All-Rounded Tamil Nadu

Temples and tradition may be its enduring image, but there’s a lot more to this South Indian state now, says Chennai girl Shoba Narayan. From designer shopping to organic tea and artist enclaves, the state is dancing to a whole new Carnatic beat.

The thought occurred as I watched a grandmother, clad in a traditional silk sari, scarf down a pizza at Spencer’s Plaza, Mount Road: this wasn’t the Chennai I grew up in. Pizza didn’t exist in the 1980s; certainly Madras Mamis, as the city’s matrons are affectionately called, didn’t eat them. Now, they are ubiquitous, albeit spiced with garam masala, reflecting nouveau Chennai — a quirky agglomeration of ancient and hip. The city has had a makeover, retaining, as my NRI friends say, “all her great qualities but also becoming chic and sexy”. Nightclubs and tapas bars co-exist beside 8th century temples and old-fashioned shophouses. Café lattes can be had at Barista while south Indian filter coffee still rules at Kumbakonam Degree Coffee in Anna Nagar.

It is December. I am visiting Tamilnadu, my native state, to see friends and family. But this time, I have an agenda: to prove them wrong. I am tired of tourist cliches about Tamilnadu being too hot, too quiet, too traditional. “Not happening,” my American nephew says. Not true, I reply. Every cliché about Tamilnadu is being overturned, thanks to a decent government and a youthful big-spending population. Chennai is hot, yes, but Ooty up in the Nilgiris is cold. Towns in the textile belt– Erode and Salem– are quiet but Chettinad is bustling. Kodaikanal has organic farms; Mudumalai has elephants; Coimbatore has chic boutiques; heck, even sleepy old Tranquebar has an eco-resort called Cardamom House, managed by a retired British physician. All this with a 1076-kilometers long worldclass coastline that extends all the way down to Rameshwaram and Kanyakumari.

If Kanyakumari forms one end of the triangle and Chennai the other, then Ooty in the Nilgiris would be the apex and this is where my journey begins. I fly into Coimbatore, the closest airport. Rather than drive up the Nilgiris ghat road, I take the Toy Train from Mettupalayam for a leisurely 2-hour ride up the lush mountainside. Ooty or Udhagamandalam used to be called the “Queen of Hill Stations.” Now, it is overrun with local tourists from nearby towns. Coonoor is the more salubrious option and the Taj Gateway hotel is a great base. With winding roads bordered by flowering roses, quaint cottages and manicured tea estates, Coonoor is a quintessential hill town— like Shimla used to be. Today, there are artisanal cheese and chocolate makers; a thriving NGO community that works with the local tribals; and shops selling local crafts, eucalyptus oils and teas. I visit several tea estates during the day before settling on my favorite: Korakundah. At 8500 feet above sea, Korakundah estate is magical. Waterfalls cascade down rocks and lead to the Upper Bhavani reservoir; misty clouds waft at arm’s length; wild orchids bloom; bison and sambar deer gaze through the pine trees. Every now and then, a lone tusker looks up enquiringly before continuing to chomp on bamboo shoots. It is here organic Korakundah green and frost teas are farmed and then sold throughout the world, particularly Japan. Amazon sells five ounces for US$18. Once in 12 years, the blue Kurinji flower turns the entire hillside into a carpet of blue, giving these mountains their name: Nilgiris or Blue Mountains.

Tamilnadu funnels out from these misty blue mountains to the Bay of Bengal. I take the overnight train from Coimbatore to Chennai, my second stop. The typical tourist itinerary includes large doses of history, some religion via temples and a bit of traditional shopping. The dusty temple towns of Kanchipuram and Madurai are overrated in my opinion— you have to fight crowds and bribe priests to access them. A daytrip to the seaside Mamallapuram with its exuberant 7th century monolithic rock carvings proffers the same pleasures in more sylvan surroundings.

If you know where to look, a few days in Chennai can offer a microcosm of Tamilnadu. The Triplicane temple, for instance, is one of the finest examples of 8th century Dravidian architecture. Spencer’s Plaza, on the other hand, is a modern ‘temple’ to consumerism. It is here that I encounter aging tai-tais eating pizza and buff metrosexuals buying cufflinks. I lunch at Beyond Indus at the new Taj Mount Road with a deconstructed North Indian menu that reminds me of Craft in New York. Post-lunch, I head indoors to escape the midday heat. Lovers of Chola bronzes shouldn’t miss the Egmore Museum. I head instead to Apparao Galleries where upcoming artists like Rahim Mirza and Sangeeta Reddy show their work. That evening, I pub-hop: nibbling on tapas at Zara; downing Martinis at the Leather Bar; dancing at Distil before heading to Eliot’s beach for a late-night swim just like I did while at college. This is the new Chennai, not displacing the old but simply layering hip and chic atop the ancient.

More than any other place in India barring Varanasi and Hubli, Chennai has a strong sense of self: a broad and deep cultural identity. Ancient traditions and art forms such as Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam dance exist unchanged in the city’s bylanes. Parrot astrologers purvey their trade around the 7th century Mylapore temple just as they did in the Vijayanagar period. Women draw kolam designs with rice flour on the streets of T.Nagar. Come dawn and the corpulent congregate at Marina or Eliot’s beach for yoga and walks. The sea-breeze at 4 pm revives the somnolent from their afternoon siesta. In the evening, the scent of jasmine wafts over matrons on their way to market for fresh greens and sparkling brinjals. In December, the entire city pauses for the Madras Music Festival that has become a global behemoth attracting musicians and dancers from Singapore, Sydney and San Francisco. Every evening, concert singers such as T. M. Krishna and Bombay Jaishree take to the stage for three hours of Carnatic music, interspersed with hot bajjis and coffee at the canteens outside the auditorium. “You can listen to good Carnatic music on CDs,” says Lakshmi Krishnan, a pediatrician from Chennai who now lives in Florida. “But the devotion-charged atmosphere of Chennai during Marghazi (December) is what you cannot recreate in Singapore or Cleveland, both of which have thriving Tamilian communities.”

