Chennai is South India’s commercial and cultural capital, and the fourth largest metropolis in India.
Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is the state capital of Tamil Nadu and the gateway to the rich and varied culture of the South Indian peninsula. Originally a cluster of fishing hamlets along the Coromandel Coast, the city developed its cohesive shape under the British.
Extending across 172 sq km (66 sq miles), Chennai today is a dynamic mix of the old and the new, its stately colonial structures juxtaposed with modern high-rises. Its rich cultural heritage of Tamil literature, music and dance is perpetuated in universities and performing arts centres. It is also a highly political city, as can be seen from the many grandiose memorials to politicians that line Marina Beach.
Chennai 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.
Chennai can be a hard city to love. The streets are clogged with traffic, the weather is oppressively hot, the air is heavy with smog and sights of any great interest are thin on the ground. 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. The city’s charm lies in its inhabitants; the enthusiasm of Chennaites for their hometown starts to infect you after a while, and they’re friendlier and more down to earth than most big-city dwellers. Chennai is so chilled out you wouldn’t even know it’s an economic powerhouse, much less a queen of showbiz.
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