Chennai (formerly known as Madras) is the capital of the friendly state of Tamil Nadu, and the ideal gateway to India's celebrated south. Founded in 1639 by the British (acting under the auspices of the Dutch East India trading company), this city on the Coromandel Coast is now the fourth-largest in India, home to nearly eight million people.
Modern Chennai is a dusty, chaotic and somewhat unattractive city, and is primarily used as a transit point for travellers looking to access the charming nearby regions of Pondicherry and Kerala. The city promises neither a particularly vibrant nightlife, nor impressive shopping opportunities, by Indian standards, but there is some sightseeing to be done, and for travellers hoping to explore the temple-strewn state of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is a useful entry-point to India.
For those tourists who find themselves with a couple of days to kill in Chennai, there are a few sights that capture the imagination: the Basilica of the National Shrine of St.Thomas is a bright white, neo-Gothic, spired building, and is purportedly built over the tomb of St Thomas the Apostle; the Big Mosque (also called the Wallajah Mosque) is a beautiful structure, with extremely pleasing lines; and completing Chennai's list of top religious sights is the Parthasarathy Temple, an 8th-century temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. Chennai also has a long coastline, full of sandy beaches with great ocean views. However, unfortunately for tourists, swimming is absolutely not allowed at any of these beaches due to dangerously strong undercurrents.
One of the most wonderful places to visit in the region is Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry), a gracious seaside town on India's east coast. Known as the 'French Riviera of the East', Puducherry certainly displays its strong French heritage: the old quarter of the city retains its original design, with a grid of quaint, tree-lines streets flanked by stately villas, bakeries and fine restaurants. Indeed, as there is not that much to actually do in Puducherry - apart from relaxing on the pretty beach, and enjoying the promenade - travellers are strongly encouraged to embark on a 'restaurant tour' of the city.