Why the ancient city of Mylapore in India buzzes with new life

Dec 23, 2016

The Mylapore neighbourhood in the South Indian city of Chennai dates back to the 7th century. Today, its streets combine the best of the classic and the contemporary.

On any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis – unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free – with thick lines of sacred ash smeared on their foreheads, stand in groups of twos and threes, catching up over the news of the day. Women swathed in the traditional nine-yard saris, with strings of fresh jasmine in their hair, decorate their courtyards with intricate kolam (auspicious floor patterns) created with colourful dry rice powder. And then there are the flower sellers and the gypsy bead vendors on the streets.

Some parts of this Chennai suburb indeed seem like they are stuck in a time warp. The feeling is especially intense in the areas surrounding the towering Kapaleeswarar temple and water tank (above), fine examples of 7th century architecture by the Pallava dynasty.

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Legend has it that the village of Mylapore – now one of Chennai’s most vibrant neighbourhoods – predates the city by at least 2,000 years. It has seen the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese and the British come and go. And it finds a mention in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century AD) and Marco Polo (late 13th century AD) who made their way there. City historian and author Pradeep Chakravarthy confirms this and says that there are fragments of inscriptions inside the temple, which indicate that Mylapore was always an important commercial centre.