Monday, December 24, 2012

Destination Chennai: Part One - Marina Beach, St George Fort, T-Nagar and more

Boat at the beach

Chennai - aka Madras - is the capital of Southern Indian state - Tamil Nadu. Located on Coromandel Coast, facing the eternal friend ‘Bay of Bengal’ in the east, this metropolis is a major commercial, cultural, economic and educational centre in South India. Home to Tamil movie industry, this industrial hub is also tagged as the 'Detroit of India', because of the presence of major car manufactures in the city.


Great Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar spend years here, so as the Christian apostle St. Thomas. Eihu Yale - benefactor of ‘the Collegiate School of Connecticut’ (now famous Yale University) - was one of the Governors of Madras under Company rule.

Bay of Bengal
On the eventful day of August 22, 1639 (aka Madras Day) British East India Company, under Francis Day, bought tree mile stretch of land in this part of Coromandel cost. In the very next year, they started building the now famous St. George fort in the land. However, Madras was not an easy task even for the mighty British. French under the command of General La Bourdonnai, then Governor of Mauritius, captured the fort in 1746. It took three years for the British to regain the control that also through the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1749.

French again siege Madras in 1759; ten years later Mysore under Hyder Ali also Siege the city during the climax of first Anglo-Mysore war which resulted in the Treaty of Madras. In the later decades, British conquered most of present day Tamilnadu, parts of Andra Pradesh, Karnataka and northern Kerala establishing Madras Presidency with Madras as capital.

Madras also holds the distinction of the only Indian city attacked by ‘Central powers’ during WWI. On 22 September 1914, German light cruiser ‘HMS Emden’ shelled an Oil depot in Madras and also caused disruption to shipping. Parts of shells then fell in to the Madras are on display at St. George Fort Museum.

Home to Theosophical Society movement, this city also hosted seven Indian National Congress (INC) sessions (1887, 1894, 1898, 1903, 1908, 1914 and 1927) in first 50 years of the party.

Bangalore to Chennai

Bay of Bengal
After considering various options for travel, I finally settled for the comfort of Indian Railway's (IR) sleeper class. As usual, in that Friday evening, walking was faster than our bus’s Volvo engine. After three and quarter hours, going through a slow motion journey, cursing the traffic in every other minute, I finally reached Yeshwantpur railway station.

From one end of the station you can see the rays from electronic display forming the line - 'World Trade Centre - Brigade Gateway'.

From the platform over bridge, lengthy Chennai express was like a blue snake. Another 30 minutes to go to start the journey. As nothing else to do, I started walking through the platform. On left side, a group of college students, along with one of their teachers were enjoying their dinner with Macdonald's products.

I walked further, there was a book stall selling Swami Vivekananda books. One old man, probably in late sixties was curiously reading. By seeing me, he raised his heads, looked for some 10 seconds and then went back to his book. Everywhere people were either sitting in groups, or taking a small nap in the hard surface of granite benches.

Finally its 10.45 in the night, time to start my first ever journey to Chennai. I quickly settled to my seat and fell in to the dream – Chennai, Marina, Fort St. George, Egmore museum...

Flag over St George 
At Chennai in the morning

Ting, ting, and ting...I slowly woke up and turned off the alarm. It’s five, train was about to reach Chennai central railway station (MAS). What surprised me was – we are running 10 minutes ahead of the schedule. Even in my last trip to Hubli, train reached before time. Looks like Indian Railway finally learned the lessons. After moving through the crowd, I finally reached a hotel.

My first plan was to reach Marina before sunrise.

Just like Mumbai, Chennai also have a sub-urban railway system connecting various points in the city. As told by a friend, I decided to go to Park Town - opposite to central - and buy a ticket to Beach Junction. However, reaching Park town was not so easy for a first timer. Note that, in Chennai reservation counters are located in the ground floor of a building close to it.

Sub-Urban Railway (Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System)

For Beach junction tickets, I had to cross the road and reach the other side. Here stands the local station called Park Town. Beach town is the last station for trains going from Park Town in that direction. Train came exactly at 6 am and I got in. Boggy looked like an old home, built using the scraps available from Indian Railway. It was almost empty, and nobody cared about locking the door while train is in motion. Anyway, after spending some minutes in that empty boggy I finally reached Beach junction.

