Chennai and around

In the past, I have explored south India in bits and pieces. This Diwali(Nov 2016), I went to Chennai and few places around it. I am going to write about it today. It was actually my second time in Chennai. But the first one was a fly-by visit en-route Pondicherry a decade and half ago. We were little skeptical about visiting Chennai this time as Tamil Nadu’s popular Chief Minister Jaylalithaa was admitted to hospital in Chennai and her condition was not all that good. Any bad news during our visit would have meant, Chennai bandh etc. Nonetheless, we took that risk. We went to Chennai from Bengaluru by train, actually by a special train called Double Decker Express. I have seen such a train which used to ply between Pune and Mumbai few years back, but that got discontinued. The train route is via Katapadi station, which is for passengers going further Vellore. We reached Chennai in the night. The first sight of Chennai Central station reminded me Mumbai’s CST station. We had a our auto-rickshaw ride to our hotel in the Triplicane area.

We joined TTDC’s one day tour to Kanchipuram(also known as Kanjivaram) and Mahabalipuram(also known as Mamallapuram) next morning. As we were waiting for our tour bus to arrive, early morning, I hit a local eatery for coffee. It was surprising to see that tea was available very easily everywhere. The way the tea is made in Chennai is slightly different. The water is boiled t tea powder is not mixed that time, instead it is in the container/filter, dipped into the water. The sugar is also added separately, so is milk. Anyways, we went to Kanchipuram via Sriperimbudur town. It reminded me of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, which took place around the same place in 1991. Kanchipuram, Mahabalipuram and Chennai form a triangle with each edge of 70-80 odd kilometers. We reached Kanchipuram town around 10 am. It is, of course, famous for various temples, which are there since Pallava period which is around 600 AD. The place is also famous for silk saree. The town has tradition of weavers weaving silk saree since last 400 odd years. We visited Ekambeshwara Temple(which is  Shiva temple). It has a huge and majestic gopura built by Vijayanagar king. Later we went to Kamakshi temple, which is a temple of Parvati. And the last stop was at Varadraja temple which is Vishnu temple. We also made a mandatory stop at silk saree shop, where we got a demo of saree weaving technique. I must end my narration with one note though. In Pune, and other places, I have eaten Kanchipuram Idli at different south Indian restaurants. These are special rava flour idlis with gram, pepper etc in them. I was disappointed not to find them in Kanchipuram town itself, at least, at some places where I checked.

Later around noon time, we went to historic town of Mahabalipuram which is famous for world heritage sites which it has. One of them is a shore temple and other is cluster of monolithic sculptures titled Panch Ratha. This town is off, East Coast Road(ECR), which is fine highway between Chennai and Pondicherry. I remember travelling by this road during my visit to Pondicherry. The town has array of sculptures and their shops selling their art. Later we stopped at TTDC beach side resort, for lunch. We also enjoyed the beach which is near by. We returned to city of Chennai in the evening. Later we visited Santhome Church, temple of Kalapeshwar. We also saw another smaller temple, where a girl was performing a Bharatnatyam inside the temple, which is very common scene as many offer nritya-seva in this manner. We had our dinner at Saravana Bhavan which is very famous for its south Indian specialties. We were amazed to see its popularity in the form of number of branches it has, not only Chennai, but also world wide. This is a must visit place.

It is so difficult to have a dialog with anyone if you don’t Tamil or English. The Hindi language virtually does not exist there. None of boards, information, is available in HIndi. There are some exceptions, of course, to this. Only buildings which come under central government purview, do carry Hindi equivalent of their names such as railway station, State Bank of India etc. Amongst all this, it was surprising to find Pune’s own Dagadusheth Halwai Ganpanti photo in my hotel reception, which of course has Tamil words on it, but I could recognize it. It was even more surprising to know the hotel staff new Hindi as they had migrated from Odisha.

On our last day in Chennai, we took a run-around tour of the city as we had a train back to Bengaluru late afternoon. In the morning we visited Chennai’s famous museum in Egmore area. The museum’s building is itself a heritage building, it is so old, and in fact one of the first museums in India, started in 1851. The museum is a huge one, with 6 big galleries. Then we visited Chennai’s own monument called Valluvar Kottam which is in memory of Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar. We then visited the Madras Light House, which is situated off Marina Beach. This newly constructed light house is open for visitors to go all the way to the top, and also has a museum of light houses in Chennai. The view from balcony on the top is majestic. The view of Bay of Bengal, sprawling Marina Beach, the well-made wide, decorated street by it, and on the far side view of Chennai’s EMU local train passing, a cricket ground, and further one can see all those buildings. Later we stepped inside two historical and landmark buildings, not far from the light house. One of them is Vivekananda House. This is memorial of Swami Vivekanada, who happened to stay in the building which was called Ice House, for few days. This is a finely made and maintained memorial, with 3D shows on his life, and also exhibition of rare photographs. This place was called as Ice House as it was used as storage place for ice brought in by ships. The memorial also has a model of ice storage technique used then. Later, we went to Fort St. George Museum, which situated near Port of Chennai area. This is again historical building, and part of old fort of Chennai. The museum houses mainly British era armory, flags, uniforms of British officers, soldiers.

By the time we covered all this, it was late afternoon. We were dying of hunger. We drove through area around Chennai Central station to reach restaurant called Doveton Cafe where we had their famous special south Indian thali. It is very popular place. We had a our dose of rice, sambar, rasam, podi and various other items which in the thali. By the way, I must mention this. I noticed an advertisement of Maharashtra restaurant The Hindu newspaper that day, and it is called Meena Tai’s and I was taken aback. Our return journey was by Shatabdi Express to Bengaluru. This was my first ride in any Shatabdi for that matter. It was good experience, with good interiors, lots of food being served till the end. So that was all about my Chennai Express experience!

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