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In the northeastern corner of Tamil Nadu on the Bay of Bengal, CHENNAI (still commonly referred to by its former British name, Madras) is India’s fourth largest city, with a population nudging seven and a half million. Hot, congested and noisy, it’s the major transportation hub of the south and most travellers stay just long enough to book a ticket for somewhere else. The attractions of the city itself are sparse, though it does boast fine specimens of Raj architecture, pilgrimage sites connected with the apostle Doubting Thomas, superb Chola bronzes at its state museum, and plenty of classical music and dance performances.

As capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is, like Mumbai and Kolkata, a comparatively modern creation. It was founded by the British East India Company in 1639, on a 5-km strip of land between the Cooum and Adyar rivers, a few kilometres north of the ancient Tamil port of Mylapore and the Portuguese settlement of San Thomé; a fortified trading post, completed on St George’s Day in 1640, was named Fort St George. Over the course of the next century and a half, as capital of the Madras Presidency which covered most of south India, the city expanded to include many surrounding villages. After losing it to the French in 1746, the British, with Robert Clive (“Clive of India”) at their helm, re-established control three years later and continued to use it as their southern base, although Madras was surpassed in national importance by Calcutta.

The city’s renaissance began after Independence, when it became the centre of the Tamil movie industry, and a hotbed of Dravidian nationalism. Renamed as Chennai in 1997, the metropolis has boomed since the Indian economy opened up to foreign investment in the early 1990s. The flip side of this rapid economic growth is that Chennai’s infrastructure has been stretched to breaking point: poverty, oppressive heat and pollution are more likely to be your lasting impressions than the conspicuous affluence of the city’s modern marble shopping malls.

Chennai divides into three main areas. The northern district, separated from the rest by the River Cooum, is the site of the first British outpost in India, Fort St George, and the commercial centre, George Town, which developed during British occupation. At the southern end of Rajaji Salai is Parry’s Corner, George Town’s principal landmark and a major bus stop – look for the tall grey building labelled Parry’s.

Central Chennai is sandwiched between the Cooum and Adyar rivers, and crossed diagonally by the city’s main thoroughfare, Anna Salai, the modern, commercial heart of the metropolis. To the east, this gives way to the atmospheric old Muslim quarters of Triplicane and a long straight Marina where fishermen mend nets and set small boats out to sea, and hordes of Indian tourists hitch up saris and trousers for a quick paddle. South of here, near the coast, Mylapore, inhabited in the 1500s by the Portuguese, boasts Kapalishvara Temple and San Thomé Cathedral, both tourist attractions and places of pilgrimage.

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