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Chennai Cruises

About Chennai, India

Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is the cultural center of Southern India. This fascinating coastal city is a heady blend of ancient and sacred structures, stately colonial-era buildings and churches, and modern-day sensibility. It is believed that in its earlier days, the Apostle Thomas came here to preach. He eventually died in Chennai and the city’s basilica is named in his memory.

By many accounts, Madras of old was founded as a British city rather than an Indian one. It was the British East India Company that was granted land here by a local ruler in 1639. The fortifications of Fort St. George were built in 1650 on uninhabited land and only later surrounded by the structures of old Madras. The British remained in the fort, and built Madras into a major city of the subcontinent, until India’s independence in 1947. The city was renamed Chennai in 1996 to keep with the rich Indian heritage that permeates its everyday life. Today, the fort’s walls enclose government buildings, the historic St. Mary’s Church and a museum.

Chennai Lifestyle and Culture

Chennai’s culture stands apart from that of any other Indian city. Its rich Tamil heritage celebrates everyday beauty through distinct dance, clothing and sculpture. The thriving arts scene reflects the diversity of its people, though the roots of Tamil Nadu, India’s southern states, run deep. Carnatic music, one of the world’s oldest musical styles, was born here. Its restrained nature contrasts dramatically with the livelier folk music of Tamil, including the Villuppāttu, a storytelling form of music performed with a long bow laid across the laps of its players. Folk dances also endure in Tamil culture and are still today used to celebrate life’s milestones, such as weddings and births. To commemorate religious festivities, the Karakattam folk dance is performed in front of a statue or image of the goddess Mariamman. In this unique style, the performer dances while balancing a brass pot full of rice grains, leaping and tumbling while keeping them all contained in the vessel. But perhaps the most distinct dance of Chennai is the Bharatanatyam, which is choreographed to celebrate the universe through the beauty of the body.

Traditional clothing also celebrates the sacred body’s connection to the universe. Women typically wear a sari which, snugly worn, enhances the shape of the wearer. The midriff is often partially revealed, especially the navel as it is considered the source of all life and creativity. Men, too, often wear the sari, wrapped around the waist and tied at the back, or the panchey kachche, its drapery pulled back between the legs and tied around the back.

Chennai Sights and Landmarks

Located on India’s Coromadel Coast, Chennai boasts the second longest beachfront among the world’s cities. A stroll along Marina Beach gives you a rich flavor of its seaside locale. A highlight of Chennai is the brick-red Madras High Court, a splendid example of Indo-Saracenic architecture with Mughal touches and domed cupolas. The city’s Ripon Building is an elegant neoclassical gem. The whitewashed structure is a grand holdover from British days.

Chennai’s rich religious heritage lives on in two of its most striking landmarks. The gleaming white San Thome Basilicia, dedicated to the Apostle St. Thomas, was originally built by the Portuguese during their brief stay in the 16th century and transformed into a cathedral by the British in 1893. A much older structure, the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, is a stunning Dravidian pylon built in the 7th century to honor Shiva, a god of Hinduism. Its facade is adorned with a breathtaking array of vividly colored sculptures depicting the tenets of Shaivism.

Chennai Entertainment and Activities

Any visit to Chennai requires an exploration of Fort St. George. Within its centuries-old ramparts, the legislature of the state of Tamil Nadu conducts its very modern business. Its museum chronicles the city’s long history and features military artifacts and artwork that depict life in colonial Madras. The Government Museum provides a snapshot of cultural and historic artifacts, from South Indian bronzes to Roman antiquities, the largest collection outside Europe.

Cultural opportunities include a visit to the Kalakshetra Foundation, a school of Tamil classical dance and music. Within, the Rikmini Devi Museum provides a fascinating glimpse of the art form. The Kalakshetra Craft Center across the street features weaving and textile hand-painting demonstrations. Experience one of the most enlightening beaches you’ll ever see at Marina Beach, a two-mile stretch that is home to fish markets, kite-flyers, fortune-tellers and cricket players.

Chennai Restaurants and Shopping

The staple of the Chennai diet is rice. Vegetarian and meat dishes are often spicy. Milder dishes are flavored with coconut, tamarind and gingelly oil and are often accompanied by a chutney and crisp papads, a kind of thin tortilla. Coffee preparation is especially detailed, with beans freshly roasted and the brew left to sit in grounds for 15 minutes before it is added to milk and sugar; the concoction is then rapidly and repeatedly poured from one vessel to another until frothy.

For exquisite silk saris, head to Nalli Silks, purveyors of finely crafted and incredibly vivid cloths since 1928. Fair trade items such as clothing, accessories and household goods are for sale at Fabindia. Or browse Good Earth for home decor ideas, from embroidery to candles to soaps.