Splendid Sights and Southern Spice in Chennai

 

Several people who read my article on Fisherman’s Cove, asked me why I had written about Tamil Nadu without a single mention of Chennai – the capital and most popular city of the state! No, I have not overlooked the city or it’s splendours. Though I had not been to Chennai before, I had heard and read a LOT about the city and it’s pulse. It’s not as fast as Mumbai (we seem to be in a perpetual hurry!) however, Chennai has a beat, a rhythm of it’s own which picks up in certain places and dips to an almost relaxing pace in others. And after the peaceful stay at Fisherman’s Cove and Mahabalipuram, this “city” feel was surprisingly welcome.

The first thing that hit me about Chennai is the pride the people hold in their culture and traditions. Tamil is really the only language spoken in most places – something I realised only after getting myself lost thanks to this habit of going off on my own with the camera! An early morning walk first turned into a treat due to the delicious aromas of south Indian breakfasts being cooked in each house and sights of ladies making rangolis in the courtyards. It soon became a panic situation when lost and famished I realised I had no money on me neither a cellphone to call my friend. And though every person I spoke to was kind and offered advice, I was none the better coz I couldn’t understand a word. Luckily my friends came looking for me!

The hunger taken care of, we decided to soak in some sights the most dazzling of which to me was St. Thomas Basilica (or St. Thomes Basilica as it is called here). Originally built by the Portuguese, this church was built over the tomb of St. Thomas, an apostle of Jesus who, it is believed, came to India in around 52AD. The original monument was later rebuilt by the British and it was not surprising to be told that it was one of the most photographed monuments in the city. The Theosophy Hall founded by Dr. Annie Besant is another fascinating cultural mosaic housing a library containing ancient manuscripts, and Hindu, Buddhist and Jain shrines all standing proudly with each other. The most extraordinary feature of this place though is the 200 year old banyan tree and the lily and lotus pond where we could see several birds. One could also see fruit bats resting among the foliage around the pond. And a mongoose suddenly appearing out of the bushes only to disappear instantly made me wonder whether I was hallucinating.

Kalakshetra founded by Rukmini Devi Arundale was another eye opener of sorts. Having sat through numerous Bharatnatyam performances and having marvelled at the grace of the dance form, I had never imagined that this art form had been brought back from the brink of extinction. Rukmini Devi, whose graceful statue adorns the lush courtyard did this noble feat single-handedly and also founded this institution to help preserve and popularise performing arts.

We were on our way to a temple just as the hunger pangs returned. I was very tempted to try a restaurant whose tagline read “Never Trust a Skinny Chef!” but was driven instead to the Taj Coromandel’s Southern Spice restaurant. The result of 15 years of in-depth research on south Indian cuisine, Southern Spice boasts a menu which not only covers foods from well-known regions like Madurai, Vishakhapatnam, Mangalore and Udipi but also traditions and techniques from regions like Karaikudi, Bekal, Thanjavur, Vijaywada and Kundapur. I was most interested in the Rasam Menu which showcased an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian (yes! Non-veg!) rasams throughout the meal. However, I decided to try the signature dishes on my friend’s insistence. So while Mum and my friend tried different thalis, I sampled a mix of traditional dishes and those made using contemporary ingredients with authentic south Indian flavours. By the time I was through Denji Rawa Fry (semolina-crusted soft shell crab), Tenderloin Kurmilagittadhu (tenderloin piccattas made with loads of curry leaves and black pepper), Allepey Fish Curry (made with tangy green mangoes) and Asparagus Paruppu Usili (a slightly spicy asparagus and lentil preparation), I was wondering why these dishes were never spoken about elsewhere. The menu had many more interesting delights but for me what stood out was the Kair Katti Yerachi Kola Urundai (fennel-flavoured lamb dumplings wrapped in banana fibres) and the Chocolate Puranam Mousse (Chocolate mousse filled with puran – sweetened lentil and coconut). The former for the technique and visual appeal of the dish, the latter for the perfect balance sought between chocolate and sweetened lentils. I promised myself to come back for the Rasam menu!

After such a meal, I so longed for a nice nap and the drive to a beautiful temple provided the perfect opportunity. Once there, the colours, textures and architecture refreshed me and I was off with camera yet again…!