Temples and tradition may be Tamil Nadu’s enduring image, but there’s a lot more to this South Indian state now. From designer shopping to organic tea and artist enclaves, this state is dancing to a whole new Carnatic beat. The thought occurred as I watched a grandmother, clad in a traditional silk sari, scarf down a pizza at Spencer Plaza on Mount Road. Pizza didn’t exist in the city in the 1980s; certainly Madras Mamis, as the city’s matrons are affectionately called, didn’t eat them. (Chennai, capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, was known as Madras till 1996 and is still referred to as such by old-timers.) Now, pizzas are ubiquitous, albeit spiced with garam masala, reflecting nouveau Chennai – a quirky agglomeration of ancient and hip.
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The city – and in fact the rest of the state too – has had a makeover, retaining, as my friends overseas say, “all her great qualities but also becoming chic and sexy”. Nightclubs and tapas bars co-exist beside 8th-century temples and old-fashioned shophouses. And cafe lattes can be had at Barista Café (www.barista.co.in). I must admit that the Tam-Brahm (Tamil Brahmin) in me disapproves of this, for good South Indian filter coffee is home-brewed nectar of the gods. Its flavor – a robust mix of peaberry beans with frothy cow’s milk and sugar – is incomparable, and it’s best had at Kumbakonam Degree Coffee House (28B Anna Nagar Plaza, Tel: 91 44 2621 2237).
With all that has changed in Tamil Nadu, I planned to debunk some stereotypes on this trip. There are tourist clichés about it being too hot, too quiet, too traditional. “Not happening,” my America-based sister says. Not true, I reply. Long-held notions about Tamil Nadu are being overturned, thanks to a decent government and a youthful, big-spending population. Chennai is hot, yes, but Ooty in the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) is cold. Towns in the textile belt – Erode and Salem – are quiet but Chettinad is bustling. Kodaikanal has organic farms; Coimbatore has chic boutiques and even an old Tranquebar has an eco-resort called Cardamom House. All this, and a 1,076km-long world-class coastline that extends all the way down to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. Not happening? Time for a rethink.
Tamil Nadu is shaped like a triangle with Ooty in the Nilgiris at the apex. The typical tourist itinerary in Tamil Nadu includes large doses of history, some temples and shopping – think silks and gold. More than any other place in India, barring Varanasi and Hubli, Chennai has a strong sense of self: a broad and deep cultural identity. Singara (pretty) Chennai, its residents call it. Ancient traditions and art forms such as Carnatic (South Indian classical) music and Bharatanatyam dance continues to thrive in the city. Parrot astrologers purvey their trade around the 7th-century Mylapore temple just as they did in the Vijayanagara period (14th-17th century). Women draw kolam (auspicious art) with rice flour on the streets of T. Nagar, a bustling locality. Come dawn, the corpulent congregate at the beaches of Marina or Elliot’s for yoga and walks. In the evening, the scent of jasmine wafts over matrons on their way to the market for fresh greens and sparkling eggplants. In December, the entire city pauses for the Madras Music Season that has become a global behemoth attracting musicians and dancers from all over the world. Every evening, concert singers such as T. M. Krishna and Bombay Jayashri take to the stage for three hours of Carnatic music, interspersed with hot bajjis (fried snacks) and coffee at the canteens outside the auditorium.
With such immense cultural identities, Chennai offers a microcosm of Tamil Nadu; it is a capital buzz, a scenic paradise in the Nilgris, and a utopia with a French accent in Pondicherry.
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