A Week in Chennai/Madras

I am not long back in Phnom Penh from a week zipping about Chennai during the Cambodian Water Festival period – a good time to get away, particularly as the Chennai weather is now about as good as it will get at any time in the year. And it was good: mid to high 20s with overnight temperatures touching lows that had the locals talking about a “cold snap.” Everything is relative, as we know.

Distressingly, it is now forty years since I first went to Chennai when it was still called Madras as it had been under the British for a very long time. Since then the name changes to Bombay, Bangalore, Kolkata and, yes, Chennai all have a provenance in the twin driving forces of post-colonialism and various forms of what might best be described as localised cultural nationalism. My favourite in all this is Kerala, where the capital known to the British as Trivandrum has now become Thiruvananthapuram, and local poster boy politician Shashi Tharoor has some trouble with that in his Twitter posts.

What a week back in Chennai provides more than anything else is a reminder of the great differences that exist in Indian society, even amidst the global scramble of current world powers falling over themselves to accommodate the new one, even if they do not understand it. And the backdrop for all that is the sheer complexity of everything that goes on in places like Chennai.

This is captured for me in my favourite photograph from the trip, taken at the wonderful 8th century Sri Parthasarathy temple, dedicated to Krishna and located in Triplicane, one of the city’s oldest suburbs. The photo displays, along with all the usual symbols, a discreet ad for the electrical shop that provided the lighting – and an ISO 9001:2008 validation. If that does not sum up ancient and modern, then nothing does.

From that Hindu reflection on modernity it is a short mind leap to remember just how multifaith Chennai, and India, is in totality. Not far away from that great temple, and still in Triplicane, stands what is known colloquially as the “Big Mosque” because it can hold about 5,000 devotees. That was built by one of the former Princes of Arcot, and not far away in an impressive complex known as Amir Mahal the present Prince and his retinue still live, supported at least in part by a pension fund that began mid-nineteenth century when the British appropriated the then Prince’s property, notably the Chepauk Palace over on the Marina near the beach and now the subject of a conservation row because it was burned out a few months ago.

Madras/Chennai was always and still is a city with a significant Muslim population, as captured in the work of my great but sadly now late friend, Ken McPherson.  And for the most part, that long Muslim presence has largely been peaceful. One of the other great mosques is at Thousand Lights, up Mount Road now called Anna Salai. Almost the next building past that mosque is one of the most prestigious Catholic girls school, and not too far from that is St George’s Cathedral, the Anglican home since 1816.

Chennai 12 5 037St George’s also links past and the very present. Anyone who has been to India will know the on-going issue about needing to get “permission” to take photos at institutions, no matter how innocuous those institutions might be. I started to photograph the Cathedral and a very nice man arrived up on a motorbike. The gist was I could take the photos, but on the other side of the building, because on the side where I was, over the wall was the American consulate. Just a few days earlier that consulate was attacked by a large crowd of Muslims upset over the latest film said to criticise Islam. Feelings were still high, said the man on the bike, there was a “Muslim problem”, and with my beard I looked like a Muslim! Perhaps I should have been at the meetings in Amir Mahal where the Prince of Arcot met the American Ambassador to India to discuss the origins of the problem and some possible solutions. Meanwhile, a few suburbs away back in the old town in areas like Periamet and Vepery, Muslim leather traders still turn out their excellent products that are sent all over the world.

Chennai 12 5 020Those small shops and factories contrast mightily with the shopping malls now springing up, particularly Express Mall that stands on the site of the old Indian Express building and also, coincidentally, engulfed the old Madras Club that was at the heart of social life for Madras Europeans (at least, the “respectable” male ones) from 1832-1947. It is now home to brands like Lacoste, Omega and all the others that are part of the global consumer market. In here, too, though, the twists of the new India appear. Canali, the Italian fashion brand, now has outlets in India, featuring the Nawab brand of Indian waistcoats, the sleeveless and buttoned to the neck versions. Made in wool (almost certainly Australian merino) with a linen mix, the price was $US 3,000. Outside that building there are the inevitable beggars, along with a million autorickshaw drivers pressing you for business. The contrasts could scarcely be greater.

India has always been like this, but arguably the rise of the “new” India has created even greater differences of social level, and definitely in the quality of life. As with any Indian city now, the traffic is almost impossible. It is only about seventeen kilometres or so from the centre of Madras to the airport, but the ride will take a minimum of thirty minutes and more likely closer to an hour. That is the result of the sheer amount of traffic on the road, even at two am. Through a week day, a trip to an area like Adyar will take a good hour. It is also the result of civic change – the Madras Metro system seems to have building sites all over the city, many of them having been there now for some years. And even by Indian standards, Chennai is getting to be a hard place to walk, there is little provision for the pedestrian amidst the one way systems and flyovers.

