Category Archives: travel

400 yards of Anna Salai

[I wrote this in January 2001, when we first arrived in Chennai. The Connemara Hotel is an Art Deco masterpiece, Spenser Plaza is the oldest shopping plaza in India, built on the site of the original Spencer’s Department Store. To retrace this walk at present is tricky due to the excavations for the Chennai Metro. The pavement shops have gone and the hoardings are mainly plastic sheet, now, instead of hand-painted. But the buses still stop at the junction!]

When I leave the Connemara to walk round to Eunice’s office, I am leaving a place where a room and breakfast cost $130 a night: that is 8000 rupees a day. The official poverty line in India is about 60 cents a day, so what I spend on a night in the hotel could support 216 people. I find this quite difficult to imagine.

Anyway, on leaving the hotel, I first see the auto-rickshaw drivers waiting by the gate (they’re not allowed into the hotel grounds). They don’t try to persuade me to use their services any more, as I do this walk every day. If I do want to do a trip, I try to use Navin, who is a good driver and has a good rickshaw. He lives with his family in a slum replacement property by the river, measuring 10 x 15 feet. One door and no windows, and I don’t know how many people live in it.

Then comes the first stretch of “pavement” up to the corner. I put it in inverted commas, since it is really only earth and broken slabs. There is a useful electricity junction box here – useful as a place behind which the men can go for a pee (although it is not exactly private, and I don’t know what the reaction would be if I went for a pee there). There is also the first of the beggars, a guy with withered legs who has a hand-pedalled cart to get around on. Two lads of about 7 and 10 work here with a hand pump, inflating bike tyres for a small charge.

Approaching the corner there are some stalls which conveniently block the pavement and force pedestrians into the road. We have:

  1. a fast food stall, serving water, tea and coffee; curry and rice (and pretty good it looks)
  2. a stall from which you can phone and fax (international too)
  3. a flower stall
  4. a woman with a machine which crushes sugar cane to make juice
  5. a cobbler
  6. a guy who appears to cut up inner tubes, for some mysterious purpose
  7. a book seller.


Towering above these are the advertising hoardings for which India is famous. These are mainly made of tin sheets tacked to flimsy wooden or bamboo poles, and hand painted, even down to extremely accurate trademarks. Camel trousers are on one, and Arrow shirts on another. Most days there are some guys clinging onto the poles with one hand while painting with the other. There are certainly no safety harnesses. These hoardings are perhaps only 30 feet above the pavement, but some in the centre of town are about 120 feet up.

On the corner, which is railed off for safety, is the unofficial bus stop where everyone gets off into the middle of the turn left lane, since the official stops are too far away from the junction for convenience. It adds another thrill of excitement to getting off a bus, to add to the thrill of hanging onto the outside since the inside is full. I have seen 10 lads hanging on to one bus doorway with just the toes of one foot in contact with the bottom step.

Next I see the two old men, one who makes belts and the other who mends sandals. They can’t afford a stall, so they squat on the pavement at exactly the right level to inhale the exhaust fumes. They shade themselves with gunny bags tied to the railings behind and stretched forward to loop over one toe.

There is usually a woman with a baby begging here – I am in two minds whether to give, but the advice from Eunice’s staff is not to – and 2 or 3 kids who shout hello and try to shake my hand. They also want rupees.

We hit the entrance to the Spencer Plaza next, a multi-storey fully air-conditioned shopping centre. Only cars are allowed in the parking, so the rickshaws are forced to park illegally outside on the road, adding to the congestion. Spencers is popular in Chennai because of the a/c, but it is claustrophobic inside, full of little stalls, and I was glad not to have been there the other day when FoodWorld caught fire.

This is the main road of Chennai, so some big offices come next, each with its pavement resident: the man who sells lottery tickets, the woman who sells fresh coconuts, the two elderly cripples outside the shop which sells fridges, more books and belts, a guy who appear to sell plastic netting which I think is for storing fruit in.

The exciting part of the walk, where the pulse rate goes up, is where the pavement disappears for 50 yards. Pedestrians are the lowest form of life, whatever their skin colour, but just here there are not many places to jump to, as there is a high wall along the road. At least going to Eunice’s office I can see what is coming and squeeze in – coming back, I need eyes in the back of my head.