On my second day, I eschew the truly ancient for the merely old and pay a visit to the Adyar Theosophical Society, a leafy oasis with a 450-year old banyan tree. I spend the afternoon visiting my favorite boutiques. Amethyst, housed in a heritage bungalow, sells asymmetric clothes by Indian fashion designers amidst a wonderful café. Ushas sells Kanjeevaram saris with a contemporary flavour, unlike the traditional Nalli and Kumaran Silks. Jugal Kishore sells antique costume jewellery which cost about US$50 but look like a million bucks. At Bapalal’s, an elderly couple are shopping for real million-dollar diamonds for their daughter. “Gold and silk are a Tamil woman’s downfall,” remarks the long-suffering husband when I tell him I am writing about Chennai. “But they are also her ornaments,” his wife replies without missing a beat. “Would you have married me if I came without either?” I leave them to their squabbling and head out.

After dinner at Benjarong, one of Chennai’s finest Thai restaurants, I read S. Muthiah’s evocative history book, “Madras Rediscovered,” which talks about the lusty womanizing Englishman, Francis Day who made Chennai the southern outpost of the East India Company. The British ruled India’s Coramandel coast from their base in Fort St. George which continues to be the seat of the Tamilnadu government. In 1996, Madras was renamed Chennai, evoking its 2nd century Chola roots, when the area was called Chenna-patnam.

After three days in Chennai, I hire a car and head down the East Coast Road (ECR) which hugs the Bay of Bengal and takes me to Mamallapuram and Pondicherry (four hours away). Both make for a hectic day-trip but I am taking it easy. My first stop is Cholamandalam, 9 kilometers outside Chennai, en route to Mamallapuram. It is an artists village where some 30 sculptors and painters live full-time and display their work at its in-house gallery for US$75 to 2500. The light is like Arles where Van Gogh painted. Long-haired artists in white kurtas stroll in and out of the reception. Further along, about half hour away is Dakshinachitra Heritage Center– a favorite destination for field trips from Chennai schools. Founded by American Deborah Thiagarajan, Dakshinachitra showcases regional art, architecture and crafts through 17 recreated heritage homes, streetscapes, folk arts, shadow puppet performances, and a fair-trade shop, where I buy wooden toys and woven cushion covers made by local artisans. I lunch at the Taj Fisherman’s Cove, arguably the best resort in Tamilnadu. Cottages right on the beach offer an unobstructed view of the sea and sunrise. On prior visits, I had taken private yoga lessons right on the beach and enjoyed sublime aroma massages at the in-house Jiva spa. This time, I watch popular Tamil actor, Surya and his wife, Jyothika coo over their baby daughter at a neighboring table while waiters bring out freshly grilled catch from the sea.

For those interested in history and sculpture, Mamallapuram offers a stunning panorama of rock carvings based on the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. There is a bas relief named Arjuna’s Penance, the Shore Temple right on the water, and the Five Chariots: monolithic pyramidal carvings. The sound of hammer hitting stone becomes the background beat as I walk the streets. Shops sell stone sculptures bound for temples abroad and NRI homes. A cool evening breeze washes over me as I sip coconut water from a roadside vendor, just as I have done on countless school excursions year after year while growing up in Chennai. Ideally, I would have stayed the night at the Temple Bay resort but this time, I push onward to Pondicherry, two hours away.

Formerly a French colony, a certain Gallic charm still lingers in Pondicherry. French remains an official language, streets bear names such as Rue Suffren, and the scent of croissants permeates the morning air in the French Quarter. A deeper influence comes from an idealistic freedom-fighter turned sage called Aurobindo Ghose and his spiritual partner, a French woman of Egyptian-Turkish descent called Mirra Alfassa or Mother. They founded the Aurobindo Ashram and a Utopian community called Auroville, now home to about 2500 global citizens and a thriving arts and crafts community. Auroville’s website states that its “purpose is to realize human unity.” It attracts free-spirited creative types who make paper, incense, candles, clothes and essential oils.

Dilip Kapur, founder of Hidesign handbags, sold globally and owned partly by Louis Vuitton, grew up in the Ashram and is a passionate spokesperson for Pondicherry. Over dinner at the luxe Promenade Hotel, which he owns along with boutique hotel, Le Dupleix, Kapur and his wife, Jacqueline, talk about the crafts of Pondicherry that were “inspired by Mother’s philosophy of great simplicity along with the search for excellence.” This is evident when I visit Auroville’s many artisanal enterprises: German Herve Millet makes gorgeous paper lanterns; Americans Ray Meeker and Deborah Smith make pottery; Paul Pinthon founded Maroma essential oils. Auroville’s website lists dozens of other outfits and I spend the next two days in a glaze, going from tailor to cheesemaker to baker to boutique owner.

On my last night, I café-hop: first to Auroville Bakery for outstanding croissants and cakes; then to The Solar Kitchen for pizza; Satsanga, where the local expats hang out; and then to Rendezvous for overpriced French food; Le Club which is owned by Alliance Francaise; and Le Cafe, right on the water. I chat up three middle-aged women, all of whom are divorced single mothers. We drink; the jokes get raunchier and by night’s end, we are best buddies. I ask them which part of town they live in. “Oh, no, we are from Chennai,” says one. “We drive back home at dawn.”

I would too. And now I would have quite a few stories to share with my nephew in America.

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