Chennai has three climates, I’m told repeatedly by its residents – hot, hotter and hottest. They’re not wrong – the temperature, as you’d expect in a city previously called Madras, known to Brits as a curry with a kick, rarely falls below sweltering. And it’s this heat that has helped to shape the character and industry of India’s fourth largest city, situated in the south-east on the shores of the Bay of Bengal.

While the city can feel frenetic – even at 5am on the Saturday morning I arrived, before the sun had risen, the streets were buzzing with cars, buses, motorbikes, pushbikes and the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks), full of people on their way to and from work – I’m assured that this is nothing compared with life in Delhi or Mumbai. Although the traffic can get bad, and the honking can be deafening, there’s still a languid feeling to this lush, tree-lined city. No one out walking seems to be in a rush, many mill around the pavements and everyone is welcoming and eager to help.

Chennai is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, and its largely Tamil-speaking residents are known for being a little more conservative and not quite so brash as their countrymen further north. “Chennai takes a while to get to know,” one resident tells me. “It’s not as apparent as other Indian cities – it reveals itself to you.”

This soft centre is a particularly southern Indian trait, according to Arindam Kunar, general manager of the Taj Coromandel, one of four properties run by the Taj group in Chennai and the surrounding area. “North India is more aggressive and harder because it’s had to fight many wars over the centuries, whereas South Indians are softer and more god-fearing,” he says.

Soft or not, Chennai is a hive of business activity with a wide industrial base. About 30 percent of India’s automotive industry is based here, which is often referred to as “the Detroit of South Asia” – BMW, Ford and Hyundai all have plants. Nokia, Motorola and Samsung have manufacturing bases too, and textiles and agriculture also play their part.

Tourism is not such big business, Kunar says, as it is more of a gateway city that people use to reach other parts of the country.

Chennai is India’s second city for IT, and perhaps might have been the first if it wasn’t for the sun’s rays. “IT started here as well as in Bangalore but the weather is so hot here that it took off there,” Kunar says. He adds that Bangalore overtook Chennai because its government was so proactive in promoting it. Outsourcing is alsoa strong sector, especially as firms worldwide move parts of their operations to cut costs.

Another key industry is film. While Mumbai’s Bollywood scene is more well known, the Tamil region has had its own, highly profitable, film industry since 1916. Commonly known as “Kollywood”, after the Kodambakkam district of Chennai where much of the production is based, the industry really began to boom in the 1930s after the advent of “talkies”, and continues to be an important source of revenue despite the closure of several studios – it accounts for about 1 percent of Tamil Nadu’s GDP.

On the site of Gemini Studios, a big player in the film scene until the 1970s, is the Park Chennai, a luxury hotel with striking décor that’s indicative of the city’s creative streak. A member of the Design Hotels umbrella, the Park has taken this movie heritage as its inspiration, with original posters of films made at the studios lining the walls and animated shorts playing on small screens in the lifts. It attracts an arty crowd – A R Rahman, the Chennai-born composer who won two Oscars earlier this year for his music for the film Slumdog Millionaire, threw his celebration party here.

Kunar at Taj Coromandel believes the city’s wide cross-section of interests has allowed it to stave off the global recession better than others. “Chennai is an amazing culmination of industries, which is why it has been less affected,” he says, pointing out that Nissan and Daimler are soon to set up here. Kunar is also keen to stress the city’s low crime rate and strong academic credentials – “It’s widely accepted that the brains of India come from Tamil Nadu,” he says – both of which factors make it an attractive place to do business.

Nevertheless, Sarah Stephanos, PR manager at the Park, has noticed the impact of the downturn. “The auto, tyre and cement industries have been hit badly, and a lot of international travel has reduced,” she says. Even so, she adds that the city continues to grow and open up, especially as a result of the IT trade it continues to attract. That growth is largely taking place in three directions as Chennai spreads its tentacles and businesses move out from the central commercial hub of Anna Salai (formerly known as Mount Road) to the south, along the East Coast Road; the south-west, along the Old Mahabalipuram Road; and to the west, towards Bangalore.

The hotel trade was dealt another body blow with the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. Taj Mount Road, the group’s newest property in the city, opened straight afterwards on December 2.

“It wasn’t the most auspicious time,” admits Anshuman Appanna, director of sales at the hotel, which is located just off Anna Salai and is aimed squarely at the business market.

“We launched with no business but by January (2009) we had sold about 75 of the 170 to 180 rooms we had open.”

Appanna recalls the aftermath of the terrorist attacks: “We were all shocked – we lost a lot of our friends. But after all we’ve been through, there’s so much hope. We know we’re resilient.”

So behind the soft exterior lies a steely resolve – one that should help this sultry city through any rocky times ahead. “Look behind the heat and dust and you’ll see a lot going on, and a lot of positive feelings despite the financial climate,” Appanna says. “It’s like a boomtown on the verge of a boom – it has a stable base but still has room to grow.” N


Kapaleeswarar temple

One of the oldest temples in Chennai, Kapaleeswarar is situated in the orthodox Mylapore area, just south of the city centre. The original building is thought to have been built in the seventh century, with the intricate decorative structure, which is covered in 1,800 statues that are repainted every 12 years, being added about 400 years ago. It’s a popular place of worship for Hindus who come to pray to the god Shiva, to whom the temple is dedicated.


This heritage centre is 25km south of the city centre, about an hour’s drive away, but it’s worth the journey. Funded by the non-profit Madras Craft Foundation, the project shows off the history and handicrafts of South India (Dakshinachitra means “a picture of the south”) and is set in ten peaceful acres of land. Wander among the 17 cottages, dedicated to different regions, and watch as the local people attend to their crafts, ranging from basket-weaving to palm-leaf engraving. There’s also a bazaar if you want to buy something to take home. Open 10am-6pm, closed on Tuesdays. Entry costs Rs 200 (US$4).

The Raintree

Visit the Taj Connemara hotel’s open-air restaurant, set under a canopy of raintrees, and you’ll not only get to sample the delicious Chettinad cuisine but also the music and dance of the region. Every night a trio of musicians play hypnotic tunes on traditional instruments, while young women practise the classical dance, bharatanatyam. It’s a beautiful, precise form of movement where the words of the accompanying singer are exaggerated by the dancer’s facial expressions. Open from 7.30pm to 11.45pm. Taj Connemara, Binny Road, tel 91 44 6600 0000,

San Thome Basilica

San Thome is the city’s Catholic cathedral and is said to be built on the tomb of St Thomas, one of Jesus’s apostles, who is believed to have introduced Christianity to India. Originally built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the church was rebuilt by the British in 1896 in neo-gothic style. Packed congregations gather daily for joyous services in Tamil and English. A museum attached to the church contains relics, the papal bull granting basilica status and other artefacts.

Fort Museum

For a fascinating insight into colonial-era Madras, visit the Fort Museum. Part of the Fort St George complex, the first British fortress in India and now home to the Tamil Nadu government, the museum has 10 galleries containing 18th-century prints of Madras and portraits of its former governors, as well as uniforms and weapons, and fragments of shells fired during attacks on Madras during the two world wars. Open daily except Fridays from 10am to 5pm. Entry is Rs 100 (US$2). Visit for more information.