To be honest, India is not one of the countries high on my travel list. I guess it’s because Malaysia has a sizable Indian population with Tamil roots so I have been exposed to a fair amount of Indian culture. However, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go there when my father-in-law asked me to join him on a four day trip to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu last June. We flew to the capital Chennai for a city adventure on a tuk-tuk before embarking on a day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram and the former French colony of Pondicherry. Here’s what you can do while in Tamil Nadu.

1. Pay Tribute To The Great M.G.R At Marina Beach

Every city has their own local hero but none is more revered than the late Dr M.G. Ramachandran. Fondly known as M.G.R., the legendary Chennai-born and made movie star later became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for three successive terms before his death in 1987. A grand memorial was built in his honor where he was also laid to rest. The sprawling grounds at  Marina Beach are beautifully manicured while his tomb is accompanied by the burning of an eternal flame. Don’t be surprised to meet Indians who traveled hundreds of miles to pay tribute to the greatest Tamil hero of the 20th century.

The sprawling M.G.R. Memorial is a fitting tribute to Chennai's greatest son.
The sprawling M.G.R. Memorial is a fitting tribute to Chennai’s greatest son.

2. Saree-nade Yourself With Shopping At Nalli’s

If you have some money to spare, head towards the bustling Pondy Bazaar which is one of the busiest shopping districts in Chennai. Located in the neighborhood of T. Nagar, you can find almost anything at Pondy Bazaar from retail clothesline to roadside knick knacks. Since our womenfolk wanted some sarees, our tuk-tuk driver recommended Nalli’s Chinnasami Chetty. Housed in a lovely art deco building, Nalli has silk sarees for all kinds of budget – from the affordable to the lavish types. Feel free to to bug the merchant to see all the available designs and some bargaining is acceptable.

A paper-wrapped silk saree for the wife from Nalli's.
A paper-wrapped silk saree for the wife from Nalli’s.

3. Jackpot! It’s Mango Season

If you love mangoes (I know I do), summer is the best season to visit Chennai because this fruity goodness is literally everywhere. You can see stacks of mangoes on push carts along the streets and you’ll be excited to find out that the fruit is up to 75% cheaper and 75% sweeter than the mangoes found in Malaysia. It is so abundant that the sellers wouldn’t mind slicing up a couple for you to taste before you decide on your purchase. Still think the ones in Chennai are too expensive? The mango farms on the road south to Pondicherry sells them at about RM1.50/kg!

Mangoes! Mangoes everywhere!
Mangoes! Mangoes everywhere!

4. Check Out The Hot & Spicy Street Food (And Be Sure To Drink Tea Afterwards!)

As much as I can take spicy food, I succumbed to the “Delhi Belly” on my first trip to India in 2007. This time around, my digestive system has toughened up and I am wise to drink a cup of masala chai, or spiced milk tea, after a meal. Southern Indians delicacies like idli, dosa, puri and vadai are a must and what better way than to enjoy it at a hole-in-the-wall joint with the locals right across our hotel. The fried dishes are best soaked in a ladle-full of dhal and make sure to drink your masala chai after to settle your stomach and neutralize the heat.

The best foods are always found at local hole-in-the-wall joints.
The best foods are always found at local hole-in-the-wall joints.

5. Marvel At The Stone-Carved Temple Complex Of Mahabalipuram

As part of a day trip south, we stopped by the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Mahabalipuram where the once ruling Pallavan dynasty in the 7th-century sculpted intricate carvings out of rock boulders. One could help but wonder how an ancient civilization were able to visualize Arjuna’s Penance from the epic Mahabharata only using wood, stone and water. The amazing complex also consists of a number of temples, most notably the Panca Rathas, a Ghanesh Temple comprising Buddhist stupas, Hindu carvings and Roman columns. 

Arjuna's Penance from the epic Mahabharata.
Arjuna’s Penance from the epic Mahabharata.

6. Ogle Around At The Experimental Township Of Auroville

About 20 minutes away from Pondicherry lies the experimental village of Auroville. Founded by the Sri Aurobindo project, this universal township is open to people of all creed. Visitors like us were greeted by a museum-cum-gallery that details the history and concept of Auroville before a taking a solid 15-minute walk to the Matrimandir, a giant glimmering globe that acts a the “Mother Shrine” to the community. It was an eye-opener for me since I rarely consider the spiritual aspect of Hinduism or Buddhism to be translated into an international project.

Behold the Mother Shrine, Matrimandir!
Behold the Mother Shrine, Matrimandir!

7. Bienvenue a Pondicherry!

Fancy sipping some café au lait on Rue de Goubert by Promenade Beach? Look no further than Pondicherry, a former French colony once dubbed the “French Riviera of the East.” It still holds on to that moniker as the French Quarter and monuments like the War Memorial and Statue of Governor Dupleix are well preserved. It is quite odd when you hang out at the local park and see a mini Arc de Triomphe gracing the lawns. France and India are far apart when it comes to international relations but a colonial history makes traveling in India a bit colorful.

Posing along a grey-washed building at Pondicherry's French Quarter.
Posing along a grey-washed building at Pondicherry’s French Quarter.

The Tamils who came to Malaysia more than a hundred years ago did bring a whole lot of their culture into our melting pot of races and religions to what it is today but going back to their ancestral homeland sheds light into their history from extinct civilizations to European colonists (and M.G.R.). The places I went during this short trip only covers a tiny amount of this vast nation and if I ever get the chance to travel to India, I would take it up without a thought.

Have you been to Chennai or other parts of Tamil Nadu? What were your experiences in those cities and towns?


Travel Tips:

  • The cheapest way to get around Chennai is by tuk-tuk (autorickshaw). Always ask for the price before hopping on board and if you plan to hire for a half-day or full-day ride, negotiate and agree upon a price before proceeding.
  • Museums in Chennai are closed on Fridays and have varying opening hours so please call ahead if you plan to visit them. I’d recommend visiting the Government Museum and Fort St George if you’re really a museum buff.
  • We took Chennai Travels for the day trip to Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry, costing us Rs.4,000 (RM230) that includes an Indica, driver, fuel, toll, parking and permit charges, which I found reasonable for that price.
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