Chennai: Where life is enshrined

We enjoy godly blessings, easy religiosity and heavenly retail therapy in Madras.

By Liz Gill, September 1, 2011
Mahabalipuram Shore temple built by Narasimha Varman II

Mahabalipuram Shore temple built by Narasimha Varman II

There can't be many places where you can be blessed by an elephant and buy a beautiful new handbag in the same afternoon. But this is Chennai in India, land of extraordinary contrasts, ancient and modern. So there are bullock carts alongside BMWs, girls wearing jasmine garlands and baseball caps, glass-fronted gyms with runners pounding the treadmills right next to roadside shrines.

My close encounter with the giant beast took place outside a temple dedicated to Ganesh, the popular Hindu god of wisdom and success who has the body of a boy and the head of an elephant. Guided by a friendly passer-by, I nervously placed a coin in its trunk which then deposited the offering before swinging back and touching me gently on the top of my head. What could have been a killer blow was more like a caress.

Families followed, laughingly holding up their children and babies, making my fears seem foolish. Then I remembered our guide Akila from the tour group Storytrails, saying at another temple that these were not just places for solemn worship but for socialising, gossiping, eating and drinking and showing off new clothes.

The Ganesh temple was in Pondicherry, about 100 miles down the coast from our main base in Chennai, and itself something of a curiosity, having once been a corner of France in the mighty empire of the British Raj.

The French ruled here for 300 years, leaving in 1954 and there are still wide boulevards, French street names and a lycee high school. The town's other claim to fame is the renown Sri Aurobindo Ashram whose combination of yoga and science draws devotees from around the world.

On our way there we visited its spin-off Auroville, an international community about five miles outside Pondicherry where men and women strive to live in peace, creativity and spiritual harmony. Any notion that this is the last bastion of hippy tie-dye though is dispelled by the visitor centre's shop where among hundreds of lovely things I bought my vermilion silk hand-sewn bag for an absurd rupee equivalent of about £15.

On our way back we stopped off at the seaport city of Mahabalipuram with its open-air sculpture galleries made out of rocks. We visited the Shore Temple, to see its marvellous 7th century carvings on the outside and to hundreds of bats on the inside, and Dakshinachitra, the interactive museum of South Indian life. Here visitors can have a go at basket weaving, leaf painting, pottery and making a kolam - the pattern drawn daily in rice flour outside a home to welcome guests and attract prosperity.

Getting there

Flights: Emirates have flights from London via Dubai. Prices from around £525 return.
Where to stay: Rooms at the Hilton Chennai start from £123 per night plus tax.
More info:

On another day in Chennai itself we were invited into a real house as part of our Storytrails tour. We carefully stepped in right foot first - the left is considered unlucky - and removed our shoes. As Akila explained, furniture is a relatively new concept: previously most things were done on the floor so it was vital to keep it clean. There were examples of tradition and modernity: the big tv screen is companion to the household altar.

The house was just round the corner from the Kapaleeshwarar Temple with its extravagant 120ft tower where we learned something of the complexity of Hinduism with its thousands of gods and goddesses.

There was once a substantial Jewish presence in the city linked to the export of the diamonds of Golconda to London and the import of gold, coral and pearls. The Sephardi community lived in Coral Merchants Street but by the late 18th century the trade was spent and the last Jewish merchant, Moses de Castro, left in 1786. Their synagogue is long gone and all that remains today is a small Jewish cemetery with a few stones in a corner of the larger Lloyds Road cemetery, but the whole place is neglected and overgrown.

The city is also significant for Christians. "Doubting" Thomas brought the faith here in AD 52 and his Basilica is built over his relics.

The city formerly known as Madras - it changed its name back to its old pre-colonial one in 1996 - has become a powerhouse of innovation, industrial expansion and economic growth. The fourth biggest city in India, it produces cars, computers, chemicals, software and pharmaceuticals. Yet it retains its historic and cultural heart. You can be pampered with ayurvedic massage, have your hands painted with intricate henna patterns, bargain at a bazaar, catch a cricket match, a colourful dancing display and a "marsala movie" (so-called because, like the spice mix, they have a bit of everything) at one of the countless cinemas.

You can wander past wonderful old colonial buildings like the High Court and the railway station and do some serious shopping for exquisite silks and carpets.

A visit to the eight-mile Marina Beach, the second longest in the world, is a must. But the waters of the Bay of Bengal here are too treacherous for bathing. You have to go further down the coast for that, but you can enjoy seaside activities such as pony-riding, palmistry, pet monkeys, children's ferris wheels and roundabouts (operated by manpower), rifle ranges, souvenir sellers and snack bars.

Food in Chennai is good and heavenly for vegetarians. You can eat well for a fiver at vegetarian restaurants or pay only a little more at middle-of -the-road meat and fish ones. But even at Vascos in the Hilton, where we stayed, you'll only pay around £17 for a buffet of dozens of different choices. For breakfast, you can have a fry-up or a curry. Alcohol is trickier. The city took a stern stance a few years ago and now the only decent bars are inside hotels.

A ride on a rickshaw, the cheapest and most authentic mode of transport is not for the faint-hearted but a great way to be dazzled by the sights and sounds.

Last updated: 10:43am, September 1 2011