Return to Chennai

August 2009
Shoba Narayan returns to her home town of Chennai and takes a trip to the mystical yet mercantile city of Pondicherry, home to a utopian community with a difference

The most civilised hour to fly into Chennai – the beloved city that I left two decades ago when it was still called Madras – is 4am. In the crepuscular pre-dawn light, its silhouette is softer, its cacophonous traffic muted. The air remains humid and heavy but cooler, scented by a combination of jasmine and gutter. Roadside stalls serve aromatic coffee in stainless steel tumblers. The muezzin’s call echoes from blue-domed mosques. I am home.

Well, not exactly. Where I am is at the brand-new Taj Mount Road hotel, its cool, spare interiors providing welcome respite from the colour and chaos outside. I fall asleep as the sun comes up. Later, over an excellent north Indian lunch at Beyond Indus, the in-house restaurant, I plot my itinerary. I am playing tourist in my hometown, boldly going to places I have never gone before, before travelling 100 miles down the coast to the former French colony of Pondicherry.

Here in Chennai, I plan my visits to the Government Museum, which houses 1,500 Chola bronzes, including a stunning Nataraja (a depiction of Shiva performing a cosmic dance) and the Santhome Church, said to be one of three basilicas in the world that entomb an apostle of Jesus Christ, in this case St Thomas, who brought Christianity to India in 52AD.

The Santhome church was down the road from my high school, St Antony’s. I used to pass it on daily bus rides but never got round to going inside. Then I left for college in America and didn’t come back. Twenty years abroad have changed me. Chennai’s languid pace, which bored me as a teenager, is a comforting counterpoint to my now frenetic life. Its cultural touchstones, which I once found stultifying – filter coffee, sari-clad matrons, bazaars, afternoon siestas, Carnatic music concerts and evening walks on Marina beach – remain reassuringly unchanged. Chennai is the sort of place where, ‘My, you’ve grown fat’ constitutes a greeting, where candour is seen as a virtue and curiosity as a birthright. Nosy neighborhood ‘aunties’ kept track of my youthful indiscretions. These days, however, I am pleased that those prying eyes watch over my two daughters with the same vigilance they accorded me.

For a coastal city, Chennai is deeply conservative, taking pride in its traditions and viewing change with scepticism. Its location on the Coromandel coast has long attracted tourists and plunderers, but neither have been able to change its essential character, nourished over 2,000 years. From the second to the ninth centuries, a series of dynasties – Cholas, Pallavas and Vijayanagar kings – ruled over the city. They built many of the temples that still function today. The popular Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore is said to be at least 1,000 years old. I pray for absolution there, and then shop at stores nearby – Rasi Silks for silk stoles and sandalwood perfume, Giri Trading for Carnatic music CDs and incense, and Sukra Jewellery for silver and antique necklaces.

If Old Chennai is Mylapore, Triplicane and Santhome, modern Chennai is Mount Road (recently renamed Anna Salai). This is where young Chennaites come to drink – at Distil, dance – at Pasha, dine – at Zara, The Raintree or Annalakshmi, and shop – at Higginbotham’s books and Spencer Plaza.

Chennai used to be the capital of the Madras Presidency, which covered much of South India during colonial times. The British established Fort St George as the seat of their government in 1639 and today it continues to house the legislative assembly and ministers’ offices. I skip the corridors of power and go instead to the capital city during the Chola period, Kanchipuram. Two hours outside Chennai, it is a hot, dusty town. Save its sprawling ancient temples and its silk weavers, it has little to recommend it.

Mamallapuram, however, is a different story. Right by the Bay of Bengal and leavened by its breezes, it is located on the East Coast Road from Chennai to Pondicherry, one of the best-paved roads in India. Although it is tempting to whizz through, there is much to make a stopover worthwhile.

The Madras Crocodile Bank, established by US herpetologist Romulus Whitaker, breeds and conserves about 5,000 species of alligator and crocodile. Cholamandalam Artists’ Village is a leafy refuge for painters and sculptors who sell their wares at the in-house gallery. And DakshinaChitra is a museum of folk arts and crafts. There are also theme parks with weird names like MGM Dizzee World and Mayajaal, to which kids are bussed for excursions.