Just where the pavement restarts you get a part you don’t want to use. I am no electrical expert, but I feel somehow that cables sheathed in metal which is peeling off should be safely underground and not poking out of the ground. I tiptoe amongst them, but in the rainy season it must be interesting just here.

Across the entrance to the garage forecourt I stop and start, as the cars and rickshaws wheel in at full speed from the main road and I am expected to know which point they are aiming at. The same is true of the two streets whose entrances I cross here, where vehicles coming in and out do not stop for people. I have had cars nudging my legs before now.

I am approaching the lane to the office now, and only have to detour round another informal toilet (behind another junction box – I am glad I don’t work for the electricity board) and sidestep another beggar, before I can turn in. I have been ignored by most people, stared at by some, importuned by about 6, and that’s life on this bit of street.



It is the long school holidays and Hubert recently took his family down to Gingee for the day. This is a historic site a couple of hours drive south of Chennai, and is pronounced “Shinji”. Getting there from Pondicherry is even easier, but despite its attractions few westerners ever visit – perhaps this is because it does not fit into a standard touring programme.

Gingee needs a full day, and the challenge is to get there as it opens and do the hill-top sites before midday; you can then picnic under the trees at the foot of the hill and have a siesta through the worst of the heat before finishing off with the tanks and temples.


For Gingee is a royal site, constructed around three isolated hills of tumbled rock. Stone stairs take you up each hill, through gateways and a series of encircling walls, to the summit from which a stunning view opens out of the plains: and from there you see the strategic nature of the place, guarding a key route from the plataeu to the plains. The stonework is particularly fine in the way in which it is buttressed into the huge boulders, leaving little or no room for invaders to clamber up.


It was Vijayanagara who developed Gingee into a strategic outpost from the 15th century, but like all South India forts it changed hands many times, ending up with the East India Company forces in 1762. By the end of the 18th century it has lost its value and was abandoned.

The Archaeological Survey have been busy in Gingee for years and are gradually bringing back to life the massive granaries, the elephant tank (with a ramp down which the elephants could walk into the water), a possible royal residence, a mosque and several temples.

Bird-watching in Tamil Nadu


You don’t have to be a dedicated twitcher to get pleasure from bird watching in Tamil Nadu.  Whether you are in town, in the country or on the road there is always something to see. When we lived in Chennai I got considerable pleasure from sitting with my morning coffee on our upstairs terrace watching the visiting bulbuls and mynahs, the whiskery coppersmith barbet and the flameback – a species of woodpecker – who regularly tried to make an impression on our neighbour’s metal chimney.

In the front garden we saw kingfishers and flights of parakeets.   We sometimes welcomed small hawks. There was one memorable occasion when we played host to a very bemused owl who had suffered some kind of trauma – we never discovered what. We offered him some water and some mince as well as protection in an outbuilding.  He stayed for two nights and then vanished as suddenly as he arrived.

My evening swim at the Madras Club was accompanied by the shrieks of parakeets and occasionally by some small bats (OK not birds but they were flying) snatching a drink from the pool as I swam up and down. The gardens at the Club contain some very large old trees providing a home for many birds including hoopoes and woodpeckers.

On long drives a study of the telephone wires will reveal drongos, bee-eaters, Indian rollers, swallows and swifts as well as an occasional hawk.  In the paddy fields of course you find the Paddy Bird or Pond Heron as well as hosts of egrets and cormorants.  Egrets come in several varieties including little, great and intermediate – what ignominy for an egret to be “intermediate”.

Every trip provides the opportunity to tick off a few more birds from the book.

Orange County Resort produced not just a spectacular crop of birds but Ganapathy, a very knowledgeable guide who was so delighted that we were interested in the birds as very few visitors seemed to notice them.

You don’t have to go far off the beaten track to find outstanding wetland reserves with water birds of astonishing size and variety – Vedanthangal near Chennai is a short detour from the main highway.  Winter breeding species include painted storks, pelicans, spoonbills and ibis who are so close that you feel you can almost touch them.

