and include Egmore station; otherwise it's best to get a pre-paid taxi: either yellow-topped government taxis or the more comfortable and expensive private cabs (note the number written on your charge slip). Trains from the north and west come into the Central Station behind the port, while lines from the south terminate at Egmore; both stations have abundant hotels nearby. State-owned buses terminate at the Koyembedu Moffusil terminus, 10 km west of the centre, and private buses at the nearby Omni terminus; it's worth asking whether the driver can drop you closer to your destination.

Getting around

Chennai is very spread out and walking is usually uncomfortably hot so it's best to find an auto-rickshaw. Most refuse to run their meter, so ask your hotel for an approximate rate to your destination. Taxis are comparatively rare and a bit more expensive, but there's an efficient system of radio taxis which can be yours for as little as Rs 100 per hour. The bus network is extensive with frequent services, but it's often very crowded.

Orientation

Chennai is far from an 'organized' city. The main harbour near the old British military zone of
George Town
is marked by cranes for the cargo business. Nearby is the
fort
, the former headquarters of the British and now the Secretariat of the Tamil Nadu Government, and the High Court. The
Burma bazar
, a long line of pokey shops, runs between the two near Parry's Corner, while the two main rail stations lie to the west of George Town. From the fort,
Anna Salai
(Mount Road of old) cuts a southwest-ward swathe through the city, passing through or near to most areas of interest to visitors:
Triplicane
, where most of Chennai's cheap accommodation can be found;
Thousand
Lights
and
Teynampet
, where ritzier hotels and malls dominate; and the commercial free-for-all of
T Nagar
. Just south of the central area between Anna Salai and the long sweep of Marina Beach lies
Mylapore
, older than Chennai itself and the cultural heart of the city. Further south still, industrial and high-tech sprawl stretches down the coast almost as far as
Mahabalipuram
.

Tourist information

Most tourist offices are located in the the new
Tourism Complex
2 Wallajah Rd, near Kalaivanar Arangam
.
Tamil Nadu Tourism
(
TN
)
T044-2536 7850, www.tamilnadutourism.org
; also has offices opposite Central station (T044-2535 3331), in Egmore (T044-2819 2165), and at the Domestic and International airports.
Tamil Tourist Development Corporation
(
TTDC
)
T044-2538 9857, www.ttdc online.com
.
Kerala Tourism
T044-2538 2639
;
Andhra Pradesh Tourism
T044-2538 1213
;
Andaman and Nicobar Islands Tourism
T044-2536 0952
.

Possibly the best organized office is
Government of India Tourism
154 Anna Salai, T044-2846 0825, Mon-Fri 0915-1745, Sat until 1300
.
India Tourism Development Corporation
(
ITDC
)
29 Ethiraj Salai, T044-2827 4216, Mon-Sat 0600-2000, Sun 0600-1400
. For city information see also www.chennaionline.com.

History

Armenian and Portuguese traders had settled the San Thome area before the arrival of the British. In 1639,
Francis Day
, a trader with the East India Company, negotiated the grant of a tiny plot of sandy land to the north of the Cooum River as the base for a warehouse or factory. The building was completed on 23 April 1640, St George's Day. The site was chosen partly because of local politics - Francis Day's friendship with Ayyappa Nayak, brother of the local ruler of the coast country from Pulicat to the Portuguese settlement of San Thome - but more importantly by the favourable local price of cotton goods.

By 1654 the patch of sand had grown into Fort St George, complete with a church and English residences - the 'White Town'. To its north was 'Black Town', referred to locally as Chennaipatnam, after Chennappa Nayak, Dharmala Ayyappa Nayak's father. The two towns merged and Madraspatnam grew with the acquisition of neighbouring villages of Tiru-alli-keni (meaning Lily Tank, and Anglicised as Triplicane), in 1676. In 1693, Governor Yale (founder of Yale University in the USA) acquired Egmore, Purasawalkam and Tondiarpet from Emperor Aurangzeb, who had by then extended Mughal power to the far south. In 1746 Madras was captured by the French, to be returned to British control as a result of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Villages like Nungambakkam, Ennore, Perambur, San Thome and Mylapore (the 'city of the peacock') were absorbed by the mid-18th century with the help of friendly Nawabs. In 1793, the British colonial administration moved to Calcutta, but Madras remained the centre of the East India Company's expanding power in South India.

It was more than 150 years after they had founded Fort St George at Madras (in 1639) before the East India Company could claim political supremacy in South India. Haidar Ali, who mounted the throne of Mysore in 1761, and his son Tipu Sultan, allied with the French, won many battles against the English. The 1783 Treaty of Versailles forced peace. The English took Malabar in 1792, and in 1801 Lord Wellesley brought together most of the south under the Madras Presidency .

The city continues to grow, although many services, including water and housing, are stretched to breaking point. Since Independence an increasing range of heavy and light goods industries, particularly automotive, has joined the long-established cotton textiles and leather industries.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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