Tamil Nadu, The Early Days

Tamil Nadu is a state on Indian’s south eastern tip sharing a maritime border with Shri Lanka. Littered with temples and Dravidian ruins, this ethnically and culturally distinct region, composed mostly of Tamil speaking Hindus (around 80 percent), is known for its vibrant culture that continues to manifest the venerable architecture, music, art, and dance traditions of the Tamil People’s Dravidian ancestors.

I arrived in Tamil Nadu’s coastal capital, Chennai, just under two weeks ago. The noisy metropolis, known as the “Detroit of India” as to its automobile industry, is India’s fourth-largest city. It’s prominent sights consist of Hindu temples, museums, British churches, vestigial colonial infrastructure, and beaches brimming with families, fishmongers, and trash.

The St. Thomas English Church built in 1843.

A goporua (an ornate temple tower), with wheels for parades, undergoes maintenance in preparation for an upcoming festival.

A tuk-tuk decomposing on the beach in Chennai. Although far from pristine, locals still flock to Chennai's beaches to fly kites and picnic.

Boy flying kite at the Marina Beach in Chennai.

I started my first day in Chennai with a visit to Fort St. George. This former British fortress, founded in 1644, now houses the Tamil Nadu legislative assembly and other government buildings. There is also a museum exhibiting artifacts of British rule such as weapons, coins, medals, and uniforms.  The complex wasn’t that interesting and I think the visit to the sundry museum exhibits could be skipped. I did enjoy my first authentic South Indian thali (essentially an Indian combo meal) served on a banana leaf while dining in the crowded canteen opposite the government buildings.

Canteen in Fort St. George.

Thali served on banana leaf.

Although Fort St. George lacked charm, had I not gone to the Fort, I would not have met Rajendran, a slight, bespectacled auto-rickshaw (or "tuk-tuk") driver who was the catalyst for a remarkable experience of South Indian life and culture.  

Rajendran approached me while I was exiting the museum at Fort St. George to inquire if I could hire him as a driver for the day. I didn’t really want a driver as I had planned, as I usually do, to explore the area on foot, but upon discerning the acuteness of the heat as I exited the museum’s shaded balcony, and being somewhat inspirited by the mild-mannered tuk-tuk driver (a contradiction in terms), I hopped into the tuk-tuk and directed Mr. Rajendran to my next destination.

Rajendran the tuk-tuk driver.

After a brief stop at the colonial era St. Mary’s Co-Cathedral Church, which resulted in a fun interaction with a group of school kids wanting their pictures taken, I continued onward to the Parthasarathy Temple, an 8th-century Hindu temple dedicated to the Lord Krishna.

At the St. Mary’s Co-Cathedral Church. I'm not sure if the school these boys attend are affiliated with the Church.

I arrived at the temple right in time for the evening Pūjā (or pooja) — a hindu devotional ritual in honor of a diety or life event.  Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple building but I was able to record the clamorous cries of a brass and percussion ensemble accompanying the Pūjā. The recording isn’t the best, but I invite you to listen to the first few minutes to appreciate a virtuosic display of fiery melodic and rhythmic vocabulary remarkably redolent of the Sun Ra Arkestra. The unrelenting music required that two drummers took turns playing as to the limits of the musicians’ endurance.

The musicians, leading a group of shirtless men carrying processional figurines honoring Lord Shiva, weaved in and out of the galvanized worshipers crowding the temple sanctuary. After around forty-five minutes, the procession made its way from the gopura, the ornate temple tower, to the mandapa, the public pavilion supported by stylized columns. At this point, members from the community waved torches and offered oblations, such as bananas and grapes, in honor of Lord Shiva.

Worshipers giving oblations in the form of fruits at the Parthasarathy temple.

Two young worshipers taking a break from temple activity. 