We now spend part of the year at a house at the foot of the Palani Hills where there is a group of excellent homestays.   Visiting ornithologists have identified 185 species of birds in the valley – we haven’t seen all of them by any means but you can knock off 20 or 30 without moving far from your chair.  As I have been writing this a lovely little sunbird has paid his daily visit to our window to check his reflection. And I can hear the red wattled lapwing and the peacocks calling through the open door.

To become a bird watcher in India all you need is some patience, a reasonable pair of binoculars and a copy of the Field Guide to the Birds of India. Enjoy.

Celestial Wedding at Madurai

On arriving in India it was not long before we were struck by the way in which religion is interwoven into all aspects of Indian life, rather than being compartmentalised to certain days or certain events, as is so often the case in the west. Everything, in India, has a religious aspect. [The office even had to sign the lease on our house during an auspicious time slot].

The recently concluded Chithirai festival centred around the Meenakshi temple in Madurai exemplifies the central role of the gods in Indian life.

This is a 12-day festival celebrating the two gods who reside in the temple – the Goddess Meenakshi herself, who presides, and her consort Lord Sundareswarar. Meenakshi was the daughter of a Pandyan king, and is an incarnation of Parvati, sister of Lord Vishnu, and Sundareswarar is an incarnation of Lord Siva, and so the festival is also seen as bringing together Saivites and Vaishnavites – two sects of Hinduism who have not always seen eye to eye.

The wedding is often depicted as a relief on the gopurams of a temple – our photo is taken at the Meenakshi temple itself.

The Celestial Wedding was celebrated last Tuesday. 13,000 people packed into the temple to witness the event and thousands more saw it relayed onto LED screens around the city. From the temple at Tirupparankundram (see our blog of 21st February) the deities Lord Subramaniasamy and Lord Pavalakanival Perumal came on their chariots to be witnesses to the marriage.

On the same day, Lord Kallazhagar left his temple at Alagarkoil (some 20km to the north of Madurai) riding his golden horse to join the celebrations. Legend has it that he was angered by the fact that the original wedding was solemnised before he got to Madurai, and so now his journey from Alagarkoil is timed to arrive two days later, when he is bathed in the waters of the Vaigai river to cool his anger.

This year, as so often these days, there was no water in the Vaigai, but due to the importance of the festival a certain amount was especially released from the Vaigai dam. I read in the papers in February an estimate of water needs for the district, for irrigation, industry, household use – and for Lord Kallazhagar’s sacred bath, despite the drought. Some things are important.


Chennai has naturally expanded over the centuries to incorporate a number of what were once small villages. Mylapore existed in fact many centuries before Chennai was founded but is now surrounded by modern high-rises and offices and cut in half by the Chennai Metro (the new elevated railway): however, it still has a traditional small-town “feel”.

Most visitors to south India pass quite quickly through Chennai – it is true that since the city has no centre, and using public transport is a bit of a challenge, seeing the sights involves a lot of driving around getting steadily hotter and more and more stressed. But for those with time and energy, a walk around Mylapore is worthwhile.


The focus is the Kapaleeswarar temple and its tank, which were recently spruced up. The temple is dedicated to Siva in his incarnation as a peacock. The Tamil word for peacock is mayil, and puram is a word ending meaning town or village, hence “peacock-town”. [Tamil Nadu is full of -purs and -purams]. During the 7th and 8th centuries it was an important port of the Pallavas, but it must have declined after that since when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, taking over the coastal strip and developing the settlement of San Thome, they were easily able to destroy the original temple and nudge Mylapore inland where the temple was rebuilt.

The streets of Mylapore are busy in the early morning with visitors to the temple and the morning walkers: Chennaites who are retired or who don’t have walk for a living are keen on the exercise and after the morning puja take to the streets around 5am before the increase in traffic makes walking too exciting. Then in the late afternoon and evening the shops are alive with customers.

