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 six and a half million. Hot, fast, 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 classical music and dance performances.
As capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is, like Mumbai and Kolkata (Calcutta), a comparatively modern creation. It was founded by the British East India Company in 1639; a fortified trading post, completed on St George's Day in 1640, was named Fort St George. By 1700, the British had acquired neighbouring territory including Triplicane and Egmore, while over the course of the next century, as capital of the Madras Presidency, the city mushroomed to include many surrounding villages.
The city's renaissance began after Independence, when it became the centre of the Tamil movie industry, and a hotbed of Dravidiannationalism. Rechristened Chennai in 1997, the metropolis has boomed since the Indian economy opened up to foreign investment. The flip side of this rapid 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.
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 Thome Cathedral, both tourist attractions and places of pilgrimage.