- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

CHENNAI, India — Full moon, a balmy breeze blowing from the Bay of Bengal; the shrimp are large and juicy, the chicken is sumptuous in a green curry. The tables and chairs of the open-air Upper Deck restaurant are placed on a grass lawn on a rise beside the beach. The setting and the Mediterranean fare are choice.

Life is good at Fisherman’s Cove, a Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces seaside retreat on the Coromandel Coast in Tamil Nadu state in southeast India. Fisherman’s Cove is one of Taj’s three hotels in Chennai — formerly Madras — although this part of the wide beach is about 20 miles south of the city.

Fisherman’s Cove has comfortable bungalows scattered amid palm trees between the beach and the main hotel building. It is quite different from Taj’s city and palace hotels. The staff is comfortable in short-sleeve shirts, while their counterparts to the north in Taj’s elegant city hotels wear pinstripe trousers or, in the palace hotels, turbans and Indian jackets that button up to the neck. Although this is the beach, many more people are walking and sunning rather than swimming in the bay. Others prefer the hotel’s 10,000-square-foot swimming pool. It is a lush setting, the perfect backdrop for a cold Kingfisher beer after an afternoon of Hindu temples.

We have come to the coast after a week at the Taj Safaris camps operated with Conservation Corporation Africa in Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest state and in the heart of the country.

With a driver and guide, we come from downtown Chennai to Fisherman’s Cove, a short distance, but in India it takes longer to get anywhere than it does in the United States. The roads are narrow and pass through mazes of small shops in villages along the way.

In these villages, the colors of India overwhelm the eye in rich hues of purple, riots of reds, emerald greens and cherry-blossom pinks. We pass tuk-tuks, bicycles, brilliantly painted buses and trucks laden with goods and belching diesel smoke and fumes. Many people are walking along the road; others are chatting with neighbors in the villages. Students in their school uniforms walk along the roadside or ride bikes to attend classes and return home.

Here, as in the rest of India, drivers warn those ahead on the road with unrelenting beeps of their car horns. It takes time to get used to the incessant beep-beeps.

The topography has changed very much from the dry fields of Madhya Pradesh. The difference is easily explained in terms of rice: Farmers in Madhya Pradesh raise one crop of rice each year, while in southern Tamil Nadu, where there are rivers and more rain, three crops of rice are harvested annually. The countryside reflects the difference. Here in Tamil Nadu it is very green, the opposite of the dry and dusty fields to the north. A naturalist guide at Taj Safaris explained that tree leaves are smaller in the dry areas than in the greener regions.

At Mamallapuram, we stop to see the amazing sculptures created from an outcropping of boulders into life-size elephants, a lion throne, and small temples that visitors can enter. The Pancha-ratha Pallava Temple complex actually has five temples in addition to other carvings.

Mamallapuram is still a center for stone carvers, who work in the many roadside shops.

It is March and it is hot and humid in Tamil Nadu, as it is most of the year. Fisherman’s Cove is a welcome retreat from sightseeing in the heat.

In Chennai, the University of Madras did not undergo a name change, although it was proposed to become the University of Chennai. The city’s metropolitan area is also on the Coromandel Coast that runs along most of the coastline of Tamil Nadu; with a population of about 7.5 million last year, it is the largest city in Tamil Nadu — and also its capital — and the fourth largest city in India. The British presence in Chennai began in 1639, making it the empire’s first colonial possession in India.

Under British administration, the city became an important naval base and a commercial center, now with two ports. In 1640, the British built Fort St. George, whose ramparts now surround Indian military offices and large colonial mansions.

Much of the Chennai economy comes from the metal, health, shipping and automobile industries, and it has ranked second behind Bangalore as a center for software development. Because of Chennai’s importance as the center for the production of Tamil-language films, the movie industry here is called “Kollywood,” whereas Bollywood is the name given to films produced in Mumbai.

Between 1678 and 1680, the British built St. Mary’s Anglican Church, which contains many reminders of the colonial past, with names memorialized in plaques on pews and walls, as well as on markers in the old church graveyard. It is claimed to be the first Anglican church built in Asia and was designed with thick walls and a steep vaulted roof for protection during sieges.

