Chennai – First Impressions of India

On the morning of February 28, I was tired from a long overnight layover in a deserted airport followed by a crowded morning flight where I had gotten very little sleep. The couple in line in front of me had been sent away to figure out an issue with their documents. So, when I stepped up to the customs officer, I was a little concerned. He took my passport and visa and proceeded to interrogate me for several minutes, which only made me worry even more that something was wrong. Suddenly, though, his demeanor changed completely and he simply said “So you’re exploring India by yourself for six weeks – wonderful, welcome!” as his head bobbled and he excitedly pounded his stamp on every document in sight, including his newspaper. I was finally in India!

Flying in to Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
The Coromandel Coast emerging from the haze.

More specifically, I had arrived in Chennai, the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. With a metropolitan population of nearly 9 million (or 90 lakh, if you prefer the Indian numbering system), Chennai is the fourth largest city in the country. Until recently, the city was known as Madras, and was an important trading port in the British Empire. Now, though it is still a port city, Chennai is an important center for IT and car-manufacturing companies in India. To the east, Chennai is lined by Marina Beach, claimed to be the longest urban beach in the world and an incredibly wide stretch of sand. Since it is over a quarter-mile wide in parts, walking down to the water is a nice way to escape the noise of the traffic (though not the crowds of people!).

Marina Beach in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Looking out across Marina Beach from the road, the sea is barely a sliver on the horizon.

Speaking of the traffic, this was the most immediate “culture shock” I experienced as I made my way into the city from the airport. I always knew that traffic in India was…special, but it’s hard to appreciate until you find yourself weaving through the morning rush hour in a city like Chennai! The roadway is packed with cars, three-wheeled tuk-tuks, motorbikes and pedestrians boldly cutting each other off and blasting their horns at anyone who happens to be in sight (and there is always someone in sight, so the horns are practically continuous). There are no stop signs, and most intersections have no signals; at such an intersection, my instinct would be to stop and look both ways, but the Indian approach seems to be to hold down on the horn and hope everyone gets out of your way. Furthermore, though India officially drives on the left-hand side of the road, in practice driving is more of a free-for-all; the advice to pedestrians to ”look both ways” doesn’t cut it – you have to look all ways. As for driving, I’m content to just observe – no amount of rupees could get me behind the wheel here!

Street in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
A bustling street in Chennai – it gets a lot more chaotic than this, but at those times I prefer to focus on not getting run over rather than on taking photos!
Motorbike Riders in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Perhaps just as impressive as the ability of the drivers not to crash is the bravery of the women who sit side-saddle on the back of a motorbike while wearing a sari!

After successfully arriving at my hostel in central Chennai, my next adventure was to obtain an Indian SIM card for my phone. After hearing horror stories of the complicated application process and the long activation times for SIM cards in India, I was fortunate enough to meet some travelers at the hostel who had already spent two unsuccessful days figuring the process out. Well, the third try is the luckiest, and I piggy-backed on their luck and got a great data plan for my phone with very little hassle, and only about an hour at the Vodafone store. It was still more complicated than in Thailand or Malaysia, but then again, I didn’t expect anything less from India.

Everywhere in Chennai, the predominant Hindu religion is prominently on display, from large temple compounds to small roadside shrines to the many people wearing tilaka, a marking of colored ash, on their foreheads as a sign of their devotion. Two of the large temples that I visited are the Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple, dedicated to the god Shiva, and the Sri Parthasarathy Temple, dedicated to Krishna. These temples are in the traditional south Indian style that I first saw in Singapore (most Indians in Singapore originated from Tamil Nadu), which is characterized by the elaborate tower called a gopuram at the entrance to the temple compound. The gopuram is decorated with colorfully-painted statues depicting various stories related to the god worshipped at that temple. These two temples also have their own ponds, which were traditionally used for bathing before worship though now appear to be out of service. At all of the temples and shrines there are offerings to the gods and the air is filled with the smell of incense. Some of the temples also have temple cows roaming around the nearby streets. Another common sight is women sitting at stalls stringing together garlands of flowers which are used as offerings and draped around the deities. These garlands are also used for many other purposes, such as to adorn public statues of important people or to decorate the fronts of cars; smaller garlands are used to decorate women’s hair, rear-view mirrors, and people’s homes.

Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
The main gopuram of the Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple, brightly lit at night.
Sri Parthasarathy Temple in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
The main gopuram of the Sri Parthasarathy Temple.
Parthasarathy Temple Tank in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
The Parthasarathy Temple Tank, a pond with concentric steps leading down to it to allow easy access to the devotees before they enter the temple.
Sri Ramakrishna Math Ashram in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
The Universal Temple at the Sri Ramakrishna Math ashram in Chennai. Based on the philosophy of the Hindu saint Ramakrishna, the ashram is a place for education and meditation. The Universal Temple is a meditation hall that is open to and frequented by people of all faiths.

In addition to the many Hindu temples, there are several mosques and Christian churches in Chennai. In fact, though it never gained much popularity compared to Hinduism, Christianity has been in India since the first century AD. After Jesus’s death, the Apostle Thomas traveled as far as India preaching the Gospel until he was martyred near Chennai on what is now called St. Thomas Mount. A shrine built on top of the hill houses relics from all of the Twelve Disciples and is an active worship site. When I visited on a Friday evening during Lent, many people were gathered for the Stations of the Cross ceremony, which processed around the outside of the shrine. Another important church in Chennai is the Santhome Basilica, which contains the tomb of St. Thomas and is one of only three cathedrals in the world built on the tomb of one of the Disciples.

Santhome Basilica in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Santhome Basilica, built on the site of St. Thomas’s tomb.
St. Thomas Mount in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
The shrine on St. Thomas Mount, where the Apostle was martyred in the first century AD.

Near the historic city center, called George Town, lies Fort St. George, a star-shaped fort built by the British East India Company in order to secure their foothold for trade in the region. Although the fort never saw any military action, it served as an important base for the development of the British governing structure in India. Nowadays, the fort houses various government institutions. One of the buildings has been converted into a museum that contains a collection of artifacts from the colonial period, including weapons, uniforms, coins, and life-size portraits of British royalty and the colonial governors. The museum culminates in a room on the top floor dedicated to the development of the modern flag of India. In the center of the room is the first flag to fly over Chennai after India gained its independence in 1947.

First Indian Flag to Fly Over Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
The first flag of India 🇮🇳 to fly over Chennai. Gandhi himself contributed to the design, which symbolizes the Hindu community (saffron stripe) and the Muslim community (green stripe) joined together peacefully by a white stripe; the wheel in the center (called an Ashoka Chakra) is an important symbol in Hinduism, and is also intended to symbolize progress.

Despite my best efforts, I was not able to see everything I wanted to see in Chennai. It is a large city that can take a while to navigate through, and some of the museums I wanted to visit simply had strange and inconvenient opening times. Also, by coincidence, I happened to arrive just in time for the Hindu festival called Holi, the festival of colors during which people throw colored powders on each other in the streets. It is only a major festival in the north of India, however, so for the people of Chennai it is just another workday. I did come across a small celebration, but it had already concluded and there was no more color-throwing going on, though there were plenty of colorful people, dogs, and cows walking around on colorful streets.

Aftermath of a Holi Celebration in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Holi is not a very big festival in the south of India, but a small celebration must have taken place in this neighborhood.

Despite all of the interesting things I saw in Chennai, there is no doubt that India is still a developing country where things such as pollution and infrastructure maintenance are serious issues. Walking across the Napier Bridge, the smell from the Cooum River made me want to walk a little faster. In places where sidewalks exist in Chennai, they are often either crumbling or obstructed by trash, debris, vehicles, or vendors. Elsewhere, there is no sidewalk at all and pedestrians must share the same roadway as every other vehicle – it seems dangerous, but so far I haven’t seen any accidents. 🤞 Furthermore, many buildings do not have air conditioning either due to financial considerations or inadequate power supply. To combat the tropical heat, they often use an array of fans which, though they do help with the temperature, also kick up a lot of dust and dirt. This, combined with the generally low air quality, seems to be giving me some sort of cold or allergic reaction. I’m hoping that I acclimate to this before I reach Delhi, the most polluted city in the world. 😷

Cooum River in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Looking north across the Cooum River near the Napier Bridge in central Chennai.

Overall, I found Chennai to be very interesting. Though I did not see everything I had hoped to see, the details of daily life in the city are so unlike any other place I have visited that simply walking down the street was enough to make me ready for a break. Also, apart from the pushy tuk-tuk drivers, I received a very warm welcome from nearly every local I met, which helped a great deal in adjusting to the pace of Indian life. From Chennai, I will head south along the Bay of Bengal coastline before heading inland through the heart of Tamil Nadu. India is a very large and diverse country, and this is only the beginning of my stay here, so I am sure that I will experience many more fascinating things and my impressions may change as I travel further. I’ll keep you updated on how it goes!

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