5 things you must do in Chennai, India

Capital of Tamil Nadu, and keeper of the south’s artistic, religious and culinary traditions, Chennai is one of India's cultural gems. Author Martin J. Worthy reveals how to experience its authentic soul

3 mins

1: Shop 'til you drop

Women selling flowers in an Indian market  (Dreamstime)

Women selling flowers in an Indian market (Dreamstime)

A trading post since the days of the East India Company, Chennai is a shopper’s delight. Take Parry’s Corner, for example. It is the starting point of exploring Georgetown, or Old Madras, and is now synonymous with the wholesale market, where each product type keeps its own concentration of streets. Take a little local advice and make a plan as, although most streets connect up to Netaji Subash Chandra Bose Road, browsing the markets which range over more than a square kilometre can be challenging.

For homeopathic remedies – all potencies, made while you wait – or Ayurvedic, Bach remedies and many proprietary brands, you need Stringer Street. For more regular allopathic medicines, imported products and ancient utensils on the other hand, you need Nainiappan Street. And for spectacle frames of all shapes and sizes it is Prakasam Salai (though everyone knows it as Broadway). If you have a day or two, you can have the most complex prescriptions made up, tested and trialled.

The cloth market, saris and ready-mades too, are very central in Godown Street, but this is not a high street scenario here. Cut into a gulley, or up a winding staircase, to specialist wholesalers. There are always ‘agents’ walking about, offering their local knowledge – but don’t worry, the wholesalers look after their tips; all you will need to pay is whatever is agreed with the dealer. Remember, almost everything you can see in the shopping malls or high street stores has passed through this little street.

2: Seek out classical culture

Bharathanatyam performed at Chennai dance festival (Dreamstime)

Bharathanatyam performed at Chennai dance festival (Dreamstime)

Tamil Nadu is on the Coramandal coast and is the home to Carnatic music and dance. This is a classical tradition, furthered by the Kalakshetra Foundation’s in South Chennai. Set up by Rukhmini Devi just eighty years ago, this is an academy of excellence in Carnatic culture that seldom is heard or seen in the West. They have monthly programmes and special seasonal performances of quite incredible dexterity and finesse. 

The dance form of Bharatyanatram was forefront in the establishment of the centre, but as Carnatic music is an integral aspect both can be studied here. Performances are always advertised in the local papers, and whether here or at the Music Academy, they offer an evening of expertise and style. 

3: Soak up the street life

Woman combing her hair on the streets of Chennai (Dreamstime)

Woman combing her hair on the streets of Chennai (Dreamstime)

No visit to Chennai is complete without a visit to Thyagaraya Nagar (always shortened to T. Nagar) – the shopping heart of Chennai. OK, there are shopping malls a plenty, just like in any city, but in T.Nagar this is where the Chennaites come to shop. In Ranganathan Street it is everyday clothing, household items etc, but a short walk down South Usman Road brings you to some of the biggest jewellery dealerships and silk stores. 

Here, around Panagal Park, it is hard to describe these five-storey sari emporiums – they have to be seen to be believed. The variety! For gold and silver jewellery it is hard to find anything better, and often sold by weight without making charges. Up the road on Pondy Bazaar, it is the street traders that take the fore. Part of the fun of shopping in India is knowing when to haggle and when not, so go it and engage! 

4: Discover Kollywood

Memorial of Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran, a popular Kollywood producer, actor and politican (Dreamstime)

Memorial of Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran, a popular Kollywood producer, actor and politican (Dreamstime)

Tamil Nadu has an impressive movie industry, colloquially called Kollywood (a mix of Kodambakkam and Hollywood) and is a major producer of films and TV productions in a number of languages. Visit one of the 1,500 movie halls and have a truly local experience. Indian audiences get involved in their movies; they engage with the characters and ‘live’ them to an extent which often shocks visitors.

If that is too daunting, why not try the art scene? India has lost its blinkered view of two-dimensional art. Abstract art has taken off and Colleges like the Lalit Kala Academy on Greams Road have three or four inhouse exhibition halls, where their artists exhibit and, occasionally, their work can be snapped up for a ‘song’.

5: Tantalise your tastebuds

Idiyappam with egg curry (Dreamstime)

Idiyappam with egg curry (Dreamstime)

Chennai is the true home of the famous masala dosa and is the most distinct of its culinary repertoire. Whether you mix it with the locals in Saravana Bhavan (a franchise with many outlets) or you seek out a traditional, quality restaurant like the one in the New Woodlands Hotel on R.K. Radhakrishnan Salai, it is a must. 

Authentic fare is one of the treats of any journey, so take it further and try an idiyappam (sometimes known as string hoppers in English), an onion rava dosa (a thin and crispy flat bread), or the equivalent of the northern thali, often simply called ‘meals’. Finish it off with a typical South Indian coffee (do not mind the milk and sugar – it is all part of the experience!) or some fresh fruit. We are in the tropics, and fruit of all shapes and sizes are available, or have them juiced to savour their freshness.

Martin J. Worthy lived in Chennai for twenty years. His latest book, Finding What Was Never Lost, And Then Just Giving It Away, is out now. For more details visit his website.

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