Seven Secrets of Chennai: More than South India's cultural capital

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Ever heard of hanging gardens of hot Chennai? Neither had I, despite living most of my life in the south Indian metropolis. But all that was to change when Meri again stepped into the city this winter.

She comes every December unfailingly for the last ten years to escape the brutal blizzards of frozen Finland to enjoy the mild mist and soothing breeze this scorched city magically offers in winter. She loves the nickname I gave her -- Siberian Crane. At the airport, I listened with wonder at her describing the historic six kilometer colonial wall built around the city now draped with hanging flower gardens planted by the Archeological Society of India to conserve the monument.

She had visited and re-visited all the tourist attractions Chennai had to offer -- long beach, temples, art villages and museums, and crowded shopping centers -- and now, wanted to explore the hidden gems of the city. It was a pleasant surprise to me as I had associated conservative Chennai to a crucible for culture and traditions more than a place evolved through the unseen attractions of colonial history, contemporary culture and fun traditional activities. As soon as we reached Meri's hotel, we drew out a plan to unearth and explore these lesser known wonders.

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Freemasons' Hall

Amidst a 250-year old connection with Chennai through welfare funds, schools, hospitals, and charities, Freemasonry grew with the erstwhile Madras (now Chennai) and built a double storey mansion in 1923, the Freemasons' Hall.

Standing tall, the hall serves as the headquarters of the southern region of Freemasons India. It is double storied and can accommodate 200 people. Its giant pillars reflect Greek architecture with Italian marbles and tiles for interiors. A spacious dining hall on its first floor held on a winding staircase made of wrought iron and grill accommodates 150 people. The walls are adorned with Masonic emblems. Initially serving as a lodge to aid military troops, the hall now holds regular Masonic meetings and lodges the 'secretive' Masons.

Hanging Gardens

Stunned at the flowering trees in North Chennai, we rolled the windows of our taxi to take a closer look at the terrace garden beside the historic wall. This seemed clearly renovated after years of neglect.

Local enquiries revealed that the Archaeology Survey of India paved the footpaths with designer tiles, rolled out grass on the grounds and gave fresh coats of paint to the park surrounding the garden. Not only did the remnants of the six kilometer wall built to protect Madras bloom with colorful flowers but also the big grill gate protecting the park made us feel respectful towards it. Who would have found a garden in the blazing and scorching (nine months in a year) part of Chennai? The afternoon mist began thinning and the greenery glowed with pleasant sunshine.

Koothu-p-patrai: Tamil parallel theatre

From Meri's hotel, it was a short taxi ride to Alliance Francaise, an association that hosts and supports experimental Tamil theatre plays apart from other cultural activities. Koothu-p-patrai, a Tamil theatre group combines traditional folk art and eclectic modern influences.

The local newspaper highlighting the event did not lie: the play, an adaptation of Macbeth fused with powerful Tamil lyricism projected an intense physicality of springing movements of folk theatre. Though Meri did not understand Tamil, she was enraptured for all of the two hours. During the break, we went backstage to congratulate the artists and met the beaming mustachioed and military looking director.

Actors wore hand-made masks based on the characters. Some of them colored their faces as in folk theatres. Many actors had even got lucrative chances to act in Tamil movies, got popular and now, have huge fan following. All through the year, such organizations conduct many creative and modern art events.

Pulicat Lake

After a sixty kilometer ride from Chennai, we set foot on an erstwhile Dutch trading post (established in 1502), the Pulicat town. The town separates the Pulicat lake from the Bay of Bengal. To our delight, we watched flamingoes fly across the lake creating beautiful sheets of pink. Finding the Dutch fort in ruins, we walked further ahead to check out the lighthouse built in 1622. It is still standing and standing tall. To add to the awe, another visitor directed us to a mysterious Dutch cemetery. Meri and I held our breaths as we took a quick, scary look at Dutch inscribed graves and tombs carved with skeletons. Our self-appointed guide said the existence of the cemetery is still unknown to many visitors.

Kattupalli Island

I didn't know the Pulicat lagoon had more to offer until I read about an island in the local papers, located in its southern most corner. Getting there wasn't easy as we could not hire taxis or take buses. We had to take a train to Pudunagar, about forty kilometers from Chennai and hop onto private vans. Sleepy hamlets and avian residents greeted us. Shallow shrikes, southern tree pies, golden-backed woodpecker, and even animals like jackals gaze at us only to disappear shyly into thickets. Vast deserted stretches of villages implying exodus of sorts for employment made for long walks on the island. When we left the land for water, the beach arrested our attention with its unspoilt silver sands setting off the blue sparkle of the sea. Pristine sands left me wondering if it was possible to have such a concealed heaven close to a bustling city.
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The Mylapore Fest

After taking in history, awe, mystery and silence, we decided it was time to join fun and activity. The Mylapore Fest hosted many cultural events including Kolam contests, traditional games, exhibitions, and mouth-watering traditional snacks in small kiosks. We watched huge Kolams -- floor patterns drawn with rice flour -- drawn on the Mylapore streets, and to our surprise, we found some foreigners, men and even little kids taking part. Meri motivated the participants while I admired the beautiful and skilled patterns they made. The organizers told me the contest was their flagship event.

In between, we raided the stalls serving rare but traditional snacks made of rice and lentils. Traditional but long forgotten games such as dice, mancala, and so on found many enthusiastic takers in the few school halls near the streets. However, we saw people spilling out of just one hall where a lecture was going on. Unusual, we said and went over to listen. It was an interesting talk on the old world nautch girls -- the Geishas of South India -- the Devadasis. Although they do not exist any longer, the audience was in rapt attention gorging on every word the speaker had to say.

Prison Bazaar

Shopping at the all-too-familiar and chokingly crowded T Nagar bazaar had lost its sheen with Meri. When I said prison bazaar, however, Meri looked horrified. Not to worry, I too was shocked in the beginning. But, the outlet is safely located on the periphery of Chennai's biggest prison, the Puzhal prison. It is the newest thing in the city launched only last year. What's more, the supermarket has everything from trinkets, local sweets to garments and footwear at nominal cost.

Prisoners from nine state prisons make these products, and it now includes even organic vegetables and other products. Handicrafts, paintings and bakery items also fill the shelves. The shop looked quite common but we were not discouraged. Meri picked up an Indian saree and a painting to show off to her friends back home.

If You Go

One of the four Indian metropolises, Chennai is a southern city located on the east coast of Tamilnadu state. While Bangalore is a major Information Technology destination, Chennai is an important city for Information Technology as well as manufacturing and health sectors. Unlike other major Indian cities, Chennai has retained a spaciousness -- sprawling and busy, but conservative. The International airport at Chennai is well connected to major cities in the world, be it London, Frankfurt, Dubai or Singapore.

You can hail autorickshaws to go in and around Chennai. Taxis known as "call taxis" are also available and can be booked at any hotel. Private cabs can be booked through phone. Cheaper alternatives include the Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus services that cover most parts of Chennai.

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Published: July 27th, 2014

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