Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In search of the 'quintessential' Chennai..

“How much Chennai have you seen?”
“Oh, you haven’t been there yet?”
“You should eat from Sarvanna bhavan.”
“And the temples, oh it’s a pity if you haven’t visited one.”
“Chennai is not Besant Nagar.”
Do this, do that, go here, go there... I was so tired of listening to all of it since the two months I landed in Chennai, that I decided to go exploring the 'quintessential Chennai'. 

With just one day off in a week, and a dear friend's wish to see the quintessential Chennai in one day, I surfed the net and friend's databases on what could be seen in a day, which at the same time gives the essence of Chennai. Many many searches later, from a list of suggested 50, to 'try-able' 12, to possible 7, the list kept narrowing down. The planner that I have always wanted to be, googled enough information (that's what I thought) and with a ‘not-so-raring-to-go’ friend, P (she had no option though) and a ‘I-want-to-do-most-in-the-list’ friend, S in tow, we started on a early Sunday morning. I love to spend my Sunday mornings, afternoons and if possible evenings too, on bed. So it was as equivalent to giving my life away to do this one day sightseeing. :)

So our ‘list for the day’ (word by word as told to us) was
1. Visit the Kapaleeshwara temple early in the morning and have temple prasadam for morning’s breakfast
2. Take the MRTS to Beach
3. “Enjoy” the pulling and pushing at Ranganathan Street
4. Spend 1000 bucks in T Nagar and get atleast 1000 things for the money you spend.
5. Eat at Sarvanna Bhavan (they forgot to mention what!)

So, at 8.30 a.m we were on our way to Kapaleeshwara (Shiva) temple in Mylapore.

Shakti worshipped Shiva in the form of a peacock, which is why the area is called so (mayil is Tamil for peacock). Apparently, Mylapore is ‘older’ than Chennai. This oldest temple in Chennai is believed to be located on the spot where Lord Brahma installed a Shiva lingam in order to please Lord Shiva who cut off Bramha's head (Kapalam) to arrest his pride. Fresh with this googled knowledge about the area and temple, I rattled on until the bus refused to go further towards the destination. And why was that? There was a chariot festival in the temple and all roads around the temple were blocked. Now, I had heard enough about the devout Chennai-ites to know that this planned quick visit to the temple was going to be anything but quick. There goes my first part of the plan to the drain! Ah, too late to turn back! The god fearing person in me decided to go for it. As ‘luck’ would have it, we saw the quintessential Chennai that we wanted to see but without actually expecting to see it.

The roads were lined with shopkeepers setting up make-shift stalls to sell their wares. The road, without the vehicular traffic, was filled with people of all ages. The women in their temple best and hair adorned with jasmine flowers, never left their man's side. The children walked with their grandparents, pointing out to all the fancy things lining the streets, unmindful to the grandparents talking about the temple. Their talk was shadowed by the occasional booming of the loud speakers over your head announcing missing people and at the same time asking the people to make way for the chariots. All along the stretch, there were many groups offering free refreshing buttermilk to everyone and well, we made the most of it :).

Not knowing the right entry point to the temple made things difficult as the crowd started getting bigger. The roads around the temple called the mada streets were washed and painted with the traditional kolams, for the chariots would pass through them. The crowd regaled each time some generous person threw buckets of water from the houses lining the mada street. This was their way of beating the heat. They also used plastic sachets containing water to cool themselves. I have personally not seen these methods anywhere before. For the first time I also saw red and green flags being used by the priest on the chariot to give instructions to the devotees to pull or to stop pulling the chariot! This reminds me of another 'first' I saw a couple of days before at a Tam Bram wedding. A water bottle with holes in it's cap provided for a method to sprinkle water on plantain leaves for cleaning them before meals. Being a south Indian and eating meals out of a plantain leaf very often, this was indeed new and innovative for me.

Well, coming back to the chariot festival, we got all pushed around and finally got pushed into the temple too through the east gopuram (tower over the temple entrance with marvellous architecture). Temples for me have to be peaceful. But this environment, thanks to the festival, was anything but that. There were many sub temples within the temple courtyard; that of Ganapathi, Saneeshwara, Murugan, Karpagambal, Kapaleeshwara and many more. Apart from that we also saw the idols of 63 Nayanmars or Saivaite saints for whom the festival was being celebrated within the main temple of Kapaleeshwara.
The 63 Nayanmars 

After paying respect to the dieties, I was waiting to pay respect to my grumbling tummy. Something that everyone has always agreed upon is the fact that the prasadams at temples are really yummy. And this time was no exception. :) We were really content with the humble yet tasty prasad. On our way back to the railway station from the temple, we feared getting pushed back into the temple as there was the chariot crowd in the last leg of the procession which was to terminate at the temple. Braving the crowds yet again (which was an adventure of sorts) and downing two glasses of buttermilk, we finally made it to the Thirumayilai station.

The local train experience was the best part of the day. Trains have always fascinated me and every single journey till now has put me into a pensive mode. This one too was no exception. Intra-city, inter-city, inter-state, I love them all. The journeys give me the solitude and solace even amidst a crowd. There is definitely something about the trains. Let me not dwell on that as it will occupy an entire blog space. :)

The rest of the day was quite uneventful, barring the malai kofta at sarvana bhavan in T Nagar. It was literally koftas in payasam (an otherwise sweet delight), complete with tuti fruti toppings! Beat that! An interesting fact to note in T Nagar is that while half of it has Sarvanna 'some' store, other half contains Jayachandran 'some' store along with others. (And Chennai has its own share of Murugan stores as well :)). Considered a shopping destination, I did not quite find T Nagar very amusing as it was like one big market. Quite averse to crowds, I prefer doing my shopping in a peaceful environment. The heat added to the crowded woes. Though the shopping experience was nothing greater than the ones I have experienced in Delhi and Bombay, one must visit T Nagar for their silk show rooms, some of them which I must admit had a superior ‘drooling quotient’. Tired by the evening, we decided against the advice by Chennai-ites to not to take an auto by taking one. Auto rickshaw rides here have the reputation of costing an exorbitant Rs.200 for a ten minute ride! And how much did this guy charge? Rs.150 for a distance of 12 km and almost half an hour journey! Makes me wonder, if am new to Chennai or if he is new! ;)

So, finally we were done with our list for the day, though not to the nines. The pulling and pushing at Ranganathan street did not happen as we already dealt with our quota for the day at the temple :). We did not spend 1000 bucks in T Nagar either.

Well, next time, I intend to visit my personal favourite-the museums. If not for anything, they will be atleast peaceful. Until then, happy glazing! ;)

Colours of Chennai 


  1. Nice post Lakshmi... Good luck with the blogging :)

  2. Awesome post Lakshmi!
    Just managed to read it in peace :-)
    " sprinkle water on plantain leaves "
    - @HTIC #Need Identification !

    " This was their way of beating the heat" - Welcome to Chennai Summer and its $Local$ innovations

    " Temples for me have to be peaceful " - Completely agree with this - Me not a fan of Tirupathi
    " with the humble yet tasty prasad " - lol @ humble
    'Auto- wonder if he is new!' - Rofl
    I tell u there'll be scary peacefulness @ Museum - Worse than 2nd avenue Indira Nagar for sure!
    Happy Blogging :-)

    1. Ha ha! Thanks Enba!
      Though I wish I could ban the word 'innovation' from every one's dictionary for another 8 months! ;)

  3. Loved your narrative skills....very nostalgic..keep writing more..