Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is among the most ancient cities in India. Located in the cradle of Indian Christianity, Chennai is where the first missionaries arrived 1,900 years ago.
Visit the Basilica of San Thome (where Christ's apostle St. Thomas, who's buried there, is said to have preached); St. Thomas Mount (a church marks the spot where St. Thomas is said to have died); and the Church of St. Mary, the oldest Anglican church in India (it's within the walls of Fort St. George, a 17th-century fort).
Other sights include the grand British-built Old Government House; the lighthouse (be prepared for a strenuous climb to the top for the view); the central flower market and the fine Marina Beach, one of the longest in the world. Marina Beach suffered the brunt of the 2004 tsunami devastation, but has re-emerged as a lively gathering spot, particularly at sunset when carnivals and food sellers bring the area to life. Travelers interested in Indian art should check out the Government Museum, which houses noted collections of ancient bronze and stone sculpture.
Among the interesting Hindu temples in Chennai are Kapaleeswarar, Mallikarjuna and Chennakesava. Also visit the Sri Parthasarathy Temple, built by the Pallava rulers in the eighth century and renovated by the Vijayanagar rulers in the 16th century. It's one of the oldest temples in the city.
Check the arts pages of local newspapers to see if there's a performance of Bharatanatyam, an ancient dance developed in Tamil Nadu. About 80 mi/130 km northwest of the city is Tirupati, a temple devoted to the Hindu god Balaji, who is known as "the giver of wealth." Tirupati is not especially ancient or beautiful, but it is the richest temple in India and the country's leading religious destination. Thousands of pilgrims arrive daily to make offerings (including shaving their heads) in hopes of winning Balaji's favor. Thanks to the temple's income, the surrounding town is better maintained and manicured than most.
There are several must-see ruins outside Chennai. The Mahabalipuram ruins, 37 mi/60 km south of the city, date from the seventh century and consist of a cave temple, shore temple, monolithic rathas (rock-carved temple chariots) and bas-reliefs (among the world's finest). It also has a laid-back beach shack scene with many alfresco Western-style cafes serving hearty breakfasts and the freshest seafood straight off the fishing boats.
Kanchipuram includes several temples, among them eighth-century Kailasanatha, Ekambaranathar and Vaikunta Perumal. If you're in the area at noon, go to Tirukalikundram, a hill where a priest uses kites to feed birds (though the birds don't always cooperate).
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