Charming Chennai

Madhukar SJB Rana


The British East India Company founded Madras in 1638, when they established a fort for trading purposes. Actually, the Portugese, who were followed by Arabs and French as settlers, first settled in a suburb of Madras, called Santhome, in 1525.

However, for all the migration that took place, Chennai is not a cosmopolitan city. It is quintessentially a Hindu metropolis seeped in the best traditions of the Dravidian Indian civilisation — tolerant, civil, open-minded and secular in spirit and politics. It is a highly cultured city of 5 million inhabitants with grand achievements in art, architecture, dance, music, drama , festivals and folklore. People here are gentle and friendly.

Chennai has the world’s second largest beach that stretches for 13 km. Yet what is conspicuous is that beach resorts have not sprung up here. They have in and around the pre-historic city of Mahaballipuram developed by the Pallava and Vijayawada dynasties over a period of 2500 -1500 BC some fifty km away. It is a world heritage site of great distinction, replete with amusement parks and other forms of recreation for the entire family.

Nepalis are aplenty in Chennai. They seem to find jobs on demand, as it were, within days of landing as security guards in private sector hotels, guest houses, lodges, shopping centres and restaurants. Private residences too employ them as night watchmen. Most seem to hail from the Far West and West of Nepal belonging to the Brahmin and Chettri castes. For landlocked Nepalis, on a first-ever visit, the sight and sounds of the Bay of Bengal is a veritable delight that lasts a lifetime for the sheer novelty of the experience. The sea has a magnetic influence that unconsciously broadens the Nepali mental and psychological horizon to want to reach out to

the rest of the world beyond the subcontinent.

The city’s architectural delights are invariably the British legacy in such forms as the St. George Fort, Madras University, Madras Medical College, Central and Eggmore Railway Stations, the High Court and not least the Lord Rippon built Mayoral Office of the Chennai Municipality. The Government Museum, also a legatee from the British Raj, has impressive pre-historic, medieval and modern artefacts ranging from anthropological, zoological, botanical, geological, as well as stonework, bronze work and woodwork collections that are the largest in India. It also houses the National Library and a National Art Gallery comprising Deccan, Mughal and modern paintings.

What immediately strikes outsiders is the Tamil people’s love of memorials and statutes. Thus, unlike other cities that sough to rid the memory of colonialism, here British statues of King Geroge V, King Edward VIII, Queen Victoria, Viceroy Lord Rippon, Irishwoman Annie Besant (Chairperson, Indian National Congress), and George Frederic Samuel are displayed at prominent locations.

In addition to excellence in the health field, the other areas of economic strength are education, information technology and telecommunications, bio-technology, leather and leather products, garments, automotive assembly, maintenance engineering, pharmaceuticals and marine technology.

Another unique feature of Chennai is the Guindy National Park. Chennai, along with Nairobi, are two unique cities so provided for. The park is huge endowed with 100s of acres of greenery to comprise Chennai’s lungs, so to speak; and habited by white bucks, civet it cats, monkeys, deer and many species of birds.

For those hailing from the Himalayan region, however, springtime in Chennai is notably conspicuous by the lack of flowers and gardens. Perhaps, the recurrent three year absence of monsoons and the critical shortage of water have contributed to this.

Perhaps no city in India is more pollution free than Chennai. The air is clean and constantly flushed by the continuous breeze that redeems the metropolis in the early mornings, later afternoons and evenings. The sea breeze is a veritable saviour from the scorching heat. The only pollution is the noise from traffic on main roads. It is a safe city, especially for women.

Nepal is well known to the Tamil people with many wishing to visit Pashupatinath and Manosarvar as life time experiences. I recall my first day meeting a couple on the street who when asked to help with giving directions has asked, “What is your native land?” When I mentioned Nepal he said, “ You know something? We befriended the British with trade and they colonised us. You fought them and they became allies of your country and left you as the only independent Hindu kingdom, which we are very proud of.”

With this kind of sentiment for Nepal and the Nepalis, it is no wonder that a sojourn in Tamilnadu is an experience to relish culturally, spiritually and aesthetically.

It has been a voyage of self-discovery as much as discovering the Dravidian civilisation. I am happy I came here. I feel spiritually, religiously and intellectually enriched and, not least, have

regained my lost health.

The author is a senior economic advisor at the Ministry of Finance HMG