Chennai – It’s fascinating how a rustic thought can instill a sense of tranquility and unfathomable elation. I have often wondered about how my emotions have been woven into my labyrinthine memory of this magical city. What makes this memory of the “Gateway Of South India” eternal? As I sit in thought, my soul wanders in the calm beaches of Chennai-my quintessential retreat. I can feel the rejuvenating smell of the salty waters, the distant cry of the peanut and tea vendors and can feel the ecstasy splash across my heart like the sandy waves against my bare feet. It all comes back to me as a nostalgic accretion penetrating the soul and all its senses and in an instant, the answer lies unclouded in my head in the form of pure euphoria. Chennai is a surprise. It has something to offer for everyone. From being the proud embodiment of an amalgamation of cultures to embracing modern philosophies, freedom of expression is embedded in its roots. Through my journey, I hope to paint a picture recounting my experiences journeying through the city of Madras and share a slice of vivid extravagance.
Mylapore, situated at the heart of the bustling metropolis boasts of an explosion of culture tracing back to the lost golden ages of architectural marvel and sticking to its devotional roots. From this cultural hub rise an array of musical creations, devotional theology and pilgrimages promoting commercial and religious coexistence. As I dive into my memories, I see the unswerving rays of sunlight shine through the narrow streets as the cycle rickshaw driver pedals his way to the temple. My keen eye follows the figures of women engrossed in depicting intricate visual patters adorning the rugged streets. This age old art called Kolam has a festival dedicated to it where multiple contestants express their gargantuan expanse of creativity across flushed streets bearing hundreds of such inventive articulations. The creaky sound of the rusty pedal of the rickshaw leaves me momentarily distracted as my eyes feast on yet another radiant spectacle. On an assemblage of wooden stools wrapped in colorful plastics lie an array of beautiful chrysanthemums, fragrant jasmines and crimson roses arranged skillfully. The air around has a lingering smell of flowers, camphor and oil mingled with the talks of people from various walks of life encapsulating the experience.
Moving forward I come across the jewel of this cultural extravaganza, the Kapaleeshwarar temple. Built in the 7th century CE, millions of devotees flock to this temple to worship Lord Shiva and Karpagambal, the beloved deities residing here. A popular architectural style of the past, the towering Gopuram and the structure of the temple employ Dravidian architecture. Millions of carved figures of celestial beings cast their solemn gaze at the bustling crowd down below, the faded paint resonating the archaic vibration of this temple. Women and children in Pattu (silk) Saris and Paavadais walk into the temple, their lips murmuring silent prayer. The evidence of morning worship is visible in the form of vibhuti (white ash) on the forehead of men cementing their firm faith in the divine. As I walk in, my feet graze against the wet weather beaten granite and the resounding sound of the bell guides me towards the sanctum sanctorum. I offer my prayers and walk out with in mystic repose. Walking out, I am strangely brought back to reality. I make my way into worldly existence as the remote chanting of the “Suprabhatham” keeps me strangely connected to the experience.
When in Chennai, it is impossible to overlook the shopping sector which leads to an intriguing journey of exploration. With the commercialization of online shopping and the comfort of air conditioned venues, the satisfying experience of shopping has since faded. However, the definition of shopper’s paradise appears in the form of Thyagaraya Nagar. From air conditioned venues with skilled salesmen luring customers in to purchase expensive clothes and designer jewelry to humble goli soda street vendors saving customers from the scorching heat, the bazaar registers in the mind as a chaotic yet satisfying memory. Ranganathan Street holds a reputation for housing goods at incredibly affordable prices and posing a challenge for this reward with the presence of the highest crowd density. Pushing through my reminiscences, I observe customers indulge in appetizing slices of raw mango sprinkled with chili powder and salt as they as they examine their purchase. Artificial jewelry displayed on the crowded street rival those of the shimmering jewelry stores towering above them with hundreds bustling towards both. After a rewarding experience, I head to Murugan Idli Kadai to feast upon some authentic South Indian cuisine. Watching the waiters swiftly place the steaming idlis accompanied with delectable Sambhar and Chutney on the plantain leaves and pour filter coffee into plastic cups is a gratifying feeling in itself. My soul now craves for a period of solitude and conveniently arrives at the decision to head to the beach.
Chennai is home to Marina beach which proudly calls itself the second longest beach in the world. Walking along the periphery of the coastline, I pass various statues of dignitaries and silently appreciate the humble homage. As I move forward, I see the white looming structure of the Ripon Building materialize reverberating the British influence on the city during its presidency days. The salty wind blows across my face sending shivers of anticipation down my spine as I make my way towards the sea. I leave deep footprints in the dark sand recreating this city’s influence on me. The dark night offers a sharp contrast as I see incandescent sparks rupture from a crude contraption burning corn. The laughter of happy children savoring burnt corn, enthusiastic couples shooting colorful balloons with pellet guns, the clanking of the vessel as vendors roast peanuts, old ladies gossiping while devouring chili bhajjis all enveloped by the resounding cry of the vast sea pushes my soul to magnificent heights. As the waves of the sea splash across my feet, I can see the distant moonlight fade into the fringe of the coastline. My day is brought to a solitary closure with an energized spirit to tackle the next.
Music and dance descend upon this city in the form of the Margazhi season during the month of December. This cultural spell splashes the city with exotic forms ranging across the art spectrum. While clinging to the past, this experimental season provides a rhythm to the present by keeping the crowd actively engrossed in age old forms of music and dance. I owe my inclination towards traditional art forms to this effervescent festival.From engaging Bharathanatyam and Mohiniattam performances to melodic Carnatic music showcasing, this festival creates a platform for the established artists to make a spectacular comeback and new artists, a diverse crowd to promote their style. With old artists spicing up their act with creative ensembles, people of all ages are drawn towards this celebration of the arts. Chennai is also home to musical maestros such as IIaiyaraaja and A.R Rahman showering us with constant quality content.As the old embraces the new, the “Kollywood” film industry with its highly exploratory theme is reaching new heights catering to the creative expectations of many. Known to be one of the industries with the most diligent fanbase, the movies work towards achieving perfection while pleasing the crowds. From passionate support to “Thalaivar” Rajnikanth to earnest devotion towards “Thala” Ajith Kumar and “Thalapathy” Vijay, Chennai hosts a zealous crowd of film enthusiasts. My mind wanders to the scenes of people worshiping high profile actors prior to the cinema premiere. Reading the massive posters outside Sathyam Cinemas while eagerly waiting for a much awaited release tingles nostalgic anticipation. While there are countless memories that define my love for the city, I can never truly put into words the complex and unravelling experience of living in Chennai. It is an experience everyone deserves.
As I traverse down the memory lane, I arrive at Central Station. I walk in to be invited by the deafening sound of a familiar voice announcing my train’s departure. I chuckle to myself as the porters wearing uniforms of red and khaki swarm around me as they name ridiculously high prices. A man holding a steel can walks towards me offering tea. I am rudely brought to my senses as I sip on to my piping hot tea and crave for more of this city as I prepare to leave . I gaze at men sticking the list with the name of the passengers on the trains as I am reminded of my eventual journey away from home. As I walk past rattling trolleys, my mind is distracted as I assimilate the distant chatter of people in Tamil and try to gather my loving memories of the place. I board the train with a mingled feeling of gratification and longing. As I feel the progressive clanking of the train, I hear the sounds of Chennai engage my mind. My thoughts leave Chennai Central as I transcend into reality. Some things never leave us and I wouldn’t have it any other way.