Chennai (Madras): Gateway to South India

by DavidPaulWagner

Chennai (formerly Madras) is the fourth largest city in India and the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is a large city located beside the Bay of Bengal in southern India. It is a large manufacturing center and is the base for IT and call center service businesses. Chennai is a cultural hub too, especially in the areas of Carnatic music, classical dance, theater and film making. Let us explore some of the great tourist attractions of Chennai.

Chennai: A Short Introduction

Chennai is a greatly underrated city. Perhaps it does not have a lot of "must see" tourist spots like some other Indian cities and maybe it is not a trendy or hot destination like Mumbai, Bangalore or Goa. But it is has a spacious layout and a laid back ambience, which you will enjoy. 

For the tourist there are a lot of things to see and do -- beaches, temples, old British colonial buildings, plus the South Indian film industry, music, dance, cuisine, festivals and handicrafts to explore  -- and interesting spots to visit as day trips, such as Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry and Tirupati.

Many of the streets are crowded and dusty, and there not many parks, some traffic problems and there are some signs of poverty. Traffic has never been a problem in Chennai and unlike Bangalore, for example, it does not take an hour to get to the beach or the countryside.
Chennai is one of the safest cities in India with a low crime rate. The people of Chennai are very friendly (by which I mean they are, in general, accommodating and unaggressive).

Chennai has a long and distinguished history and culture, which you would profit by studying a little.

Tamil is spoken in this city and throughout southern India (rather than Hindi, which is spoken mostly in northern India). Again a little effort learning some words and phrases of this language will give you a warmer welcome wherever you go.


Marina Beach is Chennai's most famous and popular beach. It is 12 km long (and is reputed to be the second longest urban beach in the world) and is at times 437 meters wide. It has a broad and elegant promenade lined with flower beds.

Marina Beach runs from Fort St George to Besant Nagar, passing on the way such sites as Madras University, Anna Square, the Triumph of Labour statue, the Senate House, and the Chepauk Palace (the former princely court of the Nawabs of Carnatica). There are fishermen's colonies at both end of the beach.

The beach is a great getaway place for harried city dwellers escaping the summer heat. There are hundreds of food and snack sellers. Kite flying, beach cricket and pony riding take place here and there. 

Other beaches in Chennai include Edward Elliot's Beach and Breezy Beach.

Marina Beach, Chennai

It seems to go forever!
Marina Beach, Chennai
Marina Beach, Chennai

Temples, Mosques, Churches

Places of Worship

Chennai has a good number of temples, mosques and churches. 

The Kapaleeshwarar Temple, in the Chennai suburb of Mylapore, is one of the city's oldest temples. A temple has been on this site since around the 8th century and the present temple dates from the 15th century. It features a 37 meter high entrance gate (gopuram) replete with hundreds of figures of gods and goddesses. A large pool of water (tank) is located behind the temple.

Other temples include the Parthasarathy Temple and the Sri Ramakrishna_Math- Universal Temple. Mosques include the Big Mosque (also known as the Wallajah Mosque). Churches include St. Mary's Church (see below), St. Thomas Mount, Basilica of the National Shrine of St.Thomas, and the Baptist and Lutheran churches.

Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai

So many gods and goddesses!
Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai
Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai

British Colonial Heritage

The British founded Madras (now renamed Chennai) in the 17th century (by combining two earlier towns, Madraspattinam and Chennapattinam).

Some of the buildings they constructed may still be seen, including:

-- Fort St. George: This fort, built in 1640, guarded the early trading activities of the East India Company, which later developed into Madras. As such, it presided over the first securing of a foothold on the Indian subcontinent by the British.

-- St. Mary's Church: This church, located inside Fort St. George, is one of the oldest churches constructed by the British in India. Consecrated in 1680, famous weddings have occured there, such as that of and of Governor Elihu Yale (the benefactor of Yale College in America (1680) and Robert Clive (Clive of India) (1753).

Other interesting British colonial buildings include the Ripon Building, Central Station, Egmore Station, the Commissioner's Bungalow (Beach Road), Museum Theatre, and the Victoria Memorial, the Senate House (University of Madras) and the Presidency College, all located near Marina Beach.

There is also a well-preserved Art Deco architectural area at Parry's Corner.

Bharatanatyam (South Indian Classical Dance)

With accompanying song and English subtitles

Film Industry. Music. Dance.

Film Making

Chennai is an important center for film making (though less known than the film making of of Mumbai's Bollywood and Kolkata's art house cinema producers). Some of the film stars from Chennai include Hema Malini,  Asin Thottumka and Sridevi.


Chennai is hugely important in the music world as the center of traditional Carnatic music. You can see this music every December during the five-week long Music Season.


Chennai is also famous for its teaching and performances of the classical music dance form known as Bharatanatyam.

Kizhake Pogum Rail (South Indian movie)

With English subtitles

Cuisine. Festivals. Handicrafts. Other Attractions.


Come to Chennai to taste magnificent Tamil cuisine. My favorite Tamil dish is marsala dosa. My favorite Tamil drink is filter coffee. Around Chennai you find many eateries serving tasty south Indian delicacies. More about Tamil cuisine


Chennai's festivals include the Arubathimoovar Festival, the Kanthuri Festival, the Kadavi Festival, the Pongal Festival, and many others. More about Chennai's fairs and festivals.


When you visit Chennai you will see many beautiful handicrafts, including the beautiful Kanchivaram silk sarees which local women wear while being decked in gold jewelry and with jasmine adorning their hair. Other handicrafts include cane and bamboo items.

If you acquire some beautiful handicrafts of your own or to use as gifts, you visit any of the Co-optex shops, Victoria Technical Institute and the handicraft shops on Mount Road.

Other Attractions

Other interesting attractions in Chennai include the zoo, the snake park, many amusement and theme parks, and various centers for music, dance, theater, cinema and fine arts. There are many sporting clubs (for tennis, cricket etc.).

Nice day trips can be had to nearby towns such as Mahabalipuram, Pondicherry, Tirupati and Kanchipuram (some of which have wonderful temples and festivals of their own!). Mahabalipuram is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Masala Dosa

Try it... you'll love it!
Masala Dosa
Masala Dosa

Chennai: Business and Industrial Center

Chennai is a major commercial center in southern India with:

-- service industries in areas such as Information technology, software design, call centres, and BPO (business process outsourcing); and

-- manufacturers in areas such as automobile, rail, telecom (mobile phone manufacturing) and leather goods.

Books on Chennai and South India

Chennai on the Internet

Chennai Hub
More info on Chennai history, monuments, memorials and culture.

Updated: 05/22/2015, DavidPaulWagner
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Mira on 07/04/2015

Nice article, and what an amazing temple! I wish you had added more of your photos (or some other photos, from Flickr, for instance -- the ones with a free to share license).

DavidPaulWagner on 03/27/2012

Thanks for your comments, Brenda and Sheri! I am sure I could happily spend a couple of years just wandering around India!

Sheri_Oz on 03/27/2012

Wonderful presentation of this beautiful place. I hope to get back to India so I like to see what other places there are to visit there.

BrendaReeves on 03/23/2012

Great article! It sounds like a great place to visit.

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