A silvery dawn was shrouding Madras when my husband and I landed. I got off the plane and gulped in great mouthfuls of air, revelling in its moist, tropical heaviness. This was South India where you could touch the air, smell the earth, and drink the rain (if the monsoons were on time). This was the land where graceful women in sarees woke up at the crack of dawn to the clanging of temple bells, cleaned their courtyards with cow-dung, and drew kolams- intricate designs with rice flour- on them while the rest of the household slept. This was the land where every action, from arranging a wedding to moving was governed by omens, astrologers and auspicious hours. This was Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu state, and I, as a native Madrasi, felt that I owned it completely.

Madras is to India what Charleston, S.C., is to the United States. While the rest of India races to modernize and westernize, Madras remains proud of its place in Indian history as the ‘seat of South Indian culture.’ With a tropical climate, salubrious lifestyle, and a population of about 4 million people comprising of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Buddhists, Madras is a cosmopolitan jumble of humanity. Yet, it remains more conservative than New Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta- India’s other three major cities- clinging fiercely to its cultural roots and ancient traditions. While the teenager from Bombay might strum a guitar and attend Bob Dylan concerts, teenagers in Madras still learn native Carnatic music from a guru, and attend classical music concerts. Women in New Delhi might go to work in western-style suits but the women in Madras still prefer to wear starched cotton sarees. Men in Calcutta might like to relax by smoking cigarettes and sipping vodka at the local club, but the Madrasi prefers his strong south-Indian coffee, boiled with milk and flavored with a hint of chicory.

Some might call Madras ‘the real India,’ unadulterated by the encroachment of technology or western lifestyles. Here, the rhythms of life follow the gentle, civilized pattern established eons ago. After a breakfast of idlis (rice doughnuts) or dosas (crepes), most Madrasis head to the office around 9.30. Many women do not work and are full-time mothers. They take a siesta after lunch. In the evening, everyone goes to one of the two beaches. Respectful of elders and polite to strangers, Madrasis are an inherently shy people. But to the tourist who has the patience and the tact to probe beyond the facade, Madras offers a potent, colorful brew that beguiles and charms. When you go to Madras, ask a few questions, get the people to talk. While Madrasis are not naturally garrulous or gregarious to strangers, once they sense your interest, they will take you into their fold, invite you into their homes, offer you a meal.

The city overlooks the Bay of Bengal, closer to Sri Lanka than New Delhi, and stretches 9 miles along the Coramandel coast of India. It is an ancient land, first settled by the indigenous Dravidians some 5000 years ago. The language spoken in Madras, Tamil, is one of the oldest languages in the world, with poetry, literature and essays dating back 3000 years. Like the petals of a lotus, history in Madras is multi-layered. Everytime we went back a few centuries, we found art, architecture and events that drew us back in time even further. The museums displayed works from the last century, the temples showcase sculpture from earlier time periods, and Tamil poetry and dance forms are even older. As the song goes, ‘Where do I begin?’

Although interested travellers could spend up to a month in Madras without getting bored, I have found that a week’s stay makes a good introduction. The best months to visit Madras are October- Febraury. This is the cool season when the temperatures are in the 60s. In April and May, the temperature could rise up to 90. The cool season is also the time when Madras is bustling with music and dance performances, street theater, and weddings.
We began our sojourn in Madras on a Friday. The 20-hour flight from New York had left us groggy and tired. The cool morning air enveloped us as the taxi took us to our hotel. One of the first things that strikes the visitor about Madras is the intensity of the experience. Perhaps it is the lingering, heavy scent of the tropical jasmine that seems to be everywhere- women wear it on their hair, offer it as garlands to the Gods, and cultivate jasmine bushes in their homes. Perhaps it is the crowds of people that are chattering, laughing, arguing and cursing, hailing their friends and family from across the streets, slapping backs and exchanging greetings as they pass on the street. Perhaps it is the color that hits the passer-by from billboards, clothes, and mannequins- no sedate blues or grays here. The women of India dress in jewel tones- aquamarines, pomegranate red, parrot green, and mango yellow all blend and mesh in a kaleidoscopic whirl.
Perhaps it is the noise, from buses belching diesel, from the honking cars, from the outbursts of angry motorists, from the loudspeakers playing the latest movie songs to lure visitors into the hotels and shops. No half-measures for this city. Daily life plays out as high drama in Madras. We planned to spend the first two days in Madras, and then spend the following few days driving to neighboring towns and hamlets before returning to Madras and taking the flight out the following Friday.