We go to Mylapore for certain key items. I buy my lungis there, for example. The main Nalli shop is in T Nagar, and you would need to go there for silks and saris, but for the simple Madras cotton lungi, Nalli’s in Mylapore has an excellent choice. I shall blog later about the lungi and its versatility. Then there are a number of good shops selling steel kitchenware including plates and tumblers, which are invaluable as they are completely indestructible. We use them on picnics, and in the hotel rooms for that necessary nightcap. When we lived in Chennai a German woman took an entire dinner service home from Chennai, all in steel, and apparently caused quite a stir in the fashionable part of Berlin!

… or whether the weather be hot …

Today (April 17th) is the day when the sun passes directly overhead our cottage in the south of Tamil Nadu. This is according to my Table of the Declination of the Sun, which I downloaded from We are situated 10 degrees north of the equator, so today at solar noon (which is around twenty past twelve Indian time) there will be no shadows cast. And from tomorrow the sun starts to shine on the back of the cottage and the front terrace gets a little bit of shade.

It is already hot. The drought conditions due to the deficient 2012 monsoon have left the countryside parched with less than a third of the agricultural land being used. Water “arguments”, shall we say, between the southern states, are getting hotter too. Many of Tamil Nadu’s key rivers for irrigation rise in Kerala or Karnataka, and the water sharing agreements are based on ancient formulae calculated when the demands of each state were quite different.

The dam in front of the cottage is rapidly emptying. The water is piped to Dindigul for drinking purposes, and water rationing has been in place there for some time. In Chennai too the city authorities are re-opening the deep wells to the south of the city which were last used during the drought years of 2003 and 2004. We were living in Chennai at that time, and had no running water to the house for 3 years! I bought a tanker of water every 2 weeks for household use.

Mid-April is the start of the Tamil month of Chittirai, followed by Vaikaci – the two hottest months of the year when the temperature on the plains during the first two weeks of May can get into the low to mid 40s. This is not as hot as a Delhi summer, but quite enough! May is the month when the hill stations of Ooty and Kodaikanal are crowded with people fleeing the heat, and I will blog later about the flower show at Kodai.

Naturally, the sun passes back overhead at some stage – in fact towards the end of August – but it is not nearly so hot. The monsoon has started by then along the west coast and the clouds spill over the mountains into Tamil Nadu – sometimes with rain, though not always – giving welcome shade. It is a very pleasant time to visit if you can’t make the winter season from December to March.

On the streets of Chennai



The Chennai traffic police reckon that there are 18 different types of conveyance using the roads. This partly accounts for the congestion and rather stop/start style of driving. I have so far seen the following road users:

1.         The Urban Cow. More noticeable at night, they stroll around the streets rummaging in rubbish bins. They all seem to belong to someone, and seem to be able to navigate the streets to and from home. Like all other traffic users, they change lanes without signalling.

2.         Bullock carts. Usually 4 wheel carts for heavy goods. The horns of the beast are often painted red or green, and decorated on the tips with bells.

3.         Horses. We have men on horses for two main reasons: either it is a groom going to a wedding, such as the one at the hotel last Sunday, or the complete opposite, a lad taking horse down to the beach to offer rides where they gallop bareback up and down the sand trying to whip up custom. In the first case, the procession goes at walking pace – the wedding we saw was preceded by the Jaleb Punjab Band – “full brass band and orchestra” – who gave quantity of sound in preference to quality, then male relatives dancing, the groom on horseback, sitting on red and gold cloth and shaded by a red and gold umbrella, followed by female relatives dancing with in this case torches made of fluorescent tubes tied to sticks, all linked together with a cable to a car battery, so they couldn’t move far apart.

4.         Horse drawn carriages. These seem to be reserved for weddings, though there are some horse buggies around. I saw a wonderful old photo of a woman’s grandparents in their phaeton, with two grooms and two running footmen, up in the hills. It was taken on the last occasion the carriage was used before the car arrived.

5.         Pedestrians. The pavements are not people-friendly at all, and in places disappear completely. Where they do exist, they are a suitable site for beggars; salesmen; stalls selling tea and coffee, sugar cane juice, and snacks; shoe polishers and repairers; cows; and of course parking.</pIMG_9156

6.         Men pulling and pushing things. 2, 3 and 4 wheel carts abound. I have seen big wooden barrows like the market porters use, a sort of giant supermarket trolley, 4 wheel carts with a man harnessed rather than a bullock – any combination you can imagine.