Even older is the Basilica of San Thome, which is said to have the remains of St. Thomas the Apostle, who may have come to India in about A.D. 52. Inside the church, Jesus is depicted sitting in the middle of a lotus blossom, otherwise a favorite resting place for many depictions of the Hindu deity. A century older than St. Mary’s Church, San Thome was built by Portuguese settlers, who often preceded the Dutch, who were followed by the British in establishing settlements in southern Asia.

One theory holds that the name Chennai is derived from Chennapattinam, a town that began near Fort St. George. Madraspattinam was a nearby fishing village that may have been the origin of the name “Madras.” In 1996, the name was changed to Chennai because many place names in India were thought to have foreign instead of Indian names, such as Bombay becoming Mumbai, Calcutta becoming Kolkotta.

Madras, generally a cotton fabric in which the colors bleed during laundering for a soft, washed-out look, is named after the city where it was developed.

Before leaving Washington, I asked a Sri Lankan friend about shopping in Chennai, where she had flown from Sri Lanka to buy saris. She gave me the address, and one morning I ask the concierge at the Taj Connemara Hotel how I could go to Spencer Centre. “Go out the door here, turn right, walk to the corner, turn right, and it is the second building,” he tells me. And so it is, a mall containing many shops carrying all sorts of goods: an excellent bookstore, art galleries, jewelry shops, athletic shoes, several shops of saris, men’s clothing, electronic equipment, DVDs, children’s toys, etc.

Later in the afternoon I realize that Spencer Centre can be seen at the far end of the courtyard swimming pool of the white, very colonial-looking hotel. The pool takes up much of the courtyard of the three-story, U-shaped hotel, which has a five-star rating. At the other end of the pool is a hotel restaurant with outdoor tables that make a pleasant place to enjoy breakfast. Another restaurant serves delicious Indian food — including a fine chicken in green curry — in its outdoor setting.

In Chennai’s major business district is another Taj hotel, the Coromandel, which is rated five-star deluxe. Both hotels are popular with business travelers, but the Coromandel is more oriented toward providing more services for them and has a refined corporate look in darker colors than the Connemara. Rooms are large at both hotels and the service is first-rate, for which Taj hotels are renown.

In Madurai, about an hour’s flight southwest from Chennai, the Taj Garden Retreat is built on a hilltop outside the busy city. Most of the guest rooms are in bungalows built on the hillside. Breakfast is served inside or at tables on a terrace and the lawn. Occasional guests are some of the peafowl who have multiplied since the hotel fenced in its property at the bottom of the hill. The way the peacocks strut around, they obviously enjoy the scraps tossed their way.

Known as the “city of nectar,” Madurai is famous for its Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple and other shrines. Its importance to the Tamils as their cultural center is obvious with the many buses bringing pilgrims to the site. One evening, we stop by a cultural festival and watch a group of local dancers continuing an art long associated with Madurai as one of the five cosmic dance halls of Shiva, a member of Hinduism’s supreme trinity. Legend holds that Shiva performed the aananda natanam, the dance of bliss, in the Silver Hall of the Sundareswarar Temple.

A large complex of temples and towers adorned with painted figures of the Hindu pantheon, Sundareswarar, seems to be the heart of the city. There are almost 1,000 carved pillars, some of them created from a single piece of stone, in the temple, which is believed to be about 2,000 years old.

Madurai has long been known as a textile center. The weaving of fabrics and the dying of cotton are major cottage industries. In one area by a highway into the city, we see that several shops have placed their skeins of dyed yarn on lines outdoors to dry.

Naturally, there are many shops around to sell these goods in Madurai, with the Ezukadal Theru area regarded as a wonderland of textile shops. I ask a guide about having shirts made, and he says I should have mentioned it in the morning, for we could have gone to a shop, ordered the shirts and then visited the temple, had lunch and returned to the shop for the finished shirts. Oh, well.

One of the best known villages involved in textiles is Chinnalapatti, about 7½ miles from Madurai. About 50,000 people are involved in the sari industry in Chinnalapatti, and it is said that saris from here are desired throughout India.

One shop sells not only saris and shirts, but tablecloths mats, napkins and runners; towels; and shawls and scarves on the upper level. Inside the street-level entrance, an artisan at a hand loom demonstrates his craft by weaving brilliant green silk with gold and green borders for a sari.

At night at the Taj Garden Retreat, sitting outdoors for dinner makes another fine evening. From the restaurant lawn, I see the lights of Madurai in the distance and look up and see almost as many lights: the brilliant stars and constellations in the dark sky of one more magical night in India.

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