Our group has descended on Chennai, coming in from New Hampshire, Vermont, Boston, Florida, New York, Dubai, Rome, Australia/Bali, Qatar, and South Korea. Chennai (formerly Madras) is the largest city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the sixth most populous city in India with 6 million people, and a major hub of cultural, commercial and education in South India. Although jet lag is still hampering us slightly, we kicked off our India Learning Expedition with a day and a half of sightseeing around Chennai and learning about the cultural and historical elements of the city and area.
First stop was the old port city of Mahabalipuram, which is about 2 hours from Chennai (that is 2 Indian hours, probably 45 minutes if India had a highway infrastructure like the US). Mahabalipuram has a number of 7th or 8th century stone monoliths, friezes, and cave and free-standing temples, all adorned with carvings created by the Pallavas, the first great southern Indian dynasty. The carvings incorporated Hindu gods such as Shiva the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver, as well as lots of animals including a life size single stone elephant sculpture.
The following day we continued on with a bus tour of Chennai and got to witness up close the confluence of Hindu, Portuguese Catholic, and British imperialism in the city. In one hour we were touring a church dedicated to St. Thomas (complete with a finger bone relic of the patron saint)…then in the next we were taking off our shoes and walking through puddles and dirt to visit one of the oldest Hindu temples in the city…and finally in last hour we were visiting the Fort St. George museum of British colonial rule.
During all of this touring, it’s been amazing to take in the city and Indian life overall. Some of it is very difficult – despite all of the growth of the last two decades, garbage still lines the streets (even areas like a sacred temple), children hawk goods, buildings and sidewalks aren’t maintained, traffic is crazy, and there is general filth, dirt and grime everywhere.
There is also amazing vibrancy and life. Beautiful saris of all different colors abound, delicious Indian food is available at every meal, and people make all the craziness work for them. Our amazing guide Prasad even got us to crash/invited on the spot to an Indian engagement party! It should be an exciting 10 days.