7.         Bicycles. A popular form of transport, though we never had the courage to get ours out of the drive. Driving consists of going for the smallest advantage, turning across the oncoming traffic, taking traffic lights and one way signs as merely advisory – and bikes are way down the pecking order only ahead of pedestrians. Bikes are designed for 2 people – one on the rack – and sometimes 3. Single occupancy bikes are a waste of an opportunity to transport someone else.

8.         Other pedal driven things. The best is the cycle rickshaw, which takes two in comfort unless you have a western-sized bum. It is tricycle based. There is a cargo equivalent, where the seats are replaced by a flat wooden platform. I have also seen tricycles with two wheels at the front, and hand pedalled invalid carriages.

9.         The auto rickshaw. This is a ubiquitous three-wheeler which is the main form of transport. It seats two in comfort behind the driver – which means that many more than this can pile in in practice. We saw 7 students get out of one outside the university – apparently they were not going for any records – and one of Eunice’s staff told us that the ones which do the school run have an extra shelf seat for the little ones, and by hanging the school bags outside can take up to 15 kids. If you see what looks like a motorised Xmas tree, take care. It has a little 2 stroke engine, but can get up to quite a speed. I took one the other day which had a leather interior and a 4 speaker Pioneer stereo system, which took me down the main drag at 50 kph. Of course the main disadvantage is that you are seated exactly at the level of the average bus exhaust.

            The auto rickshaw has two variations. In one, the seat area is converted into a van, which is amazingly useful for the small alleys, and the other where it is converted to take an articulated 2 wheel trailer.

10.       Motorised two and three wheelers. There are so many varieties of these. Ordinary scooters and motor bikes are very common and thank goodness here in the south that their owners don’t trade them in for cars. The scooter was once advertised by Government as an ideal family vehicle, and a good reason to limit your family to 4. The elder child sits in front of dad, who naturally drives, and the baby is held by mum who sits side-saddle on the back. I am amazed that all the trailing bits of sari and scarf don’t get tangled in the wheels more often, though they all have sari guards fitted. Then there are the pedal vehicles which have been motorised, like the fish carts (which carried the fish from the beach in the old days). The driver sits high off the ground, and can supplement the motor with pedalling when the going gets tough. These can also become people carriers, with the addition of seats and maybe a roof. I saw one with 7 school kids in the other day.

11.       Cars. All shapes and sizes. The classic vehicle is of course the famous Hindustan Ambassador, which was a Morris Oxford in earlier life. Bench seats, with a certain style. You can get air conditioned ones too. It is considered bad form to actually bump into another vehicle (although bikes don’t count much) so despite the total lack of lane discipline and much jockeying for pole position at the lights, there are few scrapes. Crossing the central white line to gain a few yards advantage, irrespective of oncoming traffic, is normal. 

12.       Vans, lorries and buses. The buses are the kings of the road, with a ground clearance of about 2 feet so you need to be pretty fit to get on board. They tank down the road with horns blaring, and people hop off and on wherever they can – particularly at the traffic lights, when they get off in the middle of the road and then have to run the gauntlet of all the traffic filtering left. Mind you, horns are used by everyone all the time. It is more to make a noise to let people know you are there, as it has no discernible impact on the way people actually drive. They even hoot when stopped at the lights.

I think that’s more than 18, if you break down the sub-groups. But I am sure that there will be more weird and wonderful road experiences just around the next corner – after all, this is just Chennai city!

To the beach!


The Marina Beach in Chennai is described as the largest urban or city beach in India, and the second largest in the world (but without mentioning which is the largest). It stretches between the mouths of the two rivers crossing the city, the Cooum to the north and the Adyar to the south. Over 100 years ago the then Governor, Grant Duff, decided that the stretch behind the beach would be laid out as a promenade, and subsequent harbour work has encouraged the sand to accumulate. The beach is now 300 to 400 metres wide from road to sea, and about 13 km long.

