Many asked ‘Why Chennai?’ when Liz Totton booked a trip to the coastal south Indian city. But she went anyway. And after nine days exploring by tuk tuk, came back fully versed to answer that question with confidence.
A little-known stretch of coastline is home to a lesser-known metropolis, but people are learning that Chennai and its surrounding villages are more than just the city formerly known as Madras.
Chennai is humid, chaotic and people speak in tongues incomprehensible to us as they overcharge us for everything. Alongside that resides an ancient and artistic culture, intellectualism and a powerful economy. City life is like an uncontainable festival for people of all social standings. Days are punctuated raucously and frequently by holidays and celebrations, and a visit affords a peek into the teeming daily life of its modern inhabitants. Our journey begins appropriately, with a tuk tuk driver screeching to a halt at the sight of us – unseasoned tourists. He drives in step with us, beckoning, ‘Sir, madam, please, hop in. You’ll bump around, smell and hear everything, and if you have any questions, I can answer. I live here. My name is Baba Shams. I am your driver. I drive tuk tuks for 20 years. Get in!’ Baba’s smile is endearing. It’s Saturday evening. We have no idea where to go or what to do. We ask Baba to take us somewhere ‘happening’. He turns back to us grinning and says, ‘Marina Beach market’.
A tuk tuk journey allows us to get a real feel for the city. We’re low to the ground and so close to the action that we actually feel a part of it. Our journey is 40 minutes of smells pleasant and putrid – paratha, rose petal drinks, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, cumin, turmeric, jasmine, marigolds, sandalwood and incense interspersed with garbage, urine, petrol and plumes of black smoke. Overlay those smells with the frequent near-miss collisions between the throngs of vehicles and with the intense, almost lyrical, soundtrack of vehicle horns, dogs barking, street hawkers, sirens and wedding drums, and you have a symphony – or cacophony – for the senses, depending on your mood. Baba chats the entire time, pointing and belly-laughing at things that make no sense to us, but his cheeriness is communicable. He drops us at the Marina Beach night market and tells us he’ll wait for us. We say it’s not necessary, but he pats his heart and nods, ‘I am your driver’. With this dramatic gesture, we are tethered to Baba for better or for worse. He tells us where to go and what to eat, and we are grateful for his advice.
The bustling night market’s squawking vendors sell traditional clothes, artefacts and street food. It’s a sensory overload. Spicy dishes are made to order; we sample chaat, curries, chapatis, corn roasted over hot coals, chutneys, idlis (savoury cakes smothered in zesty sauces), fresh cut fruit and enough sticky sweets to give a healthy person contact hyperglycemia. We wander back onto the busy street exhausted and full, only to find Baba exactly where he left us.
He takes us back to our hotel and asks us what we’d like to see tomorrow, sealing the deal as ‘our driver’. We tell him we’d like to see Mahabalipuram, a group of ancient carved rocks along the Coromandel Coast, about an hour’s drive south of Chennai. Baba likes this and tells us he will be at our hotel at 7am; it’s a long drive. We planned on travelling in style for this longer jaunt, but we have grown fond of Baba and the cheap fare leaves us more rupees to spare, so we agree.
Mahabalipuram-bound, Baba chuckles, ‘The three things you need to drive in India are a good horn, good brakes and good luck.’ Indian music plays and Baba dances along in his seat as we barrel down the early morning city streets, which are no less chaotic than the night before. Glass and concrete eventually give way to roaming cows, grassland, ancient sights and glimpses of the Bay of Bengal. The tuk tuk ride becomes almost enjoyable with the jangly music, Baba’s honking at wayward cows in the road and shouting at the erratic trucks around us.
Within an hour, we are at Mahabalipuram, a site for tourists – large groups of Indian school children and a few curious westerners. We wander through the mandapas (cave sanctuaries) and take in giant open-air reliefs such as the famous ‘Descent of the Ganges’.
It’s not lost on us that we are walking paths and admiring sculptures created during the First Century AD. This group of monuments has been classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and it’s well worth a day trip, but to really experience it, we’d suggest staying for longer. Mahabalipuram could take days to explore if you have an interest in history or art.
Baba Shams happily waits at every stop for us. He is happy to keep the merriment – and the fare – going, and seemingly needs no sleep at all, but our long day is done. He drives us back to our hotel and the cost of our transport comes to no more than what we might pay for a single breakfast in our home country, and he is thrilled to have earned it. As we take leave of the tuk tuk, Baba rubs his hands together and asks, ‘Where are we going tomorrow?’ He is ‘our driver’ after all.
Chennai is full of surprises. The intrepid traveller will be enamoured by the city and its cacophony of sounds, but those who want a quieter experience should head further south to enjoy all the pleasures of India.
If you tire of the busy streets of Chennai, find respite at Huddleston Gardens in the Theosophical Society. Established in 1875, the sprawling estate is a landmark situated on the banks of an estuary. The garden boasts numerous species of bird, bat, snake, cat, hare, monkey, jackal and spider. If fauna’s not your thing, marvel at the flora. Also seek out the 450-year-old ‘Giant Banyan Tree’.
Need to know
Emirates flies direct to Chennai from Dhs1,070 return. www.emirates.com.