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India heritage walks | Chennai: George Town history, Mylapore culture, Sowcarpet food trail

Walking tours aren't just for tourists, they also allow residents to rediscover their city - its culture, history and hidden gems. This article is part of a series on India heritage tours.

May 16, 2022 / 10:42 AM IST
Connemara Public Library, Egmore, Chennai. (Image: Tuck DB/Oilette, Wide-Wide-World, Copyright London, Printed in England, set packet shows series II, listed in 1930 Postcard Catalogue/via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

Connemara Public Library, Egmore, Chennai. (Image: Tuck DB/Oilette, Wide-Wide-World, Copyright London, Printed in England, set packet shows series II, listed in 1930 Postcard Catalogue/via Wikimedia Commons 4.0)

The scent of fresh jasmine flowers, strong filter coffee and warm breeze from the sea. That’s what you may think Chennai is about in a nutshell. But there’s more to this southern city that is a bastion of culture, especially Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. Any Chennaiite will tell you that the nearly 400-year-old city is an eclectic mix of not just cultures but cuisines and customs too. Visitors to Chennai, previously known as Madraspatnam and then Madras, must go on some of the popular heritage walks to discover its history and more.

The remnants of British Raj

One of the most popular walking trails in Chennai is the George Town Walk.

“The story of our beautiful Chennai historically begins with Fort St George. According to Thomas Salmon, in his writings in the 18th Century, the black town (George Town) is a place where Indians, Portuguese, Armenians and many others lived. The many streets which bear the memories of the British Raj and the beautiful buildings which are completely hidden, thanks to the modern structures, still tell us the tales from the past. During the colonial period, George Town was the most active town and modern Madras’ commercial history commences here. Mint street, Lingi Chetti Street, Thambu Chetti street, and many bazaar streets give us the tales of Madras which are truly fascinating,” explains Jayakumar S., researcher and founder of Courtyard Tours, Chennai.

“George Town was also the home for many musicians and artistes, including the doyen of Carnatic Music Veena Dhanammal... Temples of Hindus and Jains, churches and mosques of George Town tell us the fascinating details of communities that lived here in harmony,”  Jayakumar adds.

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The British-era buildings, the Indo-Saracenic architecture, the flower-filled bazaars, the streets where we find saffron traders who can talk endlessly about the different varieties and qualities of saffrons are a treat to the senses.

“Our tour usually starts near the Statue of George V, the Prince of Wales, who visited Madras in 1905. The tour starts with the story of his visit, the Sanskrit verse that was composed on him and sung in the same tune as the God save the King and the history of George Town from the time it was known as the Black Town and the many stories attached with it,”  Jayakumar says.

Also read: India heritage walks: From the Sufi trail in Srinagar to stories about the Begums of Bhopal

More than idli-sambar

While idli, dosa and sambar-chutney are part of the staple diet of Tamilians, many other cuisines have integrated themselves into the cultural landscape here, thanks to the settlement of various communities over the centuries.

For example, on the Sowcarpet Food Trail by Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara, founder, Storytrails, visitors can experience Gujarati farsaan and chaats. “Sowcarpet is a delightful potpourri of diverse communities that have come together and have stayed together for many generations. And yet, they have maintained their distinct identities. This neighbourhood developed as a trading hub and has been home to trading communities from different parts of India, especially from Gujarat and Rajasthan. They brought their farsaan and chaats here. And the streets of Sowcarpet teem with shops selling food - from the exotic to the everyday, some of them served with a uniquely southern twist,” says Kamalakara.

Another popular food trail is the Adyar one that is organised by Chennai Magic where they take visitors to the local specialty shops to learn about ingredients and spices of the Tamil cuisine and introduce people to some of the best South Indian delicacies. “We visit the usual suspects like Grand Sweets, Sri Krishna Sweets, Ambika Appalams, Prem's Grama Bhojanam, and it’s interesting because it is led by a foodie who consults for restaurants. It is not a 'Eat all you can' tour, but a deeper exploration of the ingredients, the culture, specialty preserves, and so on,” explains Deepa Krishnan, founder, Chennai Magic.

Peacocks of Chennai

The oldest and most vibrant neighbourhood in the city is Mylapore which around 2,000 years old and is home to the famous Kapaleeswarar Temple (7th century) and Santhome Basilica. Established as a seaside town, Mylapore was an important maritime centre for trade with Romans. Ships came to this town to buy pepper and cloth, including silk, and Marco Polo is even said to have visited it during his time.

In the vicinity of the Kapaleeswarar Temple lived a thriving community which included temple priests, Carnatic musicians, Bharatanatyam dancers, silk saree sellers, and others. Mylapore is said to have derived its name from the fact that Goddess Kapagambal took the form of a peacock to worship Kapaleeswarar. In fact, peacocks were in abundance in Mylapore and in the temple till the '80s. “With its mix of history, architecture, colourful markets and delicious food, Mylapore vibrantly represents the living culture of Chennai,” adds Krishnan.

Kapaleeshwar Temple, Mylapore. (Photo: Magic Tours of India) Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore. (Photo: Chennai Magic)

Hub of Carnatic music

When you think of Chennai, you will also immediately think of Carnatic music and the December kutcheri season. Hundreds of artistes come from all parts of the world to perform each year at the numerous sabhas of the city, and this is unique and special to Chennai.

"Carnatic music exists today because of Chennai," asserts historian and researcher V. Sriram, who has conducted more than 80 different walking tours in this city since he started in 1999. His heritage walks are popular with the local residents and tourists as well.

"Carnatic music is something I am very interested in. When I was researching and writing about music history, I found certain pockets of the city where Carnatic musicians lived and significant episodes of Carnatic music history had taken place in these areas. I did George Town, Mylapore, Triplicane, Santhome and Purusawalkam walking tours dedicated to music specifically, but today, 99 percent of those buildings are gone and many of the musicians have died also. There's a lot of humour, human interest and I take along a young musician who can sing some of the songs pertaining to those locations," he adds.

The Music Academy is one of the oldest and most important institutions in Chennai that plays host to music and dance performances and has a rich legacy.

Sriram has curated a Music Academy Tour which gives you insight into its history. He says, "The Music Academy was the foundation for the December music season. In 2008, I wrote the history of the Music Academy Four Score & More: The History of The Music Academy, Madras. There's a lot of quirky history there because of the problems and conflicts it has faced, the intricacies of the governing body and the sacrifices people have made over the years to ensure it has survived. There are 14 or 15 spots inside the Music Academy where I take people and tell them the history."

These are just a few walking tours that give us an insight into the fascinating history and culture of Chennai. But ones' that every visitor to this city must go on.

Also read: India heritage tours | Unusual things to do in Mumbai



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Latha Srinivasan is a Chennai-based independent journalist whose passion is all things movies and her twitter handle is @latasrinivasan
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