On Saturday January 26 2013, The Times of India ran the headline “Exactly What Are We Celebrating on Republic Day?” While the author went on to examine whether the guiding principles of the 63-year-old Indian constitution were being adhered to, I found the answer to that question in the faces before me in Chennai (formerly Madras), marching in the Republic Day Parade along the promenade of the world’s second longest urban beach, with visible pride at what their city has achieved. This is certainly Chennai’s decade, with the skyline changing faster than the breeze blows onto it from the Bay of Bengal.
Unlike many other parts of the country, Tamil Nadu, of which Chennai is the capital, has the political stability to attract foreign investment. While the regional parties who jointly rule the city famously dislike each other, they share a desire to preserve and foster the Tamil language and culture by making the state a stable and prosperous one. In have come huge sections of the automobile industry, and IT is booming. A serious influx of residents from other parts of India and abroad has created a need for additional infrastructure. From a Metro – the first stretch is due to open this September – to shops and galleries, restaurants and hotels, Chennai is meeting the demand head on. These new attractions are changing the whole way of life here, with the young coming out on the streets to play in a way that their parents never did.
So where to stay in this city of choices? You could opt for The Park, by now a classic whose opening in 2002 marked the beginning of the boom – and was instrumental in challenging the Chennaites’ innate conservativism. A national pioneer of design-led hospitality, the brand draws on past cultural references to project a 21st-century India. The Park’s fashionable Leather Bar, with its dark, sultry interiors, is a nod to one of the oldest manufacturing industries in India, and its up-to-the-minute cocktails (try a Mirchi – green chilli-infused vodka with passion fruit pulp and sweet and sour lime juice) are served by attractive men in tight black T-shirts. Upstairs the 214 rooms reflect the building’s previous life as the Gemini Film Studios, a breeding ground for many Southern Indian stars, with original film posters against a muted, contemporary backdrop.
The Park (and its more recent, 20-bedroomed boutique sister, the Park Pod) offer a highly designed take on modern India, yet this year’s cluster of new hotels revel in the rich Indian heritage left by ancient dynasties. The Leela Palace’s 11 ornate storeys are architecturally inspired by the old Chettinad palaces of the south, rising heavenwards with views out to the Bay of Bengal, making it Chennai’s first sea-facing hotel. Interiors are opulent, but tastefully so; marble gleams beneath vases of vivid orange marigolds, silver glitters in corners – a Ganesh garlanded in red or a Krishna shrine – and gold leaf on the 17th-century Tanjore paintings glints from the wall. The 326 bedrooms, handsome rather than pretty, are the largest in the city, with bathrooms offering feminine touches such as accessories inlaid with mother-of-pearl and the delicately etched mirrors. At the beautiful outdoor pool guests are provided with a hamper, which includes fashionably restorative coconut water.
But the Park Hyatt, which opened its doors in late 2012, wins the prize for best swimming pool with a view. Lined with green marble and infinity edged, it overlooks the protected forest of Guindy, a verdant oasis in the city. The hotel is breezy and light-filled, with an uncluttered 201 rooms (minimalists will be most at home here), overlooking its much-anticipated Flying Elephant, a George Wong-designed vertical restaurant that opened on March 1.
From here one can see the recently unveiled Westin as well as the ITC Grand Chola, which debuted last September. With 600 rooms, the ITC is India’s largest hotel, and the world’s largest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Green Hotel, with such innovations as iPads in all the rooms – which one can use not only to order one’s meal, but also to open the door for the waiter when he brings it. At the bottom of its sweeping staircase – within the marble interiors carved with elephants and other themes of the great Chola Dynasty that inspired the hotel’s architecture – is Peshawri, one of its 10 restaurants, serving Indian North-West Frontier cuisine; the must‑have dish here is the Dal Peshwari, made with black lentils flown in from Delhi and slow-cooked for 16 hours.
But food everywhere in Chennai is good – as crowds testify at street-corner kiosks, where warming spices scent the air, to the sleek clientele at Jamavar, The Leela’s elegant signature restaurant. With standalone restaurants not permitted to serve alcohol, hotels are mostly the venues of choice, although due to an influx of Japanese, sushi is also becoming popular, with Benjarong’s the clear favourite. For excellent Thai, head to Lotus at the Park Hotel; the Lotus root crisps with roast chilli paste and sweet basil leaves define culinary perfection. Those in search of local specialities should try the acclaimed Dakshin, where Indian wines – Sula Sauvignon Blanc is a standout – accompany the masala prawns. To satisfy a sweet tooth, visit the new Amadora ice cream bar, where owner Deepak Suresh has created 60 original flavours, including a delicious salted butter caramel.
But in among the new, it’s crucial to also seek out the old – such as the remnants of the British Raj at Fort St George and the Protestant St Mary’s Church, where Robert Clive married, or the tiny Catholic Luz Church, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. In colourful Mylapore, visit the Basilica of St Thomas and the nearby 16th-century Kapaleeswarar Temple dedicated to Shiva, its tower rising magnificently above shops plying gold and spices. The splendid artistic heritage of Tamil Nadu is on show at the impressive Government Museum and Art Gallery, where Tanjore paintings and the impressive 10th- to 13th-century Chola Bronzes display cultural motifs and themes that play out again and again in modern Indian design.
Nowhere are these more conspicuous in Chennai than in the jewellery at Rasvihar, whose exquisitely worked gems and gold make it the go-to jeweller for the elite, and at Apparao Gallery, where contemporary art is rooted in tradition. Amethyst stocks a very au courant mix of jewellery – including Amrapali peices – and fashion, with knowledgeable owner Kiran Rao guiding clients through the designs of Zubair Kirmani or Sonam Dubal, whose belief in reincarnation has extended to a use of recycled materials. Bold orange, red and pink are the palette of Chennai, and heavily embroidered silk dresses in these shades – with price tags of £10,000 and up – fly out of the door at Collage and Evoluzione, where the Kollywood crowd hang out. These have paved the way for western brands such as Louis Vuitton, which opened its first store here last year in yet another new shopping mall, Bergamo, where it was joined in March by Jimmy Choo.
On the ground, one feels that nowhere else in India is changing quite as fast as Chennai; the heady buzz is almost audible amid the noise and throng and colour of an India on the move, poised between the culture of its past and the power of its future.