Established in 1639 by the British East India Company as its first foothold in India, Chennai the city formerly known as Madras is like many of India’s booming metropolises. Millennium-old temples jostle with a thriving technology industry, and swanky high-street boutiques compete with entire streets that are devoted to trading in single products. The city has some of the most interesting & chaotic markets and the street-scene is archetypal Indian, survive-it-if-you-can, with a familiar mix of multi-vehicle, animal & man, risking life & limb along the roads.
Not far south from Chennai on the Coromandel Coast is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mamallapuram, the ancient 7th century AD port of the Pallava Empire. The village has been a centre for stone carving for hundreds of years, a legacy displayed in superb temples, bas reliefs and mandapas (narratives carved into the face of shallow rock overhangs). With the rhythmic sounds of stone carvers chipping away at granite, interesting streets lined with shops and cafes (serving delicious seafood) and an informal backpacker atmosphere, Mamallapuram makes for an enjoyable respite from Chennai. The beaches along the coast north of Mamallapuram are a wonderful way to end a holiday in Tamil Nadu.
Westwards of Chennai, lies the ancient capital of the Pallavas in Kanchipuram on the north bank of the Palar River. A dynastic capital throughout the medieval ages, Kanchipuram remains one of the seven holiest cities on the Indian Sub-Continent, sacred to both Shaivites and Vaishnavites, and among the few surviving centres of goddess worship in South India.
Further west is the town of Vellore, dominated by the massive 14th century era Vijayanagar Empire fort. The fort fell into the hands of the Marathas and the Mughals, before being occupied by the British East Indian Company, who converted it into a prison.
On the southern side of the Palar River is the town of Tiruvannamalai. This small, unassuming town of Tiruvannamalai is something of a hidden gem in a region overwhelmed by significant temples, and its character is largely influenced by the extinct volcano of Arunachala, which casts its influence over the town. East of this town is Gingee, Tamil Nadu’s biggest forts, that was built by the Vijaynagar Empire kings in the 15th century. Like other places in the Palar Valley, it’s well off the beaten track, with very peaceful and beautiful surroundings.
East from Gingee as the crow flies, the French relinquished their control of the territory of ‘Pondy’ (as the city is still universally known) over half a century ago, but reminders of the colonial days remain; the tricoleur flutters over the grand French consulate, there’s a hôtel de ville (town hall), and local police wear red kepis (caps) and belts. This is a town that invites you to slow down, explore its little tucked away lanes, eat and shop at its quaint cafes and boutiques, and tip your imaginary hat at a former retired French Foreign Legion soldier as you pass him by.