Welcome to Chennai, bustling metropolis, IT and automobile industry’s destination, historic city with its interesting amalgam of conservative old world charm, art and culture and intelligence, education, world savviness and political awareness and debate.
Tamil Nadu is a state where heritage, history and culture are a living tradition. Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.
Chennai, with historically rich records dating from the British era, houses 2,467 heritage buildings within its metropolitan area (CMA), the highest within any Metropolitan Area limit in India. Chennai is home to the second largest collection of heritage buildings in the country, after Kolkata.
Most of these buildings are around 200 years old and older. The Chennai Central Station building, Chennai Egmore Station, Ripon Building, Bharat Insurance Building are still standing strong.
The daylight chases the dark skirts of the night and over the horizon slowly, slowly, the sun sends its rays shooting through the sky. The ripples on the sea come crashing into the beach as hundreds watch the daily pageant put on by nature. Many health and fitness enthusiasts every morning enjoy the salubrious air and ambience to walk, exercise and meet up with regular visitors of family and friends for whom the word ‘beach’ means the Marina in Chennai. Marina beach, one of the top five best natural beaches in the world welcomes its visitors with clean sands, pavements and roads thanks to the regular regime of the Municipality that has special equipment to free the beach of its daily debris. Many purveyors of alternative medicines, health food and natural remedies set out their wares.
On the other side of Marina Beach are a whole series of Indo-Saracenic buildings that house colleges and the university. The restoration and renovation of the Senate House in the University campus at Chepauk has unearthed old, forgotten techniques and methods of decoration like the use of Chettinad plaster and Sgraffito.
Further on is the Fort St.George, the first English (later British) fortress in India, founded in 1644 at the coastal city of Madras that is today’s modern city of Chennai. The construction of the fort provided the impetus for further settlements and trading activity, in what was originally an uninhabited land. The city evolved around the fortress. The fort currently houses the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly and other official buildings. The fort is one of the 163 notified areas (megalithic sites) in the state of Tamil Nadu.
The church inside the Fort is the oldest Anglican church in India. It was built between 1678 and 1680. The tombstones in its graveyard are the oldest English or British tombstones in India. This ancient prayer house solemnized the marriages of Robert Clive and Governor Elihu Yale, who later became the first benefactor of Yale University in the United States.
Mylapore that translates to the place of the peacock is older than the city of Madras. The area takes its name from the Kapaleeswarar Temple where Goddess Parvathi took the incarnation of a peacock and worshipped Lord Shiva.
The spirit of the city centres around the Kapaleeswarar Temple. The sthalavriksha or the ‘punnai’ tree (Calophyllum sp ) one of the oldest in the city and the temple chariot are revered by all. The spaces around the temple are filled with commerce, religion, food and tradition. Brassware, bronze and books, silks and gems, gold and silver, music and literature flourish in this area. Take a tour on a cycle rickshaw or walk the bylanes where you can see orthodox homes. The streets resound to strains of classical music and rhythms of dance steps, Vedic chanting and traditional lore wafting from the doorways.
Basilica of St.Thomas
The word Santhome or San Thome is derived from Saint Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. The apostle landed in Muziris (in Kerala) in A.D. 52, was martyred in A.D.72 at St.Thomas Mount in the city, and was interred in Mylapore. A church was built over his tomb and today is known as the San Thome Basilica. The Basilica is one of the four churches that claim to have been built over the tomb of an apostle. (Others include St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Italy; the Church of Saint James the Great in Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and the Ghareh Keliseh Monastery of St. Thaddeus in Ghara-Kilise, Iran.)
Commonly known as Santhome Church, the International Shrine of St. Thomas Basilica has an underground tomb chapel where pilgrims can pray in front of the sepulchre of St. Thomas. Superstitious people believe that sand taken from the tomb has miraculous healing powers. Marco Polo the great Venetian traveller visited the tomb in 1292 and made a record of his visit in his travel diaries.
St Thomas Mount
St Thomas Mount is a Holy place of international prominence, historical eminence, religious glory and tourist attraction. As planes land at Chennai airport a glimpse of this rocky hilltop especially illuminated in the night is a wonderful sight to see. This old, relic filled church was built in 1523 by the Portuguese.
This was the place where St Thomas was killed. The ancient Church can be reached after climbing 160 steps to the top of St. Thomas Mount. It has served as the light house for the Portuguese and Armenian ships and vessels in the Bay of Bengal in the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, it is said, when sailors sighted the Church they offered prayers for a safe Voyage and then discharged salutations from their artillery. Preserving its antiquity, this five century old Shrine Chapel has been renovated and restored in recent times.
According to tradition, the Cross was chiselled on a stone of this hill by St Thomas himself and used by him for his personal prayer gave strength to him when he was pierced from behind with a lance as he was praying before it. It is believed that the Cross should have been stained with the blood of the Martyr. This Cross was accidentally discovered later by the Portuguese when they dug the foundations for the new Church in 1547.
Ancient records say that this Cross sweated blood during the Holy Mass celebrated by Fr. Gasper Coelho on the 18th December 1558. In the early years, this Cross used to sweat blood every year, then every two or three years and, later, at longer intervals. The last occasion on which it was found sweating blood was in 1704.
Originally called Thiru-alli-keni, it was for many years a Brahminical stronghold and provided much of the clerical work-force required by the East India Company. It houses Chennai’s oldest surviving temple, the Parthasarathi temple. A letter written by Swami Vivekananda to the Lord of this temple (Vishnu) describing his success in Chicago is preserved here with great pride.
The four streets around the temple still have century old houses surrounded by modern symbols of technology. The lifestyle here still resembles cultural and ethnic heritage of 200 years ago. Roadside eateries, or kai-endhi (self-service) bhavans as they are known locally, to family-run ‘mess’es serve authentic Tamizh and Muslim food.
North of the temple is Amir Mahal, the home to the Nawab of Arcot, who still lives there. The Wallajah mosque,or Badi Masjid is very important to the city’s Muslims. Walk into the Mansions to experience the environment of single men of the city.
The Museum or Pantheon Complex
Museum or Pantheon Complex on Pantheon Road is the haunt of history buffs. Fabulous bronzes, wood carvings, coins and 2nd Century relics are housed in 46 galleries in a red brick building. The circular Museum theatre with its quaint Victorian ambience is a favourite place that stages English plays.
A Kanchipuram Sari, usually in silk, is traditionally made by weavers from Kanchipuram, an hour’s drive from Chennai. These are woven naturally and distinguished by their wide contrast borders. Temple borders, checks, stripes and floral (buttas) are traditional designs found on a Kanchipuram sarees.
According to Hindu legends in, Kanchi silk weavers are the descendants of Sage Markanda, the master weaver of Gods who is supposed to have woven tissue from lotus fibre. Cotton is considered to be the favourite fabric of Lord Shiva, while silk is preferred by Lord Vishnu.
Even today the people living around Kanchipuram take weaving as their main profession. A single Kanchipuram sari can cost anywhere between ₹2500 (US$40) to ₹100000 (US$1,600) or more depending upon the intricacy of work, colours, pattern, material used like zari, gold thread etc.
Since 2005, Kanchipuram saris are protected by a Geographical Indication label, certifying their origin.
This topic was suggested by Ramana Rajgopaul for the weekly Friday Loose Bloggers Consortium. The bloggers who write regularly on one topic giving their own perspectives are Ashok, gaelikaa, Lin, Maxi, http://rummuser.com/?p=13803, Pravin, Shackman and The Old Fossil. Do drop in on their blogs.