It was a wonderful change going from -30C in Toronto to +30C in Chennai (called Madras until 1996) and for those of you struggling through a Canadian winter, I’m sending you a burst of sunshine through the above photo. There are two monsoons in Tamil Nadu and the northeast monsoon lasts until December so this coastal city is green and leafy at this time of year.
Chennai is large sprawling city which does not seem to have a defined city centre but is more a collection of neighbourhoods, or at least that’s what it seems like to us. First occupied by the Portuguese and subsequently by the British, there are many churches and several grand buildings, built in the Indo-saracenic style by the British. Marina Beach fringes the city and stretches for 6km, from formerly Portuguese occupied San Thome’ in the south to British occupied Fort St George in the north. St Thomas, the Apostle (doubting Thomas) spent the end of his life here and his remains are preserved in San Thome’ cathedral. There are lots of hospitals and medical centres as Chennai is fast becoming a centre for medical tourism i.e. a place where tourists come to get medical procedures done which might be too expensive in their own countries.
We found the beach, which is almost 1km wide, fascinating. Fishing boats, fishermen mending their nets, and vendors selling freshly caught fish are to be found on the southern end. There is still evidence here of the destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami and homes lining the shore are in the process of being rebuilt. Further north, the beach is a social hub and meeting place. We were there on a Saturday evening and it was interesting to watch people enjoying all manner of entertainments, fortune telling, horse rides, street foods and just hanging out. Families with children, young men and women, grandparents, were all there each enjoying different things.
Tamil Nadu seems quite a progressive state. Interestingly, the Chief Minister is a woman and women in general seem more emancipated. Education of women at all levels is promoted by the government. Another thing I found interesting is the large number of Engineering Colleges. On the way to Kanchipuram yesterday, about 70km from Chennai, we saw at least half a dozen and also a slew of manufacturing industries such as Dell, Motorola, Nokia and Honeywell. The opportunities for jobs might explain why we did not see as much poverty in the city.
Today January 14th is the harvest festival of Pongal here in Tamil Nadu. We are in the temple town of Kanchipuram. Houses have a design painted on the ground outside the front door and have decorations of sugarcane and turmeric tubers. A special sweet of mashed rice and lentils, wrapped in a green leaf and steamed, is served and also offered to the priests at the temple. Women wear red and don their good jewellery. New clothes and household items are purchased. Its a bit like Christmas. People flock to the temples of which there are many in Kanchipuram and there’s an air of festivity. A great time to be here!