Saturday morning found us seeking the cool interiors of the city’s good museums, partly to glimpse Madras’ artistic treasures and partly to acclimatize ourselves to the tropical climate. The Government Museum has several South India bronzes, including the famed Dancing Shiva. The National Art Gallery complements the city museum with modern art, which in India means, art from the 12th and 13th centuries. Although the museums had a reasonably good collection, we later discovered that the real places to view Indian art were the numerous temples with their free-standing sculptures.
We drove down Mount Road, one of the main arteries in the city for brunch at Dasas, a clean, air-conditioned eaterie favored by Madras yuppies. If you had one day in Madras and were looking for something to do, Mount Road would be your destination. It has shops, theaters, hotels, libraries, you name it. Chaotic and cacophonous in one stretch, leafy and luscious in another, clogged with traffic in one intersection, organized and smooth in another, Mount Road has a sampling of everything that is Madras.

India produces more films that Hollywood, and spending a hot afternoon cocooned inside an air-conditioned theater will not only keep you cool but also give you an insight into the sense and sensibilities of the populace. Higginbothams, a popular book-shop is on Mount Road, and we spent a relaxing hour reading and buying several Indian books of fiction and non-fiction. In the afternoon, we did what most good Madrasis do- take a nap. Around four p.m, after a good restoring cup of coffee, we set off for the beach. The Beach Road offers one of the most pleasant drives in the city. It runs parallel to the Indian Ocean. Madras sports two lovely beaches- the Marina Beach and Eliot’s Beach.
Marina Beach has a promenade decorated with gardens, ornamental flower beds, trees and colorful lights. To stand at one of the roadside take-outs, eat a sliced mango rubbed with chili powder, or a roasted corn on the cob, and listen to the waves break the silence is like entering a tropical dream. In the morning, Marina Beach is filled with women in sarees and churidars walking briskly alongside men in shorts and T-shirts. Middle-aged couples walk their dogs, and occasionally an elder gentleman practices yoga postures on the grass. In the evening, young lovers rendezvous at the beach, retired gentlemen sit around in a circle on the sand and discuss politics, families picnic on the beach, and the occasional loner seeks solitude by the waves.

South India was not as affected by the waves of invasion that shaped North India. It was silk and spice that made India a gateway to the fabled east for travellers such as Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama, and invaders such as the Aryans, Alexander the Great of Greece, King Darius of Persia, the Huns of China, and the Islamic Moghuls. However, the last invasion, that of the Europeans, began in South India. Madras, which was among the first cities settled by the Europeans is paradoxically, the least westernized among India’s major cities because the Europeans moved on North to establish their capital cities.

One of the first westerners to visit Madras was Thomas Dydimus, “Doubting Thomas,” one of Christ’s apostles. St. Thomas came to Madras in 52 A.D., and converted thousands of Hindus into ‘Syrian Christians.’ He was buried in San Thome, and a church was built over his burial site. San Thome church is a buff-colored neo-gothic cathedral with a 183-feet tall spire. It is, to Madras, what Buckminister Abbey is to London. Inside, beautiful stained glass windows tell the story of St. Thomas. There is a three-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, brought from Portugal in the 16th century. The tomb of St. Thomas also occupies a small sacred space. We went to church on Sunday and listened to inspired renditions of Christian hymns in the Tamil language. The acoustics inside the church were wonderful and we were felt transported by the chants and songs.

San Thome today is a prosperous Madras suburb bordering the Indian Ocean, dotted with convent schools and churches. I studied at St. Antony’s High School, a catholic school in San Thome where grim-faced nuns in white made us kneel and pray to Jesus before our final examinations.

Beach Road winds its way through San Thome into Adyar, where the world headquarters of the Theosophical Society sprawls over 270 acres. Shrines of all faiths are set amidst beautiful gardens. Fragrant trees with names like Shiva Linga and Gul Mohur perfume the air with their colorful blossoms. In the headquarters building, bas reliefs of Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Zarathustra, Confucius, Orpheus and Osiris decorate the hall. The Society’s library is internationally famous for its Oriental literature, rare palm-leaf manuscripts, and eclectic collection of religious books. Yet, the most striking thing about the Society is not the beauty of its surroundings, but the meditative silence and serenity that prevails everywhere and is a happy contrast to the city around it.

The botanical centerpiece of the Society is a banyan tree. It is 400 years old and spreads over 40,000 square feet. I remember going to the Society as a college student, sitting cross-legged under the banyan tree along with 3000 other people, and listening to talks by the leading spiritualists of India. My parents went too, and listened to speakers like Maria Montessori, Jiddu Krishnamurthi and Annie Besant. Today, the banyan tree is propped up by wooden stilts and visitors’ good wishes.

