Expats living in Chennai will be steeped in cultural history. Chennai, or “Madras”, as it used to be known, is the state capital of Tamil Nadu. The British established themselves here in the 1600s and there are many monuments in the city referring back to the colonial era.
The town, back then called Chennapattnam, which developed around the British fort, became an important center for international trade and regional politics. Today, living in Chennai has become a multiethnic and multicultural experience.
Local residents are a very welcoming and friendly natured lot. The accepting friendly vibe reigns here, that’s the reason many travelers from other countries visit Chennai and the city has put itself out on the world map as one of the most popular. Though, visitors have to pay special attention to local culture and traditions, the ignorance of which often causes misunderstandings with the indigenous population. The city, first of all is the largest industrial center, which attracts hundreds of business people from all over the world. In India Chennai is called the automobile capital of the country.
Most of the population considers Tamil to be their official language, with Telugu in a distant second place. If you are an English speaker, though, living in Chennai should not be a problem. This is another lingua franca in the city, especially among white-collar workers, and most people can speak at least a few words. The vast majority of the population is Hindu and hundreds of temples are scattered across the city.
This means that there are plenty of festivals throughout the year, and everyone is encouraged to participate! The biggest of these is Thai Pongal, which is celebrated over a period of several days in January. If you are living in Chennai during this time of the year, you could join the local population in celebrating this Tamil harvest festival.
Sun, Sand, and a Sunday Morning Market
One very enjoyable aspect of living in Chennai is the scenery, in particular its two main beaches, Marina Beach and Elliot’s Beach. Unfortunately, as a result of rapid urban expansion, the beaches’ once pristine state has somewhat deteriorated.
Avoid the water, though, as there is a strong undercurrent that can take swimmers by surprise. Most people will bring a picnic and enjoy the bustling atmosphere on the sand. This is also true for Elliot’s Beach (aka Besant Nagar Beach), where it is advised that you remain in the cleaner, northern part of the beach. Elliot’s Beach is slightly quieter than Marina Beach, offering a nice respite from the hectic pace of Chennai.
Try to make it to the Sunday morning fish market on Marina Beach. Shopping amongst the locals and trying to bargain like one will give you an excellent taste of what living in Chennai encompasses. Remember to never settle for their first offer!
A Cultural Scene Fitting Chennai’s Heritage
Although you might be living in Chennai for a long period of time, you should still experience the cultural sights which the city has to offer tourists and residents alike. One of your first stops will probably be Fort St. George. Built in 1640 by the East India Company, this is believed to be the first British establishment in India.
In the fort you can find St. Mary’s Church, one of the oldest surviving churches built by the British in India. To complement this, you can visit various Hindu temples, such as Kapaleeswarar Temple and Vadapalani Temple, to get a truly good grasp of life in Chennai today.
The Madras High Court is also worth a visit. Its impressive architecture is fitting for the world’s second largest judicial complex. If after seeing the city you feel like experiencing something more natural, try the Guindy National Park. Located in the heart of the city, this park provides a pleasant and, given its central location, surprising escape from the noise and traffic of Chennai.
A Low Crime Rate, but Teasing and Traffic Remain an Issue
Chennai is relatively safe compared to other major cities in India. The crime rate of the city is significantly lower. Property crimes like pick-pocketing, scams, and occasional muggings are probably the most widespread crimes involving foreign visitors or residents. So, try not to carry large amounts of cash or important documents with you.
Living in Chennai should not hold any other significant risks — other than maybe the traffic. Be extremely careful when trying to cross a road, and do not drive yourself if you are not used to chaotic traffic and risky behavior on the road.
The best way to know the local culture is to visit one of the national holidays. Each December, the city hosts the Chennai Dance and Music Festival, which brings together the best teams from South India. Every year, a large-scale celebration is attended by at least two thousand musicians, dancers, and artists, some of whom are celebrities and some are newcomers.