Last time I visited India, I spent most of my time in the north. So on my recent trip to India, I decided to check out some of the bigger cities in the south, starting in Chennai. Previously known as Madras, Chennai is one of the biggest cities in India at over 8 million people.
Chennai brings the chaos that India is known for, but adds to it with its old world atmosphere, the most impressive urban beach you’ll find anywhere, and much more. So here are my first impressions of Chennai, from my personal Street Photographer perspective…
7 First Impressions of Chennai, India
(From a Street Photography Perspective)
1. The Beach is Where It’s At
The beaches in Chennai are unlike any I’ve ever seen. Marina beach is not only considered the world’s longest natural urban beach, it’s also so wide that if you sit down, you’ll think you’re in the desert instead of a beach.
During mid-day, it can feel like a deserted island, but after 3pm, people start coming. Once 5-6pm rolls around, that’s when the crowds come and the beach really comes alive. The beach is the main place for locals to escape the city and heat so many come here right after work, fully dressed in slacks and collared shirt.
The beach is also popular for its shops and food stalls with over 500 shops run by about over 1,000 vendors. There’s also carnival style rides scattered around the beach and horse rides being offered all over. And for a less overwhelming beach, but with some of the same vibe, Elliot’s Beach to the south is worth checking out too. It’s considered the cleanest beach in the city and is within the neighborhood of Besant Nagar, which has plenty to explore too.
2. Most Urban Beach You’ll Find
Not everyone thinks of the beach when they think of street photography. For some it’s not urban enough. I’d disagree, but when it comes to the beach in Chennai, it’s the most urban beach you’ll find. People don’t come here to sunbathe, it’s not that type of beach at all. The city extends to the sand.
Men with their collar unbuttoned and slacks rolled up, while they walk into the ocean. Women in their full sarees soaked while splashing each other. Young couples sitting in any shaded privacy they can find. And kids running around everywhere. Once evening rolls around, the city life moves to the beach, turning it into the most urban beach anywhere. All with it’s own Chennai chaos and atmosphere.
3. Chaotic India
When you think of India, chaos probably comes to mind. And Chennai is one of the best representations of chaos in India. After traveling around much of India, Chennai rivals the other big cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata in chaos. I find Chennai gives a little more old world city chaos, though, more similar to Kolkata than Mumbai.
Traffic is crazy, the streets and sidewalks are packed with people, different smells fight for attention, and the mix of bright colors and grit are everywhere. The chaos attacks all of your senses, while supplying endless photo opportunities.
4. Spread out & Takes time to visit multiple places
Chennai is a big city. Many of the places to go are spread out and with its size and heavy traffic, it can take a while to get from one place to another. Something that doesn’t look that far on a map can end up taking an hour in transportation.
So I found it smart to pick a couple of places near each other to visit per day. Trying to fit in too many places can put you sitting in traffic more than taking photos. And it’s too far to walk everywhere on foot. So I’d take transportation to one good spot, walk and explore the area, and then choose one other spot in the city to explore for the afternoon/evening.
5. More old world than many of India’s biggest cities
As I mentioned earlier, Chennai has a more old world city chaos, more similar to Kolkata than Mumbai. It doesn’t feel as modernized as many Indian cities, yet. Tradition is kept intact all over the city and there’s a feeling unique to Chennai that isn’t lost with the changes yet.
While Chennai is growing fast, you get the feeling they aren’t trying to be like Mumbai, or any of the other fast changing Indian cities. There’s an old world charm mixed with its ties to the sea that is kept authentic. There’s certain quirks that distinguish Chennai and while it’s up their in size with other large Indian metropolises, there’s a slightly more relaxing vibe that lets you be.
6. Many little mini villages
While exploring Chennai on foot, you walk through many little village-like areas within the urban city. Most of them are along the river or beach, but they’re found all over the city too. Some might call them slums, but many are just a narrow street or two wide with little huts lining the dirt streets and maybe even a small temple. It’s different from walking into a large slum.
Like all of India, the people are friendly and some might be curious to see you walking by. Exploring these areas provide a change of scenery within the city, and lots of life to capture too.
7. T. Nagar & Parry’s Corner are good non-beach spots
While Chennai’s urban beaches were my favorite scene for photography, there are some good non-beach spots too, of course. For areas with plenty to explore and capture, T. Nagar and Parry’s Corner were probably my favorites.
T. Nagar is considered the biggest shopping district in India by revenue. You’ll find everything from saree sellers to gold retailers. There’s plenty of side streets to explore and it’s always busy. The main road is lined with nicer stores, while the side streets and under the bridge provides more of a street market scene.
Parry’s Corner is another shopping district, but with a different atmosphere. There’s more of a traditional vibe here and many streets are devoted to selling specific types of goods, such as tools or stationary. It’s one of the most preserved parts of the city where you can explore the maze of retail shops that take you back in time to the Madras of old.
A City by the Sea
I’ve never been to a city where the beach is a bigger part of its heart and soul. Speaking to the locals, you get the same feeling too. This isn’t a little beach town, either. Chennai is a giant metropolis so this feeling is on a whole different scale. The beach is a core part of the city and as urban as the traffic filled streets.
Chennai has plenty of other spots to explore with your camera, especially around T. Nagar and Parry’s corner, but you’ll always want to come back to the beach.
If any of you have been to Chennai before, tell me about your experience and impressions of the city and country in the comments below! And stay tuned for more on Chennai, including some of the best Street Photography shots I captured while there.
(from a street photographer’s perspective)