One of the nicest ways to spend an evening in Madras is to attend a dance or music performance at one of the many auditoriums in the city. Bharat natyam dancing and carnatic music are over 3000 years old. They are still taught at homes in Madras, where a guru comes to the house and teaches the children songs that were composed 2000 years ago. Bharat natyam dancing is an exquisite visual experience in which the dancer, decked in rich silk costumes and jewelry depicts ancient Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabarata, using her face as much as her body. One of the important differences between Indian and western dancing is that in India, facial expressions are used to convey emotion or tell a story.

On Saturday morning, we went to the Murray’s auction house. Established in the 1920s, Murray’s has become a Madras institution, with its weekend auctions. On any given Sunday, one can find richly carved teak and mahogany furniture, estate jewelry and uniquely Indian curios such as a silver ‘betel-box,’ or an Indian hookah, auctioned to fashionably dressed Madrasis. After a morning of hard shopping, we retreated to the Park Sheraton hotel, one of the five-star hotels in the city. There were three good restaurants offering Continental, south Indian and Chinese cuisines. We opted for the Continental buffet which was cooling and lightly spiced. We spent the afternoon lazing in the swimming pool at the hotel and went to another concert in the evening.

To truly visualize Madras as it was centuries ago, we drove to Mamalla Puram on a Sunday. Although the trip to Mamalla Puram can be accomplished in one day, we opted to spend a night at the Temple Bay resort and take it in more leisurely.
About an hour’s drive from Madras, Mamalla Puram used to be a thriving sea port in the 7th century when the Pallava kings ruled South India. Although the reign of the Pallavas waned 1200 years ago, their legacy still remains, carved in stone.
Mamalla Puram is a small, coastal town by the Indian ocean. About the size of Newport, Rhode Island, the scent of the sea permeates the town and all its activities. In the morning, fishermen set off to sea to catch its bounty. In the evening, young artists stroll the beaches, searching for driftwood, sea shells and inspiration. Mamalla Puram is home to a sculpture school and thriving arts community.

The ringing sound of hammer hitting stone accompanied us as we walked down Five Rathas street, with roadside galleries selling stone and clay sculptures. Stone carvers and artisans sat in front of the galleries, polishing the wet, black granite, or chipping away at giant blocks.

Suddenly we came upon five gigantic, freestanding sculptures carved from a single stone. They were the Five Rathas (chariots) and they looked like five pyramidal temples. On the day we went, there were a group of school-children who had been brought on an excursion to Mamalla Puram. The children were everywhere, clambering up the stone steps into the cool, cave-like interiors with pillars, nooks, windows and doors and squealing with delight in response to the echoes they heard when they spoke. They tried to climb up the smooth side of a giant elephant, bull and lion which stood guard around the five rathas.

The highlight of our trip was Arjuna’s Penance, the world’s largest bas relief. Imagine an intricate painting, complete with animals, Gods and humans. Then magnify it about 50 times and imagine that in stone. You will begin to realize what Arjuna’s Penance looks like. Fifty feet tall and 100 feet long, this ‘fresco in stone,’ as it has been called, pulsates with animals, Gods and other intricate carvings. There is a procession of elephants, snakes coiled in battle, monkeys on trees, angels and celestial dancers, sages doing penance and jesters with drums, all carved into a giant panorama in stone. In the center is Arjuna, the hero of one of India’s great epics, standing on one foot and doing penance to Lord Shiva.
On the beach was the shore temple, a magnificent structure that seemed to rise from the sand and greet the sky. It was surrounded and protected from the waves by a wall of carved bulls. The intricate carvings on the temple, hallmarks of Pallava architecture, have withstood the pounding of wind and water for 12 centuries. Visitors can walk inside the temple. We ended the day, sitting on the steps of the shore temple, watching a creamy, globulous moon rise out of the sea and waft a whispering breeze our way.

On Monday afternoon, after a leisurely brunch at the Temple Bay resort, we went shopping for souveniers at the many galleries in Mamalla Puram. Although high-quality art work can be bought if one is willing to pay the price, most visitors to Mamalla Puram end up buying small, cheap souveniers made of sea shells and stone. In the evening, we began our drive back to the city. We spent Monday night at Fisherman’s Cove, a beach resort, on the way back from Mamalla Puram. Coconut palms rustled in the sea breeze as we sipped cool drinks by the pool and the sound of the waves lulled us to sleep.

