Things to Do in Chennai
The British East India Company constructed their first fortress in India in 1640 along a strip of sand on lease from the Raja, allowing them a foothold for expansion in India. 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.
Until recently, Fort St George housed the Tamil Nadu Secretariat & Legislative Assembly, and the Fort Museum remains open to the public and is now housed within an old East India Company exchange. The museum’s collection displays portraits, paintings, photographs, British governmental uniforms and East India Company porcelain, among other Raj relics.
Pay attention to the signage when visiting the compound, as several areas and buildings are closed to the public. If you want to avoid crowds at the security check, set aside a few hours on a Sunday morning for your visit.
Near the San Thome Cathedral in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai sits the Kapaleeshwar Temple (spelled Kapaleeshwarar or Kapaleshwar too). The most impressive temple in the city by far, Kapaleeshwar 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. The detailing makes the temple exterior busy to the point where you don't quite know where to rest your eyes, but the structure is quite photogenic.
You're likely to see many more devotees than tourists at the temple, so you'll get a realistic insight into what modern temple worship looks like, particularly during the weekly Friday worship services. To avoid the crowds, show up at 6 am when the temple first opens.
Saint Thomas the Apostle, or ‘Doubting Thomas,’ as he was later called, came to India in 52 AD where he purportedly lived out the remainder of his days. The 16th century Sao Thome Cathedral, built by the Roman Catholic Portuguese and later rebuilt by the British, is said to house the bodily remains of St Thomas in a tomb below the white neo-Gothic structure.
A series of stained glass windows inside the basilica depict scenes from St Thomas’s life and carved wooden panels recount the last days of Jesus’s life from his last temptation to the crucifixion. As a working cathedral, visitors are welcome to stop in for mass (in both English and Tamil), though the church draws larger crowds for mass.
After visiting the main cathedral, view the tomb of St Thomas in the underground Tomb Chapel, accessible from outside the main church structure. Another structure on the grounds houses a small museum containing artifacts related to St Thomas and a theatre.
Established in 1885, the Arignar Anna Zoological Park (often referred to as 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.
More Things to Do in Chennai
The heritage village of Dakshinachitra, meaning ‘A Picture of the South,' was established to help preserve the folk art and cultural traditions of southern India, particularly from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Artisans trained in traditional techniques work in the 17 heritage houses and village tableaus within the 10 acres (four hectares) of rural land just south of Chennai. Many of the pots, baskets, woven silk pieces, puppets and stone carvings you see being made can be purchased directly from the artists or in the gift shop; and items from these artists are both authentic and of high quality. Dancers, musicians, traditional fortune tellers and puppeteers all perform throughout the day in the open-air venue.
One of the most noticeable landmarks on Elliot’s Beach in the Chennai suburb of Besant Nagar, Ashtalakshmi Temple is a colorful temple devoted to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. The multi-tier structure, covered completely in vibrant carvings and decorative elements, depicts the goddess in each of her eight primary forms -- as giver of wealth, offspring, success, bravery, food, prosperity, courage and knowledge. Since all eight idols of Lakshmi are located on the building’s exterior, even non-Hindus can climb along the four levels to get a closer look. Keep in mind that the steps are rather steep and narrow.
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