 Sunday evening is the time to visit, when an estimated 50,000 Chennaites come down to the sea to escape the heat and the mosquitoes. The beach is full of vendors – food, drinks and souvenirs; you can go horse-riding, there are informal cricket pitches everywhere; small fairground rides are set out. People come with banana leaf offerings and make puja at the water’s edge, some daring ones splash around in the waves. Although the sun is setting behind the city, the pink afterglow is picked up by the clouds and carried right round to the eastern horizon.

Everyone is in a good mood, and this is the best way to meet people of all descriptions on neutral territory, as it were. European visitors are rare, and it is advisable to make sure your camera is fully charged since everyone wants a photo with you, of you and of themselves.


Swimming is not advisable. There is a strong undertow and treacherous sideways currents. The occasional rogue wave takes people unawares, and there are frequent accidents. It still makes our blood curdle when we think of the tsunami in 2004. This hit the beach on Boxing Day Sunday, at 8.40 in the morning. The waves crossed the entire width of the sand, then the parking area, then the promenade, then the road, and into the grounds of the police headquarters. But the majority of the morning walkers had finished and gone home; and few cricketers had yet arrived. 200 people were swept away, which is a tragedy, but imagine the disaster had the wave struck that evening.


We have a particular liking for the small temple inside the fort at Vellore, which is not on the usual tour circuit of Tamil Nadu. The temple compound contains a small mandapam, or hall, with some of the finest stone carving we have seen. The fort was occupied by the British for two centuries and for much of that time the temple was de-sanctified and used as an arsenal – hence the temple is unimproved and the carving largely undamaged.


The carvings range from the sacred to the profane to the amusing. One large block has a very small gecko on it in relief – implying the painstaking removal of a huge layer of extraneous stone (like the Greek herm). Another decorative panel has an elephant and a bull – which share a head. Somehow the elephant’s tusks become the bull’s ears. The platform on which the VIPs sat rides on a turtle, albeit a very flat one! The main columns are beautifully carved with riders on horses and mythical beasts, fighting wild animals.


All of this is done in granite, not the easiest rock to carve. In fact the entire fort is made of granite from the surrounding hills. Vellore fort was built in 1566 by the Vijayanagara Empire, fell into the hands of the Marathas, then the Mughals, and then the British from 1760. The first mutiny against the British in India happened at Vellore in 1806. The fort is now managed as a historic monument by the Archaeological Survey of India.

Vellore can be visited easily in a day trip from Chennai, perhaps combined with Kanchipuram, famous for temples and silk-weaving.

Let’s go clubbing!


We leave India tomorrow for Glasgow, and it’s going to be quite a shock! Daytime temperature around 5 degrees with a cold north-easterly wind, which will make it seem a lot colder. Here in Chennai we have finished our morning walk round the Club garden and at 8am it is already quite warm. It should hit the mid-30s by the afternoon, but at the moment the humidity is over 90% so it seems a lot hotter.

We are staying at the Madras Club. It was founded in 1832, and is the second oldest surviving club in India, after the Bengal Club in Calcutta. 50 years ago it moved to occupy a heritage building on the banks of the Adyar River, a building which was constructed in the 1780s as a weekend retreat for George Moubray who was the first accountant at Fort St George and was on the Grain Committee during the terrible famine of 1781. He clearly amassed quite a sizeable personal fortune out of one thing or another! The building has a splendid ballroom with a wooden sprung floor, and (anecdotally) guests could ride over to dance parties from Fort St George, some 6km away, through what were then mostly small villages surrounded with bush, and hunt deer on the way! 

The Madras Club garden rolls down to the Adyar on which this morning the scullers of the nearby Madras Boat Club were out practicing. Huge flocks of egrets were rooting around in the floating mats of water hyacinth, and a woodland park has been opened along the opposite bank for morning and evening walks. Until a year ago this was a fairly scruffy bit of river, although I have seen small groups of spotted deer coming down to the river to drink. Chennai is one of the few cities with a national park inside city limits, at Guindy, which is about 3 km away.

Writers often seem to imply that Club life in India is something peculiar, but from hearing my father talk I think that a member of any golf club in UK would feel quite at home here. Club employees stay on till long after retirement and remember your grandfather; members band together in solidarity about certain issues and have bitter arguments about others; and the committee never get any thanks!