On Tuesday morning, we left Fisherman’s Cove and drove to the nearby Crocodile Bank, a zoo for crocodiles where several species of crocodiles lie in the sun in sunken pools. It reminded us of Florida’s alligator alleys. We stopped at Cholamandal Artists village, just outside Madras. About 20 sculptors and painters live, work and sell their art in the resident gallery. We spent the afternoon at Cholamandal, talking to the friendly artists, visiting their homes and studios. In the evening, we watched a group of young Indian actors, rehearse the Shakespearan play “Hamlet.” Wednesday was our shopping day. Nothing epitomizes the ambience of Madras more than its bazaars. Panagal Park in T. Nagar is a good place to start, especially at sunset when the sea breeze softens the day’s heat, and sharpens the tongue of the loudly bargaining Madrasis.

We walked up and down the streets, taking in the plethora of produce, almost reeling under the intoxicating aroma of night jasmine, fresh mint, cilantro and a hundred varieties of baby greens. Vegetable and fruit vendors called after us, hawking their wares ferociously, cutting up ruby red pomegrates for inspection on the spot, offering enticing slices of creamy papaya and mango. Women with baskets of jasmine sat nearby, their fingers moving to a lightning rhythm as they wove together strings of jasmine that the women bought and inserted into their dark braids.
After feasting on fruit, we stepped into the air-conditioned shopping arcades. Two silk showrooms, Nalli and Kumaran, both at Panagal Park, are Madras institutions. They sell every imaginable type of silk sari ranging from ‘wrinkle-free’ polyester silks to the heavy, handwoven silks from Kanchi puram. They are always crowded with rich women executives shopping for their annual company party, and poor law clerks blowing up a year’s bonus on a fine silk saree. Silk and gold are a Madrasi’s weakness, as these prosperous silk merchants discovered fifty years ago.
On Thursday, we set off for Kanchi Puram, the “City of Thousand Temples.” While Mamalla Puram was the sea port of the Pallava kings, their capital was Kanchi Puram, an hour inland from Madras. Kanchi Puram is a small, sleepy hamlet, famous for its temples, its architecture, and silk sarees. It is the silk capital of south India. Shops line the tiny roads, selling exquisite silk sarees, many of which are woven right around the corner in weaving studios. There are over a thousand weavers in Kanchi Puram, weaving traditional designs passed down through the generations. During the wedding season, the roads are clogged with cars since many brides from Madras come to Kanchi Puram to buy silk sarees for themselves and their relatives.

I remember going to Kanchi Puram with my mother-in-law to select a trousseau. We sat down in a small, air-conditioned shop, and pored over different designs for hours, while gracious merchants plied us with cool drinks and compliments, hoping for our business.

There are three famous temples in Kanchi Puram- the Kailasanatha temple, Varadaraja temple, and the Ekambareswara temple, all of which epitomize Hindu temple architecture. The first thing that strikes a visitor are the tall pyramidal towers, visible from a distance. These are the temple entrances and they contain an array of images: smiling Gods with their hands raised in benediction, fierce demons with horns and wolverine teeth, celestial dancers or apsaras, striking up graceful poses, and clowns with rotund abdomens.

The sprawling outer sanctums have several halls where music concerts were conducted 1200 years ago. Pillars line these halls, each with a unique floral design, remniscent of the graceful curves of Islamic design. The sanctum sanctorum contains the diety and thousands of people visit everyday to pray and seek blessings. The aroma of sacred ash and sandalwood fill the air, as devotees chant holy mantras and sway gently in religious fervor. Even the casual visitor is lulled into serenity, almost in spite of themselves.

Thursday morning found us driving to St. Thomas Mount, on the way to Madras airport. St. Thomas used to live and preach there, and was eventually speared to death on the Mount. The church on the Mount has a ‘Bleeding Cross,’ so named because of the blood-red spots that keep reappearing even after being scrubbed away. Legend has it that the cross first ‘bled’ during Mass on December 18, 1558, and has bled periodically ever since. Above the altar is a painting of the Holy Virgin and Child, believed to have been painted by St. Luke and brought to India by St. Thomas. St. Thomas Mount has been a hallowed place for Indian Christians for centuries.

On Thursday evening, our last night in the city, we dined at Dakshin at the Park Sheraton Hotel. Dakshin offers south Indian food in an opulent setting. At the beginning of the meal, the maitre d’ offers the women a string of fragrant jasmine. There is food from all the different states of south India, and periodically, the chef comes out and chats with the diners. On the night we went, a young musician was playing the flute in a small stage at one end of the dining room. We were told that there was a music performance by young artists on most nights.

We left Dakshin around ten p.m. I could smell the night jasmine in my hair. My silk saree rustled pleasantly around my ankles stirring up a small breeze. The digestive mixture of cardomon, fennel, cloves and mint that the restaurant offered at the end of the meal was flavoring my mouth as I chewing. Feeling replete and happy, my husband and I walked out into the starry, starry night.

This article originally appeared in April 1995.
Copyright © 2001 House Beautiful. All rights reserved.

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