Chennai 1 2012 050Despite that, Chennai somehow still retains something of its country village nature that many writers commented about well into the twentieth century. In older areas like Mylapore many of the trees remain to provide canopies over the streets. The Luz Church, established in 1516, still has a sleepy and detached air even if it is just off a busy road. At the start of the Carnatic music “season” that takes up all of December, the concert halls and small rooms alike host the sort of singers and instrumentalists who have been plying their skills for hundreds of years. And away over towards Adyar there is a rare book  seller whose holdings are a reminder of the old Moore Market days, when T.N. Jayavelu and his pals became the mysterious conduits for items that began life in the Tamil Nadu Archives but somehow ended up in Australian and other libraries.

That heritage dimension of Madras still exists in buildings like the extraordinary Connemara Public Library in the Museum grounds at Egmore, just along from the equally impressive and ornate Victorian railway station. These and all the other surviving Indo-Saracenic buildings give Chennai an atmosphere that still survives among the increasing congestion, petrol fumes and hi-tech suburbs mushrooming along the coast to the south. It is in the High Court, University of Madras and a host of suburban police station buildings that Madras still exists, within Chennai.


8 Responses to “A Week in Chennai/Madras”
  1. Max Walsh says:

    Marvellous blog Brian.
    You have clearly enunciated the clashes between old & new in such extraordinarily diverse cultures such as India, and Chennai in particular.
    I would have liked to see the photo taken at the Sri Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane. Share it with me some time, one day.

  2. Geraldine Doogue says:

    Brian, this is a wonderful post: I could feel and smell the place from your descriptions, written out of much love it seemed to me. You really should offer this to Rob Bolton at the AFR I think: excellent piece. Geraldine

    Date: Mon, 10 Dec 2012 05:27:42 +0000 To: geraldine.doogue@hotmail.com

    • Hi Geraldine, thank you very much, too kind. And yes, it is one of my favourite places, along with a few other Indian cities like Hyderabad. I shall take the tip. Hope to catch up soon. Best wishes.


  3. David Crawford says:

    Hi Brian,

    Many thanks for that interesting reflection on life in Chennai and how it has changed over the years. It takes the eye of an informed and observant foreigner to see these things which a local would hardly notice. I saw a piece on the bus lane system which they have endeavoured to install and all the extra congestion that has generated. I should have paid a swift visit to Chennai before going to Edinburgh and then I would have complained less about the tramway system they are still labouring away at and were when I first took JJ there in August 2009….. And Scottish engineers have, or should I say had, a very good reputation. Pace Thomas Telford.

    I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to take Laura out to lunch on Saturday. She appears to have had a great time in Lyon and her accent is superb. Also she chose an excellent French restaurant where we ate very well indeed.

    That morning JJ and I finally got around to visiting the palace of Holyrood which we had promised ourselves, but never realised. I can heartily recommend it. I recently read Lady Antonia Fraser’s “Mary Queen of Scots” and in the end could hardly bear to put the book down. That part of UK history is so fascinating combined with the break from Rome. The attempts to unite, or should that be reuinte, England and Scotland were certainly long drawn out. And in the end Elizabeth gave her crown to James VI/I, well bequeathed anyway, which is all Mary wanted. According to Lady Antonia Mary was far too clever for Elizabeth and paid for it with her head. And now the Scots want independence again! The one good thing which would come out of that is that Westminster would have so few socialist MP’s they would never again be able to form a government and maybe the loss of Scotland would be a price worth paying?

    Sorry to see the end of the AB’s record, but all good things must come to an end I guess. The Welsh squad is falling apart with all our best players leaving for France and then not always getting the match practice they need to stay on top of their game. Never mind, it’s good to see the top teams changing around a bit. I’m still rather off RU and preferring RL. Watched the sevens last week-end i e 9 days ago. They were great fun.

    Looking forward to meeting you in July at the celebrations.



    • Hi David

      As ever, many thanks for the kind words and I like the Edinburgh analogy – like you, the tram saga seems surreal to me, so much input for so little output as it would now be described. And Edinburgh is among my favourite cities – went there first in 1978 en route to Dollar to interview Douglas Jardine’s daughter, and have been going back to the place ever since.

      The ABs I think needed a loss at this point: Cruden will probably be the key standoff by 2015, Liam Messam will be at 6 with Richie maybe coming off the bench, Nonu will be gone and the ABs will have rebuilt, given the depth in NZ rugby.

      July not that far away!



  4. David Crawford says:

    Hi Brian, Happy New Year to you and to all your family. I hope all proceeds smoothly to Laura’s and JJ’s graduation in July. France is not in a good state and you did well to stay out of their property market. Lots are leaving including the French, well those who can afford to are at least.



  5. v.vijaysree says:

    Reminds me to take more joy in my visits to madras, my hometown. Thanks. 🙂

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