After the ceremony I hopped back in the tuk-tuk and Rajendran invited me to visit his home. I politely declined dinner but enjoyed a cup of masala chai in his shed-sized abode that houses his wife, mother, daughter, and son (two of his married daughters no longer live at home). Rajendran is facing hard times. He’s two months behind on his rent and unable to afford the medication for his octogenarian mother. He doubts he will be able to come by the 50,000 rupees ($735) required to send his youngest daughter to college. Rajendran is a good guy. He doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke; all his energies and funds go to provide for his family. I gave him more than double the amount that the day’s trip was worth. I wish I could have helped him more.

Rajendran and his family in their home.

The next day I explored the neighborhood around my hostel with an American guy named Joe. Joe won $20K in an essay contest to travel for a year. Chennai was the first stop on his world itinerary trip and also the first city he’s being to outside of the States. I had a blast hanging out with Joe on his first day in Chennai and witnessing his mind being constantly blown as we wondered around town, through the beach-side slums, and along the fish market adjacent to Chennai’s Marina Beach.

Walking through the beach-side slums with my camera in hand, I received many requests from locals to take their photograph.

Slums adjacent to Chennai's Marina Beach


While walking around the beach, a squadron of young men insisted that we sit and have a sip of whiskey with them. A request to which we reluctantly agreed after gauging the degree of insult in which a refusal would have resulted.

Fishmonger at the fish market adjacent to Chennai's Marina Beach.

That evening, Joe and I decided that the next day we would travel to a Mamallapuram (aka Mahabalipuram aka Mahabs) — a coastal traveler enclave just under two hours south of Chennai. We wanted to have some flexibility to visit spots along the way so I suggested that we hire Rajendran to drive us, a somewhat ludicrous proposition given that tuk-tuks are for local transport; I wanted to give him some work and I knew Rajendran was dependable and trustworthy.

Our first stop on the road towards Mamallapuram was the Cholamandal Artists’ Village. The Cholamandal commune was established in 1966 by the principal of the Madras School of Arts along with a cohort of former art students who are now venerated sculpturists and painters credited for starting Indian’s post-war modern art movement, the Madras Movement.

Our serendipitous welcome to Cholamandal occurred when we stopped to ask a man working in his front yard for directions. The man turned out to be P.S. Nandhan, one of the founders of Cholamandal. He invited us into his home studio, showed us his works, and fielded our questions about the community. When he discovered that Joe had been living in Seattle, Nandhan brought us to the home of another founder, S. Paramasivam, who has been living and working in Seattle since 1977. After chatting with Paramasivam outside his home, Nandhan gave us a tour of the gallery. Afterwards, we enjoyed a traditional Tamil Nadu meal, to which Paramasivam, who had stayed behind at home, graciously treated us.

 P.S. Nandhan inside his home studio.

 P.S. Nandhan creates granite sculptures abstractly depicting Hindu Gods.

S. Paramasivam outside his home.

After the Artists Village, we proceeded to Dakshina Chitra, a cultural center providing spaces for artists from all over Indian to display and sell their work.

Tamil Nadu artist displaying his tapestries.

Prakash, an artist from Odisha, an eastern Indian state on the Bay of Bengal. The method of engraving palm leaves with ink has been practiced by his family for seven generations.

A vendor selling weaving made in Rajasthan, a northern State bordering Pakistan.

Women preparing for a ceremonial aarti (a fire ritual) in honor of a new exhibit by artist Ashesh Joshi.

Finally, we headed to our last stop before arriving in Mamallapuram: the Madras Crocodile Bank. Our visit seeing the crocodiles (and other terrifying pre-historic creatures) was a bit rushed as we arrived just before closing but fun all the same.

Enclosure exhibiting Indian crocs.

The gharial has a face only a mother (gharial) could love. It is one of the the longest living of all crocodiles. This individual, named Gharfield, was born in 1991. The species, native to the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent, are critically endangered.

My next posts will be on my day exploring the ancient temple ruins of Mamallapuram and an account of how I got to give a speech at a marketing conference while purporting to be the representative of an Indonesian coal mine.

Until then, with peregrination,