In the northeastern corner of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, CHENNAI (still commonly referred to by its former British name, Madras) is India’s fourth largest city, with a population nudging seven and a half million. Hot, congested and noisy, it’s the major transport hub of the south and most travellers stay just long enough to book a ticket for somewhere else. The attractions of the city itself are sparse, though it does boast fine specimens of Raj architecture, pilgrimage sites connected with the apostle Doubting Thomas, superb Chola bronzes at its state museum, and plenty of classical music and dance performances.
Geographically Chennai divides into three main sectors. North of the River Cooum stands Fort St George, site of the first British outpost in India and George Town, the commercial centre, which developed during British occupation. George Town’s principal landmark is Parry’s Corner located at the southern end of Rajaji Salai. Sandwiched between the Cooum and Adyar rivers is Central Chennai, the modern, commercial heart of the metropolis, crossed and served by the city’s main thoroughfare, Anna Salai. East of Anna Salai is the atmospheric old Muslim quarter of Triplicane and beyond is the long straight Marina with its massive beach, fishing boats and hordes of domestic tourists, saris and trousers hitched up, enjoying a paddle. Further south along the coast is the district of Mylapore, inhabited by the Portuguese in the 1500s, with its two important places of pilgrimage and tourist attractions, Kapalishvara Temple and San Thomé Cathedral.
As capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is a comparatively modern creation, like Mumbai and Kolkata. It was founded as a fortified trading post by the British East India Company in 1639, north of the ancient Tamil port of Mylapore and the Portuguese settlement of San Thomé. It was completed on St George’s Day in 1640 and thus named Fort St George. Over the course of the following century and a half, as capital of the Madras Presidency, which covered most of south India, the city expanded to include many surrounding villages. It was briefly lost to the French but three years later, in 1746, the British re-established control under Robert Clive (Clive of India) and continued to use it as their southern base, although it was surpassed in national importance by Calcutta.
The city’s renaissance began after Independence, when it became the centre of the Tamil movie industry, and a hotbed of Dravidian nationalism. Renamed Chennai in 1997, the metropolis has boomed since the Indian economy opened up to foreign investment in the early 1990s. The flip side of this rapid economic growth is that Chennai’s infrastructure has been stretched to breaking point: poverty, oppressive heat and pollution are more likely to be your lasting impressions than the conspicuous affluence of the city’s modern marble shopping malls.