As winter hovered ever closer, the call of India came on strong once more, and a trip to London to organise the visa and air travel was inevitable. Once again Trailfinders in Kensington High Street were very obliging in getting the visa (which seems to get more complicated every time I have to apply for one.) plus a direct flight into Chennai from BA who once more, gave me a good, no hassles flight (with plenty of orange juice!) returning to the city I flew out from in Jan 2009.
I had managed to avoid Chennai City on that January homeward leg by going from Pondicherry (Puducherry) to Chennai airport by taxi. However this trip I allowed for a few days in a city which I had not visited since 1986 when it was called Madras, and was a lot quieter than it is now! My memories of it then, like the negatives in their files, are all black and white.
A lot of the budget hotels are in Triplicane, right in the thick of it. On recommendation from my trusty “Lonely Planet” guidebook, I chose the “Paradise Guest House” on Vallabha Agraharham Street, the street itself is not particularly salubrious but the hotel options seem OK if you ignore the setting. The Comfort Inn a few doors down seemed very nice, but at more than double the room rates of the Paradise’s Rs 450, the budget option seemed sensible. The staff were helpful and Chennai’s electricity problems meant that only once I had to walk up three floors in semi darkness due to the lift not working.
But the traffic on Triplicane High Road and indeed almost everywhere I went in the city was something else entirely, the words relentless, mad and suicidal come to mind. One has to exercise great caution crossing main roads. There are a few underpasses, and if you are out and about in the early evening when the electricity fails, try not to be in the middle of an underpass unless you have been eating a lot of carrots or have x-ray vision. My early training in photographic darkrooms paid off, after all a dark tunnel is just a very long darkroom and glimpses of other (more foresighted) people’s torches in the distance confirmed the way, as long as I didn’t fall over anything or anybody on route.
There is a huge nuclear power station between Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry further down the coast, puzzled, I asked an erudite local, “Why does the power keep going off? Do they have to keep stopping the reactor and throwing buckets of water over it to keep it cool?” He cracked a grin. “No, 70% of the electricity goes to Chennai to power the trains. The rest goes to Bangalore, we get the dregs.” So the trains take the drain and only some of the strain.
The rickshaw drivers in Chennai are also something else. Lets just say that money seems to mean a lot to them. I never want to meet another one.
The Government Museum is set in some grand buildings in nice grounds and contains some excellent exhibits, the Bronze Gallery full of ancient, exquisitely detailed, bronzes of the deities was my favourite. A Shiva Nataraja was carefully lit to produce a charming shadow – now I know why Ma Kali never has the time to brush Her hair.
Shri Ramakrisna, who’s Belur Math in Calcutta (Kolkata) and the Kali temple of Dakshiswar where he lived most of his life, was a firm favourite of mine in 2009 (see the “Calcutta and Shantiniketan” page of this blog). He also has a temple in Chennai, which is an oasis of calm in the hectic city. Just sitting in the huge temple hall looking towards his likeness at the end of the room brings a sense of peace; the grounds around the temple complex are tranquil and well kept. The bookshop has hundreds of books about him and Sri Serada Devi and by and about his successor Swami Vivekanandar the “wondering monk” who took Hinduism to the world when he toured the USA and Europe in the late 19thC. The Vivekanandar Illam at Marina Beach where he stayed for a while, has his story well laid out and presented in a permanent exhibition, its definitely worth a visit.