Things to Do in Chennai
The British East India Company constructed Fort St. George (their first fortress in India) in 1640. The 20-foot (6-meter) thick outer walls surround a complex of white colonial structures, known historically as ‘White City,’ including St Mary’s, the oldest Anglican church in Asia.
Located within the walls of Fort St. George, St. Mary’s Church is the oldest masonry building within the fort. This small church was consecrated in 1680 and was likely the first Anglican church in Asia. It’s also the oldest remaining English church in India. Work began on the church in 1678 on Our Lady’s Day, giving it its current name.
A complex of stone temples are all that remain of the eighth-century Pallava dynasty that once thrived at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), on the coast south of Chennai. Learn the history of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, visit the charming town, and relax on a sandy stretch of shore—all accessible on a day trip from Chennai.
Stretching around 8 miles (13 kilometers) along Chennai, Marina Beach is India’s longest natural urban beach. While not an ideal swimming beach, Marina Beach makes an excellent spot for people watching in the cooler hours of the morning and evening, when the main stretch near Triplicane becomes a flurry of activity.
Chennai’s most famous temple, the 7th-century Kapaleeshwar Temple honors the god Shiva with shrines dedicated to many other deities in the South Indian pantheon. The working temple offers a good example of classical Dravidian architecture, with a stepped pyramid design blanketed in colorful statues of gods, demons, warriors and royalty.
Nicknamed the “Golden City of 1,000 Temples,” Kanchipuram was the capital city of the Pallava Dynasty in Tamil Nadu and boasts numerous intricately carved shrines, most dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva. The city’s buildings also offer an excellent chance to admire examples of Dravidian architecture.
The 16th-century Sao Thome Cathedral, built by the Portuguese and later rebuilt by the British, is said to house the bodily remains of St. Thomas, who came to India in 52 AD, in a tomb below the white neo-Gothic structure. Interior highlights include a series of stained glass windows inside the basilica depicting scenes from St. Thomas’s life as well as carved wooden panels of the Stations of the Cross.
Spread across six structures with 46 galleries, the Government Museum houses Chennai’s best collection of scientific and artistic artifacts. It also houses the most impressive collection of Pallava and Chola bronze sculptures (dating back to the 10th and 13th centuries) anywhere in the world.
Known alternatively as Besant Nagar Beach, or “Bessie” for short, Elliot's Beach sits at the south end of the Marina Beach shore. A former expatriate enclave during Chennai’s colonial era, today the beach attracts throngs of twentysomethings, as well as families looking to avoid the crowds at the more popular Marina Beach.
Inaugurated in July of 1892, the Madras High Court is one of only three (along with Mumbai and Kolkata) in modern India that was established by royal charter under Queen Victoria. Architecturally, it’s one of the city’s most stunning examples of the Indo-Saracenic aesthetic, displaying Moorish, European, Islamic and Hindu elements in its red sandstone facade.
The domes, minarets and other decorative elements of the building’s exterior are matched in grandeur within, where guided tours take visitors through the various court rooms, many appointed with stained glass windows and exquisite works of art.
An interesting note: The Madras High Court is one of the few buildings in India to have been damaged by a German attack during the early years of World War I.
More Things to Do in Chennai
Founded in 1936, the Kalakshetra Foundation is the leading academy of the arts in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with a focus on the traditional dances and music styles of the region. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the school’s founder, studied dance under Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The word “kalakshetra” means “holy place of the arts.”
According to legend, St. Thomas, a disciple of Christ, lived out the remainder of his days in a rocky cave, known as Little Mount (Chinnamalai). Today, Little Mount is home to a Portuguese church dating back to 1551, as well as a small altar to St. Thomas and a palm print believed by some to be left by Thomas himself as he fled.
The heart of cultural life in Chennai, Mylapore is a charming neighborhood characterized by broad, tree-lined streets coupled with narrow roads and myriad temples, churches, and restaurants. Its star attraction is the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, though it's also home to the San Thome Basilica, which houses the tomb of Thomas the Apostle.