The combination of simple living and high thinking promoted by Auroville has attracted weavers, potters, cheesemakers, artists and perfumers
Monolithic rock carvings in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India
I ensconce myself at the Taj Fisherman’s Cove on Covelong Beach, one of the prettiest resorts in South India mostly because its cottages open out into the sea. I have yoga and massages to the steady drumbeat of the waves. I don’t want to leave. Mamallapuram is known for its monolithic rock carvings, which are spectacular. Very little is cordoned off and you can touch the rocks and almost feel the sculptor’s pulse. It is late when I reach Pondicherry, an hour’s drive away.

For both Indians and tourists, Pondicherry conjures up visions of Indian colour combined with Gallic flair. This image is perhaps why Christian Dior recently launched a perfume, Escale à Pondichéry, with sandalwood, jasmine and tea, its floral yet quirky scent an apt metaphor for this former French colony. Where else will you find sari-clad women chewing on croissants before strolling along the promenade? Where else will you find Italians on Vespas haggling in pidgin Tamil with flower sellers over the price of roses? And where else in India can you find a township like Auroville?

Established in 1968 by spiritual leader Mirra Alfassa, commonly known as The Mother, Auroville is a utopian community where people of all creeds and nationalities come together to ‘realise human unity’. It is huge, spread over 6,000 verdant acres in this land-starved country.

‘For someone who wants to live in another culture, Auroville is a great place to land,’ says Dmitri Klein, owner of The Dune, an eco resort in Pondicherry. We are sipping fresh lime sodas and discussing why some people leave their native lands to live in other cultures. My belief is that people from the East go West in search of opportunity, while Westerners come to India in search of spirituality. Except that everyone I meet in Pondicherry dispels that notion.

Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith established Golden Bridge Pottery here in 1971. Since then they have lived and worked in Pondicherry, training students from all over the world. Klein sold his advertising agency in France and roamed the world before settling in Auroville because his wife – after being told that she couldn’t conceive – got pregnant there. Meanwhile Jacqueline Lippka came from Germany and stayed because she fell in love with Dilip Kapur, founder of Hidesign, a company whose stylish handbags I carry – Louis Vuitton recently bought a stake.

I have dinner with Kapur and Jacqueline at The Promenade, one of several boutique hotels they own. Over grilled fish, Kapur talks passionately about Pondicherry’s aesthetic – the combination of simple living and high thinking promoted by Auroville, which has attracted weavers, potters, cheesemakers, artists and perfumers over the years. Auroville cheeses are the only decent ones in South India and its handmade paper, incense and pottery are famous throughout India.

In Pondicherry, Kapur directs me to Senteurs, a shop selling essential oils and perfumes at prices that haven’t changed in decades. I also visit Jacqueline’s shop, Casablanca, which stocks everything from cutlery to local fashion and naturally, Hidesign handbags at outlet prices. We stroll along Rue Suffren to Le Dupleix, the charming hotel that Kapur owns, where I run into friends.

In the end, I am right and wrong. Foreigners may come for the spirituality of the ashram but they stay for the unique aesthetic and lifestyle of Auroville and Pondicherry. The Dune, for instance, is built entirely of reclaimed wood. Each of its 35 villas have blue oxide floors and bangle-encrusted furniture, a refreshing contrast to the Aman-inspired Balinese minimalism that I see everywhere else.

As I pack up to leave, I see a derelict chariot outside my room. Klein has scouts throughout South India who buy and send him things from buildings that are being torn down. Come back in a year and the chariot will be pristine, he says. And then he mounts his motorbike, slips on his sunglasses and rides into the sunset.

British Airways flies to Chennai from London Heathrow. Join the Executive Club and earn up to 12,763 BA Miles when you fly First to Chennai. Find out more at where you can also book great value holidays, hotels, Avis car rental and experiences. Essential contacts: for Taj Mount Road and Taj Fisherman’s Cove, visit For Le Dupleix and The Dune, both Pondicherry, go to and respectively.

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