Here I met one railway official, who advised me to go Velachery for seeing the shores. After confirming the same with another police officer, I bought a ticket to Velachery - seven rupees. This train was good – felt like I suddenly came out of ancient Stone Age to modern era. We retraced all the way back to Park Station and continued our journey.

Bad smell were coming from near-by open drains, this accompanied me for most of the remaining train journey. Slums were located close to the tracks; water in black colour was flowing close to them. I don't know whose idea it was, to design open drainage so close to the slums and railway lines. I crossed Chepauk, sea is very close to tracks in this area; thought of even getting down there for a moment. Slowly but steadily tracks were taking a right turn, this effectively means - moving away from shores. Sun already came out of eastern sea and moving fast towards western seas in his chariot – missed the sunrise.

Railway guard informed me that, sea is close at Triplicane. I didn't understand this name; even touch screens placed at railway stations didn’t mention this place. However, when I told the same name at counter, he gave me a ticket to Chepauk.

Person watering the plants under noon sun
By the way an interesting thing happened in my journey to Velacherry. A well dressed young lady in her late twenties approached me and asked something. As I was looking outside, didn't fully understand what she was asking. Somehow I assumed that she is a ticket checker. I searched for the ticket, and showed it to her. She stood still for a moment and then asked - 'give something to this sister'!!! I heard the laughing sound from behind, but didn't turn back!!!

Finally Chepauk came; I got down from the train and walked towards the beach.

Marina Beach

Beach starts from Fort St. George in the north to Besant Nagar in the south. With a length of 13 km, this beach is considered as the longest urban beach in the country. Filled with plastic covers, bottles, paper pieces etc this beach is not known for neatness.

In one side, a group of fishermen were trying to push their boat - small but beautifully painted one with a Honda engine at one end - to sea. After trying for some 5-6 times, against the powerful currents coming towards the shores, they accepted defeat. I started walking the direction of Madras port. On the way, two friends were trying to master somersaulting in air; in another place a group of friends were enjoying the waves. Some hundred meters ahead, one guy was pushing his wife towards water. The problem was husband didn’t share his wife’s fear in moving more towards the sea. It’s almost 9am, time to say good bye to the beach.

Triumph of Labour statue
I tuned left and walked towards beach road. Here, on the road side, stands 'Triumph of Labour statue' - a group of workers trying to push a stone. After a brief conversation with the Policeman, I walked towards St. George Fort - the house of executive. Roads were wide and clean, on one side there were many memorials. After crossing the bride and walking for some more time, I reached in front of Victory War Memorial.

Victory War memorial

This memorial was constructed in the memory of British Indian soldiers who fought and died in various campaigns of World War I and WWII. Located in the middle of the road, this circular structure with a lengthy post in the middle is kept neat and clean. For a moment the never ending discussion of building a war memorial for Post Independence Indian Army came to my mind. Indeed, many of our war memorials - Including the famous India Gate at New Delhi - are built by British in memory of soldiers fought under Union Jack. When will we finally resolve in building a national memorial for soldiers fought under tricolour?

Opposite to ‘Victory War Memorial’ stands the Gate of ‘Port of Chennai’. I continued my journey towards the fort, around 100m ahead, in the background of blue sky, tricolour was flying high in the flag post - at the same position, once occupied by Union Jack.

For going inside the secretariat, one has to sign and give details at the gate. Next step is strict physical security check. Finishing all formalities, I reached Fort Museum.  Museum entry fee for Indian citizens is 5 INR, inside the museum photography is not allowed.

A Junction in Chennai
St George Fort and Museum

This fort was constructed by British in the later part of 17th century. Currently this complex (which includes a museum and a church as well) houses executive wing of Government of Tamilnadu. Impressive statue of Lord Cornwallis, carved by Thomas Banks in 1800 AD depicting the scene of surrender of two sons of Tipu, will welcome you.

