Monday, May 17, 2010

Chennai, India

Chennai (Madras), India
April 16, 2010

The temperature and humidity were stifling, and as we looked out from the ship onto Chennai, it was flat and uninviting. Dock workers stopped their work and watched as the ship entered the harbor and tied up at the pier. The city looked small, and I kept wondering where millions of people lived. I took the Chennai sightseeing tour from the ship, and as the bus drove along the coast, the beach was wide and flat, but the temperatures were too hot for people to go to the beach. The only people on the beach were some fishermen repairing their nets. My first impression of Chennai was that it was not as dirty as I had been expecting; there was little litter and rubbish in the streets, all of which were paved and neat. I was pleasantly surprised by my first sights of India. As we drove on our tour, our tour guide, Gita, explained that the sandy soil does not permit the construction of high rise buildings, so the 7.5 million population of Chennai is spread out over a very large area.

The first stop on the tour was the Mylapore temple, which was first mentioned in writings as early as nine centuries BC. The “newest” part of the temple dates from the 1600s. The tower over the door is made of granite, which does not hold paint, so a plaster has to be used to cover the granite, and then painted. This one was last painted in 2000, ten years ago, and it is still very brightly colored. We walked though the temple and I was permitted to take photos inside. Many people were there praying and worshiping in their own way.

After leaving the temple, the tour went to St. Thomas church, built in the city where St. Thomas died. We went inside, where a wedding was being planned for later that day. I took a few photos, but really I was interested in seeing India, and not Christian churches.

The next stop on the tour was the National Museum, which housed bronze statues of the Hindu gods. The museum was interesting, and our tour guide, Gita, explained the stories behind some of the Hindu gods. The highlight of the collection is the Chola Period Natraja, which depicts Shiva, the Lord of the Cosmic Dance. Outside, a school group was sitting on the ground beside their bus, eating their lunch. It was a touching scene.

Last, the tour took us to Fort George, a large old fort built by the British along the coast, and now used to house the Tamil Nadu government and military. Massive new beautiful buildings are under construction to house the government -- court, legislature and many administrative offices.

Inside the fort was St. Mary’s church, built by Elihu Yale, who was married there. When he left Madras (in 1864), Yale collected money from the British soldiers to construct a university in New England, but by the time he got to New England, he had spent half the money, so he didn’t have enough to start a college. He gave the money to Salem college in New Haven on condition that they would change the name of the college to Yale.

After seeing St. Mary’s church, we visited the little museum at the fort.
Gita was a great guide. She went to high school at Woodrow Wilson high school in Washington. Her dad was in the foreign service of India, and she lived many places. After college, she worked for eight years at the UN in New York.

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