The ancient and equatorial city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) is often referred to as the "Gateway to south India." The city’s jumble of seventh-century temples, Gothic revival, art deco and quintessential Indo-Saracenic edifices, spill onto the white sands of Marina beach, a 13km beach that fronts onto the Bay of Bengal. This business-centric city is divided into four quarters: its industrial area in the north, its central commerce hub and its residential areas to the south and west. The city’s diversified economic base has attracted a number of Fortune 500 businesses and it was recently ranked in Forbes’ top ten fastest-growing cities in the world. Chennai is one of the few cities in the world where ospreys and greater flamingos are commonplace; the city’s leafy carapace attracts no fewer than 200 different bird species every year, enticed by the 2.82km2 (1.09 sq. mi.) national park that lies within its borders. The city’s combination of leafy suburbs and its upwardly mobile IT and media sectors, its major international airport and two ports, coupled with robust national rail and road links, make it an increasingly attractive destination for foreign companies. Its first-rate healthcare system and excellent schools merely augment its image as an emerging world-class city.
What is special or unique about your city?
Chennai is a city located in southeast India on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. Founded in 1639 as Fort St. George by the British East India Company, Chennai was held by the French from 1746 to 1748. It is today a major industrial, commercial, and cultural center with a thriving harbor. Chennai is the center of South India’s film industry; its skyline is ablaze with bright movie billboards advertising the latest celluloid fantasies. The city is also rapidly becoming a center for the Indian automotive industry.
Speaking about culture, Chennai is a place where you will hear the splendid strains of classical music and smell a heady compound of jasmine and spices; living traditions that are still savored from Chennai’s ancient past. This is the land where graceful women in sarees wake early to clean their courtyards with cow dung and draw kolams on them — intricate designs with rice flour — while their families are still asleep. This is the land where every action, from setting a wedding date to moving a household, is governed by omens, astrologers and auspicious hours.
As the rest of India races to modernize and westernize, this southern metropolis clings fiercely to its cultural roots and ancient customs. Although it is the country’s fourth-largest city, with a cosmopolitan mix of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, it remains more conservative than New Delhi, Bombay or Kolkata. Teenagers in Chennai still learn native music from a guru and attend classical Carnatic concerts.
Customs are a large part of the Indian way of life. Spend time to get used to the Indian culture and adjust to new ways of doing things and new perspectives, rather than try and change the reality around you. Where possible, be an observer, preferably one with a sense of humor, and try not to impose your cultural judgments too quickly. Although you can’t be expected to get everything right, common sense and courtesy will help you a great deal. If in doubt about how you should behave, watch what the locals do or simply ask.
What are a newcomer's first impressions of your city?
The roads are not as good or as wide as in most developed countries and people tend to think it is crowded, noisy, dirty and dusty. Open sewers are common in poorer parts of the city.
Are these impressions likely to change?
Most highways have been improved; the East Coast Road (ECR) and Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) south of Chennai are good examples. These projects have eased congestion in the cities, as have other improvements, such as the Chennai Bypass, constructed as part of the National Highway Development Project to decongest the city of transiting vehicles.
What is the local language?
Tamil, the local language, is one of the oldest languages in the world and is spoken by the majority, although many people understand English.
How easily could I live in this city without knowing this language?
It should not be too difficult, as most locals speak at least a little English.
What are good things to remember in order to avoid offending the other residents of this city?
- Most locals expect you to remove footwear before entering their homes and footwear definitely cannot be worn to places of worship.
- It is customary for Indians to eat with their fingers. It is the norm to eat with the right hand.
- The right hand is preferred for most tasks. Money is not given or accepted with the left hand. Gifts and awards are likewise presented and received with either the right hand or both hands together, never with the left hand alone.
- Eating beef is not allowed by Hindus; pork is forbidden for Muslims.
- Respect for elders is important, so treat older people with special courtesy.
- Putting your feet up on the furniture or treading on paper is considered impolite, as is touching someone with your feet.
- Indians will think nothing of asking you apparently personal questions within minutes of meeting you. Consequently, don’t take offense if a relative stranger suddenly asks you if you are married. Such questions are seen as nothing more than taking a normal friendly interest in a new acquaintance.
- Many people wear marks on their foreheads (tilaka) and this has an important role in all religious activities in Hindu culture. The tilaka is believed to be a great destroyer of sins and is commonly worn on the forehead and arms as they represent the home of intellectual and physical strength. The dot on the forehead reminds one of the true goals of life — to seek spiritual knowledge.
- When visiting places of worship (e.g., temple, mosque, etc.), always behave and dress appropriately. Always ask before you take photographs. Women should wear clothing that covers the upper arms and is at least mid-calf length and take a scarf along to cover their heads. Men should avoid wearing shorts and shoes should be taken off at the entrance.
- During worship, men and women often wear sectarian marks on their foreheads, their chest and around the arms. It is common to see many men go to their workplaces wearing these marks and other religious symbols.
- If you are drinking from a shared water container (common practice at water dispensers), hold the container a little above your mouth and pour, thus avoiding contact between lips and the mouth of the container.
- It is advisable to repeat instructions clearly and confirm that they have been understood correctly rather then leave anything to chance.
- Chennai is a traditional and conservative city in India. Therefore, foreign female visitors should cover their knees and shoulders as a sign of respect. Scantily clad women will be stared at.
How might the local weather affect my daily life?
Chennai has a tropical climate: hot and humid, although the sea breeze can make it more bearable at times. Temperatures are highest in May (between 40 and 45° C) and are lowest in the winter months of December and January (between 25 and 30° C). October to December is the rainy season in Chennai and getting from one place to another can be a challenge; mosquitoes are also more prevalent. The best time for visitors and for traveling South India is January until April, as the weather is warm but not too hot and dry. Wearing light cotton clothing with open sandals is popular and comfortable. There is an excellent variety of inexpensive clothing shops so you can buy what you need when you arrive in Chennai.
Is there anything else I should know about the overall character of your city or its people?
Chennai is home to a majority Tamil population, although there is a sizable population from other states. Previously dubbed a sleepy and slow-paced city, it is abuzz today with activity in business, industry, entertainment and leisure. This surge is most marked by the changing lifestyles of Chennai folk, who were once thought to be extremely tradition-bound.