1. Ground Floor

Arms gallery is located on ground floor. In this section you can see Rifles, Motors, Cannons, Cannon shots, fragments of shell fired in to Madras city during WW1, medals issues by British India, Regimental uniforms and other symbols, model of Kiser-e-hind gold medal etc.

Porcelain gallery stands on the other side. Porcelain items used by Company officers - which also bear the insignia - are displayed here. On one end you can see the structure of Fort at the time of British India. One interesting item in this part of museum is – giant lock and keys of Fort. Model of a letter, describing the Firman granted to Mr. Day, giving privileges in Madrasapatanam was hanging on the wall.

2. First Floor

Using staircase, close to the giant marble statue of Lord Cornwallis, I reached first floor. After having some water from the cooler, I went to the room on left side. Here you can see the pictures of interesting places from different countries - German and French forts, Ethiopia, Finland, Georgia, Gambia, Gabon etc.

Victory Memorial
Next room contains the portraits of many British officers and Navabs. On the left side first photo was that of Sir Arthur Havelock, as museum in charge Karthik explained to me, wherever you go Havelock's eyes will follow you. Opposite to the door stands the majestic photo of Queen Victoria, painted by George Heytler. Next to next stands Edward VII painted by Luke Filder. This room also contains the full portraits of George V, Queen Mary, coronation of Nawab Gulam Muhammed Ghaur by Elphinstine in 1642 AD, Nawab's photos by Thomas Day, Painting of Major Stinger Lawrence with Nawab Walajah etc and a couple of marble statues as well.

Third room on this floor describes the introduction and history of coinage and various acts related to currency in India. Here you can see some old but interesting coins.

St Mary's Church

After exiting form the museum, thinking about Company era, I started walking towards St Mary's church. This church, opened for service in 1680 AD, is the oldest Masonry building inside the fort complex. Interestingly this church has a bomb proof vaulted roof. After removing sandals, I went inside. Chairs were very old; at one corner one lady was cleaning and rubbing the water off from candle stand and other items. Opposite to me, on the third column two old lady's were reading bible. A young couple and another guy were standing in a corner taking photos. Walls were decorated with tablets.

One beautiful tablet, close to me, was erected there in the memory of 63rd Palamcottach Light Infantry, 73rd Carnatic Infantry and 83rd Wallajahbad Light Infantry.

After spending another 20 minutes there, I came out. A police woman was standing outside, after checking with her on how to reach T-Nagar, I left the church premises. It’s almost one in the afternoon. After having lunch from secretariat, I went outside to get a bus to T-Nagar. It took some time for the T-Nagar bus to come. Crossing many crowded areas and flyovers bus reached T-Nagar.


“T-Nagar”. Well, I got up from the seat and started moving towards the front door. From that crowded bus I came to one of the most crowded areas in Chennai.

Victory War Memorial and Chennai Port
Constructed in between 1923-25 Theagaraya Nagar, aka T-Nagar, is one of the popular shopping areas in Chennai. This town is named after the leader of ‘Justice Party’ - Sir P. Theagaraya Chetty.

Here you don’t have to waste your energy for walking. Just stand at one place, overwhelming crowd will take you along with them. Packed with jewellery shops, utensils, apparel stores etc, this place is also filled with street vendors and their inventory. Here service roads are out of bound for vehicles. I spend close to one hour here, watching the sea of human beings moving here and there, girls bargaining with street vendors for new dresses, street vendors taking a nap for having late lunch – turn back, open lunch packet brought from home, have it as fast as possible, again turn back to resume the business.

After walking here and there for some more time, I finally reached T-Nagar bus stand. From here, got another bus heading towards Express Avenue.

Express Avenue

Express Avenue
Located in Royapettah, this mall is considered as one of the biggest in South India. After taking a brief sleep in the bus, I reached Royapettah in the afternoon. Plenty of people were there, most of mall’s automatic escalators were always occupied by people. If you want to spend sometime, then this is definitely a nice place.


PS: Day pass for MTC bus is 50 Rs (this pass is valid in all MTC busses).

NOTE: Visit again for reading the second part of this journey.

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