Ancient Indian City Buzzes with New Life
September 1, 2014
The Mylapore neighbourhood in the South Indian city of Chennai dates back to the 7th century. Explore its streets that today combine the best of the classic and the contemporary. BY CHARUKESI RAMADURAI
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, are busy decorating their courtyards with intricate kolam (auspicious floor patterns) created with 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.
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.
Glitter and glamour
However, ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that Chennai’s real twin deities are silk and gold. And these are worshipped just around the corner, the first at Radha Silk Emporium. At this century-old shop, which locals know as Rasi, ignore the modern collections and stick to the heavy, traditional silk saris.
Pair your silks with dazzling gold and diamond baubles from NAC Jewellers, just a few minutes’ walk away. If you are on a tighter budget, then head to Sukra Jewellery down the road for its temple jewellery collection, typically worn by classical dancers. With a base of silver, coated with gold and studded with precious or semi-precious stones, the jewellery here comes with a classy antique finish.
About kaapi and coffee
In the heart of Mylapore, your best eating options are Saravanaa Bhavan (70 North Mada Street, Tel: 91 44 2461 1177) or The Grand Sweets and Snacks restaurant, both Chennai legends in their own way. Drop in for South Indian snack favourites (known as tiffin) such as masala dosa (crepe made with fermented rice batter) and vada (savoury fritter-type snack), rounded off with a cup of strong coffee.
Just around this little nucleus of history and tradition is also a world that has comfortably marched ahead with the times. As you move away from the four streets that form an almost perfect square around this ancient temple, hole-in-the-wall dosa joints give way to trendy global fusion cuisine cafes and there are as many mini skirts to be seen as silk saris. And the average Chennaite comfortably straddles these two avatars.
Take the Brew Room (above) at Savera Hotel, on Radhakrishnan Road, known locally as RK Salai (Salai means road in Tamil). While homegrown filter coffee (or kaapi) is still available here, this new kid on the block offers coffees from around the world, from Ethiopian to Thai blends.
For brews of a different kind, Chennaites love Dublin at the Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers. At this pub and discotheque, which stays packed even on weeknights, sip on a Guinness beer or Bushmills Irish Whiskey, in a nod to its name.
L’amandier Bistro (57, 2nd Main Road, RA Puram, Tel: 91 44 4282 7882; above) has brought fresh and light European cooking to Chennai. You will find the interiors cheerful and inviting, with a clever use of Mediterranean colours. And in a city that has for generations tucked into rice-based idli (savoury steamed cake) and dosa in the mornings, L’amandier dishes out a hearty and popular Continental buffet breakfast, starting from 7.30 am.
In this area, Chamiers is your best bet for an afternoon of eating and shopping. A white bungalow set in tree-filled premises, Chamiers is an oasis of calm away from the sweltering Chennai heat. Pick up garments in hand-block prints and earthy tones from Anokhi at ground level, or splurge on some Kama Ayurveda skincare products at the gift shop on the first floor – look out for the quirky illustrations on the staircase as you walk up. After shopping, rest your feet with a tall glass of watermelon juice or a slice of rich chocolate cake at the cafe next to the gift shop.
For modern silhouettes and comfortable work wear in Indo-western styles, make your way to Brass Tacks. Designer Anaka Narayanan uses dying traditional prints such as ajrakh and ikat in modern garments to create interesting style statements.
Along the way, spare a thought for the way modern businesses like spas, salons, and boutiques are housed in stately bungalows of old: perfect metaphors for the way Mylapore has enfolded the emerging into its existing self.
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BEST TIME TO VISIT
Chennai is hot and humid through the year, with temperatures touching 40°C in the summer months between April and July. November to February is the best time to visit, when it is relatively cooler and several cultural events take place around the city.
HOW TO GET THERE
Singapore Airlines flies 7 times a week from Singapore to Chennai. Singapore Airlines’ regional wing SilkAir flies thrice weekly from Singapore to Chennai.