Built in the Indo-Saracenic architectural style, the Ripon Building serves as the headquarters of the Corporation of Chennai, the oldest municipal body of the Commonwealth outside Great Britain. The highlight of the structure is the 8-foot (2.5-meter) clock, known as the Westminster Chiming Clock, on the building’s central tower.
Established in 1885, the Arignar Anna Zoological Park (Vandalur Zoo) is the oldest public zoo in India. It’s been transformed and relocated over the years, and today the zoo can be found in Vandalu, just over 30 kilometers from Chennai. It’s home to hundreds of species of wild animals, many of which are considered endangered, and serves as a wildlife sanctuary and center for rehabilitating rescued animals.
The Arignar Anna Zoological Park is a large and well-maintained space with plenty of plant and wildlife out in the open. Visitors can tour the expansive grounds on bicycles or by using one of the zoo’s electric vehicles to zip around. Most of the main attractions are located along the park’s inner pathways, where the large animals such as tigers, panthers, and elephants live. There are a whole host of other mammals, reptiles, birdlife, fish, and butterflies to visit throughout the rest of the park too.
Just south of Chennai, the heritage village of DakshinaChitra, was established to help preserve the folk art and cultural traditions of southern India. Artisans trained in traditional techniques work right on the property, making pots, baskets, woven silk pieces, puppets and stone carvings that visitors can purchase directly.
Built for Armenian traders in India in 1712, the Armenian Church, also known as the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, is among the oldest churches in the country. Though it no longer functions as a house of worship, the church is still maintained as a historical attraction and is funded by the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The National Art Gallery, one of six individual museums comprising the Chennai Government Museum, is one of the oldest art galleries in the country. The red sandstone Indo-Sarasenic building was designed by architect Henry Irwin and completed in 1906 as part of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The gallery was closed in 2002 when its deteriorating state threatened both visitor safety and the art, but after an extensive renovation in 2013, the gallery re-opened to the public.
The National Art Gallery is subdivided into four smaller galleries: the Tanjore Painting Gallery, Decorative Art Gallery, Indian Traditional Art Gallery and the Ravi Varma Painting Gallery. Besides paintings in various mediums, the gallery also showcases a small collection of sandalwood sculptures.
Auroville was birthed in the late 1960s by Mirra Alfassa, known to her followers as The Mother, as a universal town where unity and spirituality would be celebrated. Today, the town has a population of over 2,000 people from 45 different countries and a range of age groups, backgrounds and social classes.
At the center of Auroville sits Matrimandir, the gold-domed Temple of the Mother, where residents come to meditate. The Auroville Visitors Centre offers an introductory video about the project, and travelers willing to spend more than a day passing through can sign up to participate in meditation, yoga, dance, martial arts and inner healing workshops. Many projects happening around town welcome volunteers, some for as little as a day and others for a week or month at a time.
Locally known as "the Kirk" (Scottish for "the church"), St. Andrew's Church in Chennai was built in 1821 for Scottish Presbyterians in the British Army, and today most of its clergy are from India. It was modeled after St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London and features Palladian architecture, complete with pillars with Corinthian capitals.
Occupying 10 acres (4 hectares) in a quiet wooded area outside Chennai, Cholamandal Artists’ Village is the largest self-supporting artists’ village in India. Home to two dozen painters and sculptors, the commune is an excellent place to feel the pulse of Chennai’s contemporary arts scene.
Valluvar Kottam was constructed in 1976 as a shrine in memory of poet Thiruvalluvar, author of Thirukkural, a collection of more than a thousand rhyming Tamil couplets that expound simplicity of life and set a moral code for his followers. Thiruvalluvar lived and wrote during the first century BC in what is now Chennai.
Situated in Chennai’s Mylapore neighborhood, this temple was constructed in 1952 by a devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba, a 19th-century saint who preached compassion, love, and religious tolerance. It's but one of many temples to the saint across India and the oldest Sai Baba temple in Chennai.
Believed to be the oldest church in Chennai, Luz Church (Shrine of Our Lady of Light) was built in 1516 by Franciscan missionaries from Portugal. The Gothic and baroque structure, besides being one of the oldest European monuments in India, is also a classic example of Portuguese